Cape Wrath

Eighteen kilometres from Durness Village is Cape Wrath Lighthouse. The land between the village and the lighthouse is known as the Parph, two hundred and seven square kilometres of moorland. The first road in the district, built in 1828 by the lighthouse commission, was constructed across the Parph (58` 37.5` N. Latitude; 50` 00.0`W. Latitude) to Britain's most north westerly point. The word Wrath is a corruption of the Norse word 'Hvarf' meaning turning point. Looking out to sea from the point are two low rocks, Am Bodach – The Old Man and A'Chailleach- The Old Woman.

Cape Wrath and Cape Cornwall at completely the other end of the UK, are the only two Capes in Britain. Wrath is probably a very bad English approximation of the Gaelic word for Cape Wrath which is Am Parbh (pronounced "am parve"). In the Lewis dialect of Gaelic, it is Carbh not Parbh. Parbh is one of the few Gaelic place names to take the definite article, Am. Ultimately the Gaelic derives from the Old Norse for Cape in the sense of "Headland used as a turning point", so Cape Wrath actually means 'Cape Cape'.

An Article from December 1991 – Mary Mackay reminds us that once there was a thriving population in this now desolate area. The only inhabitants on Cape Wrath now are the lighthouse keepers. How things have changed over the years. Like many places in the Highlands it was once a lively community, until the people drifted away to less isolated areas. Mrs. Jess Morrison of Sangobeg Durness, was a teacher on Cape Wrath from 1935 to 1938. At that time there was around thirty five people living on the Cape Side and apart from the lighthouse keepers, all the men were shepherds working for two local farms. There were ten children attending the school, which was situated at Achiemore. The children had to go over to Durness to sit their "Qualifying Exams" and for their Christmas Party. It was thought at the time that the school was the most isolated on the mainland of Great Britain. Mrs. Morrison says that everything depended on the ferry and the weather. The highlight of the week was when the lighthouse lorry picked up the provisions from the ferry and delivered them to each household. The mail was delivered three times a week by the Durness postman who cycled the twenty two mile round trip.

With no television or radio, the families made their own entertainment, playing cards and ceiliding in each other's houses. Mrs. Morrison recalls Donald Macdonald who hailed from Ullapool and was a beautiful singer of both Gaelic and English songs. He used to sing a lot of old Scottish ballads that are now unfortunately lost forever because no one thought to write them down.

Another character living over there was Charlie Mackenzie, nicknamed "the doctor" by the locals. He was a great storyteller and "very fond of the drams". He had a wealth of knowledge of the Durness area and people never tired of listening to him. Although most of the families have long since left Cape Wrath, Hughie Morrison, who went to school over there still lives in Durness. John Mackenzie, who also lives in Durness was the last of the Mackenzie family to be born on the cape side, but his family moved to Durness when he was five, as by then there was no school there. A world of difference to the Cape Wrath of nowadays where, like many other small Highland communities, the houses lie sad and empty. Do the hundreds of tourists who speed past Achiemore, Daill, Inshore and Kervaig ever give a thought to the families who lived there and the way of life now gone?

n approximately 1795, a proposed improvement to navigation would be contributed if a lighthouse were erected at Cape Wrath. Some shipwrecks had happened in the previous ten years off the coast of Durness and it was considered the bearings of the rocks ought to be accurately ascertained. Built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson at a cost of fourteen thousand pounds, the buildings are extensive and spacious surrounded by a high wall. The white tower is twenty metres high with eighty one steps to the top. The tower is built of hand dressed stone and the rest of the building is constructed of large blocks of granite quarried from Clash Carnoch. The lighthouse tower and dwelling houses are listed buildings of Architectural and Historic Interest.

The Cape Wrath lighthouse stands over one hundred and twenty one metres high above mean sea level on spectacular cliffs facing the stormy Atlantic Ocean. To reach this point there is the choice of either a passenger ferry across the Kyle of Durness followed by a minibus ride of nearly eighteen kilometres on a narrow rough winding road through wild moorland, a twenty five mile walk up the coast from an approach at Sandwood Bay, landing by sea or by helicopter. The latter was the method used to bring keepers and supplies until the lighthouse was automated. On The 17th January 1977, a helicopter carried out the Cape Wrath relief, a history making moment as it was the first time in the Northern Lighthouse Boards' history that a shore lighthouse has been so relieved. Earlier, as the lighthouse was not easily accessible by road, all the stores including household goods, spare parts, the diesel and paraffin oil required to power the machinery were landed once a year by the lighthouse tender MV Pharos. This was one of the three ships whose duty was to convey stores to the isolated lighthouses along the Scottish and Manx Coasts.

