50,000 Acres of Wrath

Raw coastal wilderness is a rare beast, even in the remoter parts of mainland Scotland, and the magnificent isolation surrounding Cape Wrath is now almost unique. It’s one of my go-to places when I need to escape my fellow humans for a day or three.

Sandwood Bay can be pretty popular at times, but very few people venture beyond it and I’ve never actually come face to face with anyone. The odd hiker on the Cape Wrath trail perhaps, but they tend to take a more inland route. Anyway, early evening at the end of June saw me arriving at the bay just after the last of the day trippers had left. Just one tent nestled in the dunes, and I soon left it behind as I strode down to the shoreline.

A fish hits my toby lure in the Sandwood Bay surf, putting a nice bend in the rod
Fish from the surf

I made a few casts in the more likely areas as I wandered casually along the beach. My 20g silver and white Toby aimed to replicate the sandeel that shoal along these sands, tumbling through light surf and shallow water that was near tropical in clarity (maybe not so close in terms of temperature!)

Strands of weed along the strand line were a bit of pain, but easily manageable. My first take was a quick hit and run effort, with a decent tug and then nothing. A few minutes later and there was no missing this one, as my rod tip heeled over and battle commenced. Although not particularly big, this well conditioned sea trout gave a decent account of itself before a quick photo and return. And not a sea louse in sight – quite a contrast to the fish I saw last year, which were in a sorry state.

A respectable seatrout graces the sand. Caught on a silver and white toby lure
Respectable seatrout

I’d pretty much run out of fishable beach by now, so made my way up the soft sand and steep hills that mark the northern end of Sandwood and headed on towards my pitch for the night. Plenty of ghosts and shipwrecked mariners are reputed to haunt this area, and a bit of night fog coupled with the roar of a good going surf would definitely generate a slightly spooky aura. Happily, this solo camper was facing a short, calm summer evening with the main threat coming from the local bug life.

A lovely little wildcamping spot, with a view over the clear surf rolling in to Sandwood Bay
Wildcamping

It’s a little ironic that it can be difficult to find water at times, despite Scotland’s generally soggy image. Even the water flowing out of Sandwood Loch looked pretty uninviting, with some dubious looking algae growing on the stones. Fortunately the burn at Strath Chailleach looked a lot healthier and I topped up there for the night before returning to my little tent and a warm sleeping bag.

Collecting fresh water from the peaty burn at Strath Chailleach, near Cape Wrath, NW Scotland
Time for a drink

Day 2 – Heading Northwards

I awoke to find my tent still in the shade at 6 in the morning, whilst the sun was rapidly burning off the remaining overnight mist along the beach. Dodging the midges, I hastened down to the surf and along to my chosen fishing mark.

Early morning sun and mist light up the sand as a small surf hits the beach near Sandwood, Scotland
Small surf

I tackled up initially with a spinner on one rod and crab on the other, hoping to tease out a bass. Spinning proved pretty fruitless, and my patience for chucking out lumps of metal is limited, so I eventually switched over to a sandeel bait.

Tackling up for a light sea fishing session with a spinning rod, a few miles south of Cape Wrath, Scotland
Tackling Up

I contrived to miss a decent bite on the crab, very likely from one of the small bass that hunt along the beaches. Another smash and grab bite produced a sea trout to the sandeel bait. A nice enough fish, but a little smaller than its cousin from yesterday, and soon returned to play with the local seals.

Another fish hits in the very shallow, clear, surf of the NW coast of Scotland
Another fish on

I followed the falling tide along the beach but had no more interest to my bait, apart from gazillions of little shrimp-like creatures that started to shred baits rapidly.

Fishing light in shallow surf near Sandwood Bay, NW Scotland
Fishing light in shallow surf

By mid-morning I’d had enough, and was starting to bake gently in the clear sunshine. I struck camp and headed north across the bare hillsides.

Crossing the rocky burn Strath Chailleach, between Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath, NW Scotland
Crossing Strath Chailleach

I made a few casts across one of the many lochs around this area but without result. A mirror like calm coupled with a very half-hearted approach isn’t a recipe for success, so I was neither surprised nor too downhearted either. Freshwater’s not really my thing these days, to be honest.

A pretty unproductive session on a shallow little loch in hot, sunny and flat calm weather.
Too hot, sunny and calm!

However, I did notice a set of tracks along the beach that belonged to a much more skillful hunter – an otter had clearly been here very recently.

Otter tracks in the sand alongside a small loch near Cape Wrath, NW Scotland
Otter tracks

I wandered along slowly, baking quietly in the hot sun. Across into the army range and up over the line of hills that present a fine view of the north coast as far as Whiten Head.

