Scottish Sea Kayak Trail Part 1 ~ Gigha to Skye

Gaël Auffret

Grabner H2 report  • Part 2, May 2011 • Part 3, May 2012

I was not actually used to camping in the rain. My personal survival mode turns on with the first rain drops. I started worrying about staying dry when I heard the rain drumming on my tent that first morning in real Scotland. When I had decided to do a paddling trip along the Scottish west coast I knew what to expect. I was prepared and had enough room in my tent to dress and pack critical items such as my sleeping bag in drybags. Removing the inner tent gave me even more space to have a comfortable breakfast. When I broke camp the only wet thing was the tent flysheet. Yet I still wondered how long I could cope with these conditions. I had spent this first rainy night in a campground near Luss, on Loch Lomond west shore. I had arrived there at dusk the day before, after a long drive from Paris. The beauty of the landscape made me forget the weather as I drove along Loch Fyne. Inveraray was packed with tourists despite the showers. The rain didn’t stop until I reached Tayinloan on the west coast of Kintyre. I thought I’d find the Oban tide table in the tiny shop but I was wrong. I had to return to Tarbert where I should have stopped earlier. There I found the Oban tide tables at the tourist office. I bought some midge repellent, bread and peanut butter.

It was still early afternoon and I had enough time to cross to Gigha and set camp at the Ardminish boathouse, but I had to solve the problem of where to leave my car. According to the SSKT guide book I could leave it on the ferry car park but I didn’t want to worry about it during the next 2 or 3 weeks. So I decided to go to the Point Sands campground and get permission to leave my car there. I pitched my tent on the grass just behind the beach and spent the rest of the day preparing next day’s navigation on maps.

First paddle strokes in Scottish waters
No rain this Sunday morning. I inflated my Grabner IK (inflatable kayak), sorted out my gear, packed it in the appropriate drybags and carried it all down the beach. It was low tide. The sea was calm but the low and dark clouds looked ominous. I was ready to push off at noon. Soon I was riding the small chop of Gigha sound, and I relished this moment that I had longed for many years.
The 5km crossing to Gigha was the first leg of the trip. It was neap tide so the current in the sound was negligible. The paddling conditions were good so I could skip stopping at Ardminish Bay and paddle on towards the northern tip of Gigha. Thanks to the excellent visibility I could see the Gamnha Gigha rocks and light, and identify Rochanan Point in the distance. I took aim and paddled across the sound again and had a first encounter with seals on Gamnha Gigha. They are the same color as the rocks so I noticed them only when they started moving.
I landed on Rochanan Point after 4 hours at sea. I was hungry. A NW breeze took up while I was having lunch. The wind and the chop were manageable and I crossed Loch West Tarbert with reasonable effort. I went around Ardpatrick Point then to Rubha Cruitiridh across Loch Stornoway. This bay was a possible landing if the conditions worsened and prevented me getting round Kilberry Head. I stopped on a small beach to relax, have a snack and empty the boat of the water that had splashed in during the crossing. The wind kicked up again around Kilberry Head and the clapotis rocked my boat in all directions. The rodeo-like ride went on until I passed Port Ban.
Soon I landed in Miller’s Bay on a postcard-perfect sandy beach. Behind it I found a grassy spot occupied only by two sheep, half a dozen cows and many rabbits. I pitched my tent, gathered wood, cooked some noodles and watched the sunset. My first paddling day in Scotland was almost over. I had paddled 32 km (20 miles), overcome the head wind and ridden the clapotis.  I had faced the same conditions many times before, but for some reason I had thought it would be more difficult in Scotland. Of course I was wrong.

Through the Dorus Mor
I expected to meet the same conditions along the following sections of the route. But Kilberry Head was the last exposed stretch of coast before a safer area of inshore waters. I was now protected from offshore weather by the high paps of Jura. The conditions that usually make this place tricky are strong currents during spring tides and south-westerly wind. Tides were neap so the current was negligible, and the wind was just a light northerly breeze. Fortunately for me the danger that the SSKT book warns against were non-existent and the crossing to Point Knap was like paddling on a pond.

