A good, well rounded visit to the North West of Scotland is not complete without a day-trip to Durness. The area is one of particular natural beauty – full of important wildlife and exciting history. In this blog entry I won’t discuss the bog body discovered on Faraid Head or the faint remnants of the Iron age fort. These two particular sites feature in one of the walks I did on this trip but neither are too relevant for this piece of writing so I have omitted them but still want to acknowledge their place in the context of local history and archaeological discovery ( I have provided one link at the very end of this post for details about the fort. The bog body is, however, much easier to read about online). There are a handful of good walking routes in and around Durness which can be confidently completed in a single morning or over a whole day if you take time to stop and take things in. These routes mostly cover short distances of up to 5 miles over all kinds of rough, uneven ground for which you’ll definitely need some new insoles in your boots.
From the south I arrive at the coastal town, some 18 miles North of Kinlochbervie, through a wild and mountainous landscape that is dramatically torn apart by the Kyle of Durness as you head towards the ocean. As the coast draws nearer, the Kyle of Durness swings off to the West and the road continues North East between Loch Borralie and Loch Caladail (both invisible from the road), past a few more modern houses before bringing you to main street.
Turn left at the junction and you can visit Balnakeil Craft Village. Here a range of small, independent sellers create and sell their original art, handmade jewellery, home-wares and assorted knick-knacks and bits and bobs. Martina MacLeod is a ceramicist selling under the name Mudness in the Balnakeil craft village. I recommend you have a look at her Etsy store or visit Mudness on Instagram. There’s also a small book shop here (not open all year round), a couple of art galleries and the very popular cafe specialising in hot chocolates called Cocoa Mountain. Their chocolate is amazing and they sell it in their on-site cafe. Cocoa Mountain is probably the most geographically remote chocolate producer in Europe. Their words. Not mine. Although I think they might be right. You can also visit Balnakeil Church or take a walk along Balnakeil Bay and Faraid Head.
Turn right at the junction and you can head down onto Sango Bay beneath the youth hostel and information center. Continue further west up the coast and you can venture into the depths of Smoo Cave. If the time of year is right, boat trips sometimes run taking you through the cave’s chambers, which although short is certainly an intimate and sensory experience I would recommend to anyone.
The 17th century remains of Balnakeil church, reduced over some period of time to its bare bones, overlooks the beautiful, arching neck of Balnakeil Bay, staring out over the ocean like the forlorn ghost of some ill-fated, miserable lover from a piece of crass romantic literature, waiting for their partner’s return. Truthfully, Balnakeil Bay and the surrounding sand dunes lend the perfect, dramatic backdrop that gives the church its feel of otherworldly inspiration. Come rain or shine, it’s easy to believe and indeed imagine the tradition of the history of Christian activity in the area, although nearly no evidence survives from any earlier period. From the earliest place of worship believed to have been founded in 722 by St. Maelrubha through to the story of financial contribution to the third crusade in 1190 from a church in Durness (aledgedly documentary evidence in the Vatican archives tells of this), there are tales, whether true or false, of a handful of ecclesiastical acts of donation and so forth connecting the Northern most fringes of the early medieval Highlands to central Europe and wider Christendom. If put through intense questions to the conclusiveness of the site’s early history I think most people would probably shrug and be lost for words. The location of the church so close to the shore is however undeniably indicative of possible ancient or early origins.
The parts of the church building we can see date from roughly 1619, and are of course believed to have been built on the site of a much earlier medieval building. To discuss Balnakeil church involves a lot of words like ‘supposedly’ and ‘ apparently’. Thankfully the site is pretty spectacular given it’s location and it is worth noting that the surrounding churchyard is worth a wonder around since it’s full of pretty bizarre 18th and 19th century headstones of all shapes and sizes, dedicated to all kinds of weird and wonderful people.