Looking north, towards Cape Wrath and Kervaig and across the rock, peat and bogs of the Parph
Looking north, towards Cape Wrath and Kervaig

Crossing this ground isn’t as easy as it seems, even with dry weather, as the greenery hides plenty of peat bog. Even short, stubby vegetation is harder on the legs than a half-formed trail, so it was pretty hard work. Or possibly this adventurer is just a little overfed and under-exercised these days!

Eventually I did reach the small gorge that signalled I was close to my campsite. Perhaps only 80-90 feet deep, but steep-sided, it presents a decent barrier to a heavily laden and hot hiker.

Crossing the small. steep gorge that forms the last obstacle to reaching my campsite for the night. Near Cape Wrath, NW Scotland
A final crossing

A Fine and Lonely Camp

I was therefore pretty happy to reach my destination, and set up my tent for the night. I’ve been around here before, but never for an overnight stay, and it’s a fine spot to pitch up. Flat, machair grass and a clifftop view over the Atlantic 🙂

The flat, grassy machair right on the cliffline makes a brilliant pitch for my little tent. Just south of Cape Wrath in NW Scotland.
A brilliant pitch for my tent

My original plan was for a spot of fishing around the cliffs here, but I was knackered. There are accessible marks around here, but they do involve bouncing around fairly chunky cliffs. I chickened out and just watched the surf rolling in, and the sun dropping slowly in the sky.

The rocky shoreline just south of Cape Wrath, NW Scotland
Rocky shoreline

By this time I was a good few hours walk from my car, and I needed to be back in civilisation for early afternoon. Running the calculations I reckoned I needed to be awake for half-three in the morning in order to make it back in time…

Accordingly, I was fuzzily awake and clutching a coffee a little while before 4 a.m., and heading off 30 or 40 minutes later. At least it’s fully daylight by this time!

Grasping a mug of coffee and looking as good as is possible sometime before 4 in the morning. At least it's full daylight in these parts.
Struggling awake, sometime before 4 a.m.

I’d a much quicker hike back in the cool of the early morning, taking barely half the time of my meander of yesterday. I stopped off at Sandwood for another coffee and little spot of breakfast before the last couple of hours along the beach and back to my car at Blairmore. I did manage a final cast or ten as I marched along the beach, but nothing showed much interest.

A view of Sandwood Bay from the hills at the northern end
Sandwood Bay from the north
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Wildcamp at Sandwood Bay

A couple of weeks ago I managed to escape back towards Cape Wrath for a little wildcamp at Sandwood Bay. Surf, scenery and solitude reset a jaded mind very effectively!

Wildcamp at Sandwood Bay

Pitching camp on a small headland overlooking the rollers crashing ashore at Sandwood beach, NW Scotland.
Pitching camp

A few fish would be nice, and September is generally a good month to find them, but my real aim was just to have a little chill time for myself.

A lovely surf pounds in to Sandwood beach on a clear September morning in NW Scotland
A lovely surf pounds in to Sandwood beach

Ian teases me about the slow-ish fishing for small fry that makes up my typical angling experience of Sutherland. At one level he’s quite right, as I could easily catch more and better fish elsewhere.

However, devouring a juicy sirloin whilst warming yourself by the flames of a lively little campfire – all the while watching the last of the sun disappearing over the Atlantic surf – and the reality is that fishing is just an excuse to be here.

Dinner eaten and a single malt awaits as dusk falls over my camp, Sandwood beach.
Dusk falls over my camp, Sandwood beach

The sun sets over the Atlantic surf rolling in to Sandwood beach
A perfect view from the camp

A nice slug of single malt and I fell asleep to the sounds of the surf. Quite genuinely, there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather have been.

Fish

Well, I did catch some. Hardly the best catching I’ve ever had, but a very satisfying few hours playing in the surf. More small sea trout and bass but no turbot. Less happily, I stripped a large number of sea lice off the sea trout before returning them and was quite taken aback by the infestation. Obviously I’ve seen sea lice before, but not on this scale, and I can understand why our freshwater friends have such concerns about them.

A small, and sea lice infested sea trout from Sandwood Bay
Sea trout

A small bass from Sandwood Bay waits to be released
Small bass from Sandwood Bay

I also managed to land a “bonus” weever fish too – a first for me, although I’m not actively hunting for a second.

A first for me, with a poisonous lesser weever fish lying on the sand waiting to be unhooked.
Lesser Weever

I’d hoped for the possibility of a ray but the surf was a little too energetic for that to be likely. Unfortunately, the range up at Cape Wrath was closed or else I’d have tried a couple of the more accessible spots north of Sandwood that I picked out last year.

