Facing the violent climes of the North Atlantic Ocean, Sandwood Bay is an isolated place located near Cape Wrath in Sutherland, on the extreme North West coast of mainland Scotland. Forming part of the Sandwood Estate, and managed by the John Muir Trust, it is notable for its large beach, regarded as one of the cleanest and unspoilt in Britain, and its large sea stack Am Buachaille. Just behind the huge sand dunes of the beach, lies a fresh water lake, Loch Sandwood, which teems with brown and sea trout. The bay is inaccessible by car. Visitors have to stop at the car park at the hamlet of Blairmore, near Kinlochbervie, and walk the four-mile path that leads to the beach. It sounds just like the kind of setting you might expect M R James to use if he based one of his ghost stories in Scotland.
The similarities to an M R James tale don’t end there. Sandwood Bay has a number of legends that the great man would probably have appreciated. One of these is that of the mermaid spotted by local farmer, Alexander Gunn. In 1900, Gunn was searching for a missing sheep in Sandwood Bay, when his collie began howling and cowering in fear. On one of the rocks, just above the tide, Gunn saw what he at first believed to be a seal. However, a closer look revealed the strange, recumbent figure to have reddish-yellow hair, yellow skin and blue-green eyes. It was also seven feet long…most definitely not a seal. Until his death in 1944, Alexander Gunn swore adamantly that his story was true.
But that isn’t the most enduring tale of Sandwood Bay. Prior to the construction of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath in 1828, Sandwood Bay had more than its fair share of shipwrecks, all of which are said to be buried beneath the sand on the beach. One poignant story relates to a fleet of three fishing boats from the Outer Hebrides that had taken shelter in a port during a nasty storm. One of the boats, for some reason, put its sails up and began setting out for home. The other two boats followed suit, instead of letting their sister vessel go alone. In the squall, the little fleet was broken up. Two boats made it to safety thanks to a light burning in a croft window, which guided them to shore. The light was on because a woman was giving birth in the croft. The other boat wasn’t so fortunate and was wrecked in the storm. A shepherd in Sandwood Bay found the bodies of two of the crew on the beach. They were a father and his 16-year-old son, who had tied themselves together before they drowned. Who knows how many other similar tragic tales the bay hides?
It is from these shipwrecks that the ghost stories of Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath arise. The ghost of a sailor is seen so often in the area, that the late ghost hunter Andrew Green remarked that Cape Wrath should perhaps be renamed Cape Wraith. There are a number of ideas as to who the sailor might be – the one similarity of each encounter is that the figure seen is large, wearing a sailor’s attire. Sandwood Bay cottage, which now lies as a roofless ruin on the north shore of Loch Sandwood, is one of the main locations of the tales. The most oft repeated is that on stormy nights, the revenant of a drowned sailor would knock on the windows of the cottage. In other tales, the ghost is seen striding the sand dunes of Sandwood Bay beach. When people go to investigate the figure, they find there are no footprints in the sand where it was seen walking. Locals say he is the ghost of a shipwreck victim.
But there is some confusion as to which shipwreck victim. One account is that the ghost is of a sailor who drowned when an Armada Galleon struck the rocks and sank. The legend also states that the ship still lies beneath the sands of the beach, its treasure buried with it. A similar tale is that the ghost is that of a burly sailor, who sank with a Polish ship. Resplendent in a large beard, sea boots, sailor cap and a brass-buttoned tunic, he has been seen by crofters, hikers and fishermen in the area. However, it’s argued that this ghost may be that of a large Australian man who had been fond of the area in life, and who apparently makes his presence known with heavy footsteps. Could it even be the case that there are not one, but several ghosts walking Sandwood Bay?
There is a huge amount of reports ghostly sailors being experienced in the area going back years. Perhaps there is a case for the existence of two, three or even more ghosts. A huge number of sailors must have perished in the many shipwrecks in Cape Wrath. The common image of a man at sea a hundred or so years ago is of the burly type, clothed in heavy jackets, caps and boots, with the odd beard thrown in. This would account for the similarity in appearance between the apparitions if there is more than one ghost. If it is just the one, then, as the accounts below show, it’s got to be one of the most active ghosts in this history of the paranormal!
