Cape Wrath Trail 19: Escape from Cape Wrath

by Peter Berrecloth
1st March 2017

After meeting John, the sole occupant of Cape Wrath lighthouse, I had slept at Kervaig Bothy by the bay.

I woke up to the dawn light and snuggled into my sleeping bag for another couple of hours. This was the first night I had slept that I didn’t feel cold. The fire had worked its magic on the room. As a quote I once read by John Corbett—”A Bothy without a fire is basically, a useless Bothy”. I don’t know who that guy was, but he was bang on the money.

I felt rested and grateful for it. I wanted to give something back to the place. So I spent the day caring for the Bothy.

A lesson in bothy care

The first task was to sharpen the axe. It was a cheap mauling axe that had seen a lot of abuse. The head was pitted and rusted and there was not a single trace of a bevel on it.

I found a small curved stone with a flat side that someone had left on the windowsill. It was perfect for sharpening, and very comfortable to hold too. I put a little washing up liquid as lubricant on and spent the next hour grinding the bevel back to shape.

There is something very simple and loving in caring for old tools. Because I know that once an axe is sharpened it is capable of quite wonderful things.

An axe is an icon of masculinity. I thought about the Viking who would have settled here. Kearvaig means “Kear’s Bay” in Old Norse apparently. This man would have no doubt had an impressive axe. He probably sat in this very spot sharpening his too. Someone in the Bothy had made a driftwood chair and carved the words, “King of Kearvaig” into it. If he had existed here, I doubted his axe would have had a fibre-glass handle like this one.

By god. This axe had seen some abuse. Evidence of that could be seen on blade. But also on the lawn outside, where someone had obviously tried chopping a log there, over-enthusiastically. There were splinters flung all over: a ten metre diameter of chippings and wasted energy, and I can’t imagine they got much burning fuel out of it either. Without pointing fingers, I had been told the Army guys that train at Cape Wrath use this bothy as a temporary barracks, and it had all the signs of their use, including used ration packs and empty beer bottles.

There were two battered chopping logs outside which had obviously been the victims of this person’s aggression. They’d got about two inches through and then given up.

A twelve inch thick, water sodden log will make a blunt axe bounce off it like hitting a block of rubber. Wet wood doesn’t crack. It bends. You won’t look manly like a Viking, you’ll just look like a twat.

These two chopping logs are much better for chopping things “on” rather than chopping “up”, I thought, so that’s what I decided I would do.

By now, after the best part of an hour I had created a usable bevel on the axehead. The beard of the axe (the bottom end of the blade) was completely missing. Someone had probably been chopping the wood on a rock.

I contemplated making a smaller, less impressive driftwood stool for the corner of the room with the inscription “King of Twats” carved into it. But I didn’t in the end.

As someone once taught me, the best technique isn’t to chop wood with an axe at all but to place the blade in a split along the grain and elegantly drop both the wood and the axe simultaneously. The weight of the blade will split the wood right down the grain, and you will expend almost no energy. It’s like judo – using weight of the opponent against themselves.

I split well over two crates of driftwood without breaking a sweat. I radiated satisfaction as I sat by my cosy fire with a hot bowl of instant chilli con carne.

I tidied that Bothy up really nicely. I even created a weird sculpture outside with a Wellington boot I found on the beach. Luckily, the boot had no leg in it, but I made a makeshift leg by placing the boot upside down on a fence post. This was my “Dunlop” to Tom Hank’s “Wilson”. There was an air of Robinson Crusoe about having a bay to yourself; your imagination goes weird places…

Nature provides us with space to explore our true identities, away from consumption and adultery of the land, we become children again.

I left about midday. I sung to the Bothy a funny little song and shut the door. I imagined the happy face of the next soul who would open it, possibly soaking wet, who would see a ready laid fire and a crate of dry heather and split driftwood to burn. This, to me is what bothying is about. It is about both-ering to help others.

I had a final walk along the beach. Then I spotted a hand grenade sitting in the grass.

It had been used. It had the words “Grenade Hand Smoke” stamped on it so I decided it should probably be left alone. I marked it with a big stick and tied some rope around it as a warning flag to others. This area is used by the MOD as a training ground and there are signs everywhere that say, “Do not touch any military debris. It may explode and kill you”.

I saw plenty of unexploded grenades alongside the track when walking out.

Getting out from Cape Wrath in Winter

There is no ferry service to Durness in Winter months, so the usual strategy is to do a u-turn to Kinlochbervie. I decided that would be an anti-climax so I found a route to Durness by foot.

It was about seven miles walk to the Kyle of Durness. This is an enormous tidal river mouth that opens out into the Atlantic. It’s quite nice to walk along as the track sits high on the hill and I got a good view of the sea, the cliffs and Durness village in the distance. The landscape over there looked much less wild, and more like rolling pasture. More like Devon than Scotland.

I saw seventeen seals sunbathing on the sand flats. At this point the track dives down to the ferry point. But as the ferry does not run in winter (May-Sept only) I had to find a land route around the Kyle.

John at the lighthouse had told me about a route around using a rough track that goes up the hill and I saw it right before the ferry crossing, which is where the proper road ends. It is indeed very rough, like an old drover’s track, full of broken up boulders, but an easy enough climb up 60m or so.

Don’t bother descending the ferry track just continue straight up the hill at NC 368 660.

From here there is no path, you have to lollop over the hillside and around the back of the Kyle.

I decided to wade the narrow point at Grudie. It was a very low tide and only 1ft deep at most. I had seen from the hill it was sand flats, and not squelchy marsh mud, so I cautiously proceeded over it. Once at Grudie, I saw 4×4 tyre tracks in the sand which gave me confidence that the local farmer had been driving over it too. It reminded me of the natural causeway at Lindisfarne which you can walk over at low tide.

The farm track wraps around a shingle beach to find a footbridge at NC 364 618, where you can cross over the East inlet of the Kyle. This bridge was not marked on my Harvey map, but it was on John’s OS Explorer. It will take you onto the road.

On the other side of the Kyle I still had to walk the 10 miles North to Durness along the main road. I tried thumbing a lift but not one person stopped. Every person had a seat spare. None of them slowed down and I was forced to walk on the verge. It was soul destroying. Eventually I held onto my pride and stopped thumbing. I walked all the way to Durness. It took about two hours.

If you ever pass a hitchhiker, please, pick them up. In our age of isolationism small acts of kindness go a long way.

It was dark by the time I walked to Durness. I walked through the village which had very harsh, artificial street lighting. The silhouettes of houses in the hills gave it he feeling of walking into a film set, or a Gregory Crewdson still life. I hadn’t seen a street lamp in three weeks. I found a campsite on the road – Sango Sands – which had a sign kindly allowing free camping during the winter.

In the morning I got a bus to Inverness. It was a tenner. Here I roamed into a wilderness of consumer culture. I felt how a deer or an elk does when somehow it finds itself away from the woods, in the middle of a city. One month in the wilderness had changed me forever.

Back into the anthropocene.