A few pictures from a 5-hour, 22-km paddle round the Summer Isles on a rare day of near-zero wind and hot, sunny skies. From Badenscallie I went south past Horse Island and Iolla Mhor to Carn nan Sgeir, a quick loop around Meall nan Caolach, just a mile from the south side of Loch Broom, then right across to Tanera Beg to revive the legs with a walk up to the summit, and finally back to Badentarbet. Noticeable is the lack of fatigue when there’s no wind or waves to cut through. I’d have been more tired walking the same distance. A few days and a bit more wind later, I did a 14-km lap round Tanera Beg and was pooped.
High pressure alert!No, my range of recreational leisurecraft weren’t about to blow, it’s the weather – and that’s not about to blow. Far from it. A high was about to lasso the north of Scotland with its concentric isobars. It may be mid-October but it’s been the sunniest and calmest spell up here for two months. Never mind Indian summer, this was turning into an Arapaho autumn. It all added up to good chance to make a break for that most troublesome and distant of the Summer Isles: Priest Island – or Eilean a’ Chleirich; ‘Island of Clerics’.
Whichever way you look at it Priest looks way out there for someone used to staying within a mile of the shore. Mainlandwise, it’s over six miles out of Old Dornie, nearly four miles off Mellon Udrigle on the other side, and a bit more from the end of the Scoraig peninsula. Far enough out to need the full length of a good day and someone for backup. Luckily Jon thought so too and rode up late Thursday night with his Peckett & McNabb Scorchio LV.
Friday, soon after dawn we were putting in at the top of the tide at Old Dornie. ETA Priest north shore: 2.5 hours. The forecast was a 6mph SE till late morning after which time it was set to drop right off to the southwest. Once clear of the back of Tanera Beg’s lee I expected things to kick up a bit. But what a difference it is having someone else along for the ride to quell the usual neuroses. Jon agreed that he too would be nervous of taking a run out to Priest alone, and he was sea kayaking by the book: UHF, spare paddle, bluetooth bilge pump and the Semaphore Handbook in six languages, including Gaelic. Of course, this was all in a day’s work for someone like Gael A who was up here a couple of years ago in an Incept K40 at the end of his Scottish Sea Kayak Trail when he wrote.
I headed towards the closest, Priest Island some 5km away. Halfway through the passage, the wind died off and the sea glassed over. The uncanny cries of the guillemots emphasised the eerie atmosphere; I felt like I was entering an unearthly space. From the SE tip of the Priest Island I carried on around the west side. It was another paddling paradise with endless features to explore in the good company of seabirds and seals.
Back to now and I was typically under-dressed, making a concession to the season with some Ron Hill leggings and my warmer pfd. It may have been mid-October but I knew I’d cook in my drysuit and as I guessed correctly, my high-waisted Kokotat overtrousers would complicate the inevitable pee breaks long before I got to set foot on Priest. Good thing a calm was setting in then. As we left Old Dornie Jon asked me to pull down his jammy skeg, and in the ten seconds it took me to locate it, my arm went numb with cold. Falling in out there would really not bear thinking about. The cold shock would lock your lungs like a slamming safe door. As it was, once past the back of Tanera Beg the sideslap never got that unnerving and as we sploshed along I knew not to be concerned if the distant dark crags of Priest appeared not to grow any nearer.
Only 90 minutes in the marker of Glas Leac Beag (small green rock – above) came up on the right. I visited the bigger counterpart, Glas Leac Mor the other week, but Glas Leac Beag’s consolation in an emergency was purely hypothetical as the only way to get on it would be to leap from a boat like a frog. Still, we were going quicker than I expected despite the chop and corrections against the sidewind. The skeg-rudder idea of fellow Gumotard, Jim, would have been handy here. Every once in a while I had to give a double haul on the right. Jon’s hardshell worked by balancing the variable drop of the skeg against the force of a sidewind which would otherwise push his stern round: more sidewind, more skeg, or something like that. In that sense skegs are more like optional rudders on hardshell cheesecutters which have no need of directional aids like windprone IK bloats.
Looking a Priest with the low sun in my face (above left) it was impossible to discern any perspective to the foreshore – it was all one long dark line of crags. The map lay right in my lap but who looks at maps once they’re on the move? I failed to recognise that the bouldered landing beach we were aiming for was further to the east, while we were heading down to the western end. Once I realised that, we changed course and passed the tip of Priest and an arch (not the needle-eye arch on the west end) which only Jon noticed. And as predicted, the wind dropped off to nothing.
