IN FLORENCE'S Galleria dell'Accademia there is a long hall lined with unfinished figurative sculptures by Michelangelo. At the end of the hall, beneath a dome, is his iconic David.
• Sandwood Bay, widely acknowledged as one of Scotland's most beautiful beaches
First the works-in-progress then the masterpiece. There's a similar pattern to the beaches of Scotland's far north-west. Achmelvich, Clachtoll, Scourie, Oldshoremore — you can travel up the Sutherland coast, stopping at each beach in turn, and though each is wonderful, none is perfect. Then you reach Sandwood Bay.
This huge arc of sand has some claim to being Britain's best beach, the nation's coastal masterwork. It is certainly the least accessible beach in the country. A seven-hour-plus drive from Glasgow only takes you as far as Blairmore, a crofting community where the road ends.
From there it's a four-mile walk across a rough and sometimes broken moorland path before the beach comes into view. So, really, you're talking about around nine hours to reach Sandwood Bay from the central belt. That sounds daunting, but look at it this way — if you leave early in the morning, you will be sitting in an earthly paradise by the end of the working day.
Sandwood Bay has been known to humans for a long time. The coast here is thought to have been the earliest inhabited area in this part of what came to be known as Scotland. There is evidence of a Pictish settlement, and it is believed the Vikings, sailing south past Cape Wrath, would land here and drag their longships over the beach and into Sandwood Loch.
It was never especially hospitable terrain. The first maps of the area were made in the 17th century and describe the land as an "extreem wilderness" through which wolves roamed. Since 1993, a 4,600-hectare estate including Sandwood Bay has been managed by the John Muir Trust. There are only about 100 people currently living in all that space, including eight working crofters.
Before starting for the beach, I visit Cathel Morrison, the Trust's local conservation manager. A 62-year-old with the wise, slender, benevolent looks of Roald Dahl's BFG, Morrison has lived in the area his entire life. He is a crofter and keeps sheep.
His parents ran the post office in Kinlochbervie and he recalls, as a child, that the loft contained the cockpit canopy of a Spitfire that had crashed on the beach.
Morrison still lives in Kinlochbervie. In his home office there's a badger skull on a shelf, two of his own excellent paintings of seascapes on the walls and his pet corgi on the floor. He keeps a fragment of a Pictish cooking pot, discovered in a sandbank, in a wooden cigar box.
"I've been to that beach hundreds of times and it's always really special," he says. "But to try and describe it is hard. It's just got something that I've never experienced anywhere else. I'm very serious about that.
I've said to myself often enough that if more people got out to experience the wild land, and especially Sandwood Bay, there wouldn't be so many queues at doctors' surgeries. Any ailments you have just drop away."
The track to Sandwood Bay begins just opposite the car park at Blairmore and winds through four miles of browny-greeny peat moor, hillocked with heather and dotted, every now and then, with tiny yellow tormentil and purple butterwort. Even on a hot day this is a wet landscape, parsed by whisky-coloured burns and punctuated by glittering lochans. Rocks jut out from the moor like stubby horns from the skull of a lamb, and all the time, at your back, are the hazy blue peaks of Stack, Arkle and Foinaven.
You may see a hovering hawk or a lizard running across the path, but mostly this is a rather dull walk until, finally, as you round the bend that leads to the beach, the landscape makess an effort and announces the coast in a fanfare of gorse and a thousand daisy starbursts. That first view of Sandwood Bay feels a little like arriving at a site of religious pilgrimage.
The beach itself is magnificent. The sand has a pink glow from erosion of the sandstone cliffs. It's a huge space that feels enclosed, rather like being inside an amphitheatre. There are the dunes behind and the ocean in front. At either side are crags of gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the world. The striation of the cliffs is mirrored by the mackerel-skin clouds. Cutting through these horizontal planes is the great vertical of Am Buachaille, a 240-foot sea stack the colour of dried blood, that is separated from the shore by a deep channel. Am Buachaille is Gaelic for The Herdsman, a name bestowed, presumably, on account of the waves that break white around its foot like a frolicking flock of sheep.
More usually the preserve of seabirds, the stack is a skyscraper for skuas, but it does attract climbers from time to time. It was first climbed in 1967 by Tom Patey, Ian Clough and John Cleare. They did not have long to enjoy their success. Three years later, Patey and Clough were dead. They died in separate climbing accidents within a week of each other, Patey falling from another Sutherland sea-stack known as The Maiden.
Cleare, now 74 and living in Salisbury, recalls that they got across to the foot of Am Buichaille by laying down ladders borrowed from a pub in Ullapool, and that on the climb up he was repeatedly vomited upon by fulmars, birds that protect themselves from predators by sicking up, at great velocity, a stinking fishy oil. "Happy memories," he says.
Though Sandwood Bay is enjoyed by most in an uncomplicated way, some find it an eerie place and report an oppressive, even hostile atmosphere. Tom Atkinson, the founder of Luath Press, wrote in his classic guidebook The Empty Lands: "You will feel a certain uneasiness, maybe of spirit, while you are there...