Rubha na Cille
I stopped for a quick lunch near Rubha na Cille and indulged into a short nap before taking to water. The sea was flat now. The breeze died as I was ploughing my way towards Carsaig Bay. Paddling on this mirror-like water would have been boring save for the fantastic landscape I had around me. I had never met such incredible skies, nor such mountains towering above such a glistening sea.
I didn’t find a camping spot around Carsaig Bay but had enough time to pass the Dorus Mor with the end of the flow. The, dead calm conditions were ideal for this passage. From Ardnoe I took a course to Garbh Reisa, the island marking the entrance of the Dorus Mor. This passage is a dangerous race in spring tides. The instructions given by the SSKT book were to reach the entrance at slack water and go with a beginning tide. They were valid for spring tides, but it was neaps and my plan was to cross at mid-tide to take advantage of the fastest current and add more distance to today’s mileage. I was late and I started feeling some current only when I reached the north tip of Garbh Reisa. To the west appeared the gap between Jura and Scarba, the infamous Gulf Of Corryvreckan, where a deadly whirlpool forms in spring tides. I gently glided around Craignish Point then turned north, expecting some push from the remainder of the flow. I looked to the shore to assess my speed: I was stuck, even being pulled slightly backwards to Craignish by some invisible eddy. I was not sure of the right move to make, get closer to the shore or away from it and closer to Reisa Mhic Phaidean. I had read that currents might be surprising in this area so I took the first option. I followed the shore until I found a suitable landing and camping spot in Bagh Dail nan Ceann, where I arrived just as I began feeling sore arms.
After pitching my tent in the tall grass, I picked some wood for the stove. I found a rather big piece on the pebble beach and used my folding saw and Finnish knife to split it into kindling. I kept my Yak paddling suit on as a camp suit and it worked well, keeping me warm and dry without overheating while paddling or shivering while on the shore.

Inshore waters
I woke up to the song of rain and wind. No surprise; the forecast had announced moderate wind save for squalls from the West. I had company under the tent flysheet: slugs and frogs were having a morning meeting on my face.
The first effort of the day was to get out of my sleeping bag, the second was to put on my Yak trousers inside the tent. They were cold and clammy and making my feet break through the latex ankle seals was a chore. The rain stopped and as the sky cleared I enjoyed the view on distant islands to the west while sipping some hot coffee.
After an easy crossing to Luing via Shuna south tip, I paddled northwards hugging the shore of Luing to dodge the ebbing current in the sound. I stopped in Toberonochy where I could get some water from a gentleman who stopped some masonry work to fill my water bag. I went around Torsa in the company of seals and rode a convenient eddy created by the current ebbing from Cuan sound that brought me to Seil. There I stopped to wait for the flow at the entrance of the sound of Seil.
I entered Clachan sound not long after low tide but there was enough water for my kayak to glide over the kelp. Soon I passed under the famous bridge over the Atlantic, then through a narrow and shallow canal, and eventually emerged among some islets just north of Puilladobhrain. There I met a group of kayakers from Oban.  Their leader came over to say hello. She even added that my kayak was nice. I was surprised as most hardshell sea kayakers usually find any IK ugly. We parted company and I headed to Kerrera taking a direct course to Rubha Seanach, Kerrera’s southeast tip. It was an open passage, out of the protection of any island. Mull was too far away to offer any significant shelter from the westerly breeze but it was manageable and I liked to feel the moves of the swell again after two days of lake-like conditions.
The impressive Gyllen castle came into view and soon I entered Port a’Chaisteil. There a confused clapotis was stirring the water, making shooting pictures difficult. It was no better in Port a’Chroinn, the beach on the southeastside of the Castle. I went out of the bay, turned left around Rubha Seanach and entered the relatively flat waters of Kerrera sound where I paddled downwind up to Little Horse Shoe Bay, looking for a suitable campsite.