We were searching for the cobble stoned beach created by the island’s NE/SW glacial gouging. We put in up a cleft (left) and staggered ashore, but it was all wrong – we had made the deadly mistake of pre-emption: scourge of the hasty navigator! If we wanted to spend any time on land, the dropping 12-foot tide would make getting back out of the cleft tricky.
Back into the boats on the slippery seaweed boulders – surely the most awkward and risky part of sea yaking, short of tackling a typhoon. Soon we got to the correct stony beach I’d clocked on Google. A stumbly 5-minute portage from here would have led to the glassy half-km-long Lochan Fada which cuts right to the heart of the island, one of nine freshwater sources on the Priest. But, great picture though it may have made, I was a bit pooped and more interested in ham butties. We sat on a hill overlooking the still lochan when Jon noticed the back of a signboard at the other landing beach. It was a plea by the island’s RSPB owners for visitors to be careful not to crush the burrows and eggs of the 2000-strong colony of storm petrels that inhabit Priest Island.
As it happens that was made easier by a few paths leading from the two landing beaches. One led past the RSPB shed from where I carried on to the south side to check out the ‘prehistoric’ stone circles. The ones I saw (picture far below) looked more like rude shepherd shelters than mysterious Neolithic monuments (there’s more on Wiki), but to be fair, I didn’t see the others just to the north. That was because it took a bit of reorienting to locate the island’s sole ruin, a substantial but roofless four-room bothy supposedly on the site of a sixth-century Christian chapel, suggesting an origin to the island’s name. I was curious to see this place as it’s said in 1975 a pair of unlikely criminals hid out here for a few months, on the run from a collapsing series of scams.
Google ‘Jim Miller and John Bellord, Southern Organs Scandal’ and you’ll soon find Geoff Green’s recent book: Paying for the Past. In it the author admits to falling under Miller’s mesmeric spell in the early sixties and eventually becoming one of the entrepreneurs’ close business associates. Along with many others, he was invited to make a quick buck by investing in loans to supposedly supply churches with expensive electric organs, and was later drawn into a racy, high-profile lifestyle as the manager of Southern Organs’ GP sponsorship endeavour. Alvin Stardust (right) and other celebs were part of the gang, but then around 1975 the whole cosy investment scam which supported the racing sponsorship began to crumble.
Although he knew nothing of the area, it was Green who came up with the idea for the pair to hide out on Priest Island. They jetted off on a long-overdue holiday to Calais, sent postcards back home saying they’d killed themselves, ferried back to Dover the same day where Green met them and drove up to Ullapool. He then RIB’ed over from Dundonnell to Priest, leaving them with provisions and an inadequate two-metre dinghy with an outboard.
I read the book curious to discover if this claim – that these urbane middle-aged gents (Miller lightly crippled with polio) could really have lived for ‘262 days’ on Priest Island, frying up storm petrel omelettes and brewing peat tea. Over eight months sounded far-fetched for two conmen fleeing a Rolls Royce-champagne-and-helicopter lifestyle before clumsily faking their suicides from Calais, like Reggie Perrin on telly, John Stonehouse the MP, Lucan and more recently, our hardshelled friend, Canoe Man. A desperate, ex-para axe-murdering survivalist might have been able to hack Priest for that long. But with these two, insisting as they did on a chemical toilet, it all seemed improbable. Crofting on the mainland is hard enough. What chance on a 120-hectare island, even with half-a-dozen lochans? On their release they went on to explain in a BBC documentary:
… the island had reaffirmed our belief in the simple things and helped us to clear away a mass of valueless and extraneous paraphernalia with which we, like so many, has cluttered our lives.
Paying for the Past is a bit light on clerical details and dates as, after dropping them off on Priest one stormy September day (a slightly over-written episode with some implausible embellishments, IMO), the author (left) was never to see his friends again. It’s only towards the end of the book that Green suggests they may not have been on the island anywhere near as long as he claims, and once recovered to the mainland, probably used their well-polished charm and remaining cash to secure local support in Ullapool, as explained in the book.
