Roger Cox: Cape Wrath decision is good news for rabbits - and walkers

The MoD's decision is good news for rabbits
The MoD's decision is good news for rabbits
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The pocket of wild land between the A838 and Cape Wrath, in Scotland’s far north-western corner, must be an interesting place to be a rabbit.

On the up-side there aren’t any roads to speak of, which means no cars or lorries to turn you and your loved ones into little furry frisbees.

Then again, the Ministry of Defence owns 25,000 acres in the area, which it uses to test-fire artillery and drop 1,000 pound bombs from planes, so I suppose it’s swings and roundabouts. The rabbits don’t have to worry about learning their Green Cross Code, but they do have to worry about things like falling into craters, dodging flying shrapnel and, of course, the possibility of being being blown to smithereens at any moment of the day or night.

If they could read, the Cape Wrath rabbits would doubtless have been taking a very keen interest in the MOD’s recent attempt to purchase a further 60 acres of land around the iconic Cape Wrath lighthouse – hitherto an explosion-free zone operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board. They would, I am sure, have been delighted to see the MOD drop its plans to buy the land in May, and to discover that a community organisation, the Durness Development Group, now seems likely to be allowed to buy it, with an eye to using it for peaceful, small mammal-friendly purposes.

If it goes ahead, the purchase will be good news for hikers, too, as it will ensure continuing access to some truly stunning coastal scenery (122 metre high cliffs, anyone?) and it will be even better news for author Iain Harper, whose new guidebook The Cape Wrath Trail has just been published by Cicerone.

“It means that one of Scotland’s finest and most underrated trails keeps its awe inspiring finale,” he says, of the MOD’s tactical withdrawal, “and it also means that I don’t have to re-write the guidebook!”

Harper’s lavishly illustrated and clearly-written guide breaks the 330km journey from Fort William to Cape Wrath into 14 distinct stages, which makes it seem a slightly less daunting prospect (but only slightly). On completing the final stage of the trail, between Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath, Harper suggests that hikers should drink in the majestic views before staying either at the Ozone Cafe or at the Kearvaig Bothy, but had the MOD acquired the land it’s unlikely that would have been possible.

Walkers making the Cape Wrath pilgrimage this summer shouldn’t get too complacent, however. The land around the lighthouse may be safe enough, but crossing the nearby MOD firing range should still be undertaken with extreme caution. As Harper puts it: “Live, inert or expended ammunition may be found... so if you come across a suspicious object leave it alone.” Rabbits: same goes for you.

I was only messing about the other week when I invented an award for “the most ripped off person in the history of exploration and adventure” and put out a call for possible contenders, but now I’m starting to see how the thing might grow legs.

In fact, I can just imagine it turning into a glitzy black tie do, attended by legions of unsung heroes and sponsored by the makers of a delicious but inexplicably unsuccessful brand of whisky.

A particularly strong suggestion comes from Scotsman reader Flora Leckie, who proposes Harry “Chippy” McNish, the carpenter on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance. Everyone always bangs on about Shackleton’s “miraculous” 1,500km sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia aboard a modified lifeboat, the James Caird, but who did all the modifying, allowing the boat to withstand everything the frigid southern Atlantic could throw at it? Yeah, that’d be Mr Chippy, yet he was one of only four members of the Endurance expedition not to receive a Polar Medal for his trouble. His crime? Rubbing Shackleton up the wrong way by refusing to follow orders after the loss of the Endurance. (Shackleton, to be fair, was probably asking for a bit of insubordination: he had just shot McNish’s cat.)

Do you know of a ripped off explorer? Then please get in touch. Make a delicious but inexplicably unsuccessful brand of whisky? Send me a sample bottle, then we’ll talk.