Crossings – Kerrera to Kilchoan
I was thinking about today’s route while spreading a thick layer of peanut butter on a Breton pancake. I had water for at least another 2 days, food for another 2 weeks. I had OS maps covering the coast up to Lochalsh and the Skye bridge. I needed no additional equipment. In short needed nothing in Oban. So why bother? I decided to go around Kerrera clockwise instead. The west coast of Kerrera was rugged and beautiful. The view over the Firth of Lorn to Mull and the distant Morvern hills was promising. There was no shipping traffic except some fisherman and a barge or two. The ferry traffic was concentrated in Mull sound, going to and from Oban on a route that passes between Lady’s Rock and Lismore. I stopped on a shingle beach in Slatrach bay. This place offered superb camping and I promised myself to return and spend some time here. During spring tides the crossing to Mull has to be accurately timed in order to avoid being dragged in the race that forms between Lady’s Rock and Duart Point. It was still neaps, the tide was ebbing and I would just need to compensate a slight southbound current. I took a course to Grass Point against a moderate headwind. The visibility was excellent until I reached the middle of the 6.5 km (4 mile) passage where I saw thick cloud rolling down the slopes of Mull to the head of the sound, progressively concealing the landscape. I watched Lady’s Rock lighthouse as it started fading in the haze, while Eilan Musdile lighthouse was already invisible. I was now facing the situation I feared so much, being caught far from the shore in the way of large ships with little or no visibility. I knew it was strongly advised to have a VHF radio ready in busy waters, but I didn’t think it could prevent a collision. I ought to be wearing a fluo jacket but I had forgotten it in my car. I had the one solution every sea kayaker has left to escape the danger zone: paddle faster. So I did until I reached some fishnet buoys which were a sure sign that I was out of the shipping lane. I reached Mull and hugged the rocky shore. The wind picked up and showers became stronger and more frequent. I paddled under the conspicuous crenellated tower which ornates Duart Point; a heavy shower prevented me to take a picture of this famous landmark. As I came closer to the tip of Duart and entered the Sound of Mull, I was hit by a strong northwest breeze which was funneled between Mull and Morvern. I struggled harder to make headway and reached the foot of Duart Castle. I managed to take a picture of it although I was tossed by the waves and carried away by the wind. I turned into Duart Bay and landed on the beach. I had lunch in the shelter of some bush. Then I huddled under my poncho and fell asleep, impervious to the showers lashing down around me.
Returning to the beach after a walk to the castle, I found that the wind had dropped and although it was already late in the afternoon I had time to paddle further to the west. The receding tide had left my kayak high on the sand and I had to perform the whole unload-carry-reload process before launching. I went against the now reasonable headwind and after crossing Craignure Bay I found a suitable campsite in a meadow close to Scallastle golf course. Two eagles hovering over the shingle beach and a group of deer strolling nearby were my only companions. I cooked my dinner behind a bush that protected me from the cold wind before showers pushed me in my tent to eat my noodles.
Next morning brought more showers and gusts. I crossed to the Morvern shore as a cargo ship was coming from the west. I thought I had plenty of time to hop from Glas Eileanan lighthouse to Eilean Rubha and Ridire skerry, but once in the middle of Sound I saw the ship features alarmingly growing fast so I sprinted out of the way.
I followed the beautiful Morvern shore and had my first encounter with otters. At first I was surprised by the sight of two long-tailed furry animals running on the kelp then jumping in the water. I stopped nearby hoping to spot more otters while having lunch, but none showed up. Despite the intermittent drizzle the place was lovely. Further up the Sound I landed in Lochaline near the ferry pier. For morale building I had a coffee and a scone at the small coffee shop.
Another 14 km further west I crossed again the Sound from Dun Ban to Rubh’an-t-Sean Chaisteil. I landed on a shingle beach next to a stream to check for a possible campsite. Up above the beach I found a flat grassy shelf at the bottom of the hills, a perfect spot obviously often used by other kayakers. Several cairns had been erected by previous visitors and pipes were arranged as benches around a fireplace and there was dry wood stored inside, of which I used only a few twigs.
The wind had backed to southeast during the night, bringing lukewarm but wet weather. Paddling through the Doirlion a’ Chailbhe narrow channel, I entered Tobermory under a low grey sky. Fading in the hazy drizzle the famous brightly painted houses lining its main-street appeared paler than usually seen on postcards. I landed near the harbour office. My paddling suit was dripping on the floor as I asked the weather forecast from the woman behind the counter, drawing disapproving gazes from the tourists. She produced a printout of the met office web page. I had no glasses and she lent me hers. She called me back as I started walking away still wearing them. The forecast confirmed light south to southeast winds all day, perfect for crossing the Sound then Loch Sunart mouth to Kilchoan, then skirting Ardnamurchan. The wind would carry me directly to Kilchoan but I had first to cross the shipping lane. Although there was less traffic than the day before, I thought the direct route was not safe, so I decided to cross the Sound from Calve Island to Auliston Point. On the way I checked the waves were not breaking on Big and Little Stirk, a clue that the sea would not be rough around Ardnamurchan. Three otters welcomed me at Auliston point. I went on across Loch Sunart to Maclean’s Nose, the wind and the waves pushing me gently to my destination and I landed on a skerry just outside Kilchoan.