This video is part of a documentary that portrays the events from the point of view of a psychic detective who was hired by the Express, though it wasn’t shot on Priest Island. And for all our man’s alleged clairvoyance, it was simply the police tip-off from Geoff Green (under pressure from legions of debtors and with leniency guaranteed) that got the two arrested in Ullapool. Ironically though, it was Miller’s similar esoteric beliefs in radionics, among other ‘faith healing’ therapies, that founded and then funded what became the duo’s glamourous empire.
When I found the ruin in which they say they hid, it was clearly not your average Coigach crofter’s bothy, but a more substantial dwelling supposedly built on the site of an old chapel, either by a sixth-century monk on retreat, or a banished sheep rustler with a talent for masonry. As a sign (right) we saw on the Dundonnell Estate near Scoraig last week proves, ovine rustling is still an issue here in the wild nor’ west.
The way Green tells it, it was his auspicious discovery and reading of Frank Fraser Darling’s book Island Years, Island Farm (1943, left) which gave him the bright idea for the pair to hide out on Priest Island until it all blew over. Apparently, Miller and Bellord had holidayed in Ullapool and were fond of the area – that was all it took. Any bushcraft savvy they could pick up along the way. Darling’s Island Years mostly deals with experimenting with sustainable crofting agriculture on Tanera Mor (left) in the early 1940s (Island Farm), but he and his resilient family first tried to give a go for a few months on Priest Island a few years earlier. Having now read that book I wouldn’t say the account of Arctic-grade tents being torn to shreds would evoke a great place for a hideaway holiday, but as we know with northwest Scotland, when the weather is calm it’s brilliant, and when it’s not you just knuckle down.
The Fraser Darling family went on to camp on the Treshnish even endured a spell on North Rona where the author had been funded to study grey seals and their effect on commercial fishing.
Miller and Bellord come across as an intriguing pair and you can see why their background, interests and activities captured the attention of the media, and why Geoff Green’s 2014 book has gone down well with readers.
In this video published by Green a couple of weeks ago he returns again to Priest Island, but in it he mistakes the hut circles I saw (left) for the bothy which appears on the 25k OS map shown on this page, and even more clearly on Google aerial imagery. It remains as intact as it was in the first, 1979 BBC Everyman documentary featured at the end of the video above, with a bit of unsightly plastic rubbish in the adjacent burn – a job for the next RSPB volunteer visit, or anyone with a bin bag and space.
Anyway. Enough true crime confessionals. We returned to the boats and headed southeast across the big bay towards some interesting looking cliffs and clefts. One chasm led deep into the crag with promising daylight peaking out the far end. We edged in deeper, pushing off the sides, and between the swells got far enough through to see there was no way out at this point, halfway down the tide. We tried from the other end, slipping behind the outer stack visible on aerial images, but that too needed at least another foot of water to paddle through. Finally at Aird Glas, Priest’s eastern extremity, we managed to paddle behind a stack and commence our glide across the now mirrored water to Bottle Island.
It all seemed so effortless. We could have aimed at any Summer Isle we chose – over to Carn nan Sgeir even – and paddled straight there with ease. What was all the fuss about? On Bottle I was hoping to lead Jon through the southern passage I found last year, but as on Priest, the water was too low to pass through the narrower exit tunnel (right).
All that remained now was to follow the island chain over to nearby Carn Iar/Deas and from there pass over the sandy green channel of Caolas nan Sgeirean Glasa (I throw all these Gaelic names about like I didn’t just type them carefully off an OS map). We pulled in for tea break on the jetty of Eilean Dubh, ahead of the final six-mile surge back to Old Dornie. I found this handy refuge last year and we agreed that a: the jetty was a bit short for the tidal span and b: even if it’s nice to have a secluded island cabin (right) well sheltered from the prevailing winds, it had a comparatively ordinary view back towards Achiltibuie and a chilly, sunless aspect this time of year.
The tide was on the turn now as we passed Tanera’s tidal lagoon and crossed Badetarbet Bay on home ground. I’d been asked to pick up some heavy bags of winkles somewhere on the north side of the bay on Rubhan na Buaile and drop them off at Old Dornie. But clambering along the grubby shore while Jon towed my boat, neither of use could find any trace of them. There was clearly a need for some CCTV surveillance around here, too.