Fishing the southern end of Sandwood Bay
Fishing the southern end of Sandwood

Pretty much the same experience as before – bass on crab, with everything else on mackerel strip.

John Muir Trust and Sandwood

If you’re an outdoors type whose toes curl (even a little!) at the idea of time spent out in true Scottish wilderness, then you might like this little YouTube offering. I claim absolutely no credit for it, and it has nothing to do with fishing – but it does nicely explain the philosophy that guides the owners of Sandwood, the John Muir Trust. It’s worth remembering that the voice-over was written well over a century ago, but still seems completely relevant today.

The Trust aims to encourage access to iconic Scottish wilderness whilst also conserving it and certainly seems to be doing a good job at Sandwood. It’s named after John Muir, a Scots migrant to the USA who is idolised there for his work in setting up national parks such as Yosemite, but is relatively little known in his native country.

And finally…

I like a campfire out in the wilderness. It cooks your food, keeps you warm and hypnotises you with its flame. In the sixteen hour darkness of a December night in Scotland it provides light in more ways than one. Done sensibly there is no harm. Done badly it ruins your chosen spot and leaves a scar that can last a decade or more.

A little trace of charcoal on the sand, but not much sign of a campfire here.
A little trace of charcoal on the sand, but not much sign of a campfire

Use a sandy beach where you can, or perhaps an existing fire hole, but never start a fire on machair or other vegetation. Come back in 10 years and you’ll still recognise the damage you did… I know this personally, and still cringe every time I see a little spot with 18 inches of slowly recovering turf. A mistake I’ve never repeated, and which you can avoid easily.Share this:
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Meandering my way to Cape Wrath

I’ve paid two or three visits to the far northwest in the last couple of years. Wonderfully remote and isolated country in which to escape for a day or three, it makes for perfect chillout territory, especially if you pick your weather. My latest trip to the extremes of Cape Wrath was more hiking than fishing but I did take a light spinning rod along for the journey…

Cape Wrath is just about the most isolated spot on mainland Scotland, with no real road access. It’s also the only actual Cape in Scotland that I’m aware of. Good enough reasons to pack a rucksack and set the alarm for very early. Sneaking quietly out the house without winding up the dog too much I set off before Edinburgh woke up. The sun was rising nicely as I crossed the Forth Bridge and even the A9 was empty enough to be bearable as I ploughed on.

Trail into Sandwood from Blairmore
Trail into Sandwood from Blairmore

Time to get my boots wet

Finally, by mid-morning, a 5 hour drive from Edinburgh saw me setting off on the track to Sandwood. I was deliberately trying to pack light, so it was only a 30l backpack with a tent, sleeping bag and cooking kit. Probably rather too much camera gear and not enough fishing kit, but much less effort required than hauling a 65l pack around. The first part of the trip, along to Sandwood Bay, is an easy hike along a well maintained little trail so I made rapid progress and was descending into the bay after 90 minutes or so.

Approaching Sandwood Bay, with Cape Wrath in the far north
Approaching Sandwood Bay

Sandwood is an iconic beach flanked by high cliffs and backed with grassy dunes and a fine peaty loch, and you get a great view as you drop down towards the sea. Way to the north, the lighthouse at Cape Wrath is just visible above the hills. Sandwood wasn’t my destination this time, but I felt obliged to give it a little shot to see if anything was hungry so stopped off towards the end of the beach and dug out some gear.

A stray Warrior boat arrives at Sandwood, presumably from Kinlochbervie
A stray Warrior boat arrives at Sandwood

My little 6’6” spinning rod was mightily outgunned by the surroundings but we gave it a couple of casts with a 1oz lead and a mackerel sliver. Nothing seemed terribly interested, but it was an ebb tide and a hot, sunny day, so I wasn’t hugely surprised.

Big beach, little rod - fishing Sandwood Bay with a spinning rod
Big beach, little rod – fishing Sandwood Bay

Beyond Sandwood

The sun was hot by now so I filled my water bottle from the nearby river and then sweated my way northwards over the low hills that guard the route to the Cape. There isn’t really much of a trail here and you make your own way across the mixture of peat bog, heather and machair style grasslands. Nothing much grows higher than six inches or so, and the areas of bare grit and rock bear witness to the ferocity of the wind along this very exposed coastline. None of that today though, and the light breeze was definitely welcome in the strong sunshine as I marched on towards my campground.