Around the Ardnamurchan peninsula
There was a small celebration in Kilchoan. I could see it from the skerry where I was having a quick lunch. The forecast I had looked at in Tobermory’s harbour office announced a north wind tomorrow while confirming a southerly light breeze for today. Therefore the best time to go around Ardnamurchan was Right Now! From the map and the guide I knew that between Sron Bheag and Ardnamurchan lighthouse there would be no escape route for about 10km. That was at least two hours strung out below bleak cliffs from which waves bounced back creating an uncomfortable clapotis of mixed-up water. I hoped to encounter dolphins or even Minke whales as promised in the guide book, but the sea around Ardnamurchan was empty save for the usual birds although I did see the fin of a basking shark. Even though I had ideal conditions for this section, I was relieved when the tall figure of the lighthouse came into view.
Sandy Sanna Bay lived up to its description and I relished paddling among the scattered skerries and along its perfect beaches. I carried on past Sanna Point because I believed it would be more difficult tomorrow when it would be exposed to the forecasted northerly wind. However, I could not find a safe landing spot in the bay east of Sanna Point so I came to the Bay and landed on the smooth sand of a west-facing beach protected by a barrier of skerries. It had been a long day on the water. I was tired but happy to have overcome this major headland so easily. The hard part was still to come.
Next morning the expected northerly was on and the sea was scattered with whitecaps. I launched in incredibly transparent water, glistening under the sun already high in the blue sky. The Small Isles were clearly visible to the north. Leaving the shelter of the last skerry I ploughed into the steep waves around Sanna Point then paddled a long 8-km stretch of beautiful though threatening jagged cliffs.  I could tackle the beam sea but the ride was pretty wet as some waves crashed over the port side of my kayak and took enough water to feel the cold around my ass.
I landed on the tiny beach in Fascadale Bay, timing the wave pattern to avoid being dumped in the sand. I needed a short rest before resuming my struggle to prevent the wind and the waves hurling me onto the rocks. I bailed the water from the Grabner, launched and went out punching through the chop, taking on as much or more water in the process. Some day I should rig a deck cover to this boat! As I paddled to Rubha Aird Druimnich headland a sudden and stinging hunger hit me. My paddling pace and my speed dropped alarmingly as the power in my arms and upper body vanished. I devoured a handfull of nuts and sultanas and all my sesame bars, sucked most of my water bottle and resumed paddling at a slower pace until I felt my strength back. Rubha Aird Druimnich seemed discouragingly far and I felt like I’d never reach it. But stroke after stroke it slowly loomed larger until I could see the cormorants drying their wings on its top. I rounded the point and enjoyed the wind and waves pushing me towards the conspicuous beach of Camas an Lighe where I noticed a narrow opening cutting into the rocky shore. I paddled through it and entered a pool which formed a perfect natural harbour, sheltered from all sides. Above the beach among the trees were an abandoned cottage and a decayed boathouse. It was the beginning of the rising tide so I moored the kayak, took my day bag, found a convenient rock to sit on and had the lunch I’d been longing for hours.
Castle Tioram in Loch Moidart is an impressive building. Except at high tide it is accessible from the mainland, so tourists were coming and going. Although there was a flat patch of grass providing an adequate campsite just near the little beach I decided to find another place to pitch my tent. I eventually landed on Riska island. There was a great camping spot but the ground was soaked. At least I could verify that the floor of my inner tent was watertight.
Next morning I was invited to have a coffee on board of a Polish sailboat. I had met Jeff, her skipper, on Tioram the day before. He had sailed single-handed from Gdansk. We had both been alone for a long time so we were both happy to have a civilized conversation with another person (after 2 days alone I start speaking aloud to myself). Time passed without my noticing until when looking over the rail I saw that the tide had reversed. I jumped in my kayak and pushed off. I paddled out of Loch Moidart through the south channel, for the eastern section of the north channel was dry. As I was rounding Shona’s southeast corner I went across two cruising Wayfarers heading into the Loch with the flow.
I stopped for lunch on a lovely beach facing south on Samalaman island, then carried on to Glenuig where I refilled my water bag at the inn. Instead of heading to the northeast I paddled east up to Eilean nan Gobhar at the mouth of Loch Ailort. My goal was the Iron Age fort supposedly crowning this rock but I did not see any. Then I set a course to Eilean a t-Snidhe and paddled towards the declining sun setting behind the Small Isles. The conspicuous Sgurr of Eigg provided a perfect landmark to aim for.
Soon after rounding the southwest corner of Rubh’Arisaig, I started looking for a campsite. I noticed two dinghies which had been hauled up the beach. I went closer and recognized the unmistakable features of the two Wayfarers I had met earlier near Loch Moidart. Four tents were pitched on the grass shelf above the beach. I assumed there would be room for a fifth one so I went ashore. I walked up to one of the larger tents where a group of eight people were having dinner. I said good evening and asked permission to share the place, which was joyously granted. Meanwhile, a herd of cows came to inspect my boat. They soon invaded our camp until we drove them away by yelling and waving arms frantically.
The Scots invited me to join them around the bonfire they had lit on the beach. We swapped boating stories while sipping cider. They had caught only one mackerel which was being cooked on a flat stone put close to the fire. The kids were grilling marshmallows on sticks. As one boy was trimming his stick with the tiny saw blade of his little SAK, I handed him my Fiskars folding saw saying “you’d rather use a real saw”. Then his father produced a beautiful folding bucksaw out of a bag and said “THIS is a real saw!” Never underestimate the amount of gear a Wayfarer crew can carry. Those two families had sailed their Wayfarers from Glenuig to Eigg and Muck. They were just returning from these isles when I met them this morning. They used to stop on this beach every year. I heard that Dougal, one of the boys, was a piper. I told him I’d like to hear him. A moment later he was back with his bagpipe and played standing in this darkness so particular to places where the sun set in the sea. Huge and low black clouds invaded the sky to the west and we felt the raindrops and the wind started a song that meant it was time to go to bed.
I pushed off late in the morning after waiting for a southwest squall to calm down. The sea flattened and the sun broke through the clouds. I entered the Arisaig skerries at low tide and there was not enough water left to get to Luinga Mhor. I landed on the sand and had lunch under a sunny blue sky. My Wayfarers companions had told me there would be many kayakers in this area, but I only met one group of half a dozen French paddlers who was picnicking not far from me. I paddled up Loch nan Ceall with the rising tide. My timing was right so I could land just in front of the Spar store in Arisaig. I pulled the boat onto the seaweed and moored her to a rock. At the grocery I indulged in some candy bars and a pack of beer as a treat for my birthday, packed the supplies in my daybag and put to sea. I paddled two miles against the southwest wind and the tide before turning north. There was enough water to take the short cut passage between Eilan Ighe and the mainland. I hopped downwind from skerry to skerry along miles of white sand beaches until I reached the bay of Morar. The map didn’t show any convenient landing till Mallaig, so I turned back and went ashore at the tip of a headland located near the famous Camas an Daraich, landing on a tiny beach tucked between rocks and grassy dunes providing shelter from the southwest breeze.
The wind had veered to northwest again during the night and the temperature dropped significantly so I was shivering when I stopped in Mallaig. I expected this place to be bustling with tourists but I was alone on the slippery slipway in the southeast corner of the harbour. My initial plan was to leave the boat there and to walk to the Fishermen’s Mission for coffee and scones. Forget the coffee, I pushed off and vigorously resumed paddling in order to warm up, motivated by the beauty of the landscape offered by the Cuillin hills rising in the northwest and the Knoydart mountains across the mouth of Loch Nevis. There were no boats on the water, just a fisherman raising his lobster pots off the Knoydart shore. He kept me company to Doune, where I landed on the pebble beach one hour before low tide. The sun came back out and I spread my tent to dry on the boulders. Above the beach was an array of wooden bungalows so I went exploring. A chambermaid explained the place was a kind of hotel where the guests come by boat since there are no roads. She showed me to the kitchen where the cooks refilled my water bag. They were preparing scones, cakes and other good stuff. It was smelling so good but I was not offered anything except a shower. I felt slightly ashamed of my stinking, but only for a split second.
As I paddled past Airor I enjoyed a short spell of dead calm. To avoid overheating I took off my PFD and cag. It lasted all of 15 minutes before the wind picked up again from the north and I had to put it all back on. From Rubh’Ard Slisneach I took a course to Rubha’ a’Chaisteil on the north shore of Loch Hourne. The north headwind slowed me down so I had plenty of time to gaze at the beautiful Loch Hourne mountainous backdrop. I reached the opposite shore, paddled on to Sandaig and landed on the beach to take a picture of Gavin Maxwell’s cottage. I was mesmerized by this place. After a nautical exploration of the islands in company of ubiquitous seals, I landed and made camp on one of them.

