| Caithness, Sutherland|
and Easter Ross
Durness is a village and parish on the wild north coast of Sutherland; a tiny village but a huge and remote parish, encompassing all the land between the Moine to the east (separating it from Tongue parish) and the Gualin to the west (separating it from Eddrachillis). The principal township is Durine.
The great fame of the parish is the towering headland of Cape Wrath, to the west of the village, jutting into the sea and forming the sharp, bleak corner between the north and west coast. Durness village is used as a base by visitors to Cape Wrath.
The parish comprises Durness village and a number of larger or smaller townships, from the east these including Kempie, Eriboll, Laid, Rispond, Ceannabeinne, Sangobeg, Lerin, Smoo, Sangomore, Durine, Balvulich, Balnakeil, Achins and Keoldale. To the west there are also the single homesteads of Grudie, Carbreck and Rigolter.
Durness is now one of the few remaining places of any size in mainland Britain that you can access only by single track road. The road south was completed in 1893.
Tourism, fish farming, sheep farming and crofting are the mainstays of the economy.
The origin of the parish's name is not known for sure. It appears to be Old Norse, from Djur nes; "beast headland" or "deer headland", or from the name of the chief township, so "Durine-ness". However other suggestions would derive the name from Gaelic, which until recent generations was the dominant language. If Gaelic, the name might come from Dorainn nis ("tempest point"), or Dhu thir nis ("point of the black land")
The name of Durine may derive from the Gaelic Dhu Rinn ("the black (or fertile) promontory").
Durness is known in the local Gaelic as Diuranais, though Diùirnis is has been used elsewhere.
History and people
Durness was formerly a part of the bishopric of Caithness and the old house at Balnakeil was originally the Bishop's summer residence. The church at Balnakeil dates back to the Culdean monks but the existing ruined church is said to have been built by the monks from Dornoch Cathedral in the 13th century. (It is also said that they discovered gold around Durness but no finds have been reported since, notwithstanding some eager prospecting.)
The parish of Durness was for centuries a part of Duibhich Mhic Aoidh, the land of the Clan Mackay, who held their title to the land extending from Melvich in the east to Kylesku in the west; it was said that at his most powerful the Chief of Mackay could call on 4,000 fighting men when required.
Although being a former seat of the Clan Mackay, there is a large contingent of the Clan Morrison in the area which causes some in the locale to question the idea of calling the area "Mackay Country". That said, in historic terms, the Morrisons are fairly recent incomers (the Mackays having been in the area since the 11th century). The Morrisons came over from Ness in Lewis in the 16th century as part of the marriage settlement by the Bishop of Caithness to the son of the Chief of the Clan Morrison on the occasion of his marriage to the Bishop's daughter. The Bishop gave the lands of Eddrachilis and Durness to the young couple and the young Morrison translated 40 families from Ness to his new acquisitions on the mainland. These folk landed, it is said, initially at Portlovorochy (Port-sluagh-Murraichidh "The Port of the Followers of Morrison) and fanned out up the coast to Kinlochbervie and Durness where they remain in significant numbers to this day.
The population today is much diminished. The whole of the Durness area suffered greatly from the Highland Clearances, the first in 1819 and thereafter throughout the greater part of the 19th century until the Crofting Act of the 1886 finally gave crofters a measure of security of tenure.
The Durness Riots of 1846 were caused by such clearances when the women of Ceannabeinne area defied the Sheriff's Officer sent to deliver the summons of eviction and subsequent disorder occurred in the village inn in Durness when a second attempt was made, causing the officers to be again run out of town ingloriously.
Until some 50 years ago, Durness was a predominantly Gaelic speaking area but today there are only one or two people who can speak the language even moderately well. The whole culture which endured for centuries has finally been extirpated and though there are now serious attempts to teach Gaelic in schools and recreate an interest in the language, the distinctive dialect of Mackay Country is all but lost.