We got back to Old Dornie just as everything was getting bathed in the same rosy-orange glow it has been when we set out, nine hours earlier. And after 30 clicks of sea paddling and very little similar exercise, I wasn’t as shagged as I’d expected to be, something that I’d partly put down to a lack of tension of not doing it alone.
The Bottle Island run last year was 22km but pushing the bow of the Amigo had been enough of a slog to make me buy the Seawave. I think there’s barely one kph in it, but that’s nearly 20%, and with the Seawave’s many other benefits not least its sharper bow, I can conclude that, like the name suggests, it’s a better all-round sea boat, and also that Priest Island would be a great place to revisit.
With the heather turning purple, mushrooms all over the lawn and a chill in the air, I thought it was all over for this season. But this week we’ve had a reprieve. Sat between isobars so far apart they’re in different time zones, today the Summer Isles are getting one final spell of calm, summery conditions. It could be my one and only chance to tick off the last of the Summer Isles.
Yesterday we nipped out from Old Dornie to Glas-Leac Mor (map left), another as-yet unvisited isle less than two miles out. Paddling 2-up took a bit of ‘readjustment’ and isn’t half as comfortable for me as my fuly-braced DIY solo set-up. But following a short cruise alongside Glas Mor, we were fully synched for the long way back between Ristol and Eilean Mullagrach.
Local internet chatter talked of helicopters dropping equipment to build a dwelling on Eilean Mullagrach, which we could see on the south side. Apparently professional castaway and Lego brand ambassador, Ben Fogle, tried to buy Mullagrach ten years ago, but bid too low, perhaps to the owner who’s developing to now. (Had he bought it, he could have named the 46-metre-high summit ‘Ben Fogle’). With no easy sea access that I’ve seen, you do wonder how they’re going to get to that house. As we paddled through the sound, a little dolphin popped up, huffing and puffing, and some colourful kayaks were taking a guided tour around the isles. The following day’s forecast was for similarly light winds, so I dropped the kayak off at Badentarbat jetty and next morning walked down with my gear.
You don’t need a flat calm to visit the inner Summer Isles: the Taneras, ‘Ristols’ and Horse Island. But alone in an IK the outer Summers can feel like a bit of a reach. Priest Island is the most distant and adds up to an 18-mile tour via all the other outer isles, even though you need never be more than a mile or so from an island or inaccessible skerry of some sort. I settled on Bottle Island at the end of a cluster of isles and a 14-mile round trip from Badentarbat jetty. That’s about the same as our run to Ullapool a couple of years ago, but more open water than coastal hop.
The winds would be barely a factor until the afternoon, but a spring tide was at its 5.5-metre peak. I asked tidemaster Gael whether there was anything to consider on my route: he advised the books and charts didn’t list any dodgy currents. I was expecting a bit of flow through channels or around points at peak ebb around 11am, but could always find another way round.
The pier at Badentarbet is condemned and blocked off with a barrier, but locals clamber round for a spot of fishing. I dropped the boat over the barrier, carried it down the steps to the water (right) and was on my way at 9.30, an hour after very high tide. Forty minutes later, I turned the east corner of Tanera Mor (still for sale, btw. Currently under £2m), rubbed the sweat from my eyes and clocked Eilean Dubh, nearly 2.5 miles ahead. Coming round Tanera put me back in a cooling breeze and the boat slid silently across the water as if on rails. To the southeast was Horse Island and Carn nan Sgeir, a remote skerry I visited last year and now floating on the glassy surface like a jellyfish with gout.
An hour before peak flow, at one point I was convinced I was being pulled west on the outgoing tide. I stopped to try and read any drift on the GPS, but couldn’t determine a direction. Turned out later I was drifting at 1mph east or inland with the breeze. So much for the impression of deadly currents. It was a lesson for the day: what you feel is happening (drift, current, ‘wind-in-the-face’ velocity) doesn’t always match the unassailable facts of the GPS. But alone on an all-day run it’s important to know what’s going on: is it ‘me’ or is it due to the conditions – so you can judge how much you have left in the tank.
As I neared Eilean Dubh I saw what looked like a chalet in a tiny north-facing bay. A couple of years ago I’d heard about a house in an outer Summer somewhere but couldn’t find it on Google. This must be it (left). With no boat moored at the jetty, I diverting for a closer look. It was certainly the protected setting to build a dwelling: small stony beach for access; sheltered northeast aspect and a burn trickling down for water. Once ashore, the chalet reeked of lovely warm creosote and there was even a palm tree among the firs and other trees. Up the hill in the heather was little shed /painting studio. It didn’t look like anyone had been here for months.