Stuck in Sandaig
I was in the last phase of my breaking camp routine. All gear was packed and I just had to pull off some pegs and take down the flysheet of my tent. But suddenly the wind picked up in a series of gusts and showers. The sea to the northeast was all whitecaps and the temperature plummeted. I was expecting a spell of fine weather from the building of a high-pressure shoulder on the area but this was evidence that a front had found his way around the high pressures. The resulting gradient just meant stronger wind blowing from where I wanted to go. So much for a triumphant arrival in Lochalsh today. I was stuck in Sandaig.
Bound to stay in my tent by the rain, I spent this forced day off reading, planning future navigation, making a list of supplies, but mostly dozing, stunned by the hammering of frequent downpours. I could not use any stove inside tent, so I ate cold meals of Mediterranean cereals, a kind of couscous that only requires some water on it. It’s ready after half an hour once the cereals have absorbed the water. I had also cheese, saucisson, bread, butter, dry fruits, neither requiring any heating nor cooking. Nevertheless I indulged in a big chocolate bar for morale building. Water was leaking in the tent because of two toggle straps sewn through the flysheet. I attached plastic bags with small rubber bands to the toggles so the water wicked inside the bags instead of splashing inside the tent.
Next day I woke up to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach at high tide. It was not as loud as the day before though. Staying in bed and enjoying some oatmeal in the warmth of my sleeping bag, I listened to the sounds of nature outside. There was other evidence of weather improvement: no rattling of the rain, and ess flexing of the tent under the pressure of the wind. I looked out and watched the sea and the sky for clues which would help to make a right go/no go decision. The wind was blowing from northwest, so it would be at least a one-hour struggle to Skye across the two-kilometre wide Sound of Sleat. I put to sea from the lee side of the islet, paddled to the last bit of protected water, took a breath, sucked a large gulp of water and rushed forward. I battered into a short and steep chop, the prow rising on the crest of the oncoming wave then falling heavily in the successive trough. After I’d crossed two-thirds of the distance I reached the point where the mountains of Skye started providing shelter. The wind decreased and the sea gradually flattened as I came into the island’s lee. Close to the shore the water became like a pond barely rippled by gusts of air falling from the hills. I landed on a pebble beach, bailed my kayak and relaxed. Looking back to Sandaig islands in the distance, they seemed incredibly far.

