My birthday has slowly turned into the quest for the perfect barbeque. Previously we’ve wandered out to Glen Esk or somewhere on Deeside, but more often than not it has been in the kitchen at home, driven back by the usual July weather. This year we inexplicably threw caution to the wind, stepped up our ambitions tenfold and found ourselves putting together a plan for a weekend camping on a beach in the far northwest of Scotland. Surely this would bring out the very worst in the weather. Can you even light a barbeque inside a closed tent?
You can imagine our suprise then when not only was it not lashing down with rain, but that the third weekend in July was to be the apex of a glorious heatwave that brought sunshine and high twenties to Scotland. Stepping out of the car to stretch our legs besides Loch More on the long drive from Aberdeen to Kinlochbervie was like walking into the south of France. It was hot, and the reflections in the loch attested to the lack of wind.
And so to Kinlochbervie, and the John Muir Trust car park at Oldshoremore where we shouldered packs and food supplies and set off down the well worn track towards the bay at the far end of the world.
It’s hard to forget that first view of Sandwood Bay, seen as the good track crests the hill and takes a final left turn where Sandwood Loch and its ruined lodge appear. Below them to the west is the bay; it’s nothing more than a white halo of sand between the green hills and the blue sea. Northward the march of seacliffs recedes towards Cape Wrath and the hazy top of Scotland.
Down amongst the dunes the sand is soft and warm, the midday sun high overhead and the air filled with the smells of summer moorland mingling with salt and seaweed. With heavy packs we make our way along the beach, threading between the dunes to finally find our idyllic camping spot just above the outflow from the loch.
The Atlantic ocean overflows onto the sand. There is flotsam, a hatch cover from a boat half buried, by the water’s edge. We dare the surf for a moment, our excited motions arrested by that first shock of cold as the sea surges and foams around our legs.
The ocean stretches out into the unending west and the scale and the cold become too much. The languid river, warmed by the hot sun, is much better and we wade up its course, the water peat-stained but welcoming, tracing our fingers alongs ribbons of strata in the rusting cliffs along its bank.
The sun descends a little and the light changes again, becoming softer. We bite into barbequed corn on the cob drenched in butter and sip on beer pulled from the cooler. It’s not exactly chilled, but delicious nonetheless. There are kebabs and burgers as smoke and the smell of sizzling meat drifts lazily through the long grasses growing on the dunes. There is not another person in sight. July birthdays don’t get much more perfect than this.
Along the beach translucent domes - like colonies on an alien world - of scattered jellyfish beached by the receding tide catch the sunlight like natural prisms. The surf breaks more gently now as the tide turns. A couple of figures are silhouetted on a distant outcropping of rock far down the bay, they are the only other people we have seen for hours.
The cliffs provide a perfect playground and we scramble up and around them, exploring hidden coves and racing the incoming tide. The warm rock provides a perfect pair of sunloungers, the views out over Sandwood nothing short of spectacular.
We sit side by side on the sandy dune below the tent watching as the sun lowers steadily into the haze on the western horizon, a red ball dropping towards the sea. The light is magical and as the pastel colours of sunset spread out across the bay we find ourselves taking one last walk around the dunes. Behind us a light mist lifts off Sandwood loch and spreads out across the wide strath. Above it the moon rises into a twilight sky, bright and full it shines out over the darkening shapes of the hills.
July in the far north of Scotland guarantees a light night but in the half-dark an hour or so after sunset the unmistakable sight of night-shining clouds lights up the north-western sky. Roused from a light sleep I sit on the sand and watch ripples of electric light shimmering over the sea and cliffs.
Daybreak on Sunday comes early and it’s already a bright morning when I crawl out of the tent to find another perfect unblemished blue sky has dawned over Sandwood. A trio of seabirds frogmarch down to the waterline as I parallel the wavelets, my footprints the only impression in the sand.
The first daytrippers arrive at the bay as we are lingering for a few final moments by the rockpools now exposed by the receding tide. There is laughter and movement and the Bay takes on a different character, no less wonderful than when we had it to ourselves, but different nonetheless. Although one of the more popular and well known locations in the far north, we had felt like the only ones there, castaways on a far-flung shore.
A trip to the north west of the Scotland can only really end in one way. Fish and chips in Ullapool, sitting on the shingle watching the cruise ship out in Loch Broom. We sit, a little sunburned, and reflect back on a weekend stolen out of time.
Looking back now I genuinely have no idea how we’ll top this - next year’s birthday weekend is going to have to be very special indeed!
In the meantime, the John Muir Trust is the leading conservation charity, caring for a number of incredible wild landscapes across Scotland, including Sandwood Bay. They are always looking for more support, particularly at a time when wild land is under more pressure than ever before. Please take a look at their website and consider becoming a member or making a one off donation.