CHAPTER 1: Elizabeth Sparkes is buried in the small graveyard at Balnakeil, but I cannot find her. Somewhere, she is lying among the old stones, eternally listening to the sea. She is so far from home and days from her sisters: Mary, Anne, Julia and Harriet. She has no hope of escape, eternally at rest in bad company. In the same graveyard, Donald McMurdo is easier to find; his tomb is immediately visible, built into a niche in the south wall. A serial murderer and henchman for Clan Mackay, his speciality was to throw his victims down the blowhole at nearby Smoo Cave. Such was his reputation, that the local clergy would not countenance his burial at Balnakeil but were persuaded, by a compromise and maybe the greasing of palms, to bury him half in and half out of the sacred ground. The result is that his memory is better preserved than those of the good souls that surround him. He would no doubt have been proud of his epitaph: Donald McMurdo here lies low – Was ill to his friend, and worse to his foe.
The Road East – Durness to Reay
Golf in the Wild – Going Home is available to purchase from Amazon and from this website.
Printed versions of the first book, Golf in the Wild, have sold out, but can be read on Kindle.
… a different sort of biker. Durness is the place where Golf in the Wild ends and its sequel, Golf in the Wild – Going Home, begins. The image of the 8th green shows a ball adjacent to the pin – it will not have arrived in regulation. The approach has the characteristics of an infinity pool – just fairway and water. It takes confidence to go for the invisible green, anything long seemingly destined for the briny sea.
The view from the 8th/17th green takes in many highlights of the course: the dunes and the edge of Balnakeil Bay; sturdy Balnakeil House – available for rent to the well-heeled and grubby – it has six bathrooms; the graveyard where lies the Clan MacKay henchman, Donald McMurdo – was ill to his friend and worse to his foe; the 18th tee, which provides such a glorious finish across a rocky inlet and the Clubhouse which resembles a coastguard station, forever keeping watch for those in peril on the course.
The view from the 8th green, looking east
The image does not sparkle, it was not one of those days – hazy sunshine turned dreich, but I was grateful for the benign conditions; when the winds blow strong across the Parph from Cape Wrath, this will be an inhospitable place for golf and much else besides.
It was taken in August 2012 and, sad to relate, I have never played the course since, despite becoming a country member for a couple of years when the club’s finances were stretched. Their secretary, Lucy Mackay, has always been very supportive of Golf in the Wild. That is not to say I have never returned to Balnakeil and Durness – I have been several times, most recently in 2021 by motorcycle.
The NCA Motorcycle Club at Balnakeil Bay – May 2021
My standard line is that I have yet to fathom how to carry golf clubs on my BMW GS, but as I proved on Barra, dependence on my own clubs is entirely illusory, indeed, my game seemed to benefit from using a mixed set of hire clubs. With this in mind, I am planning more extreme wild golf by motorcycle – in 2023 the intention is to ride to the Lofoten Islands in Norway and play golf under the midnight sun on Lofoten Links. I have travelled there by car, sea, ship and aeroplane which only leaves the motorcycle to complete the set. On my last trip I travelled with my eldest son by train from Oslo to Bodø and then took a short flight to Svolvær. It was the beginning of March and snow was still thick on the ground – the Lofoten Islands are well within the Arctic Circle such that Lofoten Links will only open from 5th of May until 15th of October in 2023.
The road to Lofoten Links – March 2020
Near Lofoten Links – March 2020
Why post this now? It is all part of the process of making it happen – a commitment to myself, and now, to others. It is about not losing face.
Austin Drawing Office 14 was the project code name for the Austin Maxi, one in a series of similar BMC vehicles vying for the unlovely awards, another fine example being ADO17, the BMC 1800 variants, ‘affectionately’ known as land crabs. None of these cars achieved rock or cult status in their day but the Maxi could lay claim to one unlikely pilot.
In 1969, in the space between the Beatles last live performance on top of the Apple HQ in Savile Row and the start of the recording session that would become the Abbey Road album, John Lennon and Yoko Ono made a road trip to Scotland, taking with them their respective children, Julian and Kyoko.
Heading for Durness, Lennon, the shortsighted and unenthusiastic motorist, drove the Maxi off the road on the single track A838 somewhere between Tongue and Loch Eriboll. Julian Lennon was the only one to escape unharmed, the other three being transferred to the Lawson Memorial Hospital at Golspie. Only Julian made it to Durness where he was collected by an irate Cynthia Lennon.
