Smoo Cave is a natural sea cave located ~1 mile to the East of Durness village centre which is in Sutherland in the North West Highlands of Scotland. It is the main tourist attraction in Durness and an impressive site that we would recommend to anybody visiting this beautiful and wild corner of Scotland. The cave is fully accessible 365 days a year public access with a walkway into the waterfall chamber, free of charge. Should you wish to venture further inside and learn about the natural and human history of the cave, then you can join us for a tour.
Reaching the cave
The cave entrance is accessible via a circular walk which starts and finishes at the car park. As the car park (and main road) is situated high above the cave, the path leading to it goes downhill towards it, and uphill away from it. It is a rough path, so appropriate footwear is recommended. The approach to the cave is very impressive, with an entrance 50 feet (15 meters) high, 130 feet (40 meters) wide and 200 feet (61 meters) long. You are virtually walking towards a giant mouth. Inside the cave, there is a covered wooden pathway and bridge taking the visitor to a magnificent cascade that falls 25 meters into an 8 meter deep pool.
If you want to venture further into the cave, there are guided "Geological" tours. These tours last about 20 minutes and start with a short boat ride that takes you to a point where you can then start on a scramble into the darker recesses of the cavern, but the cave has lighting. Sturdy waterproof footwear is advisable for this as water flows through the cave. Keep in mind that the cave tours are weather dependent as rainfall can cause the water levels to change rapidly. Keep in mind that the cave tours are weather dependent as rainfall can cause the water levels to change rapidly.
Curiosity about the cave
If you find yourself travelling through Durness, the most northwesterly village on the Scottish mainland, stop at Smoo Cave car park (right beside the North Coast 500). It will take you 10 minutes to walk to the waterfall / lake chamber, we recommend you going so that you won't miss on some serious Scottish geology.
What makes the cave unique in the UK is its geographic qualities. The sprawling outer chamber has been carved over the ages by the sea, while a series of internal caverns and tunnels have been etched out by the two freshwater streams that thread their way through the cave. The first of these two streams bubble up through a submerged pool situated at the terminus of the deepest accessible part of the cave. The second comes from the waters of the Allt Smoo, a stream (or raging torrent, depending on the rains) that winds across the Scottish countryside before suddenly crashing 80 feet through a hole in the stone ceiling and down into Smoo Cave’s second-largest cavern.
How to explore the cave
Situated around a mile to the east of the town of Durness, the cave can be explored by boat or by the path from the car park on the cliffs. The cave boasts one of the largest entrances to any sea cave in Britain at 50 ft high and is floodlit inside. It was formed by a burn that runs down into the rear chamber, as well as erosion caused by the sea.
At the centre of the main chamber, with a skylight in the ceiling carved by the Allt Smoo before it found an easier route into the chamber, the cave ceiling arcs overhead with more than 40 feet of clearance. The back of the cave is covered in green moss and small plants, while a perfectly lit, otherworldly crevasse glows as though an emerald gateway to another world has opened.
For those familiar with the epic of Beowulf, it is easy to envision the early Norse explorers, whom archaeologists say once made camp in the cave, huddled around a campfire telling stories of sea witches and cave trolls. For others who may have dreamed of similar seaside caves, it is easy for the mind to wander with flights of fantasy and dreams straight from Arthurian legend. It seems likely, given that the archaeological record for the cave shows signs of habitation stretching back more than 4,000 years to the Neolithic Era, that the cave was inspiring travellers even while the pharaohs raised the great pyramids in ancient Egypt.
Photography tips and tricks
Once inside the cave photography becomes a bit tricky. The lack of light is the main issue but also the drips from above. Thankfully it was quiet and I had my tripod with me so I managed to get some decent images, either by doing some long(ish) exposures (longer than handheld could cope with anyway) or by doing some HDR images (High Dynamic Range, a range of images at varying exposures from dark to light then combined in post-processing into one image. This ensures you don't blow out the highlights but can also capture detail in the shadows.)