Last updated on August 26th, 2016
Carved deep into Scotland’s towering limestone cliffs, Smoo Cave’s natural beauty and singular air of mystery has made it a popular destination for travelers. Located near Durness, Sutherland, the cave features three chambers and the largest seaward entrance of any such cave in the UK — an entrance that looms nearly 50 feet above the swells of the North Sea.
Where the sea and river meet
One of the most unique features of Smoo Cave is that it contains both fresh water and seawater. While its inner chambers were carved out by the river Alt Smoo, its first chamber and gaping entry were created by the constant pounding of the North Sea.
The unceasing action of water upon limestone has created a sea cave that extends 200 feet into the cliff above, with three chambers as wide as 130 feet across. Toward the back of the cave, the Alt Smoo pours through a large sinkhole, creating a rushing underground waterfall in the cavern’s second chamber.
Visitors walk down a long wooden stairway from clifftop to ocean shore for year-round access to the cave. A wooden walkway leads through the huge first chamber and into the inky darkness of the second chamber, where the waterfall rages.
Those who don’t mind getting wet can experience the waterfall from a close-up viewing platform — at times the waterfall is so powerful that the chamber is filled with clouds of mist. At these times the thundering sound of the water can be nearly overwhelming. On calmer days visitors can take a small boat into the third chamber, which is only accessible by water.
The legends of Smoo Cave
Ancient stories tell of a gateway to the faerie world, guarded by spirits and located inside this enigmatic cave. In 1814, when Sir Walter Raleigh entered the third chamber by boat, he described it as exceedingly strange, and an appropriate home for dark beings from the netherworld.
But the story of Smoo Cave goes back much further than Raleigh’s visit. Artifacts from the Norse, Neolithic, and Iron Ages have been found in the cave’s main chamber. And the main chamber’s blowhole is said to be the scene of several murders in the 16th century, when a Scottish highwayman tossed his enemies into it.
In the early 1700s, the Smoo Cave was the setting for a murderous trap. The residents of nearby Durness lured a clan of marauders into the cave and slaughtered them to a man. More deaths occurred later in the century, when two Inland Revenue officers were drowned in the second chamber’s thunderous waterfall. One body was never recovered, and that ghost is said to haunt the waterfall to this day.
Surrounded by the stark beauty of gray ocean, white sands, and eerie rock formations, Smoo Cave is haunted by legend, uncannily magnificent, and completely unique. It’s an experience that no visitor to Northern Scotland should miss, and well worth adding to any traveler’s bucket list.