Robert Burns, Scotland’s great mythologiser of the mundane and the simple, wrote odes to such humdrum things as mice, lice and haggis. But he never eulogised the Scottish midge and with good reason. Midges are neither soft and furry nor very appetising. Besides, ‘wee sleekit cow’rin’tim’rous chironomidae’ doesn’t scan very well.
Whereas many of Scotland’s coastal campsites are too windy for midges, the sheltered bay at Scourie does, unfortunately, provide ideal flying conditions for the little blighters. However, that is no reason not to come and enjoy one of Sutherland’s most tranquil sites. This region is one of the most sparsely populated in Europe and the scattered dwellings of the area’s few human habitations seem to cling to the coast for safety.
Scourie is a tiny hamlet clustered around an inlet on the extreme north-west coast, 40 miles from Ullapool. The landscape here may be stark and sparse but the campsite is a little oasis of green. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the green terraces for a nine-hole pitch-and-putt course, so immaculate is the grass. Caravans and motorhomes are largely confined to the areas around the amenities block, so tents have the run of the terraced pitches that extend down almost to the shores of the bay.
Scourie is an ideal stopping-off point between Ullapool and the far north coast around Durness, 25 miles from Scourie. From Durness, a coastal village that seems like something blown north from Cornwall by doomsday winds, a tiny boat takes you across the Kyle of Durness to rendezvous with a minibus that plies the only stretch of road in Britain not connected to any other road. It runs the 11 miles through an area called the Parph out to Cape Wrath, the most north-easterly point of the mainland and the site of a Stevenson lighthouse (worth a nose around). It’s a favourite haunt of kite-surfers who can be seen from the cliff-tops clinging to their kites as the winds try to whisk them off to Spitzbergen.
For the intrepid there is a chillingly remote coastal walk from the crumbly chocolate cliffs of Cape Wrath back to the road from Kinlochbervie. The walk takes in the fantastic beach at Sandwood Bay and is so remote that it would make even Greta Garbo crave some company. The landscape here is not so much mountainous as pockmarked with massive towers of stone rising out of moorland.
Maybe that is why the Ministry of Defence uses much of the area as a bombing target. These distinct mountains must be easy for even the greenest trainee pilot to hit.
Heading south from Scourie towards Ullapool is the impressive Loch Assynt with the forlorn ruin of Ardvreck Castle sitting exposed to the whipping winds that sweep up the length of the loch. In 1650, the Marquis of Montrose, who had continued to fight for Charles I, even after the king’s execution in 1649, was led from here, trussed and bound to a horse, to Edinburgh for execution. He was placed on his horse backwards and would have had a magnificent view of the receding castle as he was led away. Forty years later, the castle was ruined after a siege and left as it stands today, an empty but imposing shell.
After the sparseness of Sutherland, Ullapool feels like a metropolis. It’s a small but bustling town and the main ferry route to the Outer Hebrides. Fresh fish is landed by a small fleet of brightly coloured trawlers, so it’s no surprise that Ullapool also boasts the best chippy in Britain, at least according to the discerning listeners of Radio 4 back in 2004. It’s known, appropriately enough, as the Chippy, a name whose simplicity Robert Burns would no doubt have admired.
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