|Scottish Gaelic: Diùranais|
Durness shown within the Sutherland area
|Sovereign state||United Kingdom|
|UK Parliament||Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross|
|Scottish Parliament||Caithness, Sutherland and Ross|
Durness (Scottish Gaelic: Diùranais) is a village and civil parish in the north-west Highlands of Scotland. It lies on the north coast of the country in the traditional county of Sutherland around 120 miles (190 km) north of Inverness. The area is remote and the parish is huge and sparsely populated covering an area from east of Loch Eriboll to Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of the Scottish mainland.
The name was originally Norse "Dyrnes", meaning "deer headland". 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 onto an existing Gaelic name.
The area has been inhabited since stone age times and there are many places of historic interest. 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. On 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 Ceannabeinne 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.
The parish of Durness was for centuries a part of Dùthaich MhicAoidh, 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
Loch Eriboll was used by the battle fleet of King Hakkon of Norway on its way south to the disastrous Battle of Largs in 1266. During the Second World War, the battle cruiser "Jamaica" sustained an outbreak of measles on board and it was quarantined in the loch for months 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. After the war there was also a ROTOR radar station at Faraid Head near Balnakeil, part of which is used by the modern military range and the accommodation area is used for various crafts.
The population today is much diminished with the whole of the Durness area suffering 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
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 A838 road. It is located on the north coast between the towns of Thurso 72 miles (116 km) to the east) and Ullapool 68 miles (109 km) to the south. This area is notable for being the most sparsely populated region in Western Europe. Until some 50 years ago, Durness was a predominantly Gaelic speaking area.
The landscape of the Durness area is a stark contrast to the surrounding areas due to a down-faulted, isolated wedge of Cambro-Ordovician Durness Group carbonates, also erroneously known as the ‘Durness Limestone’. Although the unit outcrops as far south as Skye, 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 chert is softer than the surrounding hills which are formed of more resistant Lewisian Gneiss or Torridonian sandstones, sometimes capped by Cambrian Quartzite. As a result, the local area is generally flatter and more fertile than other areas in the North West Highlands due to the carbonate bedrock and resultant lime-rich soils.
An unusually wide variety of rock types for such a relatively small area can be found within the parish. This is partly due to extensive faulting in the area which has placed a variety rocks of different ages (Archaean - Ordovician) in contact with one another. A down-faulted section of the Moine Thrust can also be seen in the area at both 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 accessible localities to observe the Moine Thrust Zone. Additionally, Sango Bay (geologically a graben) also exposes some of the best basin bounding fault outcrops 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 a variety of sand dunes types 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.
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. The village is also used as a base by visitors to Cape Wrath.
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 metres (922 ft) high.
Balnakeil Old Church, is a scheduled monument with the grave of Donuill Mac Morraichaidh, a serial bandit and murderer, 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.
Culture and community
Durness is 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. 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. He has been called the Gaelic Robert Burns. The Gaelic publication Am Fèillire remarked, in 1875, that he was known for being shrewd and satirical, as well as moral and mannerly.
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.
Durness is on the A838 road. This links the parish to the A836 at Tongue to the east and loops around the coast through Rhiconich near Kinlochbervie to meet the A836 again north of Lairg to the south. The road is single track along most of its length. Bus services are sparse in the area, although one bus a day links Durness with the Far North railway line at Lairg railway station. This provides rail services north to Wick and south to Inverness.
Durness primary school educates children from nursery age to age 11. In the 2012–13 academic year the school had 22 children enrolled, a figure which is predicted to decline to 13 by 2026–27. Children transfer to Kinlochbervie High School which opened in the 1990s. Before this school opened children had to lodge during the week to attend schools at Dornoch Academy or Golspie High School.
Cape Wrath, to the west of the parish across the Kyle of Durness is the site of the Cape Wrath Training Area, a military live firing range. The area is used for gunnery practice by naval and air forces as well as a training area for land forces. It is the only military firing range in the U.K. where aircraft are allowed to deliver 1000-pound bombs.
- List of listed buildings in Durness, Highland
- Cape Wrath
- Faraid Head
- Smoo Cave
- Kyle of Durness
- Groome.F.H (1885) 'Parish of Durness', Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, (available online). Retrieved 2013-02-20.
- RAF Faraid Head ('RAI') CEW R10 ROTOR Radar station, Subterranea Britannica, 2004-06-15. Retrieved 2013-02-20.
- Rob Donn , Mac Aoidh, Am Fèillire, 1875. Retrieved 2013-03-06.
- Earthquake recorded at Durness in Sutherland, BBC news website, 2013-02-01. Retrieved 2013-02-23.
- Outline development plan for Cape Wrath, Highlands and Islands social enterprise zone, August 2013. Retrieved 2014-02-18.