Words by Pete Geall:
“Aerial bombardment Sir, are you familiar with it?”
Cape Wrath, is not for the faint of heart. Located in the far north-westerly extremity of the United Kingdom, it is an expansive area covering 277 square kilometres of wild, unforgiving moorland. The Vikings used the Cape as a bearing to turn their ships, the name Wrath deriving from the Old Norse for turning point ‘Hvarf’. With much of the Cape now owned by the Ministry of Defence, access is challenging and information limited. What is left is what has always been, an uncompromising, remote land, jutting out into the tempestuous North Atlantic and squinting into the incessant westerly gales.
My phone conversation with Captain Walker of range control continued in a curt, yet good natured manner: “A combined NATO exercise of air, sea and land operations will mean the range will be closed to the public between the 7th to the 10th and 13th right through the month. So if you still want to do your ‘surfing, walking thing’ you will have to do it then.”
In an age of drop-of-a-hat forecasting, our ‘surfing, walking thing’ was dictated by a brief window of opportunity, bookended by the nefariously dark threat of getting caught up in the war games of NATO powers. The only place in the northern hemisphere where the NATO forces are allowed to conduct complex, air, sea and land ‘Joint Warrior’ exercises which include attacking the nearby Garvie Island with 1000 pound bunker buster bombs.
Being largely spared of man’s daily influence, the Cape has a incredibly diverse mix of wildlife and fauna, Red Deer can be found throughout the area and a variety of Arctic and Alpine plants can be found on the Cape at sea-level, for this reason the whole area has been designated a Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI). The sheer cliffs and numerous stacks are an internationally important nesting site for over 50000 seabirds, from colonies of Puffins, Fulmar, Golden Eagles and Shags. The ragged sandstone and Gneiss cliffs around the Cape tower to over 280 metres, the highest in the UK and have stood long sentinel to migrating whales, the passing seasons and the occasional turning Viking longship.
The Cape Wrath lighthouse perched perilously over the violent cliffs of Clò Mòr produce an incredible wanderlust in those attracted to isolated places. As a surfer the foreboding, exposed and gnarled coastline presented untaken opportunities in the form of abundant swell, but with few areas of access or shelter. To the south of the Cape, 9km from the nearest settlement of Blairmore is the beautiful Sandwood bay, a stretch of sand firmly on the coldwater surfers’ vernacular, being beguilingly described as the most scenic and remote surf spot in the popular Stormrider guide. However, a curious upwards glance at the Ordnance Survey map reveals the remote north-facing beach of Kearvaig, a pathless 10km further to the northwest. The last beach and landmass before the Arctic, wedged between the end of the Cape and the Cò Kearvaig cliffs to its East. Kearvaig is an artistic sweep of white sand, on an otherwise contour riddled map. With a keen surfer’s eye one can imagine this hemmed in pinball table of a beach bumping and deflecting swell onto its shore, hopefully with desirable results, between the scheduled aerial bombardments.
Unpredictable cold weather, coupled with a water temperature around 7 Celsius presented significant logistical challenges, Heavy packs in the 25kg range meant progress was going to be slow. The gear primarily consisted of sleeping kit, four days worth of French army rations (Who wouldn’t like idea of eating Confit de Carnard after a cold, hard day hiking?), fuel, hooded winter wetsuits, surfboards and suitable clothing. Fortunately, quality drinking water can be found in abundance from the many peat-filtered streams. Our plan was to hike the distance from the last road at Blairmore, though Sandwood bay and onto the Strathchailleach bothy. This simple 19th Century shepherds’ quarters, now maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) was abandoned in the highland clearances, a pivotal period in Scottish history when aristocratic landlords forced tenants from their smallholdings. From there we would overnight, and hike onto Kearvaig beach and its own similar bothy before retracing our steps back; any surf was to be a bonus.
Strathchailleach conceals an intriguing tale of the Cape. Considered the last permanent dwelling in the UK occupied without water, sewerage and electricity. Its unlikely tenant was the Glaswegian hermit James ‘Sandy’ McRory-Smith, who lived at the most extreme periphery of society for 32 years in this most isolated coastal area. His self-imposed exile is said to have its roots in the World War II conflict where he served in the Black Watch, an infantry battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. He met his wife in Germany and they enjoyed a few years together before she was tragically killed in a horrific car accident. Leaving his children entrusted to their maternal grandparents Sandy returned home to live out a life clinging to the edge of his known world.
Some saw Sandy as a drunken nuisance, squatting at this bothy and barring access for hikers. Others have seen him as a reclusive hermit living a most extraordinary, personal life out on the Cape. In a testament to his fortitude he would walk the 30km return trip once a week to Kinlochbervie all year round, whatever the weather, to collect his pension, along with provisions from the post office before proceeding to ‘piss the rest up the wall’ in the local bar. One local tale describes the landlady discovering Sandy sleeping outside of the pub in a freezing mid-winter morning, apparently frozen stiff to the icy grass, with a gruff dismissal he brushed himself off and began the long walk back home. Made of tougher stuff, Sandy continued his weekly pilgrimage virtually up to his death at the age of 76 after a short illness.
The walls of Bothy are covered in bizarre array of colourful murals painted by Sandy who was known to be fascinated with mysticism and astrology. In the winter the remote mountains, free from light pollution would have occasionally played theatre to the majestic Aurora Borealis, his swirling paintings and broad use of colour seem to indicate they were important to his outlook on life. The murals coupled with well-used everyday objects, the bent fire poker, the battered cutlery, the worn axe, all were carried purposefully in at some point giving the hut a uniquely personal legacy. Despite the temptation to romanticise Sandy as a totem of reticence, the incomprehensible solitude through the long, cold, dark days of winter must have been truly challenging. Many have speculated on how he managed to cope with the mental pressures of solitude for so long, but the physical reality lies just to the north of the nearby stream. A rare self-drying exposed fissure of peat of the highest quality meant Sandy was rarely without a comforting fire.
