After a fortnight of chilly north winds and a diminishing woodpile, today was one of those rare days in the Summer Isles (far northwest Scotland) where you could paddle pretty much where you liked in an IK. It was also a chance for me to try out my new skeg-wheel trolley which Jon, who was staying down the road, had made for me. With no boat of his own this time, we set off in mine to see what we might see.
But I knew before I got on the water the tide was not with me and nor was the wind. Hauling myself through the Tanera channel, by the time the cheese-wedge profile of Angus came into view to the southwest it looked a long way away, with only Glas-leac Beag (on the right, below) between it and the inky depths of the Minch.
I paddled out into the Summers the other afternoon to see how far I’d get. What I was really eyeing up was Stac Mhic Aonghais or ‘Precipitous rocky feature of Angus’, one of three skerries bobbing just south of the Tanera islands. I only really clocked it on last year’s crossing from Carn nan Sgeir to Tanera Beg. I suppose now I’ve visited just about all the Summer Islands I’m looking more closely at the bits in between.
So I swung east around the south side of Tanera Mor and, now with the wind and tide behind me, at the last minute decided to make a ‘training dash’ towards ‘Goat Sound’ (left) – the tidal passage between Horse and ‘Goat’ island which I guessed was flooded by now. From there it was a weary hack back against the squalls to the beach and an XL dinner.
A few days later I persuaded visiting paddlechum Jon that a tour of the Summer Isles Skerries was good use of his holiday up here. He’d just returned from a gruelling, two-day bike ride through the Assynt – part of the HT550 – so his arms were in need of some exercise.
As skerries go, the supposedly 78-foot-high (26-m) Stac of Angus (see below) has a dramatic profile. From some angles a homesick Norseman pining for his mead might even call it a dragon’s tooth. It also looked fairly easy to climb to the top to get a nice shot of a kayak below.
Stac Mhic Aonghais, Sgeir an Aon Iomairt and Sgeir Ribhinn or Revan. All three line up with about a kilometre between each; long thin skerries aligned on a SW/NE axis, as is much of the lower elevation topography up here; valleys and trenches carved I assume, by glaciers advancing from Scandinavia. This report suggests that 12,000 years ago during an anomalous cold spike following the end of the last Ice Age ‘…climatic factors, combined with the availability of large quantities of subglacial debris, led to the development of distinctive glacial landsystems, which may have no direct modern analogue.’ As we know, the dramatic Assynt has no topographic analogue elsewhere in Scotland and the angular claw of Stac of Angus is one of its many remnants. (Btw, that marine chart screenshot above left is from a very handy and editable online nautical ‘mapp’).
Planning paddles up here is of course a lottery but came the day, by some miracle a High had parked itself over the northern British Isles, put on the handbrake and tipped the seat back. The 4.5-m tide may have been at the peak of its fortnightly cycle, bottoming out at 2.30pm, but that could be handy if we used it right. If we left Stac around low tide, it should be an easy ride back up to Old Dornie, assisted by the rising afternoon breeze. We paddled down between the Taneras with the tide, passing some other kayakers on the way. I mentioned the Tanera Beg arch just round the corner to them, but after a quick check the tide was too far gone to thread the arch.
In little more than an hour we were approaching the gnarly, storm-wracked northern prow of Angus. It’s hard to think how the 1:25,000 OS map arrives at the oft-repeated height of 26m. The picture below of Angus’ high point is about 90 minutes before a low spring tide at around 0.5m above Ordnance Datum – which is the lowest astronomical tide – ‘LAT’ – at Newlyn. So even if you add about 2m or 6 feet to measure the skerry at LAT, or just use the more likely MSL, there’s no way that adds up nearly 80 feet; it’s more like half that. It’s odd because the two other skerries we were heading for had entirely plausible heights.
Anyway, we paddled along the exposed west side looking for a landing spot but found nothing but 45-degree slopes. I was sort of hoping that low tide might reveal a platform or at least give us more rock surface to choose from, but very low tide also exposes seaweed, kelp and other crap; there’s probably as much chance of getting alongside a handy ledge at higher tides.
As we passed between the two outcrops on the south end, Jon smacked me in the head with his paddle (left). Lifted through by a 1-m swell, on the inshore side we found the least unlikely looking parking slot, where between bigger swells I could crawl out (right). If you think about it, sitting as you are on the floor of a bobbling narrow boat at sea level, there’s nothing harder to get out of than a kayak, especially once you’ve attained a certain age. IKs are easier than a proper sea kayak of course, but even a canoe’s bench seat might be easier to spring or step off.
