Coordinates: 58°34′N 4°45′W / 58.57°N 4.75°W / 58.57; -4.75

Scottish Gaelic: Diùirnis
Sango Bay - Durness.jpg
Sango Bay
Durness is located in Sutherland

 Durness shown within the Sutherland area
Population 400 (approx.)
Council area Highland
Lieutenancy area Sutherland
Country Scotland
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town LAIRG
Postcode district IV27
Dialling code 01971
Police Northern
Fire Highlands and Islands
Ambulance Scottish
EU Parliament Scotland
UK Parliament Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
Scottish Parliament Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
List of places: UK • Scotland •

Durness (Diùirnis in Gaelic:) is a huge but remote parish in the northwestern Highlands of Scotland, encompassing all the land between the Moine to the East (separating it from Tongue parish) and the Gualin to the West (separating it from Eddrachilis). No one knows for sure where the name derives; it has variously been translated as from "Dorainn nis" tempest point, or "Dhu thir nis" the point of the black land; or from the Norse for deerpoint. Or even from the main village "Durine" which would translate as "Dhu Rinn" the black (or fertile) promontory, with the Norse "ness" tacked on to an existing Gaelic name. The parish comprises a number of larger or smaller townships, from the east these including Kempie, Eriboll, Laid, Rispond, Ceannabeinne, Sangobeg, Lerin, Smoo, Sangomore, Durine, Balvulich, Balnakeil, Achins and Keoldale. To the west there are also the single homesteads of Grudie, Carbreck and Rigolter.

Durness was formerly a part of the bishopric of Caithness and the old house at Balnakeil was originally the Bishop's summer residence. The church at Balnakeil dates back to the Culdean monks but the existing ruined church is said to have been built by the monks from Dornoch Cathedral in the 13th century (it is also said that they discovered gold around Durness but no finds have been reported since).

The parish of Durness was for centuries a part of Duibhich Mhic Aoidh, the land of the Clan Mackay, who held their title to the land extending from Melvich in the East to Kylesku in the West; it was said that at his most powerful the Chief of Mackay could call on 4,000 fighting men when required.

Sadly the population today is much diminished; the whole of the Durness area suffered greatly from the Highland Clearances, the first in 1819 and thereafter throughout the greater part of the 19th century until the Crofting Act of the 1886 finally gave crofters a measure of security of tenure. The Durness Riots of 1846 were caused by such clearances when the women of Ceannabeinne area defied the Sheriff's Officer sent to deliver the summons of eviction and subsequent disorder occurred in the village inn in Durness when a second attempt was made, causing the officers to be again run out of town ingloriously.

Until some 50 years ago, Durness was a predominantly Gaelic speaking area but today there are only one or two people who can even speak moderately well in the language. The whole culture which endured for centuries has finally been extirpated and though there are now serious attempts to teach Gaelic in schools and recreate an interest in the language, the distinctive dialect of Mackay Country is all but lost.

Which is doubly sad, as Durness is also the birthplace of one of the greatest Gaelic poets of all time, Rob Donn Calder (some argue "Mackay"), born at Achnacaillich in Strathmore in 1714 and a keen and fearless observer of people and situations. Although illiterate and monolingual he was steeped in the rich Gaelic culture of his time and was responsible for some of the finest Gaelic songs, verses and elegies ever created. Rob Donn has been called the Gaelic Robert Burns, and not without justification. Anyone wishing to understand the depth of his thought would be well to read "The World of Rob Donn" by Ian Grimble which, although inevitably stilted because of the inability to convert the fluidity and subtlety of Gaelic verse into the more prosaic English, still does a marvellous job in giving a glimpse into this cattle herder's intellectual genius.

The main sources of employment in the village are crofting and tourism. It is the largest village in the northwestern corner of Scotland, has a population of around 400, and is on the main A836-A838 road between the towns of Thurso (116 km (72 mi) to the east) and Ullapool (109 km (68 mi) to the south). This area is notable for being the most sparsely populated region in Western Europe.

