Intrepid Scottish sea kayakeur Gael of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail was taking it to Mull this year. I invited myself along for part of the tour. His plan: Oban > Kerrera > Mull then along the Ross of Mull to Iona, back east then north for Ardmeanach, Inch K and Ulva. Then maybe Staffa, maybe the Treshnish, then handbrake turn and round the top to surf the tide back to Oban like the cats in Big Wednesday. He of course knew well that achieving half of that would be good going, but the forecast at least was for a sunny week with easterly winds. In the end, he ferried the car over the Firth of Lorn to Craignure on Mull (we had a full-blown gale up here on that day) then gonflated his K40 and set off clockwise round Mull from Grass Point.
I Know Where We’re Going
Hopefully he’d manage the 27km to Carsaig Bay, as that’s where we planned to meet up that evening, far beyond the reach of any mobile signal. As we drew into the rendezvous the steep bumpy single track road passed the quaintly isolated Carsaig phone box. It looked so picturesque, right by a waterfall surrounded by dense forest – I wish I’d taken a photo. Seems I wasn’t the first to notice it’s photogenic qualities: it featured in the 1945 Powell/Pressburger Hebridean romance I Know Where I’m Going. It was down on the old jetty that Wendy Hiller (left) looked out towards a fictional ‘Kilkoan’ (Colonsay) where she thought her destiny lay before the spirit of the isles got the better of her. A more recent film is also set in the Bay: The Silent Storm refers we’re told to repressed resentments in an island preacher’s mission and marriage, but by all accounts is a turkey.
Carsaig is just a few scattered houses clinging to the wooded slopes, and some bothies by the jetty not built, we’re told, by French Napoleonic PoWs.
Twenty odd clicks to the southeast lay the Slate islands where Gael and I pulled off a successful tour two years ago. This time round I’d be happy to tick off Iona, Inch Kenneth and Ulva before scarpering, while Gael set out for the Treshnish. For my liking they were a bit too close to Tiree, home of the Hebrides’ most persistent winds.
West with the Wind
Came the day, all was overcast with a stiff easterly and rains in the air. Full cags and batten down the hat. It’s not often you get an easterly up here and they can be a mixed blessing. They are of course offshore winds but as Gael explained, because they don’t kick up much of a fetch, they blow over invitingly flat seas. Warm, sunny, dry weather from the continent is also a feature, but in passing over fast-warming landmasses they get gusty and variable, swinging between NE to SE several times over a day while stuck in this barometric rut for days. Your prevailing, raid-sodden southwesterly is generally much more consistent. A gusting offshore wind from an unexpected direction isn’t what you want when trying to get back to shore at the end of a tough day.
Out on the bay I was initially freaked out by the backwind, swell and exposure; it seems the 1000-foot mass of Beinn Chreagach was amplifying the rush. My loaded Seawave was far more composed, and together we bobbed and yawed towards the cave at Malcolm’s Point (actually an arch, left) with definite Staffaesque influences.
It’s almost certainly the same basaltic formation that makes up Staffa’s famous Fingals Cave. Alongside is a more obvious arch that from the sea looks like the front edifice of a bombed-out building (great shoreside pic of both here). Moving into the adjacent bay, high above a herd of deer swept across the steep slope – descended perhaps from the mythical doudou of French folklore, according to Gael a mountain beast with two shorter legs on one side. The deer ran towards a flock of wild goats tiptoeing for the shore. They’re pictured here in the nearby Nun’s Cave, a Medieval ‘Naughty Step’ accessible along a coastal path from Carsaig.
The huge waterfall at the back of Traigh Cadh an Easa (‘Waterfall at Ravine Beach’, or some such) reminded me I’d needed to fill up. On the stony beach the usual flotsam suspects lay strewn at the high water line: rope, plastic, wood and the occasional fisherman’s Croc.
Round the point the winds dropped, but murk prevailed; further falls tumbling from the cliffs, as well as basaltic intrusions, gave the scenery a distinctly Icelandic feel. We were now passing towards a flatter ragged shoreline of skerries and periodic beaches where I grabbed a snack on a cushy fishing net sofa.
It would have been a good day to have a sail up – I should have packed my compact cheapo disc sail which I’ve not bothered trying on the Seawave. I have experimented with the whole business and, certainly without a rudder, managing the lines on the disc would have resulted in the usual unsatisfying spurts.