Stac Angus is nearly bisected by a punched-out breach (left) through which storm waves tumble; the higher part is in the north. Problem was getting there from the lower half of the skerry where I’d landed. Even if it wasn’t 26m above MLWS or LAT or even M&S, accessing that northern spike was a lot more of a rock-climbing challenge than I was prepared to take on. So I left it to the squawking guillemots and settled with just enough elevation to get an OK shot of Jon gliding by (below), then scrambled back down to the slot and hailed down my water taxi.
With Stac of Angus ticked off, we scooted over towards Sgeir an Aon Iomairt (in the picture above, on the right), hoping it would provide an easier landing for a civilised terrestrial lunch.
Iomairt has a similar NW-facing cliff and on its NE corner has a parking slot of sorts (right) where a kayak can wedge itself as the tide drops away below it.
The surprise here was the thick cushy duvet of soft grass and thrift flowers which capped the island. Picture left: looking south from, near the summit towards the Carns, Bottle and Priest Island. Whatever it is that makes Iomairt agreeable to lush vegetation and sea pink thrifts, while Angus makes do with lichen and bird shite, it’s found here. Perhaps because it’s less of a jutting flake and flatter, with many crevices where rainwater and sludge can gather and foment.
Who knows, but it was nice to be able to walk around, rather than teether on acute, barnacle-covered slabs, as I’d just done on Angus. We settled down out of the breeze – May temperatures are still barely in double figures up here – and unpacked our munchies. We had with less than an hour before the tide turned and lifted the Gumotex away. As we ate we spotted another couple of paddlers enjoying the calm conditions out to the southeast, near the two Carns which join up at low tides, like today. Though you’re not spoilt for choice out here in the Summer Isles, you could easily camp on Sgeir an Aon Iomairt. There’s brackish water in some pools, good enough for a wash, and enough flat patches to sleep in comfort. Hardshell or IK, for peace of mind you’d still want to lug you’re boat above the high water line unless you can find a bombproof anchorage. And the elevation of around 16m is, you’ll be pleased to know, about right. When our time came the tide had dropped a metre but was on the turn. Getting back in was as always an awkward shunt, slipping around on kelp and slimey molluscs to get the Seawave back on the water, but once in the pool it did manage to paddle itself out over the slimy kelp towards Sgeir Ribhinn (‘Maiden’s Skerry’), the last of our Summer Island skerries.
Coming round the eastern side of Ribhinn, even this skerry managed to sustain a small capping of grass. We nosed into a kayak-wide geo and found ourselves in a twin-arched cave, another paddleable arch (above) to add to my list.
All that remained was to paddle back the way we came through the western passage of ‘Tanera Sound’, between Tanera Beg and Eilean Fada Mor. With the spring tide still low, all the shell beaches were out sunning themselves. After looking for it for years, I finally recognised a cove and beach on Tanera Beg (left) where we’d spent a lovely afternoon 12 years ago with my Gumotex Sunny and ancient Safari when we first started coming to the Summers.
Back to now, I hopped off at Eilean Fada to top up the air that had purged while out of the water over lunch, and to get a shot of Jon floating over the azure Bahaman sands (below). My kayaks have got a lot better since 2006, but the Summer Islands remain the same great place they always were for a quiet paddle.
What paddler can resist the thrill of poking their bow into a cave or threading a natural rock arch? Paddling under a bridge or into a boathouse just doesn’t have the same transgressive buzz. Here are a few of my favourites, tracked down over many summers bobbing among the Isles. Most of the arches will need the top half of a tall tide, but add spring highs and a swell and some caves may require a hard hat too, or may just be too risky.
