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Balnakeil Church and Graveyard

nr Durness, Sutherland

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At the western end of Balnakeil Bay stands the remains of the an old church.

Balnakeil Church and it's Graveyard with Balnakeil Bay behind

Originally founded in 722 parts of the remains that are there today dates from around 1617, it was rebuilt in 1690 before being abandoned in the 19th century when a new church was built. It has been a centre of Christianity since the 8th Century, founded by St Maelrubha and developed into an important Celtic monastery.

Within the church is the tomb of a notorious villain, Domhnull MacMhurchaidh (Donald MacLeod/MacMurdo), who was a henchman to the chiefs of Clan Mackay until his death in 1623. The tomb is built into a niche on the south wall. Local legend says that he raided all and anyone and was responsible for at least 18 murders, and that when it was being rebuilt in 1619, he paid Uisdean Dubh MacKay the second Lord of Reay the sum of one thousand pounds on the condition that he was buried in a specially built vault in the church to prevent his enemies from interfering with his remains. This tombstone remains today and was there reason for our visit, as it has a number of odd heraldic devices including a Skull and Cross-bones situated on the top of the tombstone.

In the churchyard there are also a number of interesting 18th and 19th gravestones including a monument in memory of of Rob Donn a Gaelic poet, born near Durness in 1794, and a more recent grave of Elizabeth Parkes who was an aunt of John Lennon (one of the Beatles).

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The Tombstone of the notorious villain See Larger Image The Tomb within the Church Ruins See Larger Image

The ruins of Balnakeil Church See Larger Image

Entrance in Balnakeil Church & Graveyard See Larger Image

The famous Skull and Crossbone symbol said to be on the tombstone of Donald MacLeod (MacMurdo) the local notorious villain of the 17th Century See Larger Image

See Larger Image Click on the small images to see
a larger version.

Other nearby buildings include:

Balnakeil House which overlooks the beautiful Balnakeil Bay. Externally it dates from the 16th century, 1744, and was one of the homes of the chiefs of Clan Mackay. It is built on the site of a monastery that served the church, and was probably a fortified manor house being owned by the chief of MacKay, who later became Lord Reay. His principle house was in Tongue further around the coast, but a least part of his year was spent in Durness holding criminal courts in the house. In 1829 it passed to the Marquis of Stafford, who was later the Duke of Sutherland. Until in 1904 is was sold along with an extensive sheep farm to the Elliot family who still own it today.

There is also Balnakeil Mill dating from around 1819. It was a watermill and was originally used for grinding oats. It was last used around 1912. The water wheel, no longer there, would have been sited in the trench alongside the road and on the opposite side of the road you can identify a stone-lined channel (leet) that the water would have been fed.

From the car park you can also take a walk along the white sands of the crescent shaped Balnakeil Bay and it's nature reserve.

A view of Balnakeil Bay and it's nature reserve.

Further information Grid



Balnakeil Church, nr Durness, Sutherland

Ceremonial County: Sutherland

Grid Reference:


Map Link:


Aerial photo: Google Aerial 



Best Times to Visit:

Any reasonable time in daylight hours




Durness and Balnakeil

Other useful websites:


Nearby Locations: Smoo Cave Tourism     Smoo Cave
Other Relevant pages:  


Planning Grid


Balnakeil Church, nr Durness, Sutherland

Grid Reference:


Getting there:

From Durness, at the shops on the A838 take the single track road to Balnakeil and follow it to it's end.


The road to the church and bay is a single track road with passing places. There is car parking by the church and just before. Access into the graveyard is via a swing gate.


Small amount of car park outside the church and a further parking area on the right hand side before you go around the final bend as you approach the church



Things To Do, See and Photograph:

Church ruins, graveyard and headstones, also the Tomb of notorious villain Donald MacLeod.

What to take:


Nature highlights:





IV27 4PX



Opening times:

Any reasonable time in daylight hours



Photo Restrictions:


Other Restrictions:  
Special Needs Access: None from the roadside you have to go through a swing gate to get into the church yard.
Special Needs Facilities: None
Children Facilities:  
Dogs Allowed:  

Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Further information and Planning Grids or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.


By: Tracey Park Section: Abbeys Key:
Page Ref: balnakeil_church Topic: Abbeys Last Updated: 06/2012


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