Cape Wrath Ferry

Cape Wrath is inaccessible by direct road – to reach it you must take a passenger ferry (which operates from May to September) at Keodale. From the ferry end, a minibus runs to the Cape

Passenger service across the Kyle of Durness between May and September.

Crossing time 10 minutes. Cyclists Welcome

Telephone J. Morrison 01971 511246

 

Service may be cancelled in the event of bad weather, MOD exercises and tidal conditions

************************

Minibus Service To Cape Wrath

James Mather— e-mail 

james@visitcapewrath.com  

Tel: 01971 511284

Mobile: 07742 670196

www.visitcapewrath.com

Spectacular coastal scenery 11 miles journey from ferry to lighthouse Souvenir Ticket

Slight delays at peak times and during M.O.D exercises

 

Journey time approximately 40 minutes

Around Cape Wrath is a military firing range, generally out of bounds to the public when exercises are occurring. A walk from the point where Garvie Island is nearly within touching distance from the cliff edge back towards Kearvaig is rewarding beyond description. Looking from the point at Cleit Dhubh at a closer perspective the island is bare rock and small.

This island is the target of the military during exercises fortunately not too frequent. Areas of the mainland closet to the coast bear witness to explosions with large creators.

Nearby are the ruins of a coastguard station built by Lloyds of London to keep a eye over their insured ships and the job the lighthouse was doing making sure no unnecessary insurance claims would come their way.

In 1978, mercury vapour lamps replaced the paraffin vapour burner and in January 1980, an electrically operated temporary power beam beacon was installed. In December 1980, a completely new gearless pedestal and lamp array system was inaugurated. As well as their primary duties of looking after the light, fog signal and radio beacon, the keepers did most of the maintenance work on the station. Four white lights flash every thirty seconds. Candlepower of 204,000 candles to a range of thirty nine kilometres and a fog siren in bad visibility emits a six second blast every ninety seconds. The power is provided by green brass generators, which replaced the original hand, wound clockwork motor.

The six-man crew operated a one month on one month off system throughout their four-year posting. The lighthouse went automatic in February 1998. A report in September 1998 revealed that there were no ferry service and minibus trips to Cape Wrath Lighthouse due to the adverse weather conditions. Although there was shepherds on the Cape Side during the day, a reliable source believes that Tuesday night of the 1st. September could have been the first night since the lighthouse was built in 1828 no people were on the most north westerly part of mainland Britain. All the holiday homes were empty, the bothies were deserted and two workmen had completed maintenance to the lighthouse the previous day.

​​

An account in the Weekly Scotsman of August 1911 reports the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse had on hand a scheme for removal of the existing lighthouse. The plan was to move the light and horn from where they stood for eighty five years to a lower adjoining rock running four hundred and fifty seven metres further into the Atlantic Ocean. The reason for this proposed change was that the present lighthouse as it stood was too high. It was often more or less obscured by fog and mists that gather along these huge cliffs. Elaborate plans were explained involving the engineering difficulties of connecting the stack to build the lighthouse on with the mainland. To the left of the dyke, that surrounds the lighthouse and outbuildings lie the remnants of stones and old cogs and pulleys. This is the evidence of an attempt to build the lighthouse on the group of rocks that jut out from the towering coastline. A well was sunk, now filled in with boulders, to the first of the rocks to meet up with the narrow ridge, which runs along the top. A covered walkway was proposed of swing bridges to enable access to the lighthouse that was to be sighted on the furthest rock. This project was abandoned due to the difficulties encountered and the prohibitive costs. Science ran its course and improvements to lighting apparatus dealt with the problems.

Transport of mini buses over the Kyle of Durness on a purpose built raft towed by the smallest ferry operation in the land.

From May to September the Cape Wrath ferry and Mini bus services carry passengers from the Keoldale to the lighthouse. Two mini buses are transported over the Kyle of Durness on a purpose built raft towed by the smallest ferry operation in the land. Until recently the raft was a home constructed barge type vessel made from oil drums and palates. The frequency of the service is dependant on the state of the tide and weather conditions. Sometimes about two hours either side of low tide the service can stop altogether. There is a channel on the Cape Wrath side, so sometimes a smaller boat is used to ferry passengers across the channel and they have to walk over the sand back to Keoldale.

