Smoo Cave, Durness, Sutherland

 

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  58.563820, -4.720031 Smoo Cave

Cave:  OS Grid Reference – NC 419 672

Getting Here

From Durness take the road east for a couple of miles till you see the signpost which takes you on the left-hand side of the road, down to the coast.  You can’t miss it!

Archaeology & History

Findings here allege to take the history of the place into the mesolithic period, but we don’t know this for sure.  An excavation here by a Mr Donald Macdonald of Sangobeg in 1904 uncovered the presence of several small bone pins, which seem consistent with Mesolithic finds elsewhere.  When archaeo-excavations were done here in 1982, human remains going back to at least Iron Age were found in the simple deposit of many shells.  A further analysis by the Glasgow Archaeology Unit in 1996 was prevented of some excavation by (get this!) those screwy Health & Safety regulations.  Here’s a definite case for an independent group to undertake work here, as we could ignore such preventative measures (and if we drown it’s our fault!).  Smoo Cave’s primary function is pretty obvious: it would have been used for both shelter and ritual. 

Folklore

The folklore here tells of magick and occultism and possible remnants of rites of passage lore. For herein, many centuries ago, a powerful land-owner called Lord Reay — reputed as a master in the black arts — battled with the devil in the Smoo Cave.

The devil was keeping watch on Lord Reay following a previous dispute between the two of them, and espied him as he entered the cave. As Alexander Polson told it, the cave

“consists of three caverns, one within the other. Lord Reay had got as far as the second, and his dog, which had gone on in advance, returned howling and hairless. By this, Lord Reay knew that Satan was there before him, and bravely waited the attack, which was soon made, and his lordship fought lustily. Happily at the opportune moment a cock crew. This frightened the devil and his attendant witches, but Lord Reay stood between them and the exit. In their fright they blew holes through the roof of the cave, and this is the origin of the two openings through which the Smoo burns fall.”

Pitch black cave; protective spirit animal; encountering one’s psychological nemesis; unconscious battles with Underworld forces; rebirth of the sun at cock-crowing time; the conquering of the dark forces and renewal of Lord Reay.  These are typical hallmarks probably signifying folk-remnants of shamanism and rites of passage, for which this cave may once have been used.

References:

  1. Polson, Alexander, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, W. Alexander: Inverness 1932.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian