Sandwood Bay, and its famed sea stack Am Buachaille, is situated a few miles from Cape Wrath, Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. To reach it, you have to walk four miles along a track from the Blairmore car park, the nearest you will get a car. Lying at the end of the path is one of the cleanest beaches in the British Isles, facing onto the Atlantic Ocean. Just behind the dunes, you will find Loch Sandwood and the ruined Sandwood Cottage.
The place has a sad history. Prior to the construction of the Cape Wrath Lighthouse in 1828, several ships were wrecked on the rocks of the bay during bad weather, resulting in a huge loss of life. Today, the remains of the shipwrecks are believed to lie beneath the sand of the beach. Unsurprisingly, this has also given rise to a number of ghost stories associated with the area. These are primarily centred on an unearthly sailor roaming the dunes. The description of the sailor varies from each tale, and there are so many tales of origin, it seems plausible that if ghostly sailors walk here, there is more than one.
Sandwood Cottage features in the best known of these tales. The legend is that on stormy nights, the ghost of a sailor would knock on the cottage windows. This bears out in the tale of one old fisherman who spent the night in the cottage after spending a day helping in the gathering of a friend’s sheep from the bay. Prior to it becoming a wreck, the cottage was frequently used as a bothy for men working in the area. The fisherman was awoken at midnight by the sound of his dog barking. He heard the sound of footsteps approaching the cottage followed by a knock at the window. Looking up, he saw the bearded visage of an old sea salt peering in. The fisherman went to the door to see who it was and what they wanted. Only, upon opening the door, the mysterious figure had vanished. The last straw for the fisherman happened not long after during another stay at the cottage, when he woke up to feel an ominous presence in the room with him.
A shepherd passing the night in the cottage after a hard day’s work was perplexed when he heard the sounds of heavy footsteps in the room below just after he had gone to bed. He got up, dressed and went downstairs to see whom it was; puzzled as he had been convinced he was alone. However, a full investigation revealed there was no one there. Campers taking shelter in the ruined cottage in later years have reported subsequent experiences. Two were kept awake all night by the sound of stampeding horses. Some of these hauntings have been linked to the spirit of an old Australian who had fallen in love with the cottage after spending a fishing holiday there. Following this, he returned as often as he could, taking his final trip a short time before his death in Australia. Locals believed that his deep love of the cottage caused his spirit to return after he died. The Australian had a predilection for wearing sailing clothing and clomping around in heavy boots, which was used to explain the heavy footsteps heard by the shepherd after he went to bed.
In 1967, two English tourists were looking at Sandwood Bay through their binoculars, when they saw a tall man standing just outside the cottage. The two women started walking towards him, but by time they got there, the figure had vanished. Curiously enough, Andrew Green described the ghost as being an impressively tall six feet six inches tall in one of his guides to haunted Britain – just a little taller than the average Scotsman is!
Other stories explaining the appearances of a ghostly sailor range from it being the spirit of a Polish sailor who died in a shipwreck, to a Spanish sailor from an Armada wreck. This certainly fits in with the varying descriptions of what the apparitions wear. Some have seen a man in a tricorn hat, others, a man in a reefer jacket. It all makes Sandwood Bay seem a little like an ethereal sailors’ retirement home. There are many reports of the apparitions being encountered away from the cottage. Several decades ago, a fishing party from Kinlochbervie, nearby town, were sailing in the bay when they saw a large figure standing on the dunes of the beach. A ghillie went to investigate, thinking it was a poacher, but found the area empty, with no signs of footprints nor any other evidence that someone had been there.
Perhaps the most eerie experience occurred when a father and son ventured further than usual with their trusty old mare to collect firewood for their croft, and spent a day gathering up driftwood in Sandwood Bay. It was getting dark, so the pair were about to head for home when they noticed their normally placid horse was incredibly unsettled. Out of nowhere, a large sailor, resplendent in a beard, appeared on the beach beside them. Both men were agape as the irate sailor ordered them to take their hands off what didn’t belong to them and leave his property. The men dropped everything and ran.
Therefore, if you ever find yourself in Sandwood Bay, it may be wise to heed the ghost’s wishes and treat the place with the respect it deserves.