West towards Uisken and through the skerries leading to the few dwellings at Ardalanish, the only car-accessible take-out before Fionnphort. Occasional showers rinsed the salt from our cags and after one stop my Seawave seemed to be pulling right, even though it’d handled fine in stronger backwinds earlier. I made do offsetting the paddle until the sandy isthmus by Eilean Mor where I hopped out and pulled off the kelp caught in the skeg. That’s more like it.
How far had we come? Who knew, but this being my first full-day’s paddle this year, by now I was counting the miles to the turning point at Erraid on my newish Montana GPS with OS mapping. As I’d found using it in the States on a moto a few months back, you can’t beat the big picture of a paper map. But here, when it came to threading passages between the skerries, seeing your precise position on a proper OS map made it easier to find a way through and avoid dead ends.
As we crossed Port nan Ron bay the winds kicked up hard to the NNE. We were aiming to turn north up the narrow, tidal channel in the Sound of Erraid (also the title of one of Enya’s unreleased albums from her mordant ‘Scottish Widows’ phase), but the tide was only just turning back in and the wind would have been on us.
So we parked up for the night inside a lovely clamshell cove hemmed in by pink granite crags below a broad grassy amphitheatre. As the predicted evening rain fell, we cooked up some delicious seawater pasta then roamed to a high point overlooking the Sound where Gael picked up a detailed forecast from his mate: warming up, drying up but still blowing up from the east.
Strong winds woke me in the night and I lay there wincing as the tent shook and flapped violently. This was its first stormy outing and it took me a while to just accept it, plug up the ears and fall back to sleep.
The Sound of Erraid
The morning blew in from the northeast and after breakfast behind a knoll, Gael set out towing my yak while I fired off some shots from the headlands above and caught him up in the Sound.
It was an hour or two after high tide so we only just managed to scrape over the Shallows of Erraid and out into a wind-blasted bay.
As we crept northwest, Erraid island seemed to be developed out of proportion to its size. Turns out it was a quarry for the nearby Torran Rocks lighthouse in the Stevenson era, and Stevenson fils set Kidnapped here. Now the former quarrymen’s cottages house a satellite community of the Findhorn Foundation, offering their alternative to the ecumenical retreats over the water on Iona.
Gael’s big Ortlieb water bag had gone rogue, exuding a pungent iodine tang, so we put in near Fidden campsite to fill everything else with lovely sweet water. (I noted a 1.5L plastic bottle slotted neatly into my footrest tube). Out in the Sound it was way too windy to aim for the southern end of Iona as planned, but we figured with our added ballast we could work our way north between the skerries for a shorter, less exposed crossing of the mile-wide Iona Sound. From there set off for an anticlockwise loop instead.
Crossing to Iona
Somewhere just after Lalte Mor we made our dash for Iona, aiming for a beach just south of the ferry jetty, with two big buoys in between as markers. The wind had now veered to the southeast and mid-channel it was all getting a bit lumpy but manageable but the Seawave tracked true. The quicker I paddled the sooner it’d be over. Gael yelled to err north towards the ferry line where we were being blown anyway. He realised the spring tide was in full retreat down the sound and we needed to compensate. With the green and yellow buoys and the beach, I was sure my track was good, but on the far side Gael explained my trajectory resembled a washing line due to the strong southerly ebb. Sure, I was pointed at the beach and the buoys remained to my left, but the sea was moving southwards beneath me.
His tip on such crossings was to line two points (a buoy and the beach for example) to better monitor and compensate for any deflection. A day or two later I tried this while hacking into Arisaig Bay, lining up a distant tree and a gully, and was surprised how the unseen current or wind deflected me within seconds, while still making good headway.
It was a good lesson from the seamaster. Had we let the tide take us, our Iona Sound crossing might merely have ended up more westerly than northwesterly, but we’d still have reached the shore OK. But had we been aiming for Iona’s southern tip (as originally planned from Fidden), the stream may have pushed us out into the open sea, or at the very least extended the transit to reach the island. Add in the wind swinging back to the northeast and that’s how sea kayakers get in trouble.