The hike to Kearvaig took us atop rocky summits, around lochs and furtively over the MOD’s fence, still worryingly flanked with red firing flags despite us entering in the agreed safe period. Our brief lunch pause was punctuated with the deafening double crack of an RAF Tornado combat aircraft slamming through the valley and breaking the sound barrier. Juxtaposed between the malevolence of the North Atlantic on one side and this menacing vehicle of war we were quickly reminded how distinctly unwelcoming the Cape and people could be.
Kearvaig takes its name from the Old Norse for a small Viking Longship (Karve) and for Bay (Vik) and would’ve been a useful reference for Viking ships passing Cape Hvarf. It is hard to imagine a more scenic beach; the austere cliff face frames white sand and the cobalt blue sea is offset by the russet bronze of the heath in the valley. The Kearvaig stream trickles down, leaving a soccer sized pitch of arable land and level foundation for the sheltered bothy before exiting at the waters edge. The fertility of the land is even more remarkable when considered where it is positioned, with the boggy heath behind and the most northerly stretch of the Atlantic beyond.
In recent times Kearvaig played its part in another tale of solitude, the tragic story of Margaret Davies. In 2002 the Cambridge educated geographer was found clinging to life in the Kearvaig bothy, emaciated and lying close to a note begging for help by a couple of shepherds passing through. Without mobile phone reception, one of the men was forced to run the 8kms to the lighthouse, where the alarm was raised. She was airlifted to the Isle of Lewis for medical treatment, but died of hypothermia and starvation shortly after. A prolific writer and painter, she was working on a treatise on the nature of solitude, and had hiked from Inverness to Cape Wrath to experience the intensity of isolation and ultimately paid with her life. It was decided by authorities that Margaret’s death was the result of misjudgement, without sufficient food she would have lost the strength to walk out the steep valley and lacked the means to contact the outside world. In the summer the bothy is frequently visited in by hikers and bird-watchers but in December when Margaret was found it is often abandoned for weeks at a time.
You may notice the striking similarities between Margaret’s story and that of Chris McCandless whose untimely death in remote Alaska was immortalized in the 2007 film ‘Into the Wild’. In both instances the protagonists had gone to seek solitude and paid with their lives. Despite have extensive solo hiking experience in Afghanistan, Nepal and the Ukon, Margaret appeared to have failed to bring adequate food and heating supplies, a basic tenant of survival, and is one mystery that cannot be easily answered. The sobering thought of Margaret lying alone and desperate in the Kearvaig bothy, serves as a reminder to us all that ‘no man is an island entire of himself’.
A brace of stags stood atop of the valley watched with curiosity as we attempted to tie our wetsuits to the fence outside, fearful for the impending warm front forecast to bring wet weather and westerly gales. Inside the driftwood fire illuminated our small tins of bubbling rations, and our well-travelled bottle of single malt was opened, allowing us to ruminate on the stories of Sandy and Margaret and the few waist-high reform waves we had caught. Like many others across the world we lay the world to rest over a drink, hot food and good company.
Announcing itself with the tempo of a touch typist, hail rapped the glass windows of the bothy. Cape Wrath had played a Greek Sirens’ game and allowed us in under the cloak of a settled high pressure system and light tail wind. The long coastal hike back to Strathchailleach bothy was now retraced in full slog conditions. Incessant driving wind, slow sapping boggy dampness and all persuasive cold that seemed to seek out your core before your extremities. Cursing our surfboards, which before with a tail wind worked like a spinnaker sail, now had the opposite effect, ripping and twisting our bodies with every gust.
Finally arriving back at Strathchailleach, utterly spent and wind burnt we summoned the energy to collect a wheelbarrow of ancient bogwood, recently exposed by flooding on the peat bank. Silver birch with bark intact, oak acorns, wood that for over 3000 years old had rested in stasis suddenly lit up the bothy with a passionate fervour one wouldn’t expect from something so old. The bothy’s detailed logbook, described the Gaelic interpretation of Strathchailleach as the Valley (Strath) of the old hags (Cailleachan). The storm hags were seen as the literal personifications of the raw, destructive powers of nature, particularly active during the windstorms of spring called A’ Chailleach. It also offered an alternative definition, which gave an allusion to ‘old tree circles’ the same that were now providing dancing, flickering warmth on our wind chapped skin. Both seemed entirely plausible and suitably terrifying illuminating Sandy’s painted murals in the darkness of night.
Cape Hvarf is a true wilderness in the broadest sense of the word, a wilderness on the edge of the natural world and in the minds of men, a land where you can eat half a pot of peanut butter and an entire packet of chocolate digestives without feeling guilty
Our trip was primarily born out of wanderlust for isolated places, of wild places; places where we would feel small and paradoxically big at the same time. Yet in this most untamed place what truly captured our imagination were the incredible human stories of life and death on the Cape. Lives lived and lost, seeking and never quite finding.
Fumbling with my keys at the carpark, the ignition turned, sparked and the radio immediately took over.
Story originally published in White Horses (Issue 18)
Pete Geall is a wandering surfer and writer who uses surfing as a foil to explore what lies over the next hill, the unconventional folks that reside there and our personal connection to the wild. Read more at: http://www.petegeall.com