Back on the water and coming round onto the east side of Eilean Dubh, I expected to be paddling against the ebb spilling southwestwards round either end of the island. And that’s how it felt, though again the GPS showed I was doing a normal speed or even faster, briefly hitting 4mph. It’s all in the mind. But when I came through a gap into the channel between Sgeirean Glasa and Carn Deas, I was definitely fighting against something, so moved away for the shores. Just as I did so a Tornado ripped past low overhead, close enough to see the undercarriage.
Up ahead, Bottle Island was now only a kilometre away. So far so good: I got there in two hours from the pier after deducting 25 mins nosing around on Eilean Dubh: 3.5mph cruising average. Here I nosed about some more, this time deep into a slotted geo on the south side of the island, where plinky-plonk drips and splashes echoed in the cleft. On the back of the cave the minerals in the Torridon sandstone looked like a gaudy, modern art mural (right) – or maybe petrified viscera.
There was just enough room to turn around in there when an incoming swell revealed another way out. In a corner was a chasm under another arch with an even narrower tunnel leading back out to sea (right). I inched in to see if it was wide enough and safe, then stowed the paddle and pushed through off the walls back out into the open. A double arch sea cave – who would have known!
Two clicks to the west Priest Island looked far enough away to stay that way for now. It’s nice to leave something for next time (aka: ‘hold back to give an impression of calculated caution’).
So I turned back north and on the way tried and cut east between Bottle and Carn Iar to get to Carn’s beach for lunch. I didn’t want to eat in the boat if I could help it. But the flow between the islands felt too strong and I didn’t want to burn up energy I might need later. Instead, I got to the north side of that stony isthmus beach that links Carn Iar to Carn Deas, very similar to the ones on Carn nan Sgeir or Horse Island. To get onto it I just about scraped over a rock and seaweed bar into a sandy pool (left), knowing I wouldn’t get back out without a portage. But I wanted to get out of the boat, walk around a bit then have a sit-down.
Up on the grass and heather I ate and drank just about everything I had while down below a gang of seals quietly observed. As I’ve noticed before, these sheep-free islands have verdant and varied vegetation all of their own. I took a doze on a lovely machair sofa, then packed up and waded across the pool to tackle the ankle-breaking portage back out to the sea which has dropped half a metre in the meantime.
Now for the long haul back: 3 miles out in the open to Tanera Sound. I should have dozed in that machair sofa a bit longer: the big feed has taken out my energy and I found myself counting the strokes towards Sgeir Ribhinn skerry, pushing into a light northwest breeze that rippled the surface. After the glassy morning conditions, even waves a few inches high give a noticeable resistance, and for a moment I wondered if the east side of Tanera Mor might be easier. But the speeds later showed I was doing as well as ever at around 3.5 mph – it’s more likely I was unfit for all-day paddling, not having done any since we got here. Again, it makes me think that a speedo (or legible GPS readout) is a good idea as you can verify you’re going better than you feel, despite the impressions of currents and wind. It’s not like moving on land.
Alone out here, too far to swim to even the nearest skerry, you can’t help thinking ‘what if’. What if I somehow caught a stinging jellyfish with the paddle and it landed slap in my face? But the most likely ‘what if’ isn’t that or a sustained swordfish attack, but getting separated from your boat. That’s easily done when thrown out of an IK in an F5, but on a day like today it’s hard to come up with a plausible disaster scenario that would raise the slightest bit of interest in Hollywood. That’s why I ventured right out to Bottle Island.
By Low Water I was right in the middle of Tanera Sound. You see new things when the tide is very low: some pendulous orange sponges tucked under an exposed overhang. And on a tidal skerry visible from our window, a prickly urchin of some kind. Don’t want to ram that with my IK.
I can see our isolated house on the headland and with only a mile to go, I lie back and drift with the incoming tide drift for a bit. Then it’s back to the pier where the sea is at least 3 metres lower than it was this morning, exposing lower beams encrusted with mussels.
