Durness: Follow in John Lennon's tracks

As a teenager, John Lennon spent his holidays in the most remote town in mainland Britain. Now Durness is honouring him with a festival

Simon Calder
Sunday 18 September 2011 21:57

There are places I'll remember all my life. Inverness bus station is unlikely to be one of them, but the other end of the line certainly will. The finishing point of the wayward bus coincides with the edge of the world, or at least that is how it seems.

I emerged from the mobile cocoon of the Durness bus, which flopped to a halt at the end of the long haul from Inverness. Five hours' worth of human breath and perspiration had formed an early autumnal mist on the vehicle's windows. Outside, an early autumnal fog was doing its best to smother and smooth the roughest edge of the world, but the acute serrations of mainland Britain's most distant shore cut through the gloom with the sharpness of diamonds.

Long and winding: that sums up the road to Durness from, well, just about anywhere. The journey from Liverpool, on the rough roads of half a century ago, would have been a two-day epic. But it was a trip that John Lennon made five times in his teens.

"It was where he got a lot of inspiration before he became famous," says Ronnie Lanslie, who, in the tradition of the Highlands, has several jobs. He is Secretary of the Durness Development Group, proprietor of a gift shop called Wax and Wine, and prime mover behind the first John Lennon Northern Lights Festival, which takes place in the village next weekend. "John spent many hours as a boy in surroundings that took him away from his complicated life in Liverpool."

Lennon would have been familiar with the cavern: not a Liverpool club, but Britain's largest sea cave. Smoo Cave echoes with the power of the ocean. Reputedly, the first man to enter the cave was Sir Walter Scott in 1814; it was traditionally regarded as the gateway to Hell. Next weekend, the cavern will be pressed into service as a venue for many musical events.

The bus from Inverness terminates just above Smoo Cave: a few yards further, the road leaps across the void into which a stream seethes. Tumble down the grassy bank to a shore strewn with natural and unnatural detritus, branches smoothed and bleached by the sun and the wind and frozen into balletic poses by the sea. Blazes of yellow flowers, which define the word "tenacious", illuminate the walk into an echo chamber where aspirations can flourish.

The late genius behind the Beatles endured a muddled, melancholy upbringing in Merseyside. For Lennon, as with anyone, holidays provided an escape from the tyranny of the everyday. While his pals headed for Rhyl and Llandudno on the coast of North Wales, Lennon went as far as it is possible to go in Britain without getting your feet wet. His destination was the north-westernmost mainland community in the kingdom: Durness, population 350.

The economics of holidays were different in those days. Today, Liverpool John Lennon Airport provides quick, cheap access from Merseyside to sun-spots across Europe, and even has a link to New York. At the tail end of the 1950s, Britons might never have had it so good, but travel was still a frugal business. Anyone in the fortunate position of owning a car would be expected to fill it with as many travellers as the chassis would bear and drive to whichever coast had a relation who could offer free accommodation. In the case of the Beatle-to-be, the distant (in both senses) relative was Bertie Sutherland, who had married Lennon's maternal aunt and settled in the land that shared his surname. Lennon travelled in the company of his cousin, Stanley Parkes, who was five years older. They stayed in a sturdy white croft overlooking Sango Bay – a beach facing always the Arctic, never the sun.

I am looking at the bay now. The ancient rocks of north-west Sutherland have been battered by the elements eight days a week for the last few million years, leaving the surrounds of Sango Bay looking like a lower jaw half-full of rotting teeth. But they subside into smooth, shelving sands that gleam with silver, white and gold as the last of the summer sun burns through the vapour.


It is inviting to think that is precisely what the teenager from Liverpool did as he felt the perfect sand melt beneath his feet, followed shortly and shockingly by the searing Atlantic cold. Next time you listen to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4, pay particular attention to what Charlotte Green says about Sea Area Fair Isle: this ragged pentagon, pinched between Faroes and Viking, bears the brunt of everything that 3,000 miles of intemperate ocean can hurl at it. And next time you listen to a Beatles tune on Radio 2, imagine the young John Lennon contemplating the fury of the natural world. This is the landscape that is said to have inspired the song "In My Life".