The loss of Gaelic culture here is doubly sad as Durness is also the birthplace of one of the greatest Gaelic poets of all time, Rob Donn Calder (some argue "Mackay"), born at Achnacaillich in Strathmore in 1714 and a keen and fearless observer of people and situations. Although illiterate and speaking no English, he was steeped in the rich Gaelic culture of his time and was responsible for some of the finest Gaelic songs, verses and elegies ever created. Rob Donn has been called the Gaelic Robert Burns, and not without justification. Some measure of the depth of his embeddedness in Gaelic culture is given in a book, "The World of Rob Donn" by Ian Grimble. The translations may be somewhat stilted, for the fluidity and subtlety of Gaelic verse and the play on near homonyms cannot be with justice translated into English, but some measure of the poeticism and intellectual genius of a simple cattle-herder can be felt in its pages.
The main sources of employment in the village are crofting and tourism. It is the largest village in the northwestern corner of Scotland, has a population of around 400, and is on the main A836-A838 road between the towns of Thurso (in Caithness) 72 miles to the east and Ullapool (in Cromartyshire) 68 miles to the south. This area is notable for being the most sparsely populated region in Western Europe.
Geography and geology
The landscape of the Durness area is a stark contrast to the surrounding areas due to a down-faulted, isolated wedge of Cambro-Ordovician carbonates known as the Durness Group, also erroneously known as the 'Durness Limestone'. These carbonates are also found in Assynt and extend as far south as Skye although the full sequence can only be seen in the Durness area, hence the name of the unit. This thick sequence of dolostones with subordinate limestones and cherts is softer than the surrounding hills which are formed of more resistant Lewisian Gneiss / Torridonian sandstones, sometimes capped by Cambrian Quartzite. Therefore the local area is generally flatter, low lying and more fertile than other areas in the North West Highlands due to the lime-rich bedrock and resultant soils.
An incredible variety of other rock types for such a small area can be found around the village due to extensive faulting in the area placing different rocks of different ages (Archaean - Ordovician) side by side. The Moine Thrust itself can also be seen in the area at Faraid Head and Sango Bay despite the main thrust area being found several miles east at Loch Eriboll. The thrust exposures within Sango Bay are the most easily accessible localities to see such features of the Moine Thrust Zone, as well as the bay itself (geologically a graben) showing one of the best examples of basin bounding faults in the British Isles.
Faraid Head is also important geologically for one of Scotland's largest sand dune systems where the prominent headland is exposed to strong winds, building sand dunes up to 180 feet above sea level. The cliffs on the eastern side of this headland show the only preserved exposures of Moine metasediments west of the main outcrop of the Moine Thrust in Scotland (as a result of thrusting and later normal-faulting) and excellent machair examples have developed between the cliff top and the dunes, partly due to the high sea-shell content of the sands in the Durness area.
As a result of all the forementioned, Durness is a popular destination for undergraduate geology students as well as tourists, mainly during the summer months.
Sights about Durness
The main attractions in Durness are Smoo Cave, a conjoined sea cave and freshwater cave with a small river running through it and a waterfall in wet weather, unspoilt beaches backed by cliffs, and the local sea birds, seals, porpoises and minke whales. The surrounding coastline is some of Europe's most isolated and spectacular, with the nearby Clo Mor Cliffs being the highest on the British mainland, at some 921 feet high.
The area has been inhabited since stone age times and there are many places of historic interest; one of the most interesting but only for the serious walker is "Carn Righ", on the northmost tip of Ben Spionnaidh, which is a manmade cairn celebrating a long dead petty king or chief from the area, whether Pict or Viking now unknown; but the reason for the site chosen is clear as the site overlooks all his lands.
Balnakiel Old Church, itself of great historical interest, has inside its wall the grave of Donuill Mac Morraichaidh, a serial bandit and murderer who sought exculpation from his sins by paying to be buried inside one wall of the church so, it is said "that his enemies couldn't walk over his grave".
The area around Loch Croispol and Loch Borrallie abounds in archeological interest, from brochs to round houses to mediæval and pre-clearances settlements; the Old School at Croispol has been recently excavated and a host of interesting information garnered by the local schoolmaster and enthusiastic historian, Graham Bruce. Incidentally, the name "Loch Croispol" itself is of interest in that it suggests that the local gallows "croich" was situated nearby when the Chief of Mackay held the right of pit and gallows.
