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The Sailor of Sandwood Bay

Of course, I’d heard about the ghost of the Bearded Sailor. And so many people had said, “If you’re going to the North West of Scotland, you must go to Sandwood Bay.” I was half expecting a burger van and an ice cream stall, and “Coaches by Appointment”.

But no. Although on the A838 near Riconich, a signpost screams out “Sandwood Bay”, from then on you’re on your own as far as navigation is concerned. First find Kinlochbervie in West Sutherland. Got it? Okay, some three miles north west of there is the village of Oldshorebeg. That’s the easy bit.

A little further on, between Blairmore and Sheigra, you will find a track on your right leading into a peat bog. The closed gate is not to keep you out, but to keep the sheep in, and you’ll be quite welcome as long as you remember to close it behind you. If the ruts and potholes make you fear for the well-being of your suspension, leave your wheels here. But you can drive, with care, as far as Loch a’ Mhuillin. This will save about two and a half miles walking each way, and leaves a walk of around five miles from the parking area at the Loch to the Bay and back.

But be careful – the ground can be wet and boggy. Don’t drive in unless you’re sure you’ll be able to drive out. The Rescue Services are probably about three days away.

So I struck off along the sandy shore of Loch a’ Mhuillin and joined the path at the far side. I was disappointed at this stage to find rutting and erosion, although this appeared to be due not so much to too many feet, but rather to water running off the hills and using the path as the line of least resistance. It was a bit like tramping along a riverbed, and pretty hard going in places.

There were a few people about, but not enough to make a crowd. It can be amusing, and sometimes disturbing, to observe some folk’s idea of preparation for a walk like this. Experienced walkers were easy to spot. They took their vehicles no further than seemed sensible. Then on went the walking boots, with waterproofs (this is Scotland, after all) and spare jumper into the backpack, along with a bite to eat and drink, and off they set, map in hand.

At the other extreme were those on the “Sunday Outing”. The car was coaxed further along the rutted, boggy track than was either safe or practical, then mum, dad, granny, kids and dog – in tee-shirts and trainers (except granny and the dog) – picked their way gingerly for a quarter of a mile or less, then turned back to the car complaining about no tarmac and lack of facilities. This is wild country. Beautiful, but wild. Remember that.

The path crosses rough, and at times boggy moorland, past Lochs Meadhonach and Clais nan Coinneal, then down on the right Sandwood Cottage is visible. At this point, the map shows the path diverging – one heading forward towards the bay, the other in the direction of the cottage. You’ll need better eyesight than me to figure out where the path to the cottage is. I could see no junction, and so followed the obvious route round the shoulder of Druim na Buainn towards the sea.

And what a view! Two miles of white sand curved around a deep blue bay, with crescents of white living and dying as they rolled to the shore. Only a couple of distant walkers interrupted this panorama of peace. Behind the dunes lay more white sand, then Sandwood Loch, shimmering in the sun, rippling in gentle irritation at being cut off from its Mother Sea.

Don’t rush it.

I spent ages ambling along the sands and basking in the lea of the dunes. Once down on the beach, you can see the Shepherd – Am Buachaille – a pillar of Torridonian sandstone severed from the cliffs by ages of angry seas, and now standing sentry over the bay.

Rather than return by the same route, I cut inland through the dunes, and followed the southern shore of the Loch for a bit. I was now to the north of, and below, Sandwood Cottage. Eager to view the haunt of the Bearded Sailor, I headed up towards the derelict house.

Several tales have been told of walkers who have sought shelter in the cottage, being terrified by a bearded sailor appearing at the windows, resplendent in tunic and brass buttons. One report tells of a violent shaking of the whole house during the night, with two terrified walkers who were sheltering there leaving at first light and running for their lives to civilisation.

The most intriguing tale concerns an Edinburgh lady who had never been to Sandwood Bay. She was given a piece of the cottage’s broken staircase as a souvenir, by a friend who had been there. Since then, several uncanny experiences befell her. Crockery tumbled inexplicably from the table. Knocks and footsteps were heard throughout the night. On one occasion she smelled tobacco, and turned to see the Bearded Sailor in her doorway. He watched her for a moment, then vanished.

As I write this now, I feel my tongue creeping towards my cheek. But at the time, in the derelict cottage, I would have believed anything.

Although as I examined the cottage, the only movement came from a passing sheep. (Which reminds me, mind your feet.) My feelings were a mixture of disappointment and relief.

From the cottage, I crossed the heather towards the main path, blazing my own trail and still unable to find the route which was marked on the map. The absence of a defined path was only a minor inconvenience, but beware of the boggy areas and small streams cunningly concealed beneath the heather.

It’s a tiring trek, but though the going is a bit rough at times, the beauty of the bay itself is a breathtaking experience, which is well worth the effort. There is simply no place like this which is readily accessible, and thank goodness, or it would be a holiday complex or a theme park by now.

No pain, no gain.

But there must be easier ways to find a sailor.

© Mike Clark 2002

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