Visiting Durness
Accommodation, things to see / do

Durness

History

Durness is a village surrounded by the dramatic landscape of Sutherland on the north coast of the Scottish Highlands. Most of the terrain of this region is impermeable gneiss, carpeted by boggy heathland. Durness itself sits on a patch of limestone, so it's better drained and more fertile. The limestone has been eroded into caves; Smoo Cave at the edge of the village is easily visited, others should be left to trained cavers. To the west, Cape Wrath is the most north-westerly point of the Scottish mainland.

In 1841, Durness was the first area in which residents did not simply accept being cleared off their land to make way for sheep. Military intervention in support of the landowner ensured partial clearance did eventually take place, but it was not as widespread as originally had been intended. The refusal of crofters in Durness simply to accept their fate showed others elsewhere in the highlands and islands that resistance was possible.

Durness remained very isolated until relatively recently. In 1894 it was noted that anyone covering the 20 miles from Tongue had to use three ferries, across the Kyle of Tongue, the River Hope, and Loch Eriboll. Little wonder that Durness parish, which until 1724 stretched as far as Tongue in the east and Kylesku in the south was split into three. A good road south was completed in 1893, and from the following year, there was a daily coach connecting Durness with the railway station at Lairg, some sixty miles to the south-east. To the north of Durness is Faraid Head and Balnakeil Bay.

This most north-westerly village in the British mainland boasts spectacular scenery with a rocky coastline, pristine beaches with turquoise waters, a wide array of wildlife and vast open spaces which makes it a great escape from all the hustle and bustle! Scattered around a string of sheltered sandy coves and grassy clifftops, Durness straddles the turning point on the main road as it swings east from the inland peat bogs to the coast. Nearby are Smoo Cave, a gaping hole in a sheer limestone cliff, and beautiful Balnakiel beach.

Things to see

Smoo Cave - This 83 m cave is a geological oddity. Located at the eastern end of Durness set into limestone cliffs, it is regarded as the largest and most dramatic coastline cave in Britain. This spectacular site has a rich archaeological history, an interesting geological formation and is abundant in wildlife. A worthwhile guided boat trip takes you into the centre of the cave, for a small fee.

Ceannabeinne Township Trail - The township was once a thriving crofting community, home to some 50 people across 14 houses. After the Highland Clearances, little survived except for the poignant ruins of a few buildings, the same beautiful coastal views remain. The history is brought to life in great detail and drama through a series of signboards. These and a series of wooden posts take you around a short circuit through the remains of the settlement and out to the headland beyond, from which there are great views of Traigh Allt Chailgeag's tempting sands to the east, and several islets littering the passage out to sea from here.

Balnakeil Church - Founded in 722 by St Maelrubha, the present building dates from 1619. The tomb built into the niche on the south wall of the church is said to be the last resting - place of the local villain, Donald MacMurdo, known as Dombnull MacMhurchaidh who was reported to have resided at Helium. He raided widely from his den on the east side of Loch Eriboll and was responsible for at least eighteen murders. He paid Uisdean Dubh MacKay the second Lord of Reay who was rebuilding the church in 1619 one thousand pounds on condition he was buries in a specially built vault in the church to prevent his enemies from interferring with his remains.

Things to do

Golf - Durness golf course is within walking distance from Balnakeil and is open to visitors all year round seven days a week from dawn till dusk. Nine greens with eighteen different tees, this golf course, featured on a memorable Peter Alice program, has spectacular views over Balnakeil Bay and Cape Wrath. Not to be missed by golfing enthusiasts, visitors are welcome. Nine holes but you play twice off different tees so effectively it's 18 holes, 5555 yards, par 70.

Cape Wrath - Ferry & minibus May-Sept. The most north-westerly point on the Scottish mainland. Not the most northerly, that's Dunnet Head near Thurso, but certainly the most remote. There's no through road, so you take a little ferry from Keoldale (mile & a half south of Durness) across the Kyle of Durness. (£5; the boat can fit one or two bikes, but check ahead.) A minibus (£7) meets the ferry and lurches slowly along 11 miles of rough track, taking an hour to the Cape. There's the small "Ozone Cafe", a Stevenson lighthouse (still in use; you can't go in) and windswept cliffs with whirling seabirds. The minibus goes back after 50 mins. The whole Cape is an SSSI. It's also a military live-fire training range, and public access is closed when the range is in use, normally in spring and autumn M-Sat. To get in by land, leave the main road at Sarsgrum at the head of the Kyles, and walk along the west shore till you pick up the track. It's 18 miles each way, less when the tide is out and you can wade across the river.

Surfing - With nearby beaches on the West Coast, and local north facing breaks, Durness has some of the most consistent swells on mainland Britain. With the range of beaches, somewhere will inevitably be offshore.

