Cape Wrath – the Edge of the World

Where land meets sea

THE roar of waves pounding ancient cliffs echoes from somewhere far below. Before me, the blue Atlantic stretches to distant rocks where only seabirds venture, lands where glaciers grind to the sea, and ice floes where polar bears wander. This is it. I cannot walk further. I have reached the end of the Cape Wrath Trail, the end of Britain. One more step and I would fall, like Reepicheep, off the edge of the world.

There is a sense of melancholy in completing a 200-mile walk. There is, for now, little sense of achievement. That will come later in familiar surroundings, amid the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life.

I gaze out across the ocean from the Cape Wrath lighthouse and emotions ebb and flow like the currents below. The important thing, I tell myself, is to spend some time in contemplation, allow a sense of purpose and fulfilment to become established here in this great wide space where the land ends and the Atlantic begins. I know this from experience. I walked the Cleveland Way a few years ago – Helmsley to Osmotherley, to Saltburn, to Whitby, to Scarborough and beyond. After a week on the trail I wandered into Filey and saw a train standing in the station, ready to pull out. So I jumped aboard.

Big mistake.

I was hurled back into the pit of normality. Seven days of solitary walking over purple moors and along dramatic clifftops were wiped out in an instant and replaced by a world of housing estates, industrial units and mobile phones.

What I should have done was sit on the seafront for a couple of hours with the sun on my face, lying back on my pack while the seagulls mewed and waves rolled up the shore. Then gone for a pot of tea and fish and chips in a seaside cafe.

Soak up the atmosphere, that’s the important thing. Allow the soul to breathe. Allow a sense of purpose and completion to germinate and flourish.

So I sit in the grass with my back against the lighthouse compound wall, and watch the sea – the ancient whale-road – wash around the corner of Scotland, streaming like a broad blue river towards the Orkneys and Scandinavia. This is the way the Vikings came; along the top of Scotland to Cape Wrath, their turning point, then down the west coast to the Hebrides and Ireland. What was that poem, that snatch of verse from King Harald’s Saga?

Norwegian arms are driving
This iron-studded dragon
Down the storm-tossed river
Like an eagle with wings flapping

And this place has not changed since then. The waves still crash against the rocks, the seabirds still shriek and dive. Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas still battle it out on obscure TV channels the world over.

I left Strathchailleach bothy early this morning in warm sunshine and headed north along the clifftops. There were two or three deep valleys to negotiate during the seven-mile trudge to the cape, but it was quite easy going and the scenery was uplifting. And now the 200 miles from Fort William seem like a blur, a series of images that flicker by and merge into each other.

I get the stove out and brew up in a waiting room in the lighthouse complex, alone in this big empty room that’s painted red and amplifies every sound. Then after a while a mini-bus rattles along the track from Kyle of Durness and pulls up outside. This is my lift back to normality. It’s all over. No more bothy nights, no more fiery dawns, no more wet socks, no more pans of tea boiled in the lea of a wayside boulder    . . . Until the next time, of course.

In the red room at the end of the trail

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About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist. Recently made redundant from The Northern Echo when my job was transferred to Wales to be done by people on lower wages. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climb mountains and run long distances to make life harder. Gravitate to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
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8 Responses to Cape Wrath – the Edge of the World

  1. Martin says:

    Wonderful, really enjoyed reading this, hope to do the trail one day. Cheers.

  2. Phillip Vyan says:

    This post stirred my memory and my soul. Long ago, when the world was young and in the grip of a cold war, I spent a long time in Polaris Nuclear Submarines at the Gareloch. I left the Navy and became a Coastguard Officer at Aberdeen. The pay was appalling and so I took my young family off to Kinlochbervie.
    I moved there to take up a berth on a trawler working the North Minch and the Firth. The waters around the Cape in February, where Atlantic rollers meet north-easterlies is no place for a human being – but I loved the place. The idyll came to an end and I returned home to England but retained my love of Scotland.

    Sorry to bore you, thanks for the memories. Phillip

    • McEff says:

      Thanks ever so much for that comment, which wasn’t boring at all – in fact just the opposite. There’s an entire book in your story. What an adventure!
      Cheers, Alen McF

  3. John H says:

    I enjoyed your comment about returning to soon. I walked from Glasgow to Buckie in May, finished the walk and just got on the bus. I did not reconfigure my brain. I have just walked the Cumbrian Way and took time over the last few miles to reflect and plan some important aspects of my work life. I feel this way I am using walking not to escape but to help me think and reflect. Walking then becomes part of what I do and not separate to it. But this is something I am still learning and I would appreciate your views on this aspect of reflection and calm

    • McEff says:

      Hi John. I really do think that’s the way to do it. I often use walking to thrash out things that are on my mind, or just to try to empty it of the things that are in there cluttering it up. It doesn’t always work, but there you go. Getting back to the original point of not reconfiguring your brain – even on day walks I find that when back at the car it makes the whole thing more worthwhile if I get the stove out and brew up before I drive home. Just sitting there in the afternoon sun with a mug of tea – or under the hatchback if it’s raining – makes me more appreciative of the day’s experience. It rounds things off and allows me to mull over events. It seems to work for me, anyway.
      All the best, Alen

  4. Will says:

    Thank you for a wonderfully entertaining series of posts on your Cape Wrath Trail walk, which I’ve stumbled upon belatedly. I hope to follow in your footsteps (approximately) next year, but suspect a bar meal at the Oykel Bridge Hotel might be my preferred option…although lacking the comedic possibilities of your dining experience.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Will. Best of luck with the Cape Wrath Trail. It’s one of the best, if not the best, long distance paths I’ve ever done so I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. And I’m sure they do great bar meals in the Oykel Bridge Hotel.
      All the best, Alen

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