Through Kyle Rhea
I landed near the village of Kylerhea and the tide was ebbing at full speed now. Ten minutes earlier it had stopped me near the Glenelg ferry landing. I had met the southerly current when rounding Dunan Ruadh but I had been able to paddle on thanks to eddies running northward near the shore. From my vantage point I watched the seething water rush along the opposite shore into Glenelg Bay.
I pushed off at slack water. I expected the flow to help me through the narrows but I reached Sgeir na Caillich before the current had built significantly. There I was greeted by a strong northwesterly breeze rocketing down Loch Alsh. After skirting Rubha Duibhe I gave up heading directly to Castle Moil and paddled close to the shore hoping there would be shelter in the lee of Loch na Beiste. The wind proved to be the same but the chop was much smaller, making the ride much more comfortable. I came along the rusty wreck of HMS Port Napier. There I met a tourist glass-bottom boat, the Atlantis, the only other boat I could see on the water. I passed Castle Moil and crossed the mouth of Kyleakin harbour to the slipway. I paddled into the harbor and docked my kayak along a pontoon. The hostels along the pier were full so I found a berth in a backpackers. I returned to my kayak, paddled out of the harbour into Otter Pond and landed on the shingle beach in front of the hostel. I stored my boat in the hostel’s backyard, got out of my clammy kayak outfit, and went to the bathroom for a well-deserved shower. Once neat and clean I went to Saucy Mary’s, the pub and lodge next door, with a fellow French traveller. We enjoyed a hearty dinner, some pints of local ale, good music and good company.
Early next morning I took a bus to Lochalsh. I had to wait till 10 o’clock in the supermarket because they can’t sell beer before that time. I left my bag of supplies to the cashier and went to the tourist store to buy some maps. I had reached Skye much sooner than planned despite headwinds. The forecast was promising a spell of fine weather thanks to the high-pressure shoulder.  Should it last a week I might be able to make it to Ullapool. My initial plan was a finish in Skye, so I’d not taken OS maps to cover the area farther north than Lochalsh. Unfortunately, I could only find one map, the one going up to Applecross.
I returned to Tescos, paid my supplies including a six-pack of McEwans and walked over the famous Skye bridge back to Kyleakin. The wind was still blowing from northwest and got even stronger in the afternoon. I didn’t want to stay there any longer, but I couldn’t head north in such conditions. So be it, I launched in Otter Pond and paddled downwind through Loch Alsh then Kyle Rhea. At the ferry landing I met a group of kayakers led by the other famous Gordon Brown. They clearly looked down on me, as all so called real sea kayakers do when they meet an IK-er. Nevertheless, I engaged conversation with GB and he warmed up a bit when I told him I was from Brittany. I carried on along the rugged and beautiful Skye shore. The sky was blue, the whitecaps glistened in the sun on the choppy waters of the Sound of Sleat. I glided to the mouth of Loch na Dal. The view to Loch Hourne was extraordinary. The water was whipped by the gusts. I turned towards the head of the Loch instead of crossing to Duisdalemore. I found a lovely campsite by a stream and under the trees, well sheltered from the wind.