Shooting - With its attentive and knowledgeable stalkers and ghillies , Reay Forest is run as a traditional Highland sporting estate offering the highest levels of sport to its guests. Reay Forest, extends to some 96,000 acres and is the neighbouring estate to Balnakeil,  amongst some of the most imposing landscapes Europe has to offer. Within the estate boundaries are the well known and instantly recognisable peaks of Arkle, Ben Stack and the southern slopes of Foinaven. The Reay Forest Estate are happy to try and accommodate Balnakeil House guests, whether they wish to do some stalking, or try to catch a salmon.

Golden Eagle Zip Line - Golden Eagle Zip line A thrilling zip wire experiences at Ceannabeinne Beach near Durness. You can jump off from the top of the 37 meters high coastal cliff and enjoy the flight next to the Atlantic Ocean high across one of the most beautiful beaches in Northern Highlands with speeds up to 40 mph. It is a fun and extremely thrilling zip lining experience with some amazing views.

Kayaking - With the number of inlets, bay and coves in the area, Sea Kayaking around Cape Wrath and along the North Coast is popular in summer. Durness makes an ideal base for this sport. Contact Jules at Norwest Sea Kayaking, you will have an amazing time. These trips are tailored to the abilities of clients and can be suitable for complete beginners to more advanced paddlers. There are endless amazing paddling options on the coastline and on the inland lochs from Ullapool North & South, and locations of these trips will take into account experience, weather and preferences.

Eat and drink

Cocoa Mountain Balnakeil - A luxury chocolatier and cafe. Cocoa Mountain's shelves are stocked with delicious truffles, and other chocolate goodies. Home to the best hot chocolates, this cafe is not to be missed. The finest cocoa blended with fresh Scottish ingredients, and a dash of inspiration from extraordinary and beautiful Highland landscape, all make the chocolates rather special!

Meet And Eat - A hidden gem in the quaint little Balnakeil Arts and Crafts Village within walking distance from Balnakeil. A cozy restaurant with delicious food made with local produce.

Sango Sands Oasis - Sango Sands restaurant has good real pub food at decent prices, a friendly bar and good staff. The restaurant has seating for nearly sixty people and is fully licensed. It has a great variety of home cooked food, with freshly caught local fish and steak our specialities. There is a well balanced wine list and children’s portions are available.

Smoo Cave Hotel - A lovely, small family run hotel with a restaurant serving local seafood and real ales throughout summer and open all year round.

The Whale Tale - A small cosy restaurant on the west coast of Scotland located at the side of a large property on a hillside next to the harbour.  Very tasty and interesting food, big on variety and flavour. This restaurant is a bit further away but worth the visit.

Walking

Northwest Sutherland is one of the most sparsely populated and yet hauntingly beautiful landscapes in Britain. Stunning but deserted sandy beaches lie along the coast like jewels whilst the vast moorlands and glittering lochans are overlooked by gaunt, bare and rocky mountains ascended by few. This is a special place.

Faraid Head - Explore the beautiful sandy beaches and dunes of Faraid Head just west of Durness, with good views over Cape Wrath and lots of nesting seabirds on the cliffs and grey seals at the right time of year.This is the peninsula north of Durness. Follow the lane to Balnakeil craft village and past the church. The lane continues beside the beach but is often deep in blown sand, so follow it or the beach as conditions allow. Look for seals. It's two miles each way. Viking remains (including bodies) have been uncovered around here as the sands shift and blow.

The Cape Wrath Trail - is a long-distance hiking trail of 200 miles from Fort William. It's unofficial, so it's not way-marked, with few facilities en route or definitive paths. It's often boggy underfoot and pelting with rain, so it's definitely hard-core. The northernmost section, from Sandwood Bay to the Cape, is along the west coast (e.g. not using the track, but the same military restrictions apply) and will take even a tough walker eight hours to cover the eight miles. Now think about getting back.

Ben Hope - The most northerly of the Munros, Ben Hope rises as a fine isolated peak and is a magnificent viewpoint. The ascent is short but steep and gives a grand introduction to the vast wilderness of the extreme North. Only a short drive away hill walking enthusiasts will find this a real haven with wonderful views.

Cycling

As the North West corner of the British road system, cycling through and around Durness is very popular. The smooth, quiet roads in Durness and Sutherland area are ideally suited to road and mountain biking with many short and long routes and trails to choose from.

Kyle of Durness to Cape Wrath - This is a unique cycle route starting with a short boat trip and continuing along the shore and across moorland to the furthest North West point of the British mainland.   Once off the boat, there is only one road which continues for 11 miles to the lighthouse. The road is tarmac but fairly broken in places so the surface can be quite rough. After a short section parallel to the Kyle of Durness which gives wonderful views across to Balnakiel Bay the road swings inland and climbs onto open moorland which is crossed via numerous ups and downs all the way to Cape Wrath. After about 8 miles a detour of a mile (each way) can be made down to the idyllic bay at Kearvaig, guarded by a spectacular sea stack and lying just to the west of the highest cliffs on the UK mainland. The track to the bay is quite rough so although mountain bikers may find it possible others may prefer to leave bikes near the top of the track and walk down to the bay. Once at the lighthouse there are good coastal views and plenty seabirds including Puffins in the spring and summer months. The lighthouse also offers refreshments throughout the year.

