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Remote & Wonderful Durness

Venturing to the most northwesterly reaches Scotland will reward you with quiet beauty and welcoming personalities -- and surprise you with its wealth of lively activities.

BY BRUCE MACGREGOR SANDISON

Not so many years ago, a few days before Easter, a crofter was herding half a dozen donkeys along the narrow road from Rhiconich to Durness in northwest Sutherland. In the process, he collected behind him a convoy of motorists who were angry about being unable to get past.

Eventually, the crofter left his donkeys and walked back to the leading vehicle. The agitated driver wound down his window, but before he could utter a single word the recalcitrant crofter politely asked, "Excuse me, Sir, can you tell me, is this the way to Jerusalem?"

It is this wry, laconic sense of humour that marks out the Highlander from the Lowland Scot, and it is a characteristic I have always admired. The story is true and I first heard it during one of my early visits to this most glorious and dramatic part of the land that I love and call home.

I am an angler and hillwalker, and was first drawn to Durness by the lure of its famous wild brown trout lochs and salmon and sea trout fishing on the River Dionard and in the Kyle of Durness - and by the urge to explore the ragged ridge of Foinaven (2,839 feet), grey-shouldered Arkle (2,580 feet), green Cranstackie (2,628 feet) and the wilderness hills of Cape Wrath.

The township of Durness clings to edge of the seabird-clad cliffs that protect this remote community from Atlantic storms. People have lived here for thousands of years, from the Mesolithic hunter-gathers who arrived at the end of the last Ice Age some 8,000 years ago, to the Neolithic men who followed them, and, subsequently, their Pictish descendents.

Warrior Vikings invaded in the later years of the 9th century and ruled the Highlands and Islands for more than 500 years. During this time, this part of Sutherland became home to Clan Mackay: "The first Lord of Reay was a Mackay and he and his relations owned all of the land that extended from the western seaboard, between Assynt and Cape Wrath, to the Caithness frontier in the east. He was described as the leader of 4,000 fighting men."

On a spring morning last April I set out for Durness from my home in Tongue to speak to a less warlike member of the clan, Iris Mackay. My intention was to try to discover what it was that had made, and still makes, Durness (population 350) one of the most vibrant communities in Scotland.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2008 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Glamis Castle by Richenda Miers.

Photos above: © Michael Roper