Double Arch • Bottle Island This was a great discovery – in under one arched slot with room enough below a collapsed roof cavern to turn for a paddle-stowed squeeze out of the other exit (above right) if the tide is high or the swell is right. Read more…
Arch • Tanera Beg The best known and best looking of kayaking arches in the Summer Isles (left). Not that easy to spot on the usual approach from the northeast I the Tanera channel, so start nosing around off the southeast side of Tanera Beg when the tide is high. Read more…
Arch • Eilean Mullagrach Another superb example of Torridian archmanship which elsewhere, in similar forms, may have given birth to the first architectural arch. Easy to find and get to as long as there’s a paddle in your hand and water under your boat. There’s a cave behind the arch (both left) which, who knows, may one day link up with the other Mullagrachcave described below. Read more…
Deep Cave • Eilean Mullagrach Just up the coast from the above arch is a hidden cave tucked in the back of a little cove – Am Fang on some maps. Look on a map or sat image and it very much looks part of the same fault as the arch above which burrows right along the eastern shore of Mullagrach. We went back the other day for a closer look with a bit more tide but which did not please the birds nesting by the entrance (left) at all. We probably got within a boat’s length of the end, using the camera flash to navigate. Read more…
Arches and Caves • Priest Island We didn’t go right round the ‘Island of the Clerics’ but passed an arch approaching the Priest’s northern tip, and I read in Fraser-Darling’s Island Years that there are deep linking chasms – crawlable not kayakable – around the northern point and another on the western end too. On the east end of the ‘Acairseid’ or bay is a narrow cave as well as a tricky right-angled tidal slot alongside a stack (right; I may be conflating the two). There’s also a less a constricted passage through the skerries just round the corner. Read more…
Cave • Tanera Beg On the OS map this cave is near a point labelled Sron Ghlas on at the island’s south-southeast point. ‘Cathedral Cave’ is what the boat tours call it, as they can edge right in while the captain offers a rendition of ‘Danny Boy’. With the daylight coming through the crack at the back (right), give it 100,342 years and they’ll have to reprint their brochures with ‘Cathedral Arch’. Read more…
Double Arch • Sgeir Ribhinn In a rush to get to see the main islands before the weather breaks, most would paddle by Sgeir Ribhinn, the easternmost of the three skerries south of the Taneras. But if you do pass close by, the one-kayak-wide geo on the upper east side will bring you into the cathedral gloom of big and small (left) arches overhead. Read more…
There are more caveson the Coigach peninsula cliffs facing Enard Bay, northwest of Achnahaird plus some fun tidal passages in the Isles too. Here you can catch that serene Caribbean sensation of gliding on aquamarine glass over the sandy sea bed, if not always with tropical temps, balmy winds or reggae soundtrack. My favourite is the pass between Carn Iar and Carn Deas (left), just above Bottle Island, with a lovely sandy passage on the right of Deas. Carn nan Sgeir below Horse Island is another, though you’ve got to time both at high tides.
Stuck out in outer Loch Broom, the little hoof-print shaped island of Carn nan Sgeir (above) lies midway between Horse Island and the Scoraig peninsula on the southern mainland. Some call it Bird Island and four times a day the CalMac ferry passes close by, sometimes to the north, sometimes to the south. Nearly a mile-and-a-half from land, I figured getting to Carn would be a good simulation of a more exposed run out to Priest Island (marked below). Plus on the sat image it looked like an unusual place, separated at all but the highest tides by a single, shingle isthmus.
I came across this Summer Isles sea kayaking report by some intrepid members of the Braintree Canoe Club. In a week out of Ardmair they managed to do what’s taken me years, and that included two days windbound below Ben Mor mountain and an overnight on Carn nan Sgeir where, from their gallery, it looks like they saw a great sunset. And here another more recent report from the area with pics and maps: Gruinard Bay (Mellon, below) up past Stoer and Handa Island.
Mid-August but sometimes it feels like autumn has already arrived up here. Compared to a few weeks ago the light is thinner and there’s a chill in the air. Jon turned up, not having used his orange Scorpio LV since our outings here last year. On the day the weather wasn’t great so we set off from Badenscallie Beach opposite Horse Island for a splash about. Dark clouds pressed down on the steely swell and a westerly F4 made for a bouncy ride (above) until we got into the lee of Horse. The tide was up so we headed for the flooded gap between Horse and Meall nan Gabhar just to assure ourselves we didn’t want to go through it and out into the open.
Instead, we tracked down the lee side of Horse to the southern point where we again pushed out into the winds. At times the front third of Jon’s long LV was launching off the crests, but considering he’d not paddled it for ages, he was managing fine. Perhaps these plastic coffins can be mastered after all? From any direction the Amigo handled it all too, with a brief squirt from Jon’s handy bilge pump by way of a rest.
