Durness is a village in Sutherland on the far north coast of Scotland, with a population of 347 in 2011. 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 northwest tip of the Scottish mainland.
Get in edit
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: Durness Bus 805 runs from Inverness via Bonar Bridge, Lairg, Laxford Bridge and Kinlochbervie to Durness (3 hr 30 min). It runs Tu Th Sa year-round plus Monday May-Oct, south from Durness at 8AM and returning north around 3PM, at 4PM on Saturday.
Bus 806 runs from Durness at 8AM to Lairg for 10:30AM, coming back around 12:30PM. Bikes may be carried between Durness and Lairg, but must be booked at least 24 hours in advance on ☏.
Bus 803 runs from Thurso on Saturday, via Dounreay, Tongue and Melness to Durness (2 hr 30 min). It runs east from Durness around 9:30AM and returns west from Thurso around 2:30PM. A couple of other buses ply mid-week between Thurso and Tongue.
Get around edit
Smoo Cave, Balnakeil craft village and Keoldale (for Cape Wrath ferry) are each a mile or so from Durness village, walkable by road.
In summer bikes can be hired at The Hub in the village.
- 1 Smoo Cave (Park on main road and follow steps down to the cave entrance). Tours Jun-Aug 10AM-5PM; Apr May & Sep: 11AM-4PM. This 83-m cave is a geological oddity, a hybrid. Enter on the shore via the outer chamber, a sea cave created by wave action along a fault in the rock; it once stretched the 600 m length of the sea gorge and you can still make out fragments of the collapsed roof and walls. (The sea nowadays only reaches the cave on the highest tides.) The inner part is a karstic cave created by stream water flowing through limestone, and the two caves have combined. From the outer chamber you follow a walkway over the flooded middle chamber, which has a waterfall when in spate. You can come this far free, any day any time. To go further you have to join the tour, which takes a little boat across the pool to access the innermost chamber. Adult £6.
- 2 Balnakeil Chapel or Old St Peter's is a ruin by the golf course. It was built in 1619 over much earlier churches, and abandoned in 1814.
- Watch wildlife: whenever you're outdoors, always keep a lookout for sea birds (including puffins), seals and porpoises; occasionally even whales.
- North West Highlands Geopark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering Durness, Kinlochbervie and Kylesku. Some of the local rocks are over 3 billion years old.
- 1 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 min. 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-Sa. 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.
- 2 Faraid Head. 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, see description by walkhighlands.co.uk. Viking remains (including bodies) have been uncovered around here as the sands shift and blow.
- Golf: Durness Golf Club is just beyond Balnakeil. Nine holes but you play twice off different tees so effectively it's 18 holes, 5555 yards, par 70. Standard fee £20.
- 3 Golden Eagle Zip Line, Durness IV27 4QE, ☏ . Apr-Aug daily 10:30-16:00, Sept Oct to 15:00. Only just worth the money, but it's over a beautiful beach. No pre-booking as it's so weather-dependent. If only the Vikings had discovered this mode of transport. £15 pp.
- The Cape Wrath Trail is a long-distance hiking trail of 200 miles (320 km) 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 (ie 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 the getting back.
- Durness Highland Gathering is held on Shore Park in late July.
- Durness Shop is the local Spar and post office, open M-F 8AM-6PM, Sa 9AM-6PM. There isn't an ATM in the village.
- Mackay's filling station is in village centre, 24 hours, self-serve, card only. The prices will make you wish you'd filled up in Ullapool or Thurso, but you can't risk being low on fuel on these long lonely roads.
- 1 Balnakeil, a mile west of Durness by Loch Croispol, is a craft village on the site of a Cold War early warning station. Businesses here, usually open May-Oct, include Cocoa Mountain (surely the country's most northerly chocolate makers; they also have a base in Dornoch), Balnakeil Glass, and "The Wee Gallery" of paintings and wood sculpture.
- The restaurants in Sango Sands Oasis and Smoo Cave Hotel cater to non-residents, see "Sleep".
- The only public bars are in Sango Sands Oasis and Smoo Cave Hotel.
The village is remote, accommodation is limited and the Tourist Information Centre has closed down, so you really ought to book ahead.
- 1 Sango Sands Oasis, IV27 4PZ (on main road), ☏ . Camping & caravan park fully open Apr-Oct, limited facilities Nov-Mar. With restaurant and public bar. Adult £9 ppn.
- 2 Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse, IV27 4PN, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Open all year, sleeps up to 20 in dorms & 2-person bunkrooms. With kitchen, small lounge/dining room, drying room, veranda tables and benches, free wifi, 50 metres from Spar. No dogs. Run by the Mackay family who also run a nearby B&B (May-Oct only, doubles from £130, no single rooms, dogs by arrangement) and self-catering (Cottage, Cabin, and Croft 103). £20 ppn.
- There are several other B&Bs in the village.
- Smoo Cave Hotel, Lairg IV27 4QB, ☏ , email@example.com. Small hotel with public bar and restaurant. B&B double from £95.
As of July 2022, Durness and its approach roads have 4G from EE, and in town you might get a basic mobile signal from the other carriers. 5G has not reached this area.
Go next edit
- East to Thurso, a Victorian small town with a dilapidated castle and ferries to the Orkney Islands. The Caithness "flow" country around is dotted with prehistoric monuments.
- John o'Groats is worth most of 15 minutes, but the real attractions along that coast are Dunnet Head (true north point of the mainland) and Castle of Mey, still a royal residence.
- Southwest is Kinlochbervie, a tiny place but the scenery is the draw.
- Ullapool is a more sizable town and has ferries to Stornoway on Lewis.
- North Coast 500 is a driving or cycling itinerary taking in these places.