John had fond memories of this wild place at the extreme northwest edge of the British Isles. He spent many childhood holidays at a croft in Sangomore just to the east of Durness where the road briefly loops inland away from the sea. The croft was owned by the stepfather of one of his cousins, the appropriately named Bertie Sutherland and Lennon’s time there is commemorated with a memorial garden. Set among the winding paths are works by the local ceramicist, Lotte Glob and three standing stones etched with the words from In My Life:
There are places I remember all my life;
All these places had their moments with lovers and friends;
In my life I’ve loved them all.
John Lennon 1940-1980
The white example of the unlovely ADO14 vehicle was taken back to Lennon’s home at Tittenhurst Park near Ascot and mounted on a plinth to remind John and Yoko of the fragility of life (and BMC products). In 1969 I would have benefited from the same reminder – I twice crashed an ADO15 (the ubiquitous Mini), a consequence of too much teenage enthusiasm rather than too little.
I mention all this because I have been literally (in the absolute sense) marooned in Durness since writing the last words of Golf in the Wild – There is an echo of polite applause on a gentle wind rising across the Parph. I pick my ball from the hole, replace the pin and we go our separate ways. I am done. Except I am not, I need to find my way home.
Down the road from Durness Golf Club, at the western end of Balnakeil Bay, the ruins of an old church and cemetery host a memorial to the gaelic poet, Rob Donn – one character away from immortality, perhaps my return journey begins there.
This display cabinet hangs on the wall in our kitchen. It is built from the frame of a window rescued from a demolished cottage somewhere near Durness – it was bought at the Balnakeil Craft Village many years ago. Some of the content has appeared on earlier posts – it is a box of memories, a window on the past:
(click on the image to enlarge)
Whilst making the links with the Durness Community website, I was surprised by this connection with John Lennon, something that had, until now, completely passed me by.
The sea rolls, boils and bubbles over the rocks off Cape Wrath, a happy linguistic coincidence, the name Wrath being derived from the from Old Norse hvarf , turning point; much like the fastest man on earth being called Bolt and the fallen Bulgarian hurdler, Stambolova.
I have passed through nearby Durness on a number of occasions and walked the beach at Balnakeil but until last week had never completed the journey to Cape Wrath and Robert Stevenson’s lighthouse at the extreme northwest corner of mainland Britain. The trip starts with a half mile ferry across the Kyle of Durness, a rowing boat powered by an outboard, ferryman at the stern, ferrydog at the bow and a handful of passengers squeezed between. From the slipway across the Kyle a well-worn minibus provides a teeth chattering 11 mile drive across a rough road which was built to service construction of the lighthouse in 1828 and has suffered little change since. The first walled section hugs the edge of Beinn An Amair before entering the MOD bombardment range where the road descends to Daill and the bridge built by the army in 1981 to replace the sometime impassable ford.
As the road climbs to Inshore, three target vehicles become visible across the western ridge; two are in standard camouflage and the other is bright pink, courtesy of local schoolchildren who enjoy access to the ranges for natural history and modern art field trips.
The milestones carved by the keepers count down the miles, descending numerically towards the lighthouse, the centre of their world. All are original except number eight which suffered stray artillery damage, the frequent roadside craters providing further evidence of why you would not want to travel this track when the red flags are flying. The range finishes above the Kearvaig river bridge, this original arched construction being only just wide enough to accommodate the rattling minibus.
Beyond the bridge there are views towards the Kearvaig Stack whilst looking back from the old coastguard station above the lighthouse a white bothy can be seen nestling in the bay.
Sadly the lighthouse is now fully automated although not entirely deserted. The Ozone café remains open throughout the year, possibly the loneliest outpost anywhere on the British mainland; not somewhere I would feel entirely at ease through the long dark nights. Wild and empty the landscape may be but it is far from quiet; there is the constant noise of the sea and gulls, on firing days the sound of heavy munitions and on some days the scream of low flying jets as NATO allies practice bombing runs on the islands off the coast, occasionally the right ones. Walk out beyond the lighthouse and there is evidence of yet more noise, the now abandoned foghorn. Imagine this blasting into the dark night; enough to summon the dead souls of sailors washed up on the haunted beach of Sandwood Bay just down the coast. Bustling civilisation has its compensations.
Down to the left of the foghorn lay the rusted remains of capstans, cogs and pulleys, evidence that there was once an intention to move the lighthouse onto lower rocks where it would less likely be obscured by fog. A rusted name plate attributes manufacture to Taylor Pallister & Co Ltd, Dunston on Tyne, not that far from where this journey started in August 2011, a golfing pilgrimage that began in earnest on the first tee at Melrose and ended one year later on the eighteenth green at Durness. That journey was about Golf in the Wild and will be a little longer in the telling.