Sandwood Bay is one of Britain’s most remote and beautiful beaches. Flanked by grassy dunes and buffeted by the rolling breakers of the Atlantic, the swath of white sand is a wild and wonderful place.
The only way in is on foot and the car park at Blairmore, on the narrow road between Kinlochbervie and Sheigra, is the perfect place to start.
A challenging 20km hike to Sandwood Bay and a remote Scottish bothy.
1. Loch hopping
Go through a gate and set off along a track crossing grazing land above Loch Aisir. The route continues to Loch na Gainimh, where it curves left, then north, to Loch a’Mhuilinn. Look out for red-throated divers as you continue along the path above Loch Meadhonach and Loch Clais nan Coinneal to the bay.
2. Bay view
As you begin the descent to the beach, make the short detour to Sandwood Lodge. The ruin enjoys commanding views over the bay and Sandwood Loch, a ribbon of blue water stretching inland from the dunes. A path drops from here to the beach.
Stepping on to the sand, you are confronted by the rugged beauty of the place. At the southern end of the bay, a dagger-like sea stack, Am Buachaille, punctures the skyline, while at the other end high cliffs, home to puffins and other seabirds, stretch north towards Cape Wrath. Devoid of human interference and protected by the John Muir Trust, the landscape dominates and nature reigns supreme.
Perhaps because of its isolation, Sandwood has strong links with unworldly phenomena – mermaid sightings were reported as recently as the 19th century. Treacherous offshore currents wrecked many a ship and there are tales of ghosts, one of the most enduring being that of a bearded sailor, said to be the spectre of a seaman who died when a Polish ship sank in the bay. But some believe that later sightings may be linked to a real-life character who frequented the bay. From the mid-1960s to 1994, James McRory Smith lived as a recluse in a tumbledown cottage at Strathchailleach 1½ miles away.
3. In search of a hermit’s shell
To get to Strathchailleach, walk along the beach to the outflow of Sandwood Loch. There is no bridge and some paddling is required to cross the stream. Once over, climb the slope, bearing right of rocky outcrops. The path is vague, crossing rough heather to Lochan nan Sac. Head east, round the hillside and descend to Strathchailleach.
4. Living off the land
Lost in the landscape, the cottage was built to house shepherds, but James McRory Smith made it his home. He collected driftwood from Sandwood Bay and cut peat for heat. He took his water from the adjacent stream and ate fish caught in lochans.
Once a week James made the long trek to Kinlochbervie to collect his pension and provisions, and for the rest of the time he lived in blissful seclusion, wandering the hills, communing with nature, reading and painting. Some of his pictures remain on the walls of the bothy, a memorial to one man’s wilderness living. Return by the same route.
An easy to follow track and path to Sandwood Bay. From there to Strathchailleach there is a vague path over open moor (watch out – it can be wet underfoot). Navigation by map and compass on this section may be required if attempted in poor visibility. The route crosses remote and exposed terrain where the weather can change quickly, so pack warm clothing and a waterproof jacket and trousers and take enough food and drink.
How to get there
By car: From Inverness, follow the A9 north to Tain then take the A836 to Lairg. From there, follow the A838 to Rhiconich and take the B801 to Kinlochbervie, where a minor road continues to Blairmore.