Smoo Cave, Durness, Geology, Archeology Wildlife, Hotels in Scotland, Highlands,Scottish Highlands

Smoo Cave – Durness - Scotland

Smoo Cave is located at the eastern edge of the village of Durness, on Scotland's most northerly coastline.

It is a dramatic location and on the only primary road in the area, the A838 Durness to Tongue.
A trip to Smoo Cave has to be included in any stay in Durness. Hotels near Durness
Set into limestone cliffs, Smoo Cave is quite large - 200 feet long, 130 feet wide, and 50 feet high at the entrance.
The cave is a great tourist attraction for people visiting the north-west coast, and is well worth a visit.
One mile from the Durness Tourist Information Centre on the road heading east is the car park and toilets for Smoo Cave.
There are steps leading down to the cave that can be accessed all year. Drive about half a mile out of Durness on the road to Tongue, until you see a sign for Smoo Cave.
Park without causing any obstruction, and look for the start of the steep path down to the cave entrance.
Caves are always interesting, but when the cave has an active river with a deep sinkhole and underground waterfalls, together with one of the largest and most dramatic entrances in the country it becomes fascinating.
Smoo Cave, hidden right beside the main North Coast road some 1⅓ miles east of Durness, where the Allt Smoo falls down an open shaft and flows through a series of huge chambers to emerge at sea level into a deep and dramatic tidal gorge is the most spectacular cave in Scotland.
The Cave, which has revealed fascinating evidence of transient occupation by early man, has attracted thousands of visitors from home and abroad for centuries, and currently attracts some 40000 visitors each year.

Smoo Cave is at present owned by the Highland Council, which has hitherto maintained the paths, bridges and walkways to enable free access to the underground chambers.

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There are vague stories, likely based on some fact, of the cave being a smugglers' hideaway and linked with tales of the supernatural.

It was formally believed to be the abode of spirits who guarded this entrance to the nether world. The first Lord of Reay (Donald Mackay, Chief of Clan Mackay) met with the Devil on several occasions and was able to get the better of him. The Prince of Darkness was none too pleased about this and followed Donald Mackay to Durness where he sought to waylay him in Smoo Cave. Lord Reay was heading for the cavern just before dawn but had the good fortune to send his dog into the blackness in front of him. When the animal came out howling and hairless the master of Reay realised what lay in store for him. He held back for a moment and in that moment the sun rose. In the light of day, the Devil was powerless and left through the roof of the cave leaving the three holes seen today.

Source: Alexander Po

lson's Scottish Witchcraft Lore (W. Alexander: Inverness 1932).

Among the many local legends surrounding the cave is that of the feared highway man McMurdo. Legend has it that during the sixteen century, McMurdo murdered his victims by throwing them down the blowhole into the cave. You can still see McMurdo’s tomb at Balnakeil Church which overlooks nearby Balnakeil Bay.

In or about the year 1720, the Clan Gunn from the borders' of Sutherland made an unexpected raid on the district of Durness. The inhabitants were taken unawares, and being unprepared had no alternative but to resort to stratagem, pretending to flee to safety they enticed the guns to follow them into the depths of the Smoo cave when once there they concealed themselves in the hidden recesses and crevices of this underground passageway in the limestone rocks from which they slaughtered the Gunns to the very last man,

A few years after the 45 rebellion an Inland Revenue Supervisor in the company of another Excise Officer, were ordered by the Government, to suppress the illegal practice of working small stills in the district of Durness, having authority to arrest the person involved in such illicit practices with power to confiscate their distilling plant. The gaugers bribed one, Donald Mackay by name, who resided in the vicinity of the Smoo Cave, to conduct them in his small boat into the inner chambers of the cave, where the illicit practice of distilling was, they had heard, being carried out in regularand uninterrupted fashion.

On this particular occasion on which Donald Mackay was employed by them, the Smoo Burn was in high flood, and on pushing off from the anchorage inside the second chamber of the cave, Mackay observed that the two gaugcrs were literally terrified, as he rowed them into the spray of the waterfall inside it.

Donald Mackay, being a strong swimmer, purposely maneuvered his craft into dangerous proximity to the crashing furies at the base of the fall and purposely capsized the boat, when he swam to safety, leaving the two unfortunate Inland Revenue officers to drown amid the angry, troubled waters. Rumours has it that one of the bodies has never been found to this day; but the ghost of this lost man appears in the foam below the waterfall inside the second chamber of Smoo Cave when the burn is in high flood.

Shortly after this " accident " the distilling plant was tactfully removed to a place of safety and the cave was deserted by the smugglers.


Smoo Cave is a very large sea cave, but the rear part is a karst cave which formed inside limestones of the Durness Group. The Durness Group are layers of limestones and dolomites. The rocks were formed during Odovician and Lower Cambrian as shelf sediments. They are found in a narrow belt running north to south, from the area of the Smoo Cave to Ardarroch at Loch Kishorn. The karst features of Smoo cave are typical for such a small limestone area with impermeable and insoluble rocks surrounding it. Waters flowing on impermeable rock, disappear in swallow holes as soon as they reach the border to the limestone.  They drain underground and reappear in karst springs and caves. Such a cave river is to be found inside Smoo cave, water from a burn which disappeared only a few meters away.

