Balnakeil Beach has been mesmerizing people and inspiring poetry and paintings for centuries. This turquoise crescent is the jewel of Durness, a remote but huge and absolutely spectacular swath of the Scottish Highlands.
Located two and a half hours northwest of Inverness in the most northwesterly corner of the Scottish mainland, Durness stretches from Loch Eriboll to Cape Wrath. The Bay is two miles wide, and its turquoise waters are surrounded by huge dunes sculpted by wind coming off the Atlantic. The pristine beach conjures up the Caribbean, but the water temperature reminds you that you are on the same latitude as Norway!
On the southern end of the bay is Balnakeil House, a mansion referred to as Tigh Mor, or “Big House”. The site is said to have been the summer residence of the medieval Bishops of Caithness in the 12th century. By the 16th century, it had become the headquarters of the Clan Mackay. The Mackay who built the house was educated in Denmark, and the architecture of the impressive manor is believed to have characteristics of Danish farm estates. The house lay vacant for 30 years and was renovated in 2012. It’s now a holiday home that sleeps 17, if you’re in the market for a luxurious retreat with spectacular views!
Balnakeil Beach | The Resting Place for Some of Scotland's Finest
Perched above the bay across from Balnakeil House are the romantic ruins of Balnakeil Church, built in 1617 on the site of an 8th century Celtic monastery. Donald MacLeod is among the legendary local figures buried in the atmospheric graveyard here. MacLeod worked for the chiefs of Clan MacKay and is said to have killed at least 18 people and disposed of the bodies at nearby Smoo caves.
A more popular figure memorialized in the cemetery is the illiterate but influential 18th century Gaelic poet Rob Donn. Said to have had a love of hunting, poetry and humanity, Donn earned his livelihood as a cowherd, drover, gamekeeper and poacher.
When the traditional Highland tartan dress for men and boys was banned by the Disclothing Act of 1747, Donn composed a passionate protest that memorialized this maneuver in the ongoing political repression of the Highland clan culture.
The 1.25-mile wide Balnakeil Beach is a stunning reason to visit Durness but the surrounding land and seascape of this expansive coastal community merits further exploration.
A Magical Welcome to Durness
I was drawn to Durness not only by its reputed beauty. The area surrounding Balnakeil beach is steeped in history and has long been a haven for creatives and lovers of the natural world.
The scene I encountered on arrival did not disappoint. As a purplish dusk descended, my companions and I rounded another bend in the single lane road we had been following through the otherworldly beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Ahead, gorse bushes blanketed the rolling hillsides, their yellow blooms waving wildly in the wind. We crossed an old narrow stone bridge that spanned a mountain stream, its waters rushing toward the glittering green sea that lay off to the right.
Cresting the next hill, the three of us gave a collective gasp at seeing the sienna-colored moors backlit by a twilight spectacle. In the distance, the most northwesterly corner of mainland Britain that I had travelled so far to see was magically illuminated in a soft glow. Slicing through the diffused light that separates day from night, the rays of a shimmering rainbow descended to Durness.
A Peaceful Stroll in Balnakeil Cemetery
Balnakeil Beach has links not only to bards of by-gone days. John Lennon is a more contemporary poet who also has connections to Balnakeil. Lore says that his song “In My Life” is based on many trips to Balnakeil he made as a youngster to visit his aunt Elizabeth Parkes.
The next day I wandered around in Balnakeil Cemetery, where I searched for the headstones of Rob Donn and Lennon’s aunt, who are both buried there. It was hard to imagine a more peaceful resting place in any century. The emerald grounds are perched above the aquamarine waters of Balnakeil Bay, and sprawl out around the evocative ruins of a church founded in 722 by St. Maelrubha.
Under clear sunny skies, I scrutinized ancient mossy inscriptions that told of hard, short lives and, in many cases, deep bonds. Humming Lennon's ode to his adolescent sanctuary, I realized the words were a fitting soundtrack for my solitary stroll through the headstones.
There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all
Lennon returned to Durness in the late 1960s with wife Yoko Ono and their son Julian. At that time, the biggest change in the landscape had been wrought by other artists who had also felt the pull of the place and converted a former military base to a craft village.
Artists of Balnakeil Craft Village Heeded Call of Divine Landscape
As someone who is drawn to human artistry as well as divine dramatic landscapes, I was eager to experience Balnakeil Craft Village. Housed in low-slung concrete buildings, I found a collection of workshops that cover handmade soaps, paintings, pottery, basketry, woodwork, screen printing, leatherwork, wool work and enamelwork.
I found my way to the studio of Ishbel MacDonald and was captivated by her art and story.
"I came to Balnakeil Craft Village in 1982, exactly thirty years ago," Ishbel said. "I can hardly believe it's been thirty years!"
She and her husband at the time and were looking for somewhere to live and bring up children--community was important to them. They knew of the village through friends who had a well-established pottery, so they made the journey north to give the place a try.
"We arrived in March and my earliest memories are of what seemed like constant wind with occasional horizontal sleet and snow," she recalled. "The Craft Village is in fact an ex-RAF early warning station built during the Cold War. The village was abandoned by the military in the 1960's, and gradually reoccupied by artists and craftspeople."
"In those days, there were several families with young children," she said. "My own son was born the following July and my daughter two years later. By the time they could toddle, they had joined the gang of kids who could enjoy a freedom probably unusual in most places."