Ferryman John Morrison is reputed to be the first independent operator for a very long time, perhaps since 1827 when the lighthouse was built. The Northern Lighthouse Board used to employ a man to operate it living in the first house on the Cape Side. In 1983, the Board sold the slipway, house and ferry rights to the Highland Regional Council and they are leased to an individual. Walkers heading to the lighthouse, or over to Sandwood Bay and back via Kinlochbervie, cyclists and visitors, young and old take the mini bus ride there and back. The winter service is considerably scaled down with no transport on the Cape side except Balnakeil Farm and MoD. There are holiday houses and the Mountain Bothy Association has a bothy. The ferry service has been used to take over indiscriminate articles including tar for the road surface but this is more modernly being flown over by helicopter.

The land between the Durness and the lighthouse contains 207 square kilometers of moorland designated as a "Site of Special Scientific Interest" (SSSI). 


The Cape Wrath road is rough but has some magnificent views. From the bus, several interesting landmarks can be seen. Lying at the side of the road at Achiemore is a tin roof from the old Side School This was used last in 1947. The Royal Marines constructed the wooden bridge at Daill in 1980. Before the bridge was built the bus would frequently stall in the ford and the passengers used to get out and push. At Inshore there is a house owned by the MOD. The yellow and black huts are sentry posts manned during times when the naval range is active.

The road ends at the lighthouse where there is an average of gales on thirty eight days of the year. Looking east to Clo Mor at two hundred and seventy four metres is the highest cliff on mainland Britain. See the Cape Wrath to Kervaig walk for more about this area.

Meteorological observations were taken and reported by the keepers but toward the end of 1997, when technicians moved in to complete work for automation the observations ceased. The meteorological office is installing a Semi Automatic Meteorological Observation Station (SAMOS) in Durness village with a caretaker to continue the observations.

In 1996, a Family from Glasgow moved to a rented building in the Craft Village with the intention of opening a cafe in the buildings at the lighthouse. They had obtained a lease for one pound per anum from the Highland Council. In March 1997 a planning application to site a caravan selling snacks for the 1997 summer season was lodged with the aim of converting the building to the required standard to open in 1998. On the 14th June, a converted caravan was taken over the Kyle to be the most north westerly snack bar on the mainland. The family at this time intends to eventually live at the lighthouse when their children leave school.

Old Reports

In 1860, a dogcart was hired from the Inn to take the travellers to Cape Wrath and back. The time of high water rendered it necessary to take the dogcart across the Kyle some hours before and the horse had to be ridden round the head of the Kyle as the ferryboat was not adapted to take horses. After a seven mile drive a cabin tenanted by a shepherd was the only dwelling between Durine and Cape Wrath.

Twenty revolving lights displaying alternatively red and white light every two minutes. Two men work the lighthouse. Two watches are kept during the summer and four during the winter. The average annual consumption of colza is eight hundred gallons. On the 19th June the lamps are to be lighted at 9.53pm and extinguished at 9am and on the 19th December are to be lighted at 3.44pm and extinguished at 8.11am. The light can be seen for over forty two kilometres.

Sir Walter Scott, Diary 1814.

To the east of the lighthouse, above the bay of Kearvaig, are the highest sea cliffs in mainland Britain, the Clo Mor Cliffs. They have a drop of 281m (nearly 1000 feet), which affords spectacular sea views. 

"This dread Cape (Wrath), so fatal to mariners, is a high promontory, whose steep sides go sheer down to the breakers which lash its feet. There is no landing, except in a small creek, about a mile and a half to the eastward. There the foam of the sea plays `longbowls` with a huge collection of large stones some of them a ton in weight but which these fearful billows chuck up and down as a child tosses a ball. Cape Wrath is a striking point, both from the dignity of its own appearance, and from the mental association of its being the extreme cape of Scotland, with reference to the north west. There is no land in the direct line between this point and America."

In 1951 a text was published that Cape Wrath was the best place on the Scottish coast to watch passing gannets. From March until autumn and sometimes during the winter these birds appeared to pass in a continuous stream. In a description of Sutherland Volume iii page one hundred of MacFarlanes Geographical Collection this quote is taken.

"There is an excellent and delectable place for hunting called the Parve, where they hunt red deer in abundance and sometimes they drive them into the ocean sea Atlantic, at Pharohead (Cape Wrath) where they take them in boats as they list"

 

For more information on Cape Wrath Visit www.capewrath.org.uk and read Cape Wrath the Penetrable Wilderness A Brief Foray into Scotland’s North West Frontier Research and Text by David M. Hird.