It’s taken a few visits, adding up to over a year up here, but I do declare I am running out of new things to paddle in the Coigach and Summer Isles area. A seven mile run out to Priest Island – the very, very, very last of the Summer Isles – would be less edgy if not alone, while all the coasts from Lochinver round to Ullapool and up to the back of Loch Broom have been surveyed at least once. About a year ago that I did my (for me) epic run out to Bottle Island, just a stone’s throw from Priest.
September does seem to be a reliably good month up here. Well, better than August – an old Highland truism. Another unexpected day of blue skies and light winds with the northwest pinned between a ‘Double Zero Low’, the sort of meteorological phenomenon that gives weatherpersons the munchies.
We decide to motor off the peninsula, along the Wee Mad Road (WMR) and past Lochinver to Clashnessie – a Norse word meaning ‘Battle of the Sea Monsters’. Here we paddled out towards the high arch before Point of Stoer and the beach at Culkein for lunch. Initially I had to deal with a mutinous crew – one of the perils of this type of close quarter marineering.
From Culkein beach there was a clear view right across western Sutherland to the quartzite mountains of Arkle, Foinaven and the sea cliffs ending at Cape Wrath.
I thought about crossing the bay directly via the Eilean Chrona for Oldany Island channel. But it was a Spring tide going out so the flow may have been in our face by the time we reached the channel. Why wear yourself out on openish water? It would have added another 8 miles, ending with a rocky run back to the Clash of Nessies, just to explore a small area, and who knows what the weather might be doing by then.
So we headed back to Nessie beach, letting the swell you so often notice in these north-oriented bays, lift the boat as it rolled inshore to crash against the rocks. Directly ahead was Quinaig mountain (left). I’ve said it before: it’s one of the best day’s hill walks here in the Assynt.
I’d long wanted to poke around the scattered skerries and islets between Oldany Island and Drumbeg. We drove up the Drumbeg road, where one time a mate and I had staggered against a gale, looking for the car after slackrafting the Lewisian barrens. Soon enough a small turn off led north to a ruined jetty at tiny Culkein Drumbeg.
Coming north, as soon as you get on the WMR you begin to see a different ecology. Hard to pin down what exactly: less bleak and peat sodden than Coigach. Perhaps it’s due to the Lewisian gneiss bedrock, because the Torridian sandstone was scraped off like an icky marzipan crust by the Ice Age and dumped into the Minch, to wash up on the beaches of the Western Isles just in time for Castaway. More birds dash about, the flora’s subtly different with a few more pockets of old growth trees which have been picked clean or long blown away on Coigach. Perhaps the Stoer headland protects Oldany a bit, but it feels more like Plockton than the blustery northwest.
We set off for the hidden isthmus beach somewhere out here, scattering more seals as we went. Not bothering with the GPS to record moving averages, I’ve recently finally found a handy way to mount an easy-to-read compass on the Seawave, tucking it under the deck bar mount tabs. It was already proving handy to follow the NW bearing suggested by the map, out via the islets to the secret beach.
As we approached the sands we startled some hardy and doubtless Nordic skinnydippers with their parked up Sevy Sirocco. Once beached, we politely took off in the other direction until they had regained their modesty. Soon a couple of hardshellers rocked up too – kayak rush hour on Oldany Island beach. Perhaps it’s not such a secret after all.
A small bothy sits perched on the spit of grass which separates the two beaches. Hardshell man told me it was a private dwelling once rented to a local doctor by the Edinburgh owners, and even had a phone line installed in case someone’s baby was born early. It was another detailed ownership report the like of which you won’t find online.
Our busy beach made an altogether lovely prospect of sand, grass and the azure sea beyond, abob with skerries and distant peaks. Plus kayaks in red, blue, green and mango.
Back afloat, we took the long way back to the jetty, nipping round to the south to check out where the channel went. That could be a fun run at the right stage of a big ebbing tide.
In the car, we carried on clockwise round the coastal road. Even more than the WMR, this Drumbeg road is hardly level for a moment and would be a good work out on a pushbike. Back on the main road, in Unapool we stopped off for a brew at the Rock Stop Cafe. A retired couple there were trying to track down the rude Withnailian cottage they’d honeymooned at no less than half a century ago. They’d not been up to the northwest in 50 years and Rientraid, overlooking the Kylesku bridge, had rung a bell. We told them about The Kerracher Man book which was set nearby, but about a decade later.
In the cafe there was Rocky Road in the cake cabinet and a geology map on the wall. Pink is your 3 billion-year-old under-icing of Lewisian gneiss; the orange is a creamy overlay of Torridian sandstone. Interestingly, the map showed Horse Island as the only Summer made of gneiss. Who’d have known? High time then to get your schist together and watch a geology lesson.
We’ve had some good here sunsets lately and even a green boreal glow a couple of weeks back. The other night the stormy orange clouds reminded me of the cover of Argonauts of the Western Isles – a great title for a lovely memoir by Robin Lloyd-Jones about sea kayaking on the west coast.
I’ve only just realised it’s a take on Brondo Malinowski’s seminal 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific which, unless I’m very much wiki-mistaken ‘redefined the ethnographic genre’.
Actually now I see the cover, it’s nothing like my photo, it’s much worse, though might have worked without that tilted horizon. But don’t let that put you off if you’ve not read it. It’s a wonderful tale that covers years of paddling up here, from post-war bathtubs and broomsticks to the start of the sea kayaking boom.