Sandwood Bay, Scotland (part I)

hiking at sandwood bay scotland

This account of a wild camping trip to Sandwood Bay, the most remote beach in the UK, is adapted from a letter I wrote while on its beaches in August 2014. 

Day 1

It’s my honor and pleasure to be writing you from a tent on Sandwood Bay, Scotland, aka The Best Adventure Ever.

The location is stunning: clear, cold turquoise waters crashing on a sandy beach, bounded by tall, craigy cliffs at either end. It took us about two hours to hike in, each with at least 40 lbs of gear, food and water, over fairly easy terrain that wound around dramatic hills, boggy marshes, and sandy flats. Sounds pleasant enough, but we nearly died getting here, or at least it seemed that way. They have an insect here called a “midge,” a gnat-sized, biting little fucker. After the long walk in, I find myself covered in itchy, red dots, despite liberal application of bug-repellant.

Can you imagine me? Weighed down by a backpack in front and one in back, stumbling for well nigh five miles in a swarm of evil, relentless bugs, who stick to your flesh since your liberal application of multiple bug repellants has resulted in a tonic so oily a bug can only land, bite and remain plastered to your flesh. Trust me, there wasn’t a mouth without a curse upon its lips for the two hour trek…

But at last, we saw the loch which we knew from the map was just east of the beach, our final destination. The roar of the sea was soon heard, followed by joyous sighs and a quickening pace when we saw the sea at last. I turned back to signal to the others that we’d seen the beach, but they were no where to be found. I couldn’t even give them a wave of hope. “That’s ok,” said Christian, “Let them see it for themselves.” We dropped our bags, donned our head-nets and waited for the others.

They arrived soon after and we re-grouped to make a plan. Where to camp? Among the dunes? Further up? Was there proper grass anywhere? Should we start dinner? What to do first? The surf looked good and the boys were eager to take advantage, not knowing what the following days waves would bring. We agreed to just get our shit to the beach and then think about camp later.

The beach is a mile or two long and sits between epic cliffs. A few miles north sits a lighthouse and Cape Wrath, along with a military testing ground, which means you mustn’t hike too far north for risk of being shot by a trainee’s stray bullet. We didn’t have much time to contemplate our surroundings then though. The sun was falling towards the sea quickly, and the walk had rendered us sticky, bitten, sweaty, and exhausted. With aching shoulders, tired backs, and itchy flesh, there was only one thing on our minds.

Stripping off sweat-soaked clothes, we ran down to the deserted beach to meet the frothy waves. With every step closer to the sea, the heat and misery of the walk dissolved, until our little toes finally touched upon the salty water and were utterly frozen in an instant.

We are six: Will (my new filmmaker/surfer friend with an unending love of the sea and a constant smile), Christian (Will’s ever-grumpy, camping-logistics-loving bear/friend), Amy (Will’s ex-flatmate from Leeds who laughs easily and loves all outdoor adventures), Hans (Christian and Will’s mutual friend and fellow surfer whose serious surfer sensibilities are well juxtaposed by thick-rimmed glasses and German practicality) Esther (Hans’ super-British, incredibly kind, and ever-pleasant girlfriend), and me of course (newly nicknamed “America”). We are all in good humour despite a grueling trip and lack luster weather.

Thankfully for the hike in, we got terrific sun, but it’s given way to clouds and storms that roll in periodically that confine us to tents or wetsuits. It’s not particularly warm here; we’ve not yet broken out shorts. I know you are wondering why we chose to take a surfing holiday somewhere that is cold, bombarded by tempestuous storms daily and requires a wetsuit to get in the water, that is filled with insects that could have a supporting role in a Biblical story, and that is a multi-hour walk away from any kind of building, clean water supply, parking lot, or other civilization, but let me assure you, it is all worth it.

Were it not for the considerable obstacles and disadvantages, there would surely be a road into this special and magical place and it would most definitely be on many more “top ten beaches of Europe” lists and with its fame would come hoards who would leave glass bottles in the sand and would take all the best lounging places. Instead, it is preserved for only those who are willing to sacrifice a few sunny days for stormy ones and who know the insects will fly away at some point or other; it is left to those who know the good days are all the more sweet for having endured the sour ones.

In brief, we are camping between the grassy dunes, meters away from crashing surf, staring out at Caribbean-esque waters while the sun is above and up at endless stars when the sun is below. We are all alone, and it is marvelous.

camping on sandwood bay

The boys went surfing this morning. It seems strange, but I’ve never seen someone surf in the flesh. I’ve only seen photos and videos of people catching waves. In person, it’s magical and mesmerizing and makes me want to get in there! The sea was a bit too intimidating this morning though. It’s better now, but the others have gone on a hike and it doesn’t seem wise to swim entirely alone (truly there is no one here save for a local hiker once an hour or so).

I’m still knackered from yesterday’s hike in, which is why I’ve stayed behind from the hike with the others. I did some yoga on the beach after they left though, which was energizing. Doing Warrior I, hips square to the ocean, arms reaching in praise and connection of the swirling sky, it makes me wish I lived next to the beach all the time. After yoga, I laid on the sand, listening to the waves until my feet were too cold.

What is it about the sea? I faced the most painful hike of my life (after a multi-day road drive) to come to this special place and yet it feels totally worth it. The human heart is a funny thing, willing to endure so much for a fleeting chance to sing one more song. And indeed, my heart is singing here.

surfing at sandwood scotland

Thanks to Will for the photos!

Keep reading part II and part III of the Sandwood Bay adventure!

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