Raasay – Rona – Loch Torridon
On Saturday May 14, I left Paris very early and drove all the way to Scotland (save the channel crossing on a ferry). I arrived in Kyleakin on Skye very late the same day. The last leg between Fort William and Kyle of Lochalsh had been tricky because some large animals were standing in the dark by the roadside. I pitched my tent in the grassy backyard of the Backpackers hostel and eventually enjoyed some well deserved rest.
Morning after, I checked the weather forecast to find out that it was expected to be rough during the next 36 hours, before improving on Monday afternoon.
My plan was to complete in about 10 days the last section of the SSKT, the Northland section, from Kyle to Ullapool. Last summer I had paddled North up to Applecross, visiting the Crowlin Islands en route, as well as Loch Carron up to Plockton and the Black Islands. Instead of following the same route, I intended to visit Raasay and Rona before crossing the Inner Sound to Loch Torridon. This detour would also keep me sheltered from the Westerly winds in the lee of Skye.
Before putting off, I went to the police station in Kyle of Lochalsh to inform them about my intended trip. The officer in charge was very helpful and helped me to turn a « going to the hills » form into a float plan. He took note of my leaving my car at Kyleakin : I did not want to be reported missing in case somebody would draw wrong conclusions after noticing a foreign car left unattended for several days.
I launched in Otter Pond after lunch and started paddling westward, hugging the shore which offered some shelter from the SW breeze. I thought I could reach the SE corner of Scalpay by the end of the afternoon and set camp there, but the wind decided otherwise and grew stronger as I was passing Palbay on my starboard beam. Rounding the low features of Rubha Ardnish I felt the full force of the SW gusts freewheeling across Broadford bay. It would take way too much energy to reach the other side, so I decided it was wiser to call it a day and returned to the lee of Rubha Ardnish.
It was high water time. The sea had just risen up its highest, flooding large expanses of grass and patches of sea pinks (armeria maritima). I landed on a bed of flowers and installed my camp at the foot of a rocky bluff offering a natural protection against the wind. Soon the rain forced me to hide in my tent. Cooking outside was impossible so I carefully light my tiny can stove inside and prepared some hot soup.
I took to sea at high tide the following day. Very early then. I had to because the shoals around Rubha Ardnish dry out not long after high water, meaning a long and tedious portage should I miss the time. Crossing Broadford bay against the still fresh SW breeze proved to be a effective warming up exercise.
I stopped on the gravel beach in the small drying harbour, protected by an old and crumbling stone pier where some fishing boats were moored. Through the windows of the hotel nearby, I was watched by guests having breakfast in shorts and t-shirt.
Surprisingly as I left Broadford behind me the wind eased off and I paddled through Caolas Scalpay on mirror like flat water. This bliss did not last and I crossed the mouth of Loch Ainort buffeted by the usual SW gusts. I probed into Caol Mor to assess the conditions for this 2 km passage. I found it challenging enough to make my arms feel weak. I postponed the crossing to later in the afternoon, let the wind blow me back around and retraced my last paddle strokes until I could land on a seaweed choked boulder beach for an early luncheon. One hour later the receding tide had left my boat high and dry but I could easily drag it back to water on the thick and slippery layer of kelp covering the boulders. The 2 km crossing to Raasay went fairly well. To my great satisfaction I was whisked by the wind around Eyre Point then to Rubha Na’ Leac. I landed in the small bay behind this headland, hoping to find a camping spot. There was none so I had to paddle on along steep hillsides and stately cliffs all the way to Brochel.
I landed on a pebble beach below the conspicuous ruins of Brochel Castle. Above the beach was a grassy ledge where I pitched my tent. The evening was calm and dry, so I could enjoy my dinner in the open, watching the Applecross hills across the Inner Sound. I paid a visit to the Castle (which is unfortunately falling apart), but it was too late to have a walk to Ardnish along the famous Calum’s Road.
Forecast for the next day, provided to me by Chris, was light breeze no rain until 7 pm. There were even patches of blue in the overcast sky. I paddled to the north tip of Raasay, entered Caol Rona and turned into the narrow passage between Raasay and Eilan Tigh. A SW light breeze pushed me across Caol Rona and later helped me against the current ebbing out of Acairseid Mhor between Rona and Eilean Gharb. Acairseid Mhor is a natural harbour, and a former smugglers haunt.
Rounding the North tip of Rona amongst a maze of skerries, I involuntarily scared a score of seals which scrambled into the water from the rocks where they were sprawled. The visibility was good and I could see Rubha na Fearna 9 km away to the East. I looked up to the lighthouse and noticed the flag flying in the wind next to it. The flag was showing that the wind had backed South. That was bad news : I would have to paddle for about two hours in side wind pushing me towards open sea. But the wind was not expected to pick up before the end of the afternoon and I should be safe in Loch Torridon by then. So much for the easy downwind crossing I had hoped for. Two hours later I rounded Rubha na Fearna with a heavy sigh of relief. The wind had alarmingly picked up while I was still in the middle of Inner Sound. The current was running against the wind, inducing some uncomfortable yet manageable chop. I stopped on the sand of a tiny inlet and had lunch.
When I set off again, the wind had backed to the SE. While probably still blowing from South outside, it was funneled along the direction of Loch Torridon. So I trudged along the shore, feeling the wind blowing stronger as time passed, and reached Aird, a headland separating Loch Torridon from Loch Shieldaig. I rounded the north tip of this headland then set a course to Shieldaig island some 4 km away. The wind suddenly accelerated and stopped me in the passage. The water around me became white. I tried hard to move forward, to no avail. I gave up and let the wind push me back out of Loch Shieldaig into Loch Torridon.
Hugging the shore of Aird I paddled into Loch Beag under the pouring rain. I landed on a narrow slipway at the very head of the inlet, next to heaps of creels. Exhausted, cold and miserable I staggered up to a shed were some people were sorting shellfish. The building had an upstairs platform above the working floor accommodating an office, a cloakroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. I was granted permission by the foreman to spend night in the kitchen. This room was also a closet cluttered with various things. The cloakroom stank because of the fishermen oilskins and wellies hanging there, but it was heated and I put my stuff there to dry.
The foreman came back at 7 next morning. I was ready to go and had washed the floor before leaving. Through his binoculars I could see the white crests of rough water outside. However as the wind had veered to SW, it should not prevent me to enter Loch Shieldaig this time.
Again I rounded Aird. As expected, I was sheltered from the SW wind. Nevertheless I kept hugging the shore to avoid any risk of being pushed away. I landed on a tiny pebble beach near a shabby cabin. I walked up a soaking wet footpath to explore the woods. There I found an ideal campsite, flat, dry and sheltered by the trees.
I was short of drinkable fresh water. There was plenty of water dripping all over the place but I was not in the mood for going through the process of purifying it, not for setting up a rig to collect rain water, even though I had nothing else to do actually.
Instead I decided to paddle another 2 km to Shieldaig, get some water there and return to my secret campsite. I was halfway across to Shieldaig Island when a powerful SW gust hit and I had to paddle like mad to keep on my course to Shieldaig jetties. I filled my 10 litre waterbag and bottles at the tap conveniently located on the creel-choked platform, after a local confirmed it dispensed drinkable water. I paddled the shortest distance to the sheltered opposite shore and returned to campsite.
The forecast that Chris texted me for the following days was still depressing. There was too much distance of west facing exposed coast on my way up north that I could handle in high winds. So I decided to leave the SSKT here, and accepted Chris proposal to pick me up in Shieldaig the next day. I hoped the weather would improve after the week-end and allow us to explore the Summer Isles. It did not happen.