Although being a former seat of the Clan Mackay, there is a large contingent of the Clan Morrison in the area which causes some in the locale to question the idea of calling the area “Mackay Country”. That said, in historic terms, the Morrisons are fairly recent incomers (the Mackays having been in the area since the 11th century). The Morrisons came over from Ness in Lewis in the 16th century as part of the marriage settlement by the Bishop of Caithness to the son of the Chief of the clan Morrison on the occasion of his marriage to the Bishop's daughter. The Bishop gave the lands of Eddrachilis and Durness to the young couple and the young Morrison translated 40 families from Ness to his new acquisitions on the mainland. These folk landed, it is said, initially at Portlovorochy (Port-sluagh-Murraichidh "The Port of the Followers of Morrison) and fanned out up the coast to Kinlochbervie and Durness where they remain in significant numbers to this day.


Geography / Geology

The landscape of the Durness area is a stark contrast to the surrounding areas due to a down-faulted, isolated wedge of Cambro-Ordovician carbonates known as the Durness Group, also erroneously known as the ‘Durness Limestone’. These carbonates are also found in Assynt and extend as far south as Skye although the full sequence can only be seen in the Durness area, hence the name of the unit. This thick sequence (c. 800 m) of dolostones with subordinate limestones and cherts is softer than the surrounding hills which are formed of more resistant Lewisian Gneiss / Torridonian sandstones, sometimes capped by Cambrian Quartzite. Therefore the local area is generally flatter, low lying and more fertile than other areas in the North West Highlands due to the lime-rich bedrock and resultant soils.

An incredible variety of other rock types for such a small area can be found around the village due to extensive faulting in the area placing different rocks of different ages (Archaean - Ordovician) side by side. The Moine Thrust itself can also be seen in the area at Faraid Head and Sango Bay despite the main thrust area being found several kilometres east at Loch Eriboll. The thrust exposures within Sango Bay are the most easily accessible localities to see such features of the Moine Thrust Zone, as well as the bay itself (geologically a graben) showing one of the best examples of basin bounding faults in the British Isles.

Faraid Head is also important geologically for one of Scotland's largest sand dune systems where the prominent headland is exposed to strong winds, building sand dunes up to 60m above sea level. The cliffs on the eastern side of this headland show the only preserved exposures of Moine metasediments west of the main outcrop of the Moine Thrust in Scotland (as a result of thrusting and later normal-faulting) and excellent machair examples have developed between the cliff top and the dunes, partly due to the high sea-shell content of the sands in the Durness area.

As a result of all the forementioned, Durness is a popular destination for undergraduate geology students as well as tourists, mainly during the summer months.

Attractions / Tourism

Durness with Smoo Cave; the youth hostel is up on the right

The main attractions in Durness are Smoo Cave, a conjoined sea cave and freshwater cave with a small river running through it and a waterfall in wet weather, unspoilt beaches backed by cliffs, and the local sea birds, seals, porpoises and minke whales. The surrounding coastline is some of Europe's most isolated and spectacular, with the nearby Clo Mor Cliffs being the highest on the British mainland, at some 281 m (921 ft) high.

The area has been inhabited since stone age times and there are many places of historic interest; one of the most interesting but only for the serious walker is "Carn Righ", on the northmost tip of Ben Spionnaidh, which is a manmade cairn celebrating a long dead petty king or chief from the area, whether Pict or Viking now unknown; but the reason for the site chosen is clear as the site overlooks all his lands.

Balnakiel Old Church, itself of great historical interest, has inside its wall the grave of Donuill Mac Morraichaidh, a serial bandit and murderer who sought exculpation from his sins by paying to be buried inside one wall of the church so, it is said "that his enemies couldn't walk over his grave".

The area around Loch Croispol and Loch Borrallie abounds in archeological interest, from brochs to round houses to medieval and pre-clearances settlements; the Old School at Croispol has been recently excavated and a host of interesting information garnered by the local schoolmaster and enthusiastic historian, Graham Bruce. Incidentally, the name "Loch Croispol" itself is of interest in that it suggests that the local gallows "croich" was situated nearby when the Chief of Mackay held the right of pit and gallows.