It is an indefinable feeling of dread, as though a slight haze has crossed the sun on a fine summer's day." There are those who have been so unsettled by this ambience they have packed up and left immediately.
"Oh, I feel it myself occasionally," says Morrison when asked about the atmosphere. "I don't find it an unpleasant feeling. It certainly doesn't scare me, but it's strange. You're aware of people that have lived there before."
This idea that the past is part of the present is something you hear often from people who know Sandwood Bay well. It's fascinating to think that here, somehow, is a place where temporal divisions have eroded; where human history, rather than sinking from view, keeps getting washed back on the beach like a slippery oarweed frond. Perhaps people are simply more sensitive to the vibrations of the past in such an empty place. Artificially empty, of course. The many tenants of Sandwood were evicted in 1847 as part of the Highland Clearances, and the stones from the abandoned clachan used for building projects elsewhere. The result of this unhappy period is that you now have over a mile of beach more or less to yourself.
Little wonder that ghost stories and legends attach themselves, limpet-like, to Sandwood Bay. There have long been tales of mermaids. Crofter Sandy Gunn told the folklorist R MacDonald Robertson that, in January 1900, he had seen a beautiful mermaid, seven feet long, sunning herself on a ledge. More common, though, are accounts of hauntings, in particular by a bearded sailor with brass buttons and a peaked cap. In the early 1940s, this spectre is said to have appeared to two crofters collecting driftwood and bellowed: "All on this beach is mine, begone!"
Cathel Morrison says he has never experienced anything supernatural at Sandwood Bay, but knows people who swear they have. "I wasn't long with the Trust when a lady phoned me one day. 'I wonder could you help me,' she says. 'Have you any information on shipwrecks at the bay?' She said she'd walked out on a beautiful day. Her husband and two kids decided to carry on down to the beach, while she sat beside the loch. As she sat there, everything got really dull and cloudy and she heard weeping and wailing. Then on the other side of the loch came a group of people dressed in 18th-century clothes. They were in great distress. She said they came round the loch and disappeared. Whether she fell asleep and was dreaming, I don't know, but she assured me she was a rational person and this had had a profound effect upon her."
Sandwood Bay has seen its share of shipwrecks. The lighthouse at Cape Wrath was established in 1828, but before that there were many wrecks, the debris and bodies coming ashore on the beach; legend has it the splintered remnants of Viking longships are hidden deep beneath the sand.
The treasure from a Spanish galleon is also said to be buried hereabouts.
About five years ago a man travelled up from London in the belief that he could locate treasure using a brass dowsing rod. "He must have been about 80 and weighed 20 stone. He got half-way out and had to turn back. He left me the map. So far I haven't bothered looking. But when I retire, if I disappear on a luxury yacht, all the locals will know that I've found the treasure."
The ghost stories that persist about Sandwood Bay could, though, have a prosaic explanation. Some believe the sightings of the spectral bearded sailor were, in fact, sightings of local hermit James MacRory-Smith, known as Sandy, who lived near the beach for 32 years and was not keen on company unless there was the promise of a drink in it. He died in 1999 at the age of 73.
His home, a low bothy called Strathchailleach, is still there, about a mile inland from the beach, and it still has some of his paintings on the walls — a weird jumble of ships, devils, birds, wildcats and naked women. Sandy had been a scaffolder in Glasgow then served with the Black Watch.
One day he and his wife were out driving when there was a bad smash and the car went on fire. He escaped but she was stuck in the vehicle and died. Traumatised, he walked away from his own life. His children were taken into care and he started travelling, first to Crieff then Rannoch Moor then Glencoe and finally to Cape Wrath, where he lived out his days reclusively and simply — boozing, fishing, walking, daubing the walls, digging peat for the fire and sleeping on a bed made of wooden fish-boxes. "If he liked you it was alright," recalls his friend Betty Heath, who lives in Thurso. "If he didn't like you, he would come to the door with a hatchet.
"I think Sandy found some sort of peace at Strathchailleach," she continues. "It was a sanctuary. He just had the wildlife. A male swan once stayed with him for a fortnight. Swans mate for life and this one was looking after a female which had been ill. It was only when she died that the swan went away."
Heath, 78, is the last surviving member of the Johnnie Walker whisky dynasty. She has been visiting Sandwood Bay since the 1960s.
"I just love it," she says. "It's very elemental, especially when you see it on a moonlit night. It's like a gem that nobody has ever discovered. It's the loneliness of the place."
Loneliness is not, perhaps, a quality that most people look for in a beach. It doesn't go too well with a Dan Brown and a Daiquiri. But this particular beach has an ineffable something that makes a visit a complex and shivery pleasure.
While I'm driving away from the moor, back to the hotel, a stag runs out on to the road about 20 feet ahead. It pauses for a moment. Looks toward the car. Then bounds into the heather and disappears.
The glimpse feels like a blessing and the animal seems an emblem for Sandwood Bay itself — beautiful, mysterious and solitary, a perfect wild creation.
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, July 11, 2010
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