ON the road to Sandwood Bay I am walking with ghosts. They do not scare me because I feel I know them; we share an affinity. One is a father, the other his son. Alone on the track that runs through this desolate area of Scotland to the dunes at Sandwood, I feel their presence in the damp breeze that blows from the sea.
This story begins several hours earlier in a bright and breezy morning. I emerge from the Highland wilderness at Rhiconich, where the Cape Wrath Trail hits tarmac and the first of several crofting communities. I have before me about nine miles of road walking – up hill and down dale – before the final coastal stretch to Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath.
At Achriesgill I come across an old school that has been converted into a restaurant, and wander in for morning coffee. The young bearded chap who owns the restaurant says he’ll make me a tuna and mayonnaise sandwich, but I have to wait for the bread to finish baking. Meanwhile, I down two cups of excellent coffee as we chat about the restaurant, the mountains, the crofting communities and the tourists. He tells me he is from Glasgow, and that his wife is working in Essex to subsidise the restaurant while he establishes the business. He also mentions the ghosts of Sandwood Bay.
Arghhhhh . . .
I once read an article about a haunted bothy – climbers woken in the night by loud bangs and sinister noises. I cannot remember the bothy’s name. As a consequence, whenever I bed down in a bothy I expect to be targeted by a poltergeist. I tell this to the restaurateur and he laughs, saying the ghosts of Sandwood Bay are benign, and that there lies a kernel of historical fact in their tragic story. He gives me an old newspaper article to read as I devour my sandwich.
It is a truly tragic story. Three fishing vessels from the Outer Hebrides sheltered in a northern port while a storm amassed out at sea. Suddenly, one of them set its sails for home and the other two, not wanting to let it brave the voyage alone, followed quickly in its wake. In the foul weather that followed, one became separated from the others. The two were guided to safety by a light shining from a croft window at the head of a loch, which was burning because the woman of the house was in labour. The third ship foundered off the Scottish coast. The bodies of two of the crew – a father and his 16-year-old son – were found by a shepherd at Sandwood Bay. They had tied themselves together in a final act of kinship as the waves crashed over them.
This image, the father and son bound by a length of rope, upsets me a great deal and I have trouble finishing my lunch. It reminds me of a story Eric Holland used to tell – Eric Holland, author, mining engineer, sapper, historian, Buddhist, traction-engine enthusiast and archaeologist – about a miner called Redmond who was working with his son at the foot of a shaft in the Coniston coppermines.
It was the end of the shift, and the son jumped in a kibble (a large bucket used to haul ore to the surface) rather than climb the hundreds of feet of ladderways. Near the top of the shaft, the kibble snagged on a ledge and the son fell out.
The miners below could hear his body bouncing off the shaft walls as it hurtled towards them. And the father stood there at the foot of the shaft with his arms open. He stood there ready to catch his son – until his companions, conscious of the futility of his actions and inevitability of the situation, dragged him screaming to safety and pinned him down.
I have always found this story distressing. A young man is falling to his death; the father, in a desperate act of devotion is, without hesitation, prepared to sacrifice his own life in a hopeless attempt to avert the tragedy. Both are doomed.
I say my farewells to the friendly restaurateur and set off along the road, contemplating the fates of Redmond and his son, and the two fishermen who lashed themselves together with knots of faith and love. This stark image – the father taking the rope and passing it around the teenager’s body in the blackness of night as the storm pounds their boat – has moved me immensely. It occurs to me that, in life as well as death, they were bound together by something far stronger than rope – and that if their ghosts still haunt Sandwood Bay then it will be a privilege to spend the night with them.
FURTHER READING: The Phantom of Sandwood Bay