Little did we know that my Mrs, who’d spent the night on Iona in solemn retreat after dropping me off at Carsaig, was recording our progress from the ferry chugging back to Fionnphort. And even as the odd wave broke alongside me, I too was able to grab a few shots: clearly a sign that conditions were less epic than they felt.
The Treasures of Iona
We beached the boats and went for a wander through Baile Mor towards the abbey. While backtracking, up ahead it seemed like the village idiot was bounding along towards us, waving enthusiastically. We reserved our judgments until it turned out to be the g-friend who’d hopped back onto the ferry to present me a chocolate doubloon (it was my birthday). What a nice surprise. Soon we were swept away in a whirlwind of anniversarian revelry and all headed to the village cafe for a slap-up haddock, salad and chips (with a backup ice cream. And cake).
Back in the boats, it was a short sidewind struggle up to Iona’s northern beaches before a calmer paddle on the island’s lee. With the weather warming up, post-lunch lethargy plus the fatigue from the nervy crossing and the interrupted night, we lost our momentum a bit.
At the back of our minds, neither was keen on the idea of shortly rounding Iona’s southern tip into the wind and then edging back up the windward side. We crossed the big bay and nosed ambivalently past Sprouting Cave as far as Port Beul-Mhoe, a steep stony cove with an onerous portage before any tentable grass. I plucked a superb granite birthday egg from the shingle, then we backtracked to the big Camas ‘Bay at the Back of the Ocean’ and made an early camp to enjoy a warm, sunny evening. Next morning we’d see how we and the winds blew.
Outrun by the wind
The plan had been to complete the Iona circuit, cross back to the Ross and head east into the mouth of Loch Scridain for the mountainous Ardmeanach peninsula where Gael has got windbound last year.
A glance out of the tent at 6.30 revealed blue skies, but an offshore breeze was already ruffling the sea – and this was the lee side of Iona. It didn’t bode well for the south end, let alone the 13-km leg into Loch Scridain and the exposed crossing to Ardmeanach, with gusts tearing down off the 3000-foot slopes of Ben Mor. I was all set to roll up my boat, stagger across the island and meet Gael at the ferry, but he agreed the weather had outpaced our plans on Mull. We’d head back the way we’d come, cross to Fionnphort by paddle or ferry, then he’d retrieve his car from Craignure to deploy Plan B.
We set off at the top of the tide. With the newfound sunshine and warmth it was a relief to forgo the sweaty, salt-caked cagwear. Back through the skerries and into the wind round the top of Iona. Ten clicks to the north, Staffa and Dutchman’s Cap hovered on the horizon, but any trippers heading there today may well come back with faces the colour of warm guacamole.
The narrowest crossing back to Mull is near Eilean nam Ban, and when the time came it turned out to be a lot easier than yesterday, even contending with another southerly stream (left). Gael decided later we must have caught a fortuitous lull in the wind-bashing, and once in the sheltered Bull Hole channel, we let the strongly ebbing tide swish us down towards Fionnphort.
Unloading on the jetty, hoards of tourist-pilgrims from the world over were making their way to Iona. Having spent a day there, the Mrs had confessed she’d been a bit disappointed. The recently rebuilt abbey lacked much Medieval aura, and the achievements of Saint Columba and the significance of Iona’s post-Druidic heyday were rather embellished compared to more objective sources.
For centuries the Lords of the Isles and Scottish kings (including Macbeth) had been buried here; the nearer the abbey the better, it was thought. I noticed the decorated headstone (right) of former Labour party leader John Smith who’d managed to squeeze in, though it turns out he’d no connection with Iona other than being raised in Argyll. Maybe there’s more to it, but as even some Iona-born fail get a plot here, it seemed a post-mortal vanity inconsistent with what I recall of Smith’s public image.
Anyway – I stretched out with my Kindle on the old jetty and let the warming kayaks gently purge through their PRVs, while Gael strode boldly east up the A849. After a while I went up the road to make sure he wasn’t skiving behind some shed having a quick nap. The strong winds I met underlined the fact that we were doing the right thing. Kayaking anywhere east of here would have been hard, paddle-creaking yakka.
Three hours later Gael returned to find me surrounded by empty crisp packets, ice cream wrappers and a succulent Curly Wurly embedded in my gob. We strapped the yaks to the roof and went to find somewhere else to play.