Way up on the rugged northwest coast of the Scottish Highlands is Sandwood Bay, a remote beach reached by a 4-mile (about 6.5 km) journey on foot. There are some strange stories from the area that haven't become widespread enough for most people to know of. For those with an appetite for dark intrigue—and I know you're one of them—Sandwood Bay is more than just a beach; it's where nature's beauty intersects with eerie legends of phantom mariners, mysterious lights, imposing mermaids, and ancient shipwrecks.
Where is Sandwood Bay?
Places like Sandwood Bay are always interesting to explore because you typically won't find them on TV—probably because there's no convenient spooky filming location like an old lighthouse or crumbling hospital. Most people know the general location of Scotland, but in case you don't, here's a quick reference.
The area might be best known for a rock formation called "Am Buachaille"—about 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) southwest of Sandwood Bay.
Am Buachaille is a rock climbing destination, but little do those rock climbers know that a place steeped in the spookies is just a short walk away. Just think, they could be throwing in some supernatural hunting gear with rock climbing equipment and get a two-for-one cardio weekend climbing followed by running for their lives.
History of Sandwood Bay
The name Sandwood Bay is thought to derive from the Viking name "Sandvatn" meaning "sand water"—and the fact that the name likely has Viking origins already says a lot. Historians believe Viking longboats were hauled across Sandwood Bay and into the adjacent Sandwood Loch. Depending on where you started dragging a longboat, the distance would only be about a third of a mile (500 meters). The area is home to Pictish remains and suggests it could have been a hub of activity in early Scottish civilization.
In 1847, as part of a brutal eviction of the Gaels known as the "Highland Clearances", Sandwood Bay and the surrounding land were converted to sheep farming, and the former population was essentially pushed down to zero by 1940.
The bay has seen its share of incidents over the years, many of which are documented, and I'm sure plenty more were lost to time. In 1941, Sergeant Michael Kilburn was piloting a Spitfire from nearby Royal Air Force Castletown when the engine failed. He managed to crash-land on Sandwood Bay and somehow did it without injury. The wreckage remained there, most of it claimed over time by the corrosive touch of the sea, except for the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which still occasionally resurfaces during certain tidal and weather conditions. Sixty-eight years later, in 2009, a pilot named Keith Brown also crash-landed on the Sandwood Bay beach and somehow escaped injury. A team of 14 people dismantled the plane and carried it 4 miles (6 kilometers) away to the nearest road.
Planes aren't the only thing that wrecked on Sandwood Bay. There are tales of shipwrecks going pretty far back, and some include ghostly encounters.
Strange Tales of Sandwood Bay
Before the Cape Wrath lighthouse began illuminating the coast in 1828, Sandwood Bay became the final resting place for many ships. Author Seton Gordon noted that during walks in the area in the 1920s, he observed several submerged wrecks. In his 1935 book Highways & Byways in the West Highlands, he wrote of his astonishment at the sheer number of shipwrecks that lay just under the surface of both sand and water in the bay.
Visitors to the area have claimed that on stormy nights, a bearded sailor wanders the beach, lamenting his ancient sorrow. Supposedly, he's from one of the shipwrecks, though no one knows which. There's an old bothy nearby that the phantom mariner visits, occasionally knocking on the windows during stormy nights—perhaps to seek refuge from the very weather that took his life.
a basic shelter, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge
— Thanks, Wikipedia
On dark, moonless nights, some have seen mysterious lights dancing over the waters of Sandwood Bay. Speculation on the source of the lights seems to always point back to folklore of the area, and many people believe them to be will-o'-the-wisps—which are themselves unexplained worldwide phenomena.
Possibly connected to the ghostly mariner is a tale of a centuries-old Spanish galleon laden with gold that sank off the coast of Sandwood Bay. Periodically, a Spanish galleon's eerie silhouette—sometimes glowing—can be seen in the distance, never quite making it to shore.
All of these ghost tales may think you're safe roaming around Sandwood Bay in the daylight, but there's another story you should know. On January 5th, 1900, a local farmer named Alexander Gunn was out walking Sandwood Bay with his collie when the dog let out a howl and began to cringe in terror at his feet. Alexander looked around and found a figure reclining on a ledge above the tide. At first glance, he thought it was a seal, but then suddenly realized that it was much more humanoid in shape. It was a 7-foot long (2.1 meters) mermaid with reddish-yellow hair, green/blue eyes, and a yellow body. Alexander died in 1944 and never changed his story about the mermaid.
If you're wondering what's so scary about a mermaid, you haven't heard all the horror stories and dark folklore around them. In many legends, they intentionally distract ships and cause them to wreck near the shore—which is of particular interest due to the sheer number of wrecks in Sandwood Bay.
It's easy to imagine that the stories above could even be tangled together into one larger narrative, making for an even more intriguing history of Sandwood Bay. Visitors may find tranquil ocean beauty at Sandwood Bay, but there's an undercurrent of melancholy in the ruins and wreckage, a reminder of the sorrowful events that left their mark on its shores.
Relevant & Related
- Find out more about visiting Sandwood Bay at the walkhighlands.co.uk website.
- To see more of Am Buachaille, check out Climbing the epic Am Buachaille sea stack at teamBMC (the British Mountaineering Council's YouTube channel).
- Learn more about the horrors of The Highland Clearances in The Highland Clearances: Explained and The Highland Clearances of Scotland (A Short Documentary) and Highland Clearances and The Duke of Sutherland.
- If you happen to read French, there's a series of books called La Selkie by Megära Nolhan, and the third installment is titled La Malédiction de Sandwood Bay (The Curse of Sandwood Bay). I couldn't find an English translation, but that's never stopped me.
- STV had a little segment on Sandwood Bay in their Beyond Explanation series—available for free (depending on where you live).
- Like listening to the fiddle? Try Duncan Chisholm's album Sandwood—which was, of course, inspired by Sandwood Bay.
- To read about more folklore and legends nearby, check these out: Haunting of Ackergill Tower in Scotland | Glaistig of Scottish Folklore | Morgawr of Cornwall, England | Leannán Sídhe of Irish Folklore | Restless Spirits of St. Michan's Church in Dublin, Ireland | Ghosts of Charleville Castle in Ireland
Originally published in my weekly newsletter, Into Horror History - every week, I explore the history and lore of horror, from influential creators to obscure events. Cryptids, ghosts, folklore, books, music, movies, strange phenomena, urban legends, psychology, and creepy mysteries.
About the Creator
J.A. Hernandez enjoys horror, playing with cats, and hiding indoors away from the sun. Also, books. So many books—you wouldn't believe.
He runs a weekly newsletter called Into Horror History and writes fiction.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!