Sandwood Bay is a remote beach located in Sutherland, in the far north-west of Scotland. It is inaccessible by motorised vehicle so you require some planning to get there, whether on foot, part-way by bicycle or by kayak.
Wild camping is allowed as long as you behave responsibly and adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. This means you stay for only a night or two; carry all your overnight kit with you (to and from the beach); leave no trace (including camping and toileting) and do not set up a tent near livestock (there are sheep that graze on the dunes near the beach).
This is an article that describes a recent wild camping trip with friends to Sandwood Bay.
Beauty, wrecks and ghosts of Sandwood Bay
Remote and wildly beautiful, Sandwood Bay has become a well-known attraction for modern-day visitors to the north-west of Scotland. In centuries past, the beach witnessed death and tragedy.
The bay is around 7.5 miles south of Cape Wrath, which is the most north-westerly point of mainland Britain and a place of rough and sometimes treacherous seas. Before a lighthouse was built in 1828 at Cape Wrath point, the length of coast claimed many boats and lives, including merchant ships, galleons of the Spanish Armada and Viking longboats.
It’s easy to see how Sandwood Bay became a graveyard for some of these coastal disasters and, these days, you can only imagine what might be hidden by time and tides far below the white sand.
Inevitably, there are many tales of ghosts and ghoulish sightings, especially at an abandoned cottage close to a nearby loch. The building is now a roofless ruin, which you pass close to as you walk to Sandwood beach from Oldshoremore, and many people who have taken shelter there have spoken of ghostly sounds and sightings.
One ghost is said to take the form of a sailor, who reportedly haunts the beach dressed in boots, a coat with brass buttons and a peaked hat.
Another supernatural sighting is of a mermaid. The story goes that in the early 1900s, a local crofter called Sandy Gunn was walking alone on the beach when his dog suddenly started barking at a creature in the rocks. Gunn claimed he saw something that looked human with long golden hair and blue-green eyes. This, he believed, was a mermaid that many sailors also reckoned they had spotted in the sea near Sandwood Bay.
These tales and legends are easier to dispel as myths on a sunny day at the beach, but come night-time, the bay has much more of an ethereal atmosphere and it’s not difficult to let your imagination get the better of you… But don’t let me put you off!
Who owns Sandwood Bay?
The John Muir Trust cares for Sandwood Estate, which covers 4703 hectares of wild and crofted land. Sandwood Bay is the jewel in the crown of the estate. The beach is guarded at one end by the sea stack Am Buachaille (translated as “the shepherd”).
How to get to Sandwood Bay
Because there is no motorised vehicle access to Sandwood Bay, you need to be self-propelled. This means walking, cycling or arriving by boat or kayak.
The start point for most walkers and cyclists is Oldshoremore, just north of Kinlochbervie. There is a John Muir Trust-run car park with toilets (cash donations are welcomed). The walk is around 6.5km to the dunes and then as far along the beach as you fancy. See Walk Highlands route description.
With a group of friends, adults and children, I recently walked a gently undulating track and well-trodden path to reach the sand dunes that back the beach and then the bay itself.
It is not an arduous walk but if you are carrying your overnight kit, food and water, it can take around 1.5 hours. In any case, there is no rush and the route through coastal moorland and past several sandy lochs is enjoyable.
On the final stretch, you’ll see your first vista of the spectacular white sands and sea. The setting never fails to amaze me each time I’ve walked or run the route.
Walkers return the same way.
Cycle, alternative walk route and kayak
You could cycle some of the route, leaving your bike where the track turns to rugged path, before walking the final stretch.
Other walkers journey from Cape Wrath. It’s a mostly pathless route over rough moorland and extends to some 7.5 miles and some 400m of ascent. (Read about my south-to-north run of this route, from Olsdmoreshore to Cape Wrath.)
It’s also possible to kayak to the beach if you are an experienced and confident paddler. Hubby G and our friend Stew set off from Droman Pier, just along the coast from Oldshoremore. Getting on to – and off – the beach at Sandwood Bay proved to be a testing challenge.
The beauty of Sandwood Bay
You need to visit the beach to truly believe its fantastic beauty. It also helps if you time it with a window of good weather.
A vast expanse of white sand is backed by high dunes. The bluey-turquoise waters of the Atlantic crash white-topped on to the sand.
The cliffs and rocks of Sandwood Bay, to the south and north, are mainly Torridonian gritstone, sandstone and conglomerate, with outcrops of Lewisian gneiss.
It’s enough to sit and stare across the bay and out to sea, taking in the amazing natural splendour. You could easily wander for hours along the beach and into the sand dunes.
With my friends, we extended our stay with an overnight wild camped, choosing a spot above high tide but with fabulous beach and ocean views.
Tip: Take sand pegs to pitch your tent.
There is an option to stay at Strathchailleach Bothy, a former farmstead that has been turned into a shelter with three rooms. However, the bothy, located away from the beach to the east, is often busy so you will be sharing your accommodation. (To reach Strathchailleach, walk along the beach to the outflow of Sandwood Loch. You might need to paddle to ford the stream. Then ascend a slope, heading right of rocky outcrops.)
If you have not visited, I’ll let my photos show you what awaits at Sandwood Bay.
If you do go to Sandwood Bay, whether for a walk or a camp, please ensure you remove everything you take with you. Leave absolutely no trace so the beach can be enjoyed for generations to come and to avoid environmental pollution or contamination.
Kit list for wild camping at Sandwood Bay
We each carried rucksacks. The kids had smaller packs in which they had a sleeping bag, pillow, clothes, waterproof jackwet and toothbrush.
Adults carried tents (as lightweight as possible), sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, spare clothes, waterproof jacket, insulated jacket, food for a night and morning, water and cooking stove, plus toileting kit, midge nets and Smidge spray.
The kayakers took some of the heavier kit, including a couple of tents, booze and some firewood. (We did make a fire but also ensured it was put out and buried before we left. This is not recommended where the flames and embers might cause wildfires.)
We took away all rubbish and left the beach looking as clean and pristine as when we arrived.