Camping at Keisgaig Bay, just above the Keisgaig River
Camping at Keisgaig Bay

Keisgaig Bay isn’t pretty in the way Sandwood is, but it is a fine, lonely spot to spend a night. I pitched the tent on a small promontory overlooking the most northerly salmon stream in mainland Britain – a mere shadow of its normal self in these dry conditions – and made a well deserved coffee as I took a short break. My plan was to leave most of the gear in the tent and then head up to Cape Wrath and back before nightfall, so I couldn’t hang around for too long.
To get out of Keisgaig involves a 600 feet climb up the hills to the north, which took a little while on a hot day, but was then followed by a fairly easy trek across dried out peat bog. Further on I encountered progressively wetter conditions and it didn’t take much imagination to appreciate how much more difficult this territory would be after a decent spell of rain. By comparison the final stage to Cape Wrath is almost an anti-climax along a rather beaten up army track.

Looking east from Cape Wrath towards Durness
Looking east from Cape Wrath

There was no-one else around as I took a few photos and nibbled on a snack before heading back south. This time I hugged the coastline a bit more closely which was quite a bit harder going but also let me identify any opportunities for a man with a rod in the future – and there are definitely some spots where the shoreline is accessible without abseiling gear. All in all I was feeling more than a little tired as I stumbled back down the hill into Keisgaig and unzipped the tent door.

Keisgaig and some trout

I awoke the next morning to find the sun had returned after some overnight showers, so it was time for some breakfast and to watch the seals lounging around the bay whilst I had a coffee and sorted out my plans for the day. The idea was to give my rod a little bit of both fresh and saltwater action as I made my way back to Sandwood and then to the car, so I tied on a little Mepps 00 lure to some light braid and set off in search of a trout or ten.

Striking into a small trout in a burn near Cape Wrath
Striking into a small trout

I spent the rest of the morning exploring, trying a couple of lochs and several burns for any stray trout. These proved very obliging and easy to catch, although quite small (hardly a surprise in such a harsh environment) and I only drew a blank on one loch.

Small but beautiful - a brown trout from a hill loch near Cape Wrath
Small but beautiful – a brown trout from a hill loch

After amassing 13 or 14 very prettily marked fish (all returned) I rather reluctantly decided to return down towards Sandwood and try a beach a little to the north.

Surf rolls into a lovely little beach to the north of Sandwood
Surf rolls into a lovely little beach to the north of Sandwood

Back to Sea

Washed by a light surf and crystal clear Atlantic water it was almost a privilege to mark a line of footprints in the sand of this fine little beach as I headed towards a large rock outcrop in the middle. Even the rock felt hot to my fingers as I climbed up under the sun and made myself comfortable. Armed with only a little spinning rod, and able to see the sea bed quite clearly through the surf for a long way out, I can’t say I was terribly confident about actually catching anything. However I went through the motions and slung another mackerel strip out into the breakers before settling down into my usual coffee making ritual.

A flounder caught to the north of Sandwood Bay
A flounder caught to the north of Sandwood Bay

Twenty minutes later I noticed the line was slack and felt a decent weight on the rod. Even with light gear I can’t say there was much of fight, but you certainly knew that there was a fish on as the little rod hooped right over. A flounder isn’t exactly in exotic territory but it was certainly welcome and I was pleased to add to my species count for the year.

Light surf fishing near Sandwood Bay - just a spinning rod and mackerel strip
Light surf fishing near Sandwood Bay

Confidence boosted I rebaited and cast out again, before settling down to be roasted again. A combination of snoozing and some complacency meant that I was very late to wake up to another slack line bite, and my line was hopelessly snarled up in the kelp at the base of my rocky perch before I realised I’d a fish on. I could even see it clearly 30 yards out in the surf as it swam effortlessly in the waves – a small sea trout. It took another thirty minutes before the tide cleared the bottom of the rocks sufficiently to let me clear my line and land the fish. Not large but it was still welcome proof that there was something worth fishing for!

A small sea trout caught on mackerel strip from a beach just north of Sandwood Bay
A small sea trout

By now it was getting closer to my “I’m still alive” check-in with home, and I still had a fair way to go and no mobile reception. Rather grudgingly I packed up and gasped my way up the hill and then back down to Sandwood. The beach was busier now, with 2 or 3 tents and at least a dozen people strung out along its length, so I was quite glad not to stay this time and content to head back towards the car at Blairmore.

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A Pilgrimage to Sandwood Bay

Very remote, often stormy, and always stunning, Sandwood is a broad sandy bay guarded on either end by sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet high which sits in the extreme and rather inaccessible NW corner of the Scottish mainland.