The cave is formed in a band of Durness limestone which in turn is surrounded by quartzite, gneiss and grits. Originally a small swallet cave, the entrance has been much enlarged by the action of the sea. The first chamber is the large opening from the sea inlet and has been formed by the action of the sea. The second chamber has been formed by the action of fresh water. The roof holes show the difference in the forces that formed the caverns.

The presence of caves in the vicinity of the Geodha Smoo, and indeed the presence of the Geodha itself, is a reflection of the character of the local geology, which isdominated by Cambrian Dumess Limestone.

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Conclusion and Discussion

The excavation of the Geodha Smoo Caves resulted in the identification of complex archaeological deposits and the recovery of valuable artefactual and environmental evidence. Optimum preservation levels were encountered, with animal bones and organic artifacts plentiful in a number of deposits. The presence of archaeological deposits in the three caves described here and in SmooCave itself clearly indicate the importance of this coastal location in the past. Prehistoric activity is evidenced by the deposits in the Wetweather Cave but the majority of the evidence, from all of the other caves, indicates their use during the Norse period.

Despite its confirmed occurrence in only one of the, caves (but see Pollard 1992), the discovery of prehistoric activity in the Wetweather Cave is of some considerable importance. Our present understanding of the extent and character of prehistoric, and indeed later, settlement in this extreme northwest corner of Scotland is limited, with very little fieldwork so far carried out in the area; a rare exception being Reld's survey of prehistoric monuments in the Dumess area (1967). The prehistoric utilisation of coastal caves and marine resources in the northern fringes of mainland Scotland should perhaps come as no surprise and the patterns of activity evidenced may bare some similarity to those envisaged for the west coast of Scotland (Pollard 1994).

The evidence from the other caves clearly indicates that marine resources continued to play an important role in the historic period. The deposits within the Glassknapper's Cave strongly suggest that the Norse, in an area characterised by an exposed coastline regularly battered by heavy seas, regarded the Geodha Smoo as an important natural harbour. There is also place name evidence (Fraser 1995, 94) to suggest a Norse presence, with the name Smoo perhaps having its origins in the Norse Smúga (rift, cleft, cave).

In common with other northern Scottish sites, the presence of quantities of large fish bones in the Glassknapper's Cave suggests that deep sea fishing played an important role in the Norse economy. The importance of boats is further emphasis by the presence of rivets and metal slag, both of which indicate the repair of boats. It is difficult to say whether this activity merely represents onecomponent of a more complex Norse archaeological landscape, with settlements situated in reasonably close proximity to the caves. If this were the case then the caves may relate to the daily practice of marine exploitation, representing the place at which fish were landed and processed before being transported to the settlement, balt (shellfísh?) prepared and boats maintained. However, as yet, no Norse settlements have been identified in this area, although the recovery of a Norse burial from the sand dunes at Balnakeil some 4 km to the northwest (Dorothy Low pers comm) does suggest that activity was not confined to the caves and their immediate environs. As with the case of prehistoric settlement, our under-standing of Norse actively along this part of the northern coast of mainland Scotland requires a more intensive programme of research. Excavations at Freswick Links and Robert's Haven have provided physical evidence for the Norse presence in Caithness suggested by a proliferation of Norse place names. More recently small scale excavation at Dunnet Bay, some 75km to the east of Smoo, has revealed the presence of a Norse settlement on the northern coast of Caithness (Pollard 1996). It remains to be seen whether this settlement pattern extends as far west as Smoo or whether the deposits in the caves were merely the results of temporary stop-over by Norse mariners on their voyages from Scandinavia and the Northern Isles to the Western Isles and more southerly destinations such as Ireland and the Isle of Man.

In the absence of further evidence this latter hypothesis is an attractive one, with the sheltered Geodha and the caves providing the ideal location in which to carry out repairs on boats, which may have suffered damage in heavy seas, the beach allowing boats to be hauled ashore if necessary. This 'port in a storm' would also provide the opportunity to process fish caught on the voyage and toprocure other foodstuffs, both wild and domestic, from the immediate environs of the caves. Although the deposits in both the GKC and AC were of considerable depth they may have resulted from regular visits, perhaps several times a year, and thus may have built up quite rapidly, perhaps over a period no longer than one or two hundred years. Despite the fact that much of the activity does appear to relate to Norse activity the potential for earlier (perhaps Iron Age) and later (Medieval and post Medieval) phases of use should not be overlooked. It is hoped that radiocarbon dating will help to clarify these chronological issues. Only with the completion of a full post-excavation programmed will we begin to more fully understand the archaeological implications of the deposits reported here. However, in the meantime, it is hoped that this report has served to demonstrate the rich potential of these sites.