Out on the Faraid Head is Seannachaisteal, presumably a broch, but it is now completely enveloped in sand and no dig has ever been carried out to see what it was and from which time in history. A few years ago, the body of a young Viking boy was discovered exposed by the erosion of the sand dunes at Faraid. And at Sangobeg beach, the body of a Pictish boy was discovered.
At Ceinnabeinne, on the left of the road as you leave Durness towards Tongue, lies "Clach a Breitheanas" or the Judgment Stone. This was said to be where in ancient days a swift judgment was meted out to malefactors and those found guilty were thrown over the cliff to their doom below. While folklore does not identify when this was done, the method of execution is much more Pictish, who had a penchant for natural means of death, than Viking, where a swift axe was the favoured means of disposal. Whatever the history, it was obviously an important place, as three stones round the main stone appear to have been polished as seats, one very evidently cut in the rock and polished, and as this is Lewisian gneiss, the effort of polishing such uncompromising rocks points to use for a very significant purpose.
In the substantial sand dunes to the north of the village, a large colony of puffins can be approached to within less than 10 yards, offering superb opportunity for wildlife photography. Rock pipits also live on the beach.
Tourists for the village or for Cape Wrath are catered for by a campsite spectacularly sited on the cliffs above the beach (with easy access down to the beach), an SYHA hostel, housed by some converted army buildings, bed and breakfast accommodation, and two hotels and restaurants, Mackay's and the Smoo Cave Hotel.
Another tourist spot is the local Balnakeil Craft Village, a rather picturesque old Royal Air Force radar base from the Cold War era. The villagers mainly live sustainably and there is a community ethos, with some rather wonderful and eccentric characters selling arts and crafts goods and providing an interesting stop for visitors.
In 2007 Durness hosted the John Lennon Northern Lights Festival, a celebration of music, poetry, theatre and other cultural activities in celebration of the spirit of John Lennon who enjoyed boyhood summers in the village. Lennon returned for a visit in 1969 with Yoko Ono and their children but the visit was cut short when Lennon drove his car off the road by Loch Eribol. The track In My Life from Rubber Soul is said to be based on a poem about Durness which Lennon wrote on a teenage holiday in the area, although most of the original poem's meaning was lost during songwriting with McCartney. A small shrubby garden has been dedicated to John Lennon in the centre of the village and the house where he stayed during his holidays still stands.
Some miles to the northwest lies a military firing range known as Garvie Range used by aircraft of the RAF, Royal Navy and United States Air Force. A rocky islet resembling a ship is used for bombing practice. Although explosions can be heard, and seen with binoculars, they are sufficiently far away to avoid disturbing the colonies of sea birds. It is the only military firing range in the United Kingdom where aircraft are allowed to deliver live 1000-pound bombs.
A few miles east of Durness lies Loch Eriboll, known for its otters and minke whales. During Second World War it was used to station naval troops, and the island in its centre was used as a bombing target for the subsequent attack on the Tirpitz in Norway, as it resembles a battleship. The loch is sometimes used as a safe harbour by large ships during stormy weather.
In the loch was once moored the battle fleet of King Haakon of Norway on his way south assert his command of the Hebrides, a campaign destroyed at the Battle of Largs in 1266; the small harbour of Portnacon has variously been translated as "Port na coin" "the port of the dogs" or a corruption of "Port Haakon". During the Second World War, the battle cruiser "Jamaica" sustained an outbreak of measles on board and it was quarantined in Loch Eriboll for months, lest the contagion spread and affect the navy generally and possibly delay the Normandy landings. At the German surrender in 1945 some 30 surrendered German U-boats and were laid up in the loch.
During Second World War, the RAF built a Chain Home radar station at Sango near Durness. There was also a Chain Home Low radar station at Sango. After the war there was also a ROTOR radar station near Durness part of which is used by the modern military range and the accommodation area is used for various crafts.
- Durness Comminity website
- Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh - "Mackay Country"
- Undiscovered Scotland - Durness
- John Lennon Northern Lights Festival - North Highlands Scotland
- Grimble, Ian: The World of Rob Donn