Fourteen miles and 5.5 hours; moving average (not always cruising): 3mph. On a long trip like this I have to say I miss the old Incept’s effortless glide (compare this Incept speed graph with the one below – or read this comparison post). I miss the speed not because the Incept was a bit faster, but because you definitely feel the effort required to push the wider and half-metre shorter Amigo along. The Amigo is even shorter (though much more rigid) than my old Sunny: the shortest IK on my IK comparison table.
All things being equal, that extra bit of speed can enable you to go further or get back quicker. But let’s face it, it’s always a compromise: there are days for fast boats and days for fun boats. I’m here and still breathing. My Amigo is an easy boat to live with – and a lot better than pushing a bathtub around on a trolley.
The calm continued and with it the paddling. Today we tried the Grabner Amigo two-up around Tanera Beg island out of Old Dornie. I’d <a class="wp-gallery mceItem" style="color: #000000;" title="Summer Isles Overnighter camped on the island with Jon one time but have never been right round it. For some reason I assumed better the greater weight of me in the back and half-my-weight Mrs out front. But looking at the seating positions (image below right), back is quite far back and full frontal is only a little more forward than the solo position. So the heavier person out front centres the mass a little better on the boat which must be better for control and response.
We set off me in the back, but suggestions on improving the forward operator’s poor technique and asymmetric delivery led to discord and erratic progress, as the speed recordings below testify. To be fair the g is way out of practice and also hadn’t had two hard days of paddling to tone up. However, claims that her inability to paddle straight was due to my diet and general girthlyness in the stern will have to be settled in due course by BCU lawyers.
Meanwhile, in the narrower back it was a tight squeeze for my (allegedly fat) arse and soon my legs – like my ears – were going numb. I’d initially perched on a spare Gumotex thwart but that felt unstable. It was better sat on the floor, jammed in. In this position my feet were against the back of the gf, so there’s only just enough room for my legs. As we passed between the two Taneras where a fishing boat was checking pots, I spotted an easy portage over Eilean Fada Mor, an island between the two Taneras. It gave a bit of a short-cut, but more usefully a chance to restore circulation in my legs.
We swapped places here too, although one lean back on my new q/d back strap arrangement (left, a replacement for the alloy Grabner bar which bends too easily) broke the black plastic clip. I fed a spare krab through the seat strap and tied off the other end with some cord so that clip wouldn’t break too. I was expecting such issues and anyway, big karabiners are easier to use when swapping seats (see Grabner Mods). With the force on the Grabner rubber mounting lugs now coming from an unintended angle rather than directly back when using the seat bar, I’m trying to spread and articulate the loads with cord. But with only 3 square inches of contact, even if the lugs were factory glued, I feel I ought to glue on some 4.5-inch ø D-rings instead (as on the Solar; over 15 square inches of contact). Whether it’s just my clumsiness or all this weight I hear about, it’s clear that the strain on seat mounts is greater than I thought, especially with footrests to push back off. As it was, with no footrests in the full-forward position I couldn’t rest fully against the prototype back strap, but as I noticed before, proper paddling is much easier out front as the boat narrows towards the bow. That’s another thing with big, single sidetube IKs: they’re over wide for good paddling. As it happens, should I want a footrest tube I do have a D-ring glued on the front floor in about the right place.
Back to the story. We were now back in paddling harmony and heading into mare incognita, the southeast corner of Tanera Beg where I’d heard there was an arch. And there it was – a very nice one too that could be paddled right through (this was 90 mins after spring HW). Its exposed position made the roof deeply scalloped by storms and weathering, reminding me of the similarly carved limestone walls of northwest Australia’s Geikie Gorge which we packrafted a year or two back. Amazingly, out here on the ocean-side of the Summers there was barely a swell or a breeze to disturb our composure. Though an hour’s paddle away, Priest Island looked enticingly near. And from Priest it’s less than 5 miles to Mellon Udrigle beach at the top of Gruinard Bay on the south side of Loch Broom. Or from either Tanera island you can take a 10-mile loop south to Priest and back north via the smaller Eilean Dubh and a few other ‘Outer Summers’. One for the next calm day and a paddling chum for back up.
