At the eastern end of the extended village of Durness is the car park for Smoo Cave. "Smoo" is a name thought to derive from the Old Norse Smuga which means "hiding place" and the name is applied to this end of the village and to the river, the Allt Smoo, which disappears into a sinkhole on the inland side of the A838 a short distance from the car park, as well as to Smoo Cave itself.
It is entirely possible that the "hiding place" that so appealed to the Vikings was not so much the cave itself as the extremely narrow and steep sided inlet which extends for a third of a mile back to the mouth of the cave from the inhospitable cliff-girt shoreline to the north. Traces have been found of a fishing and shipbuilding community living and working here during the Viking era, and it is easy to imagine that this was an ideal place for a community that wanted to stay undetected by anyone sailing by, in an age when far more travellers journeyed by sea than overland. The earliest evidence of occupation of the cave goes back much further, to around 5,000 years ago.
Near the car park are a series of interpretive boards, and from here a set of steps descends the west side of the cleft. The most obvious feature as you begin your descent is the inlet running north out to the sea. Then your attention is gripped by the large flat-topped rock on the eastern side of the cleft. But as you near the foot of the descent you come into view of the main attraction, the huge gaping mouth of Smoo Cave itself.
After crossing the river by means of a wooden footbridge, a path heads into the first chamber of Smoo Cave. This chamber measures some 200 feet long, 130 feet wide, and is 50 feet high at the entrance. It is easy to imagine that a sizeable community might have made its home in the cave, and so long as you didn't pick one of the many spots where water drips down from the roof, you'd have probably been able to keep relatively warm and comfortable here.
The first chamber was created by the action of the sea. What makes Smoo Cave unique is that the second and third chambers were created by the action of the freshwater Allt Smoo. A covered walkway leads off to the west side of the first chamber and leads to the second. Here you find the mist and roar that accompanies the foot of a 60ft waterfall caused by the river dropping into its sinkhole.
The end of the walkway is as far as you will be able to go unaided. During the summer season, and when the quantity of water flowing down the river is low enough, there are daily tours conducted by boat into a third chamber, which lies on the far side of the second. On the day the photographs shown on this page were taken the water level in the second chamber was high and there was no possibility of reaching the third.
On returning to the car park it is well worth taking the short walk to the wooden bridge that has been built across the Allt Smoo at the point where it drops into the sinkhole. It is also possible to view from above, again from a safe distance, the location of blowholes in the roof of the cave you will have noticed while underground.
There are many stories associated with Smoo Cave, and for centuries it was believed to be the residence of the Devil. This made it a convenient place for the local laird's henchman to dump the bodies of anyone who fell foul of what passed for local justice at the time. In the 1700s two excisemen were searching the caves for a suspected illicit whisky still when they were murdered by the simple expedient of the local boatman (and, probably, illicit still operator) rowing their boat too close to the foot of the waterfall.
Smoo Cave came to public notice after Sir Walter Scott featured it in an account of the cruise around northern Scotland he undertook in 1814. It is now a fixture on the itinerary of just about every visitor to northern Sutherland which means, of course, that the car park can become a little busy at times.