The Far North West Loch Eriboll and Loch Hope - After Durness the road zig zags past lovely beaches before turning south for the long haul round Loch Eriboll. The road on the west side of the loch is fairly flat for a change but it gets a bit hillier on the east side as you work your way north. Choraidh Farm Park is half way along on the west side of the loch, it has a tea room, over 40 different breeds of animal and a museum showing crofting life over 150 years.  When you leave Loch Eriboll there's another climb of course then a rapid descent to the River Hope. This river is only a mile long and connects Loch Hope to the sea. Here we turn right immediately after crossing the river, taking a minor road by the side of the loch. Ben Hope, Scotland's most northerly Munro (mountain over 3000 feet) will be visible most of the time. Shortly after you leave the loch you will pass Dun Dornaigil Broch. Brochs are 2000 year old fortified towers, generally built between 100BC and 100AD. It has been possible to date them exactly because sometimes Roman artifacts are found inside. The Romans conquered England but failed to subdue the Picts in Scotland. Shortly after the broch there is a dirt road connecting to the A838 just north of Loch Shin by way of Gobernuisgach Lodge. A locked gate at its south end prevents its use by cars, but this of course is no impediment to mountain bikers or walkers.  When this route joins the A836 east of Loch Meadie it meets National Cycle Route 1 again. From here you can follow the Route 1 cycle signs south; this will lead you eventually to Culrain.

There are also a number of smaller cycle routes available on Strava.

Fishing

Brown Trout Fishing - The four Durness limestone lochs located on the North coast of Scotland, in the county of Sutherland which vary greatly in their character and size of trout and is the place to go for challenging trout angling in gin-clear limestone waters. The lochs produce wild brown trout of unmatched quality. The Limestone Lochs of Durness Fishing on the lochs is now controlled by the Keoldale Sheep Stock Club and Rispond Estate.

Sea Fishing - Great fun can be had by all whilst sea fishing. This type of fishing can include Haddock, Pollock, Cod, Ling and Skate.

Shopping


Balnakeil, one mile west of Durness by Loch Croispol, is a craft village on the site of a Cold War early warning station. Businesses here, include Cocoa Mountain (surely the country's most northerly chocolate makers), Balnakeil Glass, and "The Wee Gallery" of paintings and wood sculpture. Durness village has a coffee shop and a licensed restaurant, shops and a petrol station. It is possible to arrange a Tesco Click and Collect from the Tesco in Inverness, which will be delivered to Kinlochbervie Hotel, a 40 minute drive from Balnakeil.

Local annual events

Highland Gathering - On the last Friday in July, Durness hosts the Highland Gathering, where you watch traditional competitions such as tossing the caber and Highland dancing. Events are open to anyone who fancies a challenge. There are also less traditional events such as tug of war, tip the bucket and the pillow fight for those who want a laugh! The gathering is one of the most spectacular events held in this North West corner of Scotland.

Durness Bonfire Night - Every Guy Fawkes Night the village gathers around a huge bonfire and watches the fireworks display with hot food and drinks in hand.

The Cape Wrath Challenge - The Cape Wrath Challenge is unique, it offers an entire week of running and entertainment. There are five separate running events spread over six days, culminating in a full marathon. All of this takes place in and around Durness surrounded by some of the most remote scenery Scotland has to offer, in the environment of a tiny and friendly village.

Local Transport Links

Durness is now one of the few remaining places of any size in mainland Scotland that you can only access by single-track road. The white lines cease some fourteen miles south on the A838, and the road east along the north coast of Scotland to Tongue and Thurso has many single-track stretches. For more information about Scotland's single-track roads and how to drive them, visit our feature page on driving single track roads. Slowly is the key point - the A838 twists and turns along the rugged coast and over the hills and far away. Durness is 100 miles / 165 km from Inverness and 65 miles / 110 km from Thurso. Much of the road is single-track with passing places, where stray sheep dispute the right of way with mad bats in white vans.

By bus - a fleet of minibuses is operated by Durness Bus. These run year-round, as school buses midweek, with long-distance services only on Saturday. From Inverness, Bus 805 runs Sat only via Bonar Bridge, Lairg, Laxford Bridge and Kinlochbervie to Durness (3 hrs) and Balnakeil. It runs south from Durness around 08:30 and returns north around 16:00. Mon-Fri this connection is via Lairg, which has trains between Inverness and Thurso / Wick. Bus 806 runs from Durness at 08:00 to Lairg for 10:30, coming back around 12:20. Friday evenings there's an extra bus to Ardgay railway station. From Thurso, Bus 803 runs Sat only via Dounreay, Tongue and Melness to Durness (2 hr 30 min). It runs east from Durness around 09:20 and returns west from Thurso around 14:20. A couple of other buses ply mid-week between Thurso and Tongue.

Accommodation

Elliot Houses - Balnakeil Luxury Holiday Home
Elliot Houses - Balnakeil Bothl Luxury Holiday Home