We felt like we were making good speed across the south side of Tanera Beg, although rarely got over 4mph. At the southeast corner was a huge cave – big enough to break the GPS signal. With a small window at the back this will become another full arch by around AD6565. This whole exposed side of the island has deeply weathered Torridon sandstone cliffs full of interestingly rounded cracks and fissures. Tanera Beg, like the bigger Mor has the same ‘waisted’ kidney shape presumably carved by the icecap along existing fault lines. Like mountain col, the ‘waists’ usually correspond with bays backed with a handy stony beach though flat camping needs a bit more of a walk. Had the Ice Age been a bit longer (or when the polar ice caps are gone) there’ll be a few more Summer Isles to go round.
We then paddled below the 20-m cliffs on the north edge of the island (left). On a stormy day they reflect the brunt of the swells and throw up plumes of white spray over the cliffs themselves which can be visible from the road, miles away. Today, all we had to worry about was the peak of the ebbing spring tide in an hour’s time. Who knows if it mattered, but I’d deliberately circumnavigated Tanera Beg clockwise so as not to be in the inter-island channel where the current ebbing against us might have been more noticeable.
Heading back to Old Dornie the speeds indeed seemed to drop, even though we were going as fast as possible in an effort to catch the weekly fish van down in Achiltibuie. At one point the kayak slowed right down as it passed over some unseen current or eddy thrown out by Isle Ristol. But that soon passed and with a quick turnaround in Old Dornie, it’ll be fresh local halibut for dinner. So, closely analysing the data in the speed graph it seems that two-up doesn’t make the Amigo much faster than solo after all – perhaps it’s the same with tandems? I suppose the additionally weighted hull can only be pushed through the water so fast and then an IK’s unsophisticated hydrodynamics come against a wall. Instead, two-up enables greater potential duration as the paddling load is shared – and let’s not overlook the companionable element of two in a boat, as long as everyone is sitting in the right place and on form.
A sunny and wind-free morning coincided with the definitive wrapping up of my current job that’s dragged on for years. I could not pack up the gear quick enough before the calm spell flipped. And this time I wasn’t messing about – I was going to paddle right around Tanera Mor! All of a mile off shore it is, but you never know what to expect on the unseen ‘ocean’ side. Just before midday I stuck out for Rhuba Dubh Dubh, the island’s most easterly point (see map, above) and would decide how things went from there. Less than half an hour of speedy, flat-water paddling I arrived at the point, the smokey blue Torridons brooding in the background and the creased and weathered sandstone cliffs to my right.
Rounding the bend to Tanera’s south side I wasn’t hit by the expected churning swell and whirlpools but pressed on, reluctant to relax until there was something to relax about. That turned out to be the inlet of Mol Mor which invited me in for a walkabout. It has to be said, at lower tide levels these islands don’t make getting ashore easy; a jumble of glistening wet, seaweed-draped boulders as big as melons bite at your ankles. And on proper land, it’s no better, with more unseen ankle traps under the thick heather, or plain old sphagnum sludge juiced up from the recent rains. But as always, from a high point the little yellow boat down below looked striking. Green sea-over-sand and the far headlands of Wester Ross backing the tempting (but not today) outer Summer Isles of Eilean Dubh, Bottle Island and Priest Island with the distant strand of Mellon Udrigle shining bright.
I clambered up to a pass for a view back north over the fish farm to Achiltibuie and the loaf of Suilven behind. Must go back up there one time soon. On the water again I turned up between Tanera Beag where a north wind had come up and gave me something to get stuck into. I didn’t want to push my luck but to string things out I popped onto one of the three islands north of Fada Mor which become one mass at low tide. Causing a seabird commotion overhead, I crawled to a high point and took in another great view back at the Fisherfield and Torridons. As on Tanera, the colours of the vegetation jumped out at me – was it the light, the recent rains after a long dry spell or just my shades? All that remained was a hack over to Dornie and back to Whalebone beach (now all gone). It was just beginning to whitecap which I regard as the red flag, especially when blowing from behind.
The spray kicked up over the sides but at times like these I’m reassured by the K40’s reliable turn of speed – about 3.5mph the readout said. It’s good to know it can be done, even if most of the time I prefer bumbling around in calmer weather, looking at stuff.
Once over, I pottered back tucked under the mainland shore out of the wind. A beaky oyster catcher eyed me suspiciously just as I neared the beach where a guy setting out with his toddler on his Sevy 200, doubtless the only two IKs for miles around. A few more days like that please, Mr Weatherman.