Last days
Twenty-four hours later I was passing between the pillars of the elevated road leading to the Skye bridge. I scoured the Black Islands looking for a suitable campsite to no avail, as all islets were covered with impenetrable scrub. It was a tad too late to cross to the opposite shore so I carried on toward Plockton until I eventually noticed some inviting meadows above Port Cam near Drumbuie. I entered this tiny inlet and soon I saw a red sea kayak apparently suspended in the long grass of the meadow which sloped down to the beach. I took this as a positive sign and landed on the shingle beach. I checked the spot expecting to meet a party of fellow paddlers but only found a kayak trailer, which was still attached to a car casually parked by the farm track. Later I saw some people coming down the footpath in the dark. It turned out to be a girl and two guys. The girl said she had noticed some movement near her car from her house up on the hill, hence this visit. I explained what I was doing and asked if I could try one of the kayaks next morning. This request was not received with a great enthusiasm so we said good night and I was happy to be alone again under a fabulous starlit sky.
It had been a very cold night, the coldest so far, but I quickly warmed up in the sunshine, happy to have a great summer day ahead. I was about to push off when I saw the small troop of kayakers who visited me the night before coming along the beach, already dressed for paddling including spray skirts. I waited for them. I engaged in conversation and was curious about their gear. The girl was obviously the leader of the group. She did not propose I paddle one of their kayaks as I had requested. She asked me about my plans for today. To her visible relief, I told her I would go to Plockton. Her group would go to Crowlin Islands, in the opposite direction. In fact, my plan was to cross to Applecross peninsula from An Dubh-aird, a headland not far to the east. So I did.
While in the middle of the passage I briefly saw the back and the fin of a minke whale, too far to take a picture. I landed on the shingle beach at Uags and walked to the bothy to reconnoitre. I loved the place and decided to arrange for a night here on my way back. Then I crossed to Crowlin Islands and landed on Camas na h-Annait for lunch. What a perfect lunch spot it was!
I carried on to the north until I reached Applecross. It was low tide and a large expanse of the famously red sand was emerging from the receding water. The sun was projecting my shadow on the shallow bottom. I paddled out of the shallow bay and turned back to the south. A gentle breeze picked up forum the southwest, so I could expect a midgeless evening at camp.
I landed on the white coral beach at Ard Ban. The man who was renting the cottage nearby gave me permission to camp in the meadow and showed me a kind of well where I could draw some water. The opening to access the well was obstructed by a large flat stone to prevent sheep from soiling the water. Nevertheless, it was strongly recommended to boil this water for drinking. The sunset on Raasay was awesome.
The weather changed overnight. It was a dreary morning with ominous clouds hovering low and dark over the grey sea. I left Ard Ban and paddled first to Sgeir Bhuidhe, then to Eilean Beag, the smallest of the Crowlin islands. I made a counterclockwise circumnavigation of Eilean Meadhonach, thanks to the tide that had risen enough to let me pass through the narrow channel between the two main islands. I stopped on the big island and walked up to the old settlement. There is little left of it, crumbling cottages scattered throughout the fern, some of them already turned into stone heaps.
I crossed again Caolas Mor to Sgeir Shalash and went up to the pier at the head of Loch Toscaig. It was not an inviting place and I stopped on a small shingle beach nearby. There was no wind and the midges attacked me while I had lunch. It started raining. I tried to find shelter under the canopy of the trees behind the beach, but the midges proved to be more a nuisance than the drizzle. My poncho solved the problem of staying dry while having lunch in the rain.
I paddled the last 4 km to Uags. The bothy was visited by walkers hiking the trails running across the Applecross peninsula. It offered them a convenient shelter for a rest and a hot beverage before turning back. Just two of them stayed overnight with me.
Torrential rains fell during the night and I was happy to sleep under a solid roof. I woke up to at the loud sound of what I believed to be a howling wind but surprisingly there was none of the usual other noises like the cracks of the roof structure under the pressure of the wind. I looked through the window and saw that the trees were not moving. I went outside and found out that the din was caused by the rain-inflated stream that ran in front of the bothy steps.
I left Uags and paddled east along the coast. Many streams were running down the hills and pouring over the shingle beaches. The wind had veered to northwest and pushed me across towards Plockton. I stopped on the Eilean a’Chait skerry which supports a lighthouse no longer in use. The owner was there with a contractor assessing work to be done to repair the tiny lighthouse building. I had lunch on the beach running along Plockton’s main street, busy with tourists. The wind cleaned the sky, and I could have lunch in shorts under a dazzling sun.
I left Plockton with the ebbing tide. Some WNW breeze picked up and I stopped on the lee of An Dubh-aird to put on my cag. The wind died an hour later and it was dead calm when I passed through the Black Islands, disturbing the seals basking lazily on the rocks. I came around the north of Eilan Ban and let the current take me under the bridge into Otter’s Pond. I landed in front of the backpackers hostel. This was the end of my paddling along the SSKT for this year. All I had to do now was to return to my car in Tayinloan.