Out on the Faraid Head is Seannachaisteal, presumably a broch, but it is now completely enveloped in sand and no dig has ever been carried out to see what it was and from which time in history. A few years ago, the body of a young Viking boy was discovered exposed by the erosion of the sand dunes at Faraid. And at Sangobeg beach, the body of a Pictish boy was discovered.

At Ceinnabeinne, on the left of the road as you leave Durness towards Tongue, lies "Clach a Breitheanas" or the Judgement Stone. This was said to be where judgement was meted out to malefactors and those found guilty were thrown over the cliff to their doom below. While folklore does not identify when this was done, the method of execution is much more Pictish, who had a penchant for natural means of death, than Viking, where a swift axe was the favoured means of disposal. Whatever the history, it was obviously an important place, as three stones round the main stone have very obviously been polished as seats, one very evidently cut in the rock and polished. and as this is Lewisian Gneiss, the effort of polishing these rocks points to use for a very significant purpose. Polished by the Durness youth as part of an arts project with assistance from the local stone carver.


Tourists are catered for by a campsite spectacularly sited on the cliffs above the beach (with easy access down to the beach), an SYHA hostel, housed by some converted army buildings, bed and breakfast accommodation, and two hotels and restaurants, Mackay's and the Smoo Cave Hotel.

In the substantial sand dunes to the north of the village, a large colony of puffins can be approached to within less than 10 metres, offering superb opportunity for wildlife photography. Rock pipits also live on the beach.

Another tourist spot is the local Balnakeil Craft Village, a rather picturesque old Royal Air Force (RAF) radar base from the Cold War era. The villagers mainly live sustainably and there is a community ethos, with some rather wonderful and eccentric characters selling arts and crafts goods and providing an interesting stop for visitors.

The village is also used as a base by visitors to Cape Wrath.

In 2007 Durness hosted the John Lennon Northern Lights Festival, a celebration of music, poetry, theatre and other cultural activities in celebration of the spirit of John Lennon who enjoyed boyhood summers in the village. Lennon returned for a visit in 1969 with Yoko Ono and their children but the visit was cut short when Lennon drove his car off the road by Loch Eribol. The track In My Life from Rubber Soul is said to be based on a poem about Durness which Lennon wrote on a teenage holiday in the area, although most of the original poem's meaning was lost during songwriting with McCartney. A small shrubby garden has been dedicated to John Lennon in the centre of the village and the house where he stayed during his holidays still stands.

Military Presence

Some miles to the north west lies a military firing range known as Garvie Range used by RAF, Royal Navy and USAF aircraft. A rocky islet resembling a ship is used for bombing practice. Although explosions can be heard, and seen with binoculars, they are sufficiently far away to avoid disturbing the colonies of sea birds. It is the only military firing range in the U.K. where aircraft are allowed to deliver 1000-pound bombs.

A few miles east of Durness lies Loch Eriboll, known for its otters and minke whales. During World War II it was used to station naval troops, and the island in its centre was used as a bombing target for the subsequent attack on the Tirpitz in Norway, as it resembles a battleship. The loch is sometimes used as a safe harbour by large ships during stormy weather.

The loch also hosted, if that is the word, the battle fleet of King Hakkon of Norway on his way south to the disastrous (for the Norwegians) battle of Largs in 1266; the small harbour of Portnacon has variously been translated as "Port na coin" "the port of the dogs" or a corruption of "Port Hakkon", "Hakkon's Port". During the Second World War, the battle cruiser "Jamaica" sustained an outbreak of measles on board and it was quarantined in Loch Eriboll for months, lest the contagion spread and affect the navy generally and possibly delay the Normandy landings; and at cessation of hostilities in 1945 it saw the surrender of some 30 German U-boats.

During World War II, the RAF built a Chain Home radar station at Sango near Durness. There was also a Chain Home Low radar station at Sango. After the war there was also a ROTOR radar station near Durness part of which is used by the modern military range and the accommodation area is used for various crafts.

External links

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