"The layout of the village where a variety of workshops are also part of the living accommodations, meant the children were able to visit Alan the woodworker where he had a small bench specially for them, or Liz the leatherworker to mess about with scraps of leather," she continued. "The village is also within sight of magnificent Balnakeil Bay with it's great sweep of white sand fringed by sand dunes, so when they were a bit older, the children would generally disappear with picnics for several hours at a time."
"When my son started school, I was able to concentrate on making art," she told me. "I studied painting at Glasgow School of Art, though when I first opened my gallery, I concentrated on making screen prints. This meant I was able to make editions of up to thirty at a time, so I could build up a stock of work while still having time for the children. Later I returned to painting, though I still like to incorporate some print making techniques into my work."
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Painter Ishbel MacDonald Inspired By Energy and Movement
"People often say that my work is very diverse," she said. "This is because I dislike the idea that I should have a recognizable "style." I try to interpret the ideas I see in my head in whatever way seems right to me at the time. Sometimes a landscape may demand watercolor, sometimes textured acrylic with drips and splashes of overlayed ink. What is important to me is that the work has energy and movement."
"The subject matter I return to over and over are the sea, the mountains and the birds which I see all around me, Ishbel said. "This place for me is a place of great energy--the relentless movement of the sea, the great contained power of the rocks."
"The birds are for me restless emissaries from other lands," she said. "Great white whooper swans, "The Snow Bringers" are said to bring the snow when they return from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Every year I watch for the Barnacle Geese as in April, finally, after weeks of restlessness, they head out over Balnakeil Bay and keep on going north to Greenland."
Balnakeil Beach, An Ancient Landscape
"Sutherland is a vast empty land, treeless and made of ancient stone and peat," she observed. "The rocks here are some of the oldest in the world. The lack of trees and sometimes even grass, mean that the bones of the landscape are left bare. The cliffs at the beach show how the rock has been folded and forced from the horizontal to the vertical over millennia. At Balnakeil Beach, the Durness limestone shows the traces of the very earliest sea life."
"Layer upon layer of history makes up this place," she said. "Dotted around Durness are Iron Age chambered cairns and the remains of Neolithic hut circles. There are the ramparts of an early medieval fort perched on the cliffs facing the north Atlantic. The Norsemen who came over the sea from Iceland and Norway to raid, eventually settled and there are the remains of a Norse longhouse within sight of my living room window."
"The place names around are a mixture of Icelandic and Gaelic," Ishbel explained. "Eventually Norsemen became Sutherland men--they called it Sutherland because of course to them in was "the land in the south." Gaelic became their language and another layer of history and culture was laid down."
"Now, I am part of a new layer" she said. "The Craft Village was built in the Cold War when people were again looking out over the north Atlantic with fears of an enemy coming from over the sea, this time the Russians. And so this rather ugly place with its military buildings is as important in the history of Sutherland as the ancient Iron Age forts or the medieval castle."
"However, the site did not remain as a military place for long, and I have always felt great satisfaction to know that I and others have created something positive and creative from something designed for war," she told me. "In the Craft Village we have many nationalities: Scottish, English, South African, Austrian, Belgian and German, all of whom have settled here because like me they feel this is a very special place."
Balnakeil Craft Village, Home to Hopes and Dreams
"Things have changed since we first came," she said. "There are no families with young children at the moment. But a new house is being built and new people come to give the place a try with hopes and dreams just as we did thirty years ago."
I next visited the Wee Gallery, meeting proprietor Ludo Van Muysen. He and his wife are both resident artists and shared their story of coming to call Durness home.
"I left Belgium in 1980 to explore Scotland with a backpack and I ended up in Durness in the craft village at Balnakeil Beach, working for a potter and assorted jobs," Ludo explained. "The space and freedom and remoteness of the area attracted me, after the bustle of Belgium. I felt very accepted by the people who lived here. I settled in the craft village and had a family--this is an ideal place to bring up children."
"When my first marriage ended I went to Edinburgh to study musical instrument repair, then decided to come back to be near my children and the place I felt was home," he said. "Later, traveling to India on a meditation course, I met Nicola, and we made a home together back in Balnakeil."
"What attracts me most is the contrast in the seasons, although after 30 years of living here, I find the winters can affect my mood, and I long for the sun," he told me. "The landscape is very barren, although green. The sea is the most inspiring thing for me, its changing nature and storms. There is an energy in the weather here that I never encountered elsewhere. There is an interesting mix of people coming and going in the Craft Village which brings a diversity of ideas and personalities together, and adds spice to the remoteness."."
Artist Nicola Poole Discovers Home in Durness
Ludo's wife Nicola Poole is a more recent arrival to Durness, but no less enamored of her adopted home.
"As I set foot in Scotland, I burst into tears, as I felt 'at home' for the first time in my life," Nicola said. "Perhaps this was some deep ancestral connection or simply the impact of the surging landscape--the balance of towering hills, expanses of water and green misty valleys is maybe a recipe for strong emotions."
"Although living here for 11 years has dulled the impact, I am still constantly surprised at the changing moods and the lights and shadows created on a daily basis," she continued. "There is no lack of artistic inspiration here--simply a question of keeping up with the fast changing light show going on in your back yard."
"There is something elemental here, in the land and the people, which feels authentic," she said. "Perhaps it is that which reaches back into memories of deep time when our connection with nature was vital to life. The weather here actively enfolds you, throwing handfuls of wind and rain at you, then relenting and smiling in a patch of glorious sunshine. You can't help falling in love."
Nicola is right. I too fell under the spell of Durness and find myself day dreaming of when I will return. For all those other souls in search of their place in the world, here's a suggestion: Follow the rainbow to its end.
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