by MJ Steel Collins
Chafed by the storms of the North Atlantic and standing in the shadow of the sea stack Am Buachaille in one of the northern points of Britain, lies Sandwood Bay, an isolated beach four miles from the nearest car park, located in the chillingly named Cape Wrath, Sutherland. The late ghost hunter Andrew Green quipped that it would be more appropriately named Cape Wraith, thanks to the many sightings of a ghostly sailor reported in the area over the decades.
I say ghostly sailor, but it appears that ghostly sailors would be more appropriate. With the variations in the description of the phantom reported by witnesses, it seems that there is more than one. There is a very sad reasoning behind this. Prior to the erection of the Cape Wrath Lighthouse in 1828, shipwrecks were such common occurrences on Sandwood Bay that it earned itself the nickname of Shipwreck Graveyard. It is supposed that many of the spectral sailors were victims of these tragedies.
However, as well, as the otherworldly sea dogs, Sandwood Bay has some other strange stories tied to it. In 1900, shepherd Alexander Gunn was out on the Bay when he saw what appeared to be a mermaid lying prone on the rocks by the surf. He swore blind that a mermaid was exactly what he saw until the day he died in 1944. Later on in the 20th century, two hikers decided to set up camp for a night in the ruins of the Sandwood Bay Cottage, which lies between the dunes and a fresh water lake, Loch Sandwood, which faces the sea. The unfortunate hikers didn’t get much sleep as they were awoken by what appeared to be the sound of hoof beats almost over their heads. Ghostly hoof beats.
But it is the sailors that rule the supernatural supreme at Sandwood Bay. The cottage also plays a key part in the stories, many of them being centred on the ghost – or ghosts. One traditional tale attached to the cottage dates back to the days of it being in use. On dark and stormy nights (of course), residents in the cottage would be awoken by the sound of someone knocking on the downstairs window. Checking, they would be faced by the apparition of an ancient bearded mariner apparently trying to get in.
This almost exactly mirrors the experience of an old fisherman helping a friend gather sheep on Sandwood Bay. As it was so late when he finished, the fisherman decided to spend the night in Sandwood Cottage, then used as a bothy by men working in the area. He had no sooner fallen asleep when he heard his dog barking and the sound of knocking coming from the window. Getting up, he looked out and saw a bearded old sailor peering in at him. The fisherman went to the door to see what the sailor wanted, but he had vanished. Another shepherd staying at the cottage had a curious experience. He settled down to sleep upstairs and was confused by the sound of loud footsteps coming from downstairs. Sure he had locked the place securely, he crept downstairs to see who it was – and nobody was there. The same man gave up staying in Sandwood Cottage altogether after a later, more frightening experience. He was again awoken late at night and felt a terrifying, oppressive presence in the room with him. Enough was enough.
Perhaps not the originator of the latter experience, it’s believed that Sandwood Cottage is in fact haunted not by a sailor, but an old Australian gent who loved spending his holidays fishing in Sandwood Bay, and who was particularly fond of the cottage. Shortly after his last stay there, the man sadly died, and appears to have chosen the cottage as the des res of his afterlife. The descriptions of heavy footsteps and of a heavy, tall man dressed in sailing gear, replete with beard apparently fit the description of him whilst alive: although it does seem to be slightly at odds with the strange figure peeking into the downstairs window.
Curiously enough, tall man in sailing clothing and with a beard matches most of the descriptions given of the ghostly sailor or sailors in Sandwood. Others have included a man dressed as a Polish sailor and even of a man in a tricorn hat, three quarter length jacket with shiny buttons and big boots. The mind boggles and it certainly merits further investigation. Some tales have it that a Spanish galleon wrecked on the Bay and the ghostly sailor is guarding its long lost treasure. Not that any riches have been found.
So what of the other experiences of the sailors? They are numerous. In the 1920s, a fishing party from Kinlochbervie, a nearby village, saw the figure of a sailor standing watching them from the dunes. As the area was private, a ghillie was sent ashore to investigate possible poaching. It was one very confused ghillie however – when he reached the spot where the man was seen, the sand wasn’t even disturbed by footprints. Later on in the 1960s, two English women holidaying in the area were looking out to sea through their binoculars when they saw a tall man standing by the now ruined Sandwood Cottage. Curious, they decided to walk out to meet him, but when they got to the cottage, no one was there. On recounting their experience to the locals, they were told that they had probably seen ‘the ghostie’.
Slightly more chilling is the tale told by Peter Underwood of two crofters, father and son, who strayed further than usual whilst gathering fire wood and ended up in Sandwood Bay. They spent hours gathering up debris and pieces of driftwood, tying it to their loyal, placid pony. Quite a surprise they got when the pony gave a start. Then seemingly from thin air, the stout figure of a bearded man in sailing rig appeared beside them and sternly told them to put back what didn’t belong to them and get off the land. Needless to say, the men dropped their carefully gathered firewood and left in a hurry.
The final tale concerns the ruined cottage itself. A woman living in Edinburgh, who had never been to Cape Wrath, was for some reason, sent a splinter of wood from the banister of the ruined cottage. Not long after she received it, poltergeist like phenomena started in her home. She also smelt the strange scent of the sea and saw an old sailor looking at her, standing by the living room window. The splinter of wood was soon banished to a locked drawer and the activity ceased.