After his final visit, Lennon returned painfully slowly to Liverpool, then to rapidly global stardom by way of the Cavern Club, Hamburg and Shea Stadium in New York.

Fifteen years elapsed between that legendary concert in 1965 and Lennon's assassination on the steps of the Dakota Building in Manhattan. But at the time the Beatles were falling apart in 1969, John and Yoko Ono returned to Durness so that he could share tales of his youth with his wife and his young son, Julian.

Plenty of people have washed up in Durness since then. If you want to run away from drudgery or heartbreak while still having the certainties of Radio 4 (or 2), the Royal Mail and the bright lights of Inverness a mere five-hour ride away, then the geographically most remote town in the mainland is for you. It has a school, a medical centre and a club called, presumably ironically, Oasis (those flimsy popsters who revelled for a time in the hyperbole of "the new Beatles").

No hype in the village's publicity: "A Quiet and Interesting Corner of Britain", it modestly claims, noting further that "Many of the pressures of modern-day living are not to be found here." For New Agers of a certain age, organic food and uplifting texts are on sale in the village. Statisticians who measure footfall would be depressed by the passing trade (the day I was there, only I was there, or so it seemed).

Next weekend, an implausible amount of trade will pass by the rough edge of Britain, when the Lennon Festival takes place at the most preposterous location you can, well, imagine. The 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival's location was daft enough (the finest line-up in the history of popular music, plus half a million fans, converging on a chalky fragment off the South Coast). But Durness is after quality, not quantity. The Lennon festival is not a money-making exercise aiming to attract music fans in their hundreds of thousands; 1,100 artistically minded tourists will do nicely. There will probably be room for everyone: the gaunt, corrugated, ocean-blue hut that serves as a youth hostel will welcome a few dozen; the Lazy Crofter bunkhouse has a few beds left for Sunday night only; and many of the dwellings will be pressed into service as ad hoc B&Bs.

Between the folk-rock performance, poetry recitals and art exhibitions, festival-goers should seek out the shrine to John Lennon. It has been constructed in a corner of the community centre grounds that is not so much wind-swept as gale-flattened. Tenacious shrubs and even the occasional flower conspire to provide the closest that most gardeners in far northern Scotland can get to a thriving floral display.

Three slabs of granite, their edges rough but their surfaces smooth, have been inscribed by the sculptor Neil Fuller with the words of "In My Life ". The villagers got a little help from their friends in creating the garden in an area that is a test ground for meteorological extremes and poor soil. A TV gardening programme assisted in creating a memorial to the star of 45s at a latitude of almost 60N.

John Lennon's choice of day-trips across this small universe was limited. You could try for a ferry across the narrow Kyle of Durness, and walk, hitch or bus the remaining four miles to Cape Wrath. In this remote corner of Britain it seems natural to precede "isolation" with "splendid ". Fiona Mackay, who runs the Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse, says "It's a fantastic place to live. We're so isolated here even compared with the islands, but we've got a good little community here."

Next weekend the village population will quadruple, in the name of the man whose connection with Durness is only slightly inflated by the blue plaque on the sturdy white croft above Sango Bay: "John Lennon 1940-1980, Musician & Songwriter, lived here".

Traveller's guide

Getting there

First, make your way to Britain's northern most city, Inverness. The only bus (01349 883 585; www.timdearmancoaches.co.uk) departs Inverness bus station at 8.50am daily except Sundays; the last of the year is scheduled for 29 September. One-way fare: £16.85.

If you are driving (or hitching), the most direct route from Inverness is on the A9 to the Dornoch Firth, the A836 to Lairg, then the A838 all the way to Durness.

To find the croft where John Lennon stayed, walk south-west from the centre of the village; you will see a transmitter on a hill. The croft is on the road just beneath it.

Festival details

The John Lennon Northern Lights Festival (07740 067 042; www.northhighlands scotland.com/festival) takes place 28-30 September. Some events free; others require purchase of a day ticket for £25 from the Village Hall between 11am and 1pm. Durness tourist office: 01971 511 259.

Alice Palmer

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