There is little written about the history of the church that is not repeated in local guide-books. Walking through the church’s roofless central cell, of which it seems they were only two cells at one point (?), there is no distinct chancel and the ruinous church layout is distorted and disorientating. It’s quite difficult to get a feeling for the shape and structure of the original church. Definitely small and undoubtedly simple, conceived in an L-shape plan, the church was rightly extended in the 1690s when an aisle was added and some unknown section was supposedly ‘remodeled’ in the 1720s. Stonework has little architectural decoration. Perhaps the stone was hard to work and therefore ornamentation was avoided to save time during the construction of the present building. Detail in the window traceries are limited and reflect the simplicity of the church plan itself. With the exception of one narrow, splayed window, it appears that very little light was allowed to enter the interior space and the interior could have felt sort of claustrophobic. A thin gable runs down one interior corner strip in the church as the only prominent architectural detail on display. This gable is constructed on larger stones laid in the quoining fashion typical of early church building and is perhaps suggestive of an earlier phase of construction. However, because the type of stone they are cut in is entirely different from the rest of the church stone, the stones laid as quoins could just as easily pre-date or proceed the date of the present, early 17th century church. Apparently there was an ‘ancient’ stone font in the chancel, which today may have helped perplexed visitors such as myself get their bearings, but this of course went missing in the mid-1980’s.
What is fascinating is the tomb built into a large niche in the south wall interior. For all the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the church’s history and early beginnings, the 17th century tomb is very real and very exciting. Least of all for its decoration of lively imagery and symbols. What do you think they mean? They certainly are the symbols suggestive or a rural, hardy way of life. Now, I did just say the tomb is ‘very real‘ – but I should point out that the stories surrounding the individual the tomb conceals have no doubt been told and repeated so often over so many generations they’ve are the stuff of local legend. But who really cares. When have churches not been places for the telling of stories and local history.
The man’s name was Donald MacMurdo (known as Domhull MacMhurchaidh – although his name has always been the subject of more debate than of the stories of his life), he was a local villain of some renown and was believed to have killed at least 18 people on a handful of raids during his life. He is said to have thrown the bodies of his victims into Smoo cave. It is said that Domhull paid the man who was rebuilding the church in 1619 a handsome sum of money on the condition that upon his death he was interred in a special vault or tomb inside the church so that his enemies and relatives of those of he had wronged and killed would not disturb his remains. What is more likely to have happened is that Domhull’s wishes, if he did in fact make those wishes, were not immediately met on the moment of his death and he was buried outside. Precisely what Domhull may or may not have anticipated would happen, unfortunately for him did happen, and his remains had to be moved inside into the tomb we see today.
Although quite faded, the inscription on the tomb’s upper face reads: ‘Donald Makmurchou here lies lo Was ill to his friend, and worse to his foe. True to his master in prosperity and woe. DMMC 1623’.
One story tells how the Minister of Durness Alexander Munro was in the area visiting a close friend, one Sir Donald Mackay, whose daughter was soon to be wed to his son. The Minister was encouraged to travel with an armed attendant by his friend, as a safety measure in such troubled times when men like Domhull, with his wicked nature and ungodly temperament, were known to raid and rob unarmed people in the wilderness. The Minister, under the protection of an armed guard, thought this would be the ideal time to take the battle to Domhul, who was believed to been suffering with a severe illness at the time, and rescue his soul before death. When the Minister apparently burst into Domhull’s house and began preaching and raving, Domhull took great offense and would undoubtedly have made the Minister his 19th victim had it not been for the presence of the armed attendant.
It is believed that old man Domhull sent his two massive sons after the Minister, instructing them to take his heart and bring it to him as a way to make him pay for the way he had spoken to him upon his uninvited visit. But upon being confronted by the seemingly ever-powerful ‘armed attendant’, the two sons returned with the heart of a sheep instead as they could not best the Minister’s protector and extract the Minister’s heart. After staring at the heart his sons brought before him some time later, Domhull is said to have told them that he always knew the Munro’s were cowards, but that never until then did he know they had the hearts of sheep.
Highland Regional Council: Archaeological Sites and Monuments Record: http://her.highland.gov.uk/hbsmrgatewayhighland/DataFiles/LibraryLinkFiles/26971.pdf