Day 4 – Driving the NC500 in winter – Durness

In Tasmania we often talk about experiencing four seasons in one day.

In northern Scotland it’s more like four seasons every 15 minutes!!

What a day it was. Mother nature threw everything bar the kitchen sink at us, and we survived to tell the tale…barely!


Click here for… “Your Ultimate Guide to Driving the NC500 in Winter”


We were staying in Durness, and so we were within easy reach of quite a few activities, For those interested in the outdoors it’s well worth spending at least two and possibly three nights here.

First up was the interestingly named ‘Smoo Cave’. It was one of the few things on Andrew’s ‘must do’ list. Mainly because of name, but also because of the unanimously favourable reports he’d heard from not only other visitors, but locals as well (thank you Nic!).

It would be easy to walk in, check it out and walk out again, but where’s the fun in that?

While the sun was out (does ‘not raining’ count as sunny? For our mental health and well being we’re beginning to think it’s close enough!) we decided to walk out to the headland on the eastern side of the gorge in which Smoo Cave resides. The path is clear, as are the gargantuan mounds of sheep poo we tried in vain to avoid.

There are great views to be had looking west and east. We even had the good fortune to see at least a dozen rainbows at various times. Those magic unicorns must have hit the vindaloo the night before…

Due to the incessant rain that had kicked in as we returned to the cave we decided against leaving a record of ‘Fork and Foot’ in stones on the eastern side of the gorge (paleolithic graffiti?), and instead followed the path inside its gaping maw.

NC500 - Durness - Smoo Cave

NC500 – Durness – Smoo Cave

In summer there is an extra cave at the back that you can get to by boat, but we had to content ourselves with being bathed in mist from the waterfall raging inside the second cave!

NC500 - Durness - Smoo Cave

NC500 – Durness – Smoo Cave

After a pit stop at the well-stocked local shop for a few supplies we headed down to the carpark at Balnakeil Beach. We had read about a good little hike to Faraid Head on the fantastic ‘walkhighlands‘ website and as it was so close to Durness we thought it would be a perfect use of our time, not to mention getting a different perspective on the area.

NC500 - Durness - Ruined church and cemetery at Balnakeil Beach

NC500 – Durness – Ruined church and cemetery at Balnakeil Beach

We stepped onto the beach bathed in winter sun, yet by the time we had reached the northern end the storm clouds were brewing to the west. Boiling and tumbling towards us, it created the most magnificent light show we think we’ve ever seen. Starbursts of light would appear and disappear from behind the clouds, sometime blinding, other times soft and muted, always beautiful. The filtered sun turned the yellow and green grasses almost iridescent, and the sky into a pit of midnight blue.

NC500 - Durness - Balnakeil Beach

NC500 – Durness – Balnakeil Beach

NC500 - Durness - Balnakeil Beach before the storm

NC500 – Durness – Balnakeil Beach before the storm

The wind had been our constant companion, and joining it came the rain. First gusty showers. Then a constant, nearly horizontal stream. The only refuge we could find for lunch was in the lee of a looming sand dune, huddled together and chowing down on tuna and ham/piccalilli sandwiches, a maniacal glint in our eye.

This is Scotland in winter!

We asked for it, and it delivered in spades. Sleet was next, and if that wasn’t enough we then copped a dermal abrasion courtesy of an intense hail storm.

By the time we reached the cairn at the end of the hike, all we could do was try and huddle against it to take ourselves away from the fury being unleashed around us.

NC500 - Durness - This is winter!

NC500 – Durness – This is winter!

And then it stopped. The sun burst forth again, revealing the most impressive group of rock formations out in the bay. With the fast receding storm front at its rear, and the golden light on its face, it made for some spectacular photography!!

NC500 - Durness - The view from Faraid Head

NC500 – Durness – The view from Faraid Head

NC500 - Durness - Walking back to Balnakeil Beach from Faraid Head

NC500 – Durness – Walking back to Balnakeil Beach from Faraid Head

NC500 - Durness - After the storm

NC500 – Durness – After the storm

We trundled back with sopping boots and the biggest of grins. We’d chanced our arm and despite ever fibre in our bodies telling us to turn back and give up, it had paid off brilliantly!

Now where’s that hot shower…

For Day 5’s adventures, click here!


If you missed our earlier shenanigans, you’ll find them here:

NC500 - Durness

NC500 – Durness

13 Comments

  1. Hey !
    Thanks for this website it’s awsome ! I planned to visit Scotland during summer, I can’t wait for it..! All your photographs are beautiful, and I wonder what type of camera did you use..? What type of camera lens ? 🙂

    1. Hi there Clémentine, thanks for the awesome feedback!

      I (Andrew) use a couple of cameras when travelling. The main one is my Nikon D7000, which I use for all my landscape shots, food shots and some street photography. I also have a Fuji X100T which I only use for street and food photography.

      I also have a few lenses that get swapped around on the D7000 depending on what I’m trying to shoot. My main ‘walk around’ lens is the Nikon 16-80mm. I like that it’s a little bit wider than most other lenses, but still gives a decent amount of zoom. It’s the perfect ‘travel’ lens for me 🙂

      When I’m focusing solely on landscape photography then I usually use my 10-20mm Sigma lens. The extra wide angle on this is fantastic for sweeping shots of the Scottish landscape – like the one above of the blue water and the rock jutting out of the sea!

      I also have a 55-200mm Nikon, but this doesn’t get a lot of use as I don’t do a lot of wildlife photography or need to zoom all that often.

      If you’d like any other info, just let me know 🙂

  2. Also very much enjoying hearing of your adventures! But thought of you today as yet another maelstrom cause our wooden house to creak and crack like a Spanish galleon! Such a shame that you hit this region at what appears to be the peak of this particular batch of weather! Hope you still had fun and great experiences?

    1. Ha! We’re keeping warm in Achiltibuie at the moment Stewart. The wind is howling out there at the moment! We’re not sure what sort of day is going to greet us, but there’s always a stash of alcohol if things get desperate 😀

  3. Likewise, I’m really enjoying your travelog. My wife’s family have a house in Drumbeg, which might be part of your route tomorrow; the Kylesku to Lochinver road is stunning. Looks quite stormy though.

    1. Yep, we drove that road today and are currently staying in Achiltibuie. Really spectacular..or what we could see of it anyway! The weather is turning really bad right now.

  4. I’m enjoying following your journey and hearing about your adventure ,and seeing your lovely photo’s. I come from the north,from a small village between Thurso and John o Groats but now live just outside Edinburgh

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