Sandwood Bay

The first section of the Cape Wrath Trail was entirely trackless other than then initial mile which follows the road to the lighthouse.

When I veered off the pavement to head toward my first campsite on the beach at Sandwood Bay, there wasn’t even a footprint to follow.

Although boggy and wet, following a compass needle rather than a worn path gave me a sense of freedom even more absolute than a wilderness trail ordinarily provides. Thanks to the mild weather recently, the first big river crossing didn’t even require getting wet. I could hop across on stones.

On the other side stood a small stone house with a red wooden door and metal roof. For 40 years it was the home of James McRory-Smith, also known as Sandy. 

Sandy lived in this house without gas, electricity, or telephone only venturing out to a small shop ten strenuous miles away to collect his pension check and stock up on food. Today, Sandy’s home is one of many bothies, a Scottish term for small huts used as mountain refuges for anyone who needs it, which are scattered across mountains in Britain.

I didn’t plan on staying here tonight, since I had a remote unspoiled beach to call home a couple of miles away, but I wanted to see what it was like on the inside. 

The floor was concrete, stained from water leaking in from under stone walls. Hanging just inside the door were spades and hooks for other tools and jackets. To my left was a room with a wooden sleeping platform and nothing else other than some midge repellent left on the windowsill.

On the right was a living room with fireplace and handmade shelves on the opposite wall filled with books and photos of the man himself. The ceiling was painted bright yellow with blue trim.

Something of an artist, Sandy left paintings on the walls which are still in good condition today. In the kitchen, which in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing is nothing more than a room with a counter top, every wall was covered in his paintings. 

They ranged from a horse with a long blonde mane, to Viking ships, a mother carrying a child, and a woman playing a harp. The remaining empty space on the kitchen walls were covered in bright splashes of colors and patterns.

The house would certainly be considered derelict by most standards, but all would love to be within its walls in harsh weather. Personally, I loved it, which wouldn’t surprise too many. I see a bit of myself in the eyes of the hermit Sandy in his portrait on the walls.

I went back out into the sun to finish the last couple of miles to the beach at Sandwood Bay. Before finding a place to setup camp, I stayed on the beach until the sun set. Another man climbed out of his tent to do the same. 

We didn’t say a word until the sun reached the horizon. I can’t remember what about after that, but as he was walking away he turned to say, “Tomorrow’s the big day!”

“What’s that?” I said. “Oh, yeah, the referendum. I’m a foreigner, so you can tell me. How are you voting?”

“Yes!” he said.