We begin with the detailed accounts recorded by Peter Underwood in his Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts. Two men, another father and son pairing, were out collecting driftwood and other similar debris to use as kindling and firewood one day, when they wandered into Sandwood Bay. They had been working for several hours and about to head homewards, when their normally placid pony began to tremble. Suddenly, the large figure of bearded man, dressed as a sailor appeared on the beach next to them. He ordered them to ‘take their hands off what did not belong to them and to leave his property.” The men dropped all their wood and fled, unnerved by the man’s sudden appearance in such a desolate spot, feeling there was something eerie about him. Shortly after, the ghillie of a fishing party from Kinlochbervie was bewildered when he went to investigate the large figure the party had spotted walking the dunes of Sandwood Bay, believing him to be a poacher. Not only was there no man, there were no footprints in the sand where he had been. He also had on a sailor’s clothing.
Men working in the area would often use Sandwood Bay Cottage as a bothy. They weren’t necessarily guaranteed a quiet night after a hard day’s work. One shepherd stayed over after a long day with his sheep in Sandwood Bay. No sooner had he retired than he heard someone walking about in the room below. He was sure he had been alone, but still there were the footsteps tramping around downstairs. He got up, dressed, and took his candle with him to have a look. When he went downstairs, there was no one there. The footsteps stopped when he went back to bed. The shepherd attributed it noise to the ghost of the Australian mentioned above. Apparently, he had stayed in the cottage on a fishing trip in the area and fell in love, returning whenever he could. He died in Australia shortly after his last visit, and the shepherd believed his spirit returned to his favourite place.
An old fisherman staying in the cottage after helping a friend gather sheep had more terrifying experiences. One night, it was quite late, so he decided to stay over in the cottage. At midnight, the barking of his dog awoke him. Footsteps approached the cottage from outside, then someone knocked on the window. The fisherman looked up to see a bearded figure dressed as, what else, a sailor peer into the window. The fisherman got up and opened the door to see what he wanted, but no one was there. During another night at the cottage, the fisherman was awoken by the pressure of something dark and ominous pressing down on him. After that, he decided that it wasn’t a good idea to stay there again. Peter Underwood also notes that two hikers staying over in the cottage had a particularly frightening night, which had them sitting up until dawn. It’s unclear if this is the same case mentioned by Mark Alexander in his book Enchanted Britain, where two hikers spending the night in the cottage were woken up by the ruins shaking and the sound of an angry wild horse stamping over head.
Underwood also mentions correspondence he had with a woman in Edinburgh, connected to the cottage. She had never visited Sandwood Bay, but was given a splinter of wood, which came from the broken staircase of Sandwood Bay Cottage. The woman owned houses in both Edinburgh and London, and strange things happened in both. Plates would go flying and she heard inexplicable footsteps late at night. In her Edinburgh home, she smelt pipe tobacco and alcohol and turned to see the figure of a bearded sailor. He looked at her, and then disappeared by the lounge window. The splinter of wood had a habit of moving around by itself. The woman kept it locked away in a drawer and directly refused to visit Sandwood Bay.
Andrew Green, another ghost hunter of Peter Underwood’s generation, noted Sandwood Bay in two of his collections of British ghosts, Our Haunted Kingdom and Ghosts of Today. He gives a rather vivid description of the ghost – a tall man of 6 feet 6 inches in height, wearing a three cornered hat, knee length boots and a long dark coat. Slightly different to the other descriptions of a man either bearded or sans beard, wearing a tunic, or a reefer jacket, heavy sea boots, sometimes a peaked cap and in most cases sporting brass buttons. Yet another ghost?
Green mentions the case of two English tourists, Miss Smith and Miss Styring, who visited Cape Wrath in 1967. They were looking out to sea with their binoculars, and spotted a tall man standing by the cottage wall. The women started walking towards him, but he vanished. On making enquiries, locals told them they must have seen the ‘ghostie’ of the 18th century sailor, who died in a shipwreck 150 years earlier.
Sandwood Bay. It might be isolated, but certainly not a place you could be said to be truly alone in. Especially not if you consider Peter Underwood’s casual comment, that just along the Loch shore from the cottage, there also lies a disused, haunted shepherds’ bothy…