We mucked around alongside the surf breaking over the skerry of Iolla Mor and eyed up Carn nan Sgeir, some 2km away. We could make a run and probably make it, or we could play it safe. With the forecast set to worsen, we settled for a loop round Iolla, scattering some seals, then dithered again over making a break for Carn. Discretion prevailed again, so instead we landed on Horse Island and hacked through the chest-high bracken to the 60-metre summit cairn. As the disturbed birds wheeled over our heads, we looked over to isolated horseshoe of Carn and the thick clouds swathing the Torridons beyond.
A couple of days later all looked calm out the window towards Tanera, but that was because the hill behind us was sheltering the northwest wind. I didn’t notice that until leaving Badenscallie, and very soon the Grabner felt oddly squirrelly, pivoting left on each crest. Approaching Iolla Mor again and now in the lee of Horse, things flattened off but I knew once past that point the 4-5 mile fetch building up from Badentarbet Bay might get a bit much. And so it did, pushing the boat around as it started to white cap. By the time a wave flopped over the side I’d scaled down my plans to tap Carn with the paddle and shoot back. I pressed on for a bit with that in mind but the seas seemed to be rising and it could be a nerve-wracking hour getting back. Less than ten minutes from the Carn, I turned around and scurried back to Badenscallie.
A period of calm, that’s what I needed to enjoy a relaxed paddled and look around Carn, rather than making it into a hurried dare. That afternoon came, but it didn’t stop me paddling out from Badenscallie at full steam, knowing that in a couple of hours it may all change. In the rush I’d forgotten map, GPS and watch, but I knew the way and with the clock in the camera I timed the 3 miles to the north tip of Carn nan Sgeir at just over 40 minutes. By that point sweat was wringing in my eyes, but the way the Amigo tracked in such unusually flat conditions was quite an eye opener.
As I neared the shore of Carn, numerous seals slipped into the water and soon no less than forty of them were bobbing all around, eyeing me up. I’ve never seen so many seals up here. They followed me like a fleet of U-boats as I paddled around to the stony isthmus, and were still watching as I walked from the boat.
Getting to Carn’s high point took three minutes but doing so set off the dozing midges. As I reached the pole and rag marking the summit, the ferry was coming in from Stornaway, today passing south of the island. Midges made further exploration a misery, so I took a quick look at the grassier and less infested north isle then headed back to Badenscallie at a more relaxed pace. By now the wind had dropped right off and I stopped a few times to enjoy the silence, broken only by the splash of a seal or a distant guillemot flapping off the water. I couldn’t get over it, there seemed something uncanny about how well the boat was tracking, perhaps I’d not yet paddled in such a calm. As a test I closed my eyes and paddled on for a minute; two times out of three I remained bang on target for the beach – the other time I was off at 90 degrees. As I neared the beach a light north breeze started up, just as predicted, and in a couple of hours the sun would emerge below the cloud ceiling’s western edge to make for another sunny evening. As I’d found a few weeks ago when I paddled to Lochinver, and then around Rubha Coigach, when it’s calm up here you feel you can almost walk across the water to anywhere you like.
Another calm day, another island paddled around; a quick one to Horse Island which I visited last year. On that occasion the two islands of Horse and the smaller Meall nan Gabhar were separated by a stony, seaweed-drapped causeway. Today, leaving Badentarbet beach 40 minutes after HW, I expected to paddle between the two. On the way out I noticed that the way I’d clipped the new backrest was not so good, so at Runha Dunan point (map left) I pulled over to try something less bad (right). I definitely need to come up with something better, and for the rest of the trip avoided leaning against the strap for fear of damaging the lugs. That may have contributed to the fatigue, if not actual low speeds (see below). Expensive but stout Grabner D-rings and an SoT backrest are on the way. At 2.7 miles out a wide channel separated Horse from its northern neighbour (left). In the absence of distracting wind and at today’s tide (3.6m, max can be 4.7) I wanted to see if I could detect any currents in places like this channel. Maybe not yet only 1.5 hours after HW, but by the time I closed the loop a flow – I imagined against me from east to west – ought to be noticeable. Down the inland side of the Horse I passed the small seal colony (left) we spotted on our way to Ullapool last year. And at around 70 minutes and 4 miles out I turned around the south end of Horse Island (left) and experienced the slight turbulence I expected, possibly as the tide flowed round the point against a rising southwest breeze. Up the outside of the Island I felt a bit exposed so pressed on against the chop and as I returned to the gap from the south side the back end of the kayak kicked out a bit. A ha, something’s happening two hours after high water, getting through the gap may be a struggle. I felt the nose of the boat pull off course unless I kept straight on against an imagined current. But as the speed graph shows, I was actually going faster than an hour 20 minutes earlier and the seaweed below wasn’t showing any signs of flow, so if anything it was a light current pushing the back around. All very confusing. Perhaps the ebbing tide backing out of Loch Broom around the island creates a back eddy through Horse Channel. The fifty-minute paddle back to the beach turned into quite a haul, but that’s the way I like it sometimes and somewhere on this stage the GPS’s trip log (if not the track log, left) recorded the magical 5 mph! All up, 8.1 miles in 2 hours 20 at a moving average of 3.5 mph. About 10% faster than my other solo trips over the last week to Lochinver and around Rubha Coigach, but as a training run and without a proper back rest, the effort wore me out. As for tides and tidal movements, for the moment I remain baffled.
