The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Durness Scotland – a turning point.
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged
to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
Durness is a small community and as far north-west in Scotland as it is possible to go by public road. It feels like a long way from anywhere.
Maybe it’s something to do with reaching headlands, or places furthest out on this or that compass bearing — but when you find yourself unable to travel further in a particular direction, you have to reassess where else to go from that point.
There also seems to be an element of turning round and facing up to where you have been. And that’s about as far as I will take this particular metaphor of going to extremes and then deciding what comes next.
That early spring day we found ourselves at the very top of mainland Scotland and as far west as the road would take us, at the scattered, straggling village of Durness. Its post office, school, church, local community hall all suggest a permanence here at the bare and rocky end of the Highlands. Our client tuned in to the elemental feel of it all — cold grazings meeting colder water, thin moor sheared off by the North Atlantic.
But for me, I knew this sense of an overlooked locality clinging on and just doggedly getting along, whatever the wind and weather. I’d seen this before as a young man; when, instead of heading for the city lights, I’d often headed north and west, out to the edge of Scotland, irresistibly drawn on many expeditions to these ancient lands beyond the mountains.
Naturally it helped I had a girl-friend who not only had a smart car but actually knew people up there in Durness — refugees from the city themselves, folk who had abandoned pressurized careers in the south for the silence of the open spaces. So that was our accommodation mostly taken care of back then . . . except not in the usual sense.
Looking back to those far-off years, my memories of the far north-west of the Scottish Highlands did not involve a cosy peat fire in a croft or some substantial conventional sturdy country-house. Because — and here’s where I pull apart my own idyll — there’s something just a little fey, a little surreal about the whole setting up there.
For a start, to this day, there’s a big cluster of flat roofed buildings, in a compound just west of the main settlement of Durness. They look military in origin. In fact, they are what’s left of an abandoned tracking station for (some say) a medium range ballistic missile (Blue Streak) on which the British Government spent a lot of its citizens’ money before cancelling the project in 1960. After that, the, uhmm, creatives moved in: the craft workers, candle-makers, painters and others who eked out a living here at the end of the road at the top of Scotland. The old military station became the Balnakeil Craft Village, just west of the village of Durness itself.
Our friends lived in one of these concrete boxes set in the moors and fields. They plied their creative trade in the hopes of sales from the sparse summer visitors. I remember they told me that, one day, they heard the sound of rotor blades, almost drowning out an unexpected knock on the door. It was a helicopter winchman, still attached to the helicopter. He politely asked if his crew could practice landing on the flat roof. It had been especially strengthened for the purpose, or so he helpfully added, by way of further justification for the request (which was granted). Well, it isn’t every day a helicopter wants to land on your roof, several times. That must have happened, oh, almost 40 years ago…
But the military are still around. Our client wanted to see puffins. Down we went on the narrow road that leads from the craft village, past springy-legged lambs in bright green fields to a long curve of sand — Balnakeil Bay. All was pristine — except for the three camouflaged ‘ribs’ — inflatable boats — held in the surf at intervals by equally camouflaged burly and very wet young men. More army personnel stood by the edge of the parking lot, and helpfully opened the gate for us, wishing us a polite good morning. . . .
It seemed that we were quite welcome to gatecrash the army exercise — and exercise our Scottish right to roam (enshrined by legislation). The sea lapped at our feet as we walked along this delectable crescent, with dunes on our other side. Wait a minute, aren’t there military observers up there. Yes, I think so. . . ..and isn’t one of the boats, previously launched, carrying its sinister-looking crew back to shore as if to rendezvous with us? They’re coming straight for us, aren’t they? No, they’re just messing about and we try to look nonchalant as we reach the far end of the beach and stroll through the rabbit-nibbled grasslands to try to find the puffins. . . .
The far side of the headland is just perfect — a cool, creamy blue sea and offshore stacks of rock like grey ice-bergs. But it’s now I have to confess to our client another characteristic of this far north-western corner. See that low island out there, back to the west? That’s Garvie Island and it’s one of Europe’s few bombing ranges where live ammunition is permitted. And round the corner, well, that’s the Clo Mor cliffs. They’re the highest on the Scottish mainland. Oh, they sometimes fire at those as well, but only half-way up. Who fires at them? Not just the British armed forces but much of NATO as well, both from aircraft and from ships.
But it’s all OK really. Because there is an agreement: no firing on Sundays or during the lambing season. (If any foreign power with aspirations to invade Scotland is reading this — you have been warned.) And the weirdest bit of all is that the whole thing kind of works. Balnakeil Bay is one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland. The puffins still nest (if you know where to look). The mainland Durness lambs get weeks of bouncing on the grass before the F18s (or whatever) peel out of the clouds and split the island rocks with ordnance. I expect visitors sit on the beach with picnics to watch the offshore show.
There is a limestone-loving arctic-alpine plant called Dryas octopetala (mountain avens) that grows at sea level here instead of the high mountains because it is exposed and there is a band of limestone. This is also why amid the dark moors and grey rock there are bright green fields near Durness, because the grasses thrive on the rich limestone outcrops. Dryas was the first tracking station here, because its white petals form a dish that follows the sun and focuses the heat on the important bits in the middle, to encourage pollinating insects. It still thrives here too.
And when there are no warning flags flying, you can take a passenger-only ferry across the inlet called the Kyle of Durness and catch a little bus all the way to the very north-western tip of Scotland and see the cliffs and the stacks and even Garvie Island on the way — as well as the lighthouse on the headland. The Vikings called this hvarth, the turning point, till it became today’s Cape Wrath.
And once, almost forty years ago, that’s what we did. We took the ferry and the bus. Except we got off half-way along the track and followed our own route, with our map, not west to the tip but south over several minor summits out on the bare desolation they call The Parph, inland from the tall cliffs and the bombed island. We saw no-one else that day. We saw three eagles at once. We ate our sandwiches and sat alone in the bare world amid the ancient rocks, scoured by long-melted glaciers. Then we found a likely looking glen that would take us south and east to find the main road back to Durness, we hoped: and we walked, walked as the sun sank lower and for the first time ever in the confidence of our youth even strong limbs had their doubts about when the day would end.
But it must have ended well (though it was more than the relationship did. . . .) because here I was back at Durness, to find the craft village just the same as I remembered it, the army still at their games, buds on the mountain avens and, of course, that same horizon with hills of crumbling quartz that glittered after rain.
I’d expected the hills to be same, of course. But never in my lifetime of Scottish travels had I been so neatly lulled into accepting the illusion that all those surreal aspects of Durness were really timeless. Maybe at Durness you have come so far north, through mountains and mixed weather, that you arrive in what the Gaels call ‘Tir nan Og’ — the Land of the Young. But no. Later that day, as we all travelled south, I furtively squinted up the empty slopes that roll down to the main road south from The Parph, just in case. But there was no young man, trudging out of the heathery wasteland after a long, long walk. There were only my much older hands gripping the steering wheel as I looked for the next photo-stop.