Grey Dogs and dog water; kayaking the Slate Islands

Deadly whirlpools await

Fellow IKer Gael proposed we meet up during his May visit to the Hebrides; his chance to get a closer look at places he’d passed on the SSKT. Once he’d done his own thing on Mull I suggested Coll and Tiree as a satisfying and remote offshore destination. Those two outer Inner Hebs may claim to be the sunniest places in the UK and looked interesting in Google sat, with many sandy coves. But it also became apparent that all that sunshine required unusually strong winds to blow away the clouds. Whatever’s blowing in the Inner isles on a given day, on Coll and Tiree you can bank on double. Sea Kayak Oban admitted that they’d only managed to run two tours there in six years.


When we met up in Oban Gael had already made contingency calculations, multiplying several locations by the state of the tide and then dividing the result by the 5-day forecast and subtracting our IKs’ average speed in knots. According to his complex computations, a three-day run out of Arduanie around the Slates would work out best for us.

Oban; a ray of hope

After a brilliant seafeed at EE Usk on the waterfront (left) we squeezed my moto into Oban Backpackers’ storeroom and set off to Arduanie where a sleet shower pelted us while we loaded the boats. The rest of today was actually going to be OK weather, a bit windy. Tomorrow less bad but Friday might be a tent bound zip-in according to the forecast, so our Kindles were charged up.

Over the sea to Shuna

I was snuggly wrapped in my new, lightweight Anfibio drysuit (tbr) as we set off for a late lunch on Shuna’s east shore before curving around into the wind to cross to Luing. From here we worked our way down to its southern tip then made a dash to Scarba, eyeing up the sinister and all too near Gulf of Corryvrecken which gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Gael had been told of a camp spot overlooking another tidal phenomenon, the Grey Dogs, and once pitched up on the moderately dry platform, we walked over to survey the Dogs where a metre-high standing wave rose up and collapsed every few seconds. Even though we were in neap tides it did this continuously all evening; only at 6am did I see the waters briefly still.

Rainbound on Scarba

That night the rain closed in and pelted down. We huddled under a tarp – a good last-minute decision to take that – then made the delicate acrobatic contortions to get out of our gear and into our tents without spreading the wet.

Turbid dogs

Early next morning the Dogs dozed under clear skies, but by the time we were on the water they’d risen again from their submarine lair and water rushed along the channel’s shores like a river. Even Google sat snatched its picture with the Dogs in spate. In fact, during neaps, either side of the breaking waves looked flattish water, but who knew how a boat would react in there so I assumed we’d head directly north. But when Gael turned his K40 purposefully into the Dogs’ maw I gulped and bleated, ‘We’re not going in there are we?’ Too late, the current had caught me and the ride was on.

What looked like flat water between the boiling shore and the midstream surf zone was actually a rolling swell a metre or two high but easily manageable in an IK. Gael rode into the middle for a play – the picture right shows the turbid water between us – and soon we were flushed out into the Firth of Lorn on Lunga’s west shore where the sea state was more placid. What that place must be like to paddle in spring tides doesn’t bear thinking about, but obviously some lap it up. There’s probably less risk than tackling the same sort of white water on a river.

Strictly speaking, Scarba isn’t part of the Slate Islands to the north, but this whole area is well known to boaters for its convoluted tides and associated races. For a paddler, the water pushing up and pulling past the isles and channels creates all sorts of complexities in route planning, something which Gael grasped far better than me.


As we approached the lighthouse at Fladda he pointed out a cross-current where he advised we pieleffe. What was ‘pieleffe’, some kind of French nautical term? No: ‘paddle like fuck’. Oh, OK then. Now safely on Fladda’s slatey beach we took a tea break, me still a little frazzled after running [alongside] the Grey Dogs [in neaps] and not being torn limb from limb by clashing whirlpools.

Fladda had a big walled garden and similarly well-protected longhouse attached to the lighthouse. On the adjacent island of Belnahua the 19th-century ruins of quarrymen’s lodgings survived. Apparently, there was another island somewhere here which they’d excavated well below sea level until there was only a rim left. Then came a great storm and washed it all away.

Cullipool slate quay

We headed with the brisk tide over to Cullipool harbour on Lunga; the unusual jetty is built of vertically set drystone slates, not something I’ve seen before. From here it was up to the Cuan Sound as the sun began to creep out. Once inside we hit dogwater so that a proposed lunch at the pub by the bridge became overruled by our appetites. A grassy shore on Seil island did just as well and provided space to dry out the tent.

The channel narrowed and became lined with expensive-looking holiday homes which rather tainted our exposure, and as we neared the bridge we passed the only other paddlers we saw, a couple in a canoe letting the tide wash them south. At Telford’s late 18th-century [Clachan] Bridge over the Atlantic we swapped boats. While I shot ahead in the K40, against the current Gael’s impression of my Amigo wasn’t so amicable. Compared to my Grabner, his Incept is a good 20% faster (or less effort, if you like). A lot of the time on this trip Gael was coasting while I felt like I paddled non stop which may have explained my fatigue. I dozed off at lunch and slept like a log overnight, no matter what fits the tent was having. Near the top of Seil we pulled past some sailboats to the back of an inlet and pitched the tents with taut guys in preparation for windy Friday.


In fact, that day dawned fair; a cold front from the northwest brought in lovely clear air in which the Incept seemed to glow. Gael suggested we edge out to the outside of Seil to see if the sea was manageable to Easdale. We probed outward and while I’d not have gone on alone, by the time we were committed it was only two miles to Easdale. There were no actual whitecaps, just large waves that didn’t even swamp my boat but required momentum to maintain direction. A plastic coffin would have been in its element here, slicing the waves like Bruce Lee attacking a jelly.

Turning into Easdale port was a welcome relief but it had only taken me two nights out to find people annoying and the place suffering from what I perceived as tourism fatigue. Coaches pulled in and disgorged passengers who milled about for a few minutes then moved on. The so-called village shop looked like nothing more than a stockpile of porcelain and lace trinkets; I couldn’t wait to move on. What must locals think when their village becomes colonised like this? Make hay I suppose.

Lunch on Torsa

We decided to head back to the car, across the bay’s side waves, back through Cuan Sound then more dogwater and a grassy extended lunch by the big tree on Torsa island. Then it was back out into the sideslap across the mouth of Loch Melfort to Arduanie.

After some 33 miles of island hoping I’d caught enough sun to turn my head into a beetroot and we’d tackled a variety of easy sea conditions. It had been fun exploring the more commonly visited locales of Hebridean sea kayaking, all accessible and escapable, notwithstanding the complex tides. And a chance to do so with someone who grasped the concept of ‘3D’ sea kayak navigation was an added bonus – like a free course. Plenty more to see down here. Back at the jetty we lashed the boats to the roof and headed south to the Mull of Kintyre.


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