Back to Tayinloan
I had to arrange my stuff in a strict packing set up to be compatible with bus traveling. I had a very large dry-bag for the kayak, PFD, paddling suit, pump, bailer, sponge, leashes, painter, compass. The paddles were secured to the bag with a pair of bungees and the blades wrapped into the folded seat pad for protection. The Ortlieb Rackpack bag contained the remaining food for about one week and small items like stove, pots, first aid kit, etc. Those two bulkier and heavier bags would go in the hold of the bus, while I would keep in the cabin the lighter and smaller Ortlieb Explorer which contained tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, some spare clothes and some snacks for the day. I could only walk a short distance with the large pack on my back and one of the other bags in each hand. It would have been easier with a cart.
The bus left reasonably early from Kyleakin. The road run alongside Loch Alsh then Loch Duich past the famous Eilean Donan castle. I had forgotten I wanted to go there by kayak.

The road to Fort William run through the dramatic Glen Shiel, then along Loch Lochy’s stupendous countryside. From my elevated seat I had perfect sights on both sides of the road and I enjoyed every minute of the trip, although it was raining and the mountains were hidden in low clouds. Unexpectedly the bus to Oban was due to leave Fort William much earlier than I thought and I had no time to visit the outdoor gear shop nearby.
In Oban the sun came out while I was waiting for the coach to Lochgilphead. Late in the afternoon the third bus dropped me at the entrance of the road to Point Sand, just in front of the deserted village school. A young couple got off the bus with their baby girl. They had no more luggage than a wheeled suitcase, a duffel bag and a stroller. They said they were going to the Point Sand campground too, so I proposed to go get my car alone while they would wait for me to pick them up. But they declined and declared they could walk with me. So be it. I hid my heaviest bag behind the low wall enclosing the schoolyard and set off to Point Sand with my three companions. Rebecca, the camp owner, was glad to see me back alive and handed me my car keys. I went to my car, started up and headed home.

Grabner H2 report • Geo-tagged photos • Map • May 2011 stage

3 thoughts on “Scottish Sea Kayak Trail Part 1 ~ Gigha to Skye

  1. butuki

    Gael! Long time no see! Do you remember me? Miguel, from when you, Marge Nichols, and I used to talk about Grabners and we were the Puffy Pirates of Penzance. That’s been ages ago! So good to read something from you again and see your kayaking adventures. Great story here.

    I still have my Grabner Holiday 3, but I haven’t been kayaking in years. For a while I was working out in an area of Japan where it was very hard to get out onto any body of water without a car and then I just got so into mountain walking that kayaking was left aside for a while. Recently I bought a cheap new Gumotex Sunny, one that is lighter and smaller than the Holiday 3, that I hope to take on day trips, and hopefully do some trips abroad, too. I still plan to use the Holiday 3 to do some sailing… it’s just right for that.

    Anyway, nice to be back in touch with you. Hope you are well. Have you heard from Marge at all?



  2. gael56

    Thanks Alan. Don’t be sorry about me being ignored by a few kayakers, because I’m not (I just think it’s kind of funny). I’m adding your blog to my favorite list. Just had a look and liked the pictures to begin with. It makes me missing Scotland even badlier though (not sure I should use “worse” instead of “badlier” here).



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