In 2011 I met Gael after he ran out of time and weather to complete the second stage of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail he started in 2010 in his Grabner H2. According to the guy who wrote the guidebook, the SSKT is a 500-km run through the Inner Hebrides from the Isle of Gigha off the Kintyre peninsula to the Summer Isles, but with no shoreside infrastructure as such, most just follow their nose with the book’s help. In 2012 Gael returned to Skye for another go, now in the ex-demo Incept K40 be picked up from Sea Kayak Oban. In March that year Scotland experienced some very fine weather while England got the converse – a result of a misplaced jet stream (right). And so it was for Gael who managed a comparatively trouble-free run all the way to Ullapool where he rolled up his boat and bussed back to his car on Skye.
Day 1 – Kyleakin to Uags The trip began rather badly. I arrived around midnight in Kyleakin after an interminable drive from Paris with an exhausting final crossing through the Highlands mostly in the rain. I set up my tent quickly on the grass by the hostel’s backyard. Once in my sleeping bag, I fell asleep right away, lulled by the pounding of rain on the canvas and the rustle of leaves in the wind gusts. Early next morning I woke up with my feet feeling cold and wet; during my deep slumber I’d pushed them under the edge of the tent. Fortunately, my sleeping bag fill is synthetic and the nylon shell water repellent enough and with relief I found it was still dry inside. The ground all around was drenched and I could now test the effectiveness of my new Seal Skinz socks. It was still raining, so I donned my foul weather gear right away before proceeding with the usual pre-launch routine (inflate kayak, rig the accessories, sort food and equipment before closing the bags). Like last year I went to Kyle of Lochalsh Police Station to report my departure, then to the Co-op to stock up on McEwans in case I got shipwrecked.
Early in the afternoon, after a quick snack, I launched in Otter Pond by the Skye bridge. A fresh easterly was blowing out of the Loch against the flowing tide, raising the inevitable chop. I crossed the channel towards Kyle, then let myself be blown under the Skye bridge, leaving Eilean Ban to port. I paddled to Erbusaig Bay through the relatively sheltered Black Islands but decided not to proceed directly to Uags under the current crosswinds. Instead, I hugged the coast upwind towards An Dubh Aird from which the crossing would be much shorter. After vain attempts to take a picture of the two little otters which turned around me, I left the lee of An Dubh Aird and rushed towards the south coast of the Applecross peninsula. Two-thirds of the distance into the crossing I bore away and took a direct course to Uags, pushed at speed down the wind blowing along the axis of Loch Carron. Sadly I couldn’t surf the best waves though because the stern was too heavy with the beer. I landed around 6pm in Uags, and moved into the empty bothy.
Once installed, I hung my tent and sleeping bag to dry, then I rewarded myself this interesting first step with a hot tea and a thick slice of chocolate cake. Outside rain was still pounding.
Day 2 – Uags to Red Point I woke up at dawn feeling numb as my old foam sleeping pad had been of little comfort on the floorboards. The temperature was 5°C; so much for this jet stream. I went out to stretch my body and surprised a little doe grazing in the meadow below the ruined Uags hamlet. It scampered away before I could fetch my camera (this is a double entrendre called ‘lacking reflex’). But – it had stopped raining, the air was clear and visibility was excellent. The snow-capped peaks of the Cuillins stood out beautifully against the sky (below left) but the chill air