Camping at Sandwood Bay
Camping at Sandwood Bay

Over the years it has acquired an almost mystical reputation as a place to visit, complete with the ghosts of drowned sailors and the odd mermaid. Remoteness and grandeur certainly attract legends, but unfortunately what Sandwood doesn’t possess is a reputation for top class fishing, with the few reports available suggesting the odd flatfish, seatrout and possibly a bass.

I’ve trekked the 4 mile access track from Oldshoremore to Sandwood a couple of times before, but never with a fishing rod and not for over 25 years. However I’ve fancied a trip north for several years now and this time I took a rod along with me, along with a tent for an overnight stay.

Something like five and a half hours and 280 miles after leaving home I arrived in the car park at Blairmore, to find I wasn’t the only person interested in the Bay, as there was a good fistful of cars and camper vans there already.

The first part of the walk along was dominated by sheep and a load of lambs.

Lamb
Lamb

The view down the coast was wonderful – it’s amazing how a little bit of sunshine transforms the Scottish countryside.

Looking back to Blairmore
Looking back to Blairmore

Another of the local wildlife, although there were relatively few beasts of any sort after the first mile or so.

Highland Cow
Highland Cow

The path is in good condition (there was a volunteer party from John Muir Trust working on it) and easy to walk or bike along.

Footpath to Sandwood Bay
Footpath to Sandwood Bay

First view of Sandwood is both sudden and dramatic.

First view of Sandwood Bay
First view of Sandwood Bay

I worked my way along the beach towards the northern end, not far from where the river hits the sea. Exposed by the winter storms there are the remains of a WWII Spitfire which crashlanded here in 1941.

Sandwood Beach with Spitfire engine in foreground
Sandwood Beach with Spitfire engine

The other famous occupant of Sandwood Bay is the sea stack Am Buachaille.

Am Buachaille sea stack
Am Buachaille sea stack

I set up my gear and fished with a combination of mackerel strip and lugworm, hoping for a flattie and possibly a turbot. Nothing for the first couple of hours, until the tide had covered the very shallow part of the sand, and then this little seatrout took the mackerel strip.

A small seatrout from Sandwood Bay
A small seatrout from Sandwood Bay

The rest of the afternoon was spent fishing near the old Spitfire (the pilot escaped unharmed, incidentally), and it yielded several more sea trout in the run up to HW.

Remains of a Spitfire engine lie in the sand
Remains of a Spitfire engine lie in the sand

Seatrout swims off
Seatrout swims off

Nice sea trout
Nice sea trout approaching the 2lb mark

I set up camp on the beach itself, largely so I could fish on into the evening. Normally I’d prefer to get some more solid ground but it wasn’t forecast to be too windy, and I can handle a little bit of dry sand getting blown into the tent.

Camping on the beach at Sandwood Bay
Beachfront camping

Returning another bar of silver
Returning another bar of silver

As the tide ebbed the fishing died off, so I’d a little look around the beach and dunes. A little surprisingly there was very little in the way of flotsam or driftwood (any hopes of an evening bonfire were soon dashed), but I did find this old iron fishing float.

An old iron fishing float cast ashore
An old iron fishing float cast ashore

Looking inland towards Sandwood Loch
Looking inland towards Sandwood Loch

The sun set around half-nine and I took a few pictures of it disappearing, although it never really got fully dark – a mixture of the clear sky and the distance north that Sandwood Bay is compared to most of the UK.

Last of the sunshine
Last of the sunshine

The sun nears the horizon
Going, going…

The sun goes...
Gone!

Nightfall at Sandwood, with Cape Wrath to the left of the image
Nightfall at Sandwood

By now the last of the other visitors had left and the beach was mine for the night. Undisturbed by the local ghosts I fell asleep to the sound of the surf on the beach and had some much-needed kip for a few hours. Next morning saw me awake fairly early to get a bit of breakfast and have a short try for more fish before the tide ebbed too far.

Early morning on Sandwood Bay
Early morning on Sandwood Bay

Breakfast in the early morning sunshine
Breakfast in the early sunshine

Looking inland towards Foinaven
Looking inland towards Foinaven

Unfortunately things were a little quiet and nothing else appeared before I packed in and headed back along the path.

Last chance for a fish
Last chance for a fish

Rod watching at Sandwood
Rod watching at Sandwood

Seatrout heads back
Seatrout heads back

 

Simple short range fishing
Simple short range fishing

And finally… It’s easy to say that catching isn’t the central experience of a trip, especially if you haven’t actually caught so much as a baby flounder, but it’s very much true for me in such splendid surroundings. Immersed in magnificent isolation a fishing rod gives some sense of purpose, a little figleaf to fend off those who ask why you journey there, but it’s very much an accessory rather an essential requirement.Share this:
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