I love great beaches. Much as I love the mountains, the ocean always does it for me.The Outer Hebrides, South Africa , the Caribbean, California……lots of memories of stunning sands and emerald seas. So – Sandwood Bay had some stiff competition if it was going to make my Great Beaches list.Especially with all the hype of it being the best in the UK. The 8 mile + return walk in also means your eye is going to be particularly critical in deciding whether it’s worth the effort. And, only a few miles away, is truly gorgeous Oldshoremore beach, a minute’s lazy stroll from a car park. Feeling like a couple of lazy gits, we hummed and hawed about whether to take a full half day out of our precious short stay in this most brilliant of areas to see , basically, sand. Lots of it.Actually, it was me who thought we were just being so lazy; Chris is very laid back about these things. If he saw it fine, if not..so what? Admirable in many ways but not really helpful when it comes to making A Decision.
I had walked to Sandwood 27 years before , in the rain and feeling guilty (something I have a Gold medal for) at the thought of my new baby boy being looked after for a few stolen hours. It hadn’t made for the best experience.Soaked, cold and wishing we’d done something else, we turned tail within minutes of arriving, almost meeting ourselves coming back.
Ah well, even if it didn’t live up to the hype , we would treat it as a good walk, I decided.Get some air about the gills! Plenty of that to be had on such a blustery day.Our plan to climb Arkle had already been ruled out as the summits were wreathed in cloud and wracked by gales.
So at 10 am , we set off from an already busy Blairmore car park with scudding cloud, heavy showers and occasional sunshine likely to be the order of the day. I’d read that the moorland walk was ‘boring’ but I like moorland and in late May, it’s filled with lark song and fragrant with wildflowers. In fact, even looking behind us at the start of the track, the view of Scourie Bay, the ocean and headland upon headland was simply beautiful.
The John Muir Trust own Sandwood and have created the most wonderfully dry sandy path to walk on. If only all Scottish paths were so perfect! It was a pleasure to walk, even after such a rainy spell. A far cry from the eroded quagmire of 3 decades ago too.
We passed 4 brilliant blue lochans, some with fine pink sands. To our right, Arkle emerged eerily out of the rising mist, across the layers of moorland and rock.Didn’t fancy its summit today and I was glad we’d left it well alone. In contrast, this was quite sheltered, easy and made for good going and I was enjoying myself thoroughly.This was boring? Who says these things? They should be taken out and shot at dawn!
Almost 90 minutes later , we crested the high point of the walk and caught sight of the bay, just as a hail shower (in late May!) had us donning the waterproofs pronto. I’d forgotten how enormous it is. Looking good, looking good, I thought as we made our way through the huge dune system.
The dark grey light had now turned the dunes an ethereal pale green, a stunning contrast to the deep orange/pink sand,which gets its striking colour from the Red Torridonian Sandstone typical of the area.Yet in minutes, the sun was out and the sky and ocean were cerulean blue.
We both looked at each other, drinking in the whole wonderful sight …..this was a wow! The sheer scale of it and the wild landscape behind and around it was breathtaking. There was an exposed rocky islet surrounded by swirling pale turquoise sea which the low tide still allowed us to clamber onto for an elevated look .
It made a fine vantage point for admiring the endless orange-pink sands, emerald shallows and the impressive cliffs – layer upon layer of them , finishing at Cape Wrath itself, the most north westerly point of the UK mainland.
At the other end of the beach was the oft photographed sea stack Am Buachaille( pron. am boo – a – cal -yi ) pointing needle-like out of the ocean. Its translation from the Gaelic is The Shepherd. Was it because ships could clearly identify it, using it to help them navigate towards safer waters, once the Cape had been turned? I love trying to understand the meaning of these names… they really help you understand the landscape and history much better.
In all, we spent an hour and a half on the beach,including an outdoor lunch as we tucked into the dunes out of the snell wind . Although the car park had been busy we saw about 6 people in total at Sandwood. It’s so big that people just seem to disappear -not surprising given the legends attached to the beach! Mermaids, the ghost of a sailor, a haunted ruin, the remains of a Viking longship (which we didn’t find) – all add to its mystery and allure.Two hikers reported sleeping in the ruin one night and woke to find it shaking and the sounds of a wild horse stamping above them.There is, in Gaelic legend, an Each Uisge or Water Horse which lures humans to their deaths and devours them. Seeing it is a terrifying portent of doom (I did, once).
Despite the myths, we debated whether an overnight camp – sometime when the weather promised fair – would be worth the trek. We’re getting lazier in our old age and don’t exactly do lightweight camping anymore – we need our comforts now. Plenty food, wine, chocolate and crisps, milk for tea, it all adds to the burden. But a flattish four mile walk in might work if we took our time. As ever, our exhilaration at how the day had panned out, went to our heads and before we knew it we were considering a return walk to Cape Wrath from the camp. Only an 8 hour undertaking with no track (we took the bus to it next day, much more sensible).
What I would fancy,more realistically, is having far more time to explore the magnificent headlands and to see the beach at sunrise and sunset.
My feet were feeling it a bit by the time we got to the car, 8 miles or 13km later.Plus whatever we walked on the beach itself. But to reach this most famous of Scottish beaches and find that for once, the hype was pretty spot on, had the heart singing. The best beach in the UK? Certainly one of the finest wild beaches anywhere. In my Top 10 I would say.
It’s not just the beach, it’s the whole wild setting which makes it so unforgettable. And to me, life affirming. A photographer’s paradise with its ever changing light and colours.
There are only so many longish walks I’d ever do again and this is one of them. A good one to do in winter too, when the colours and light must be even more incredible. A memorable 4.5 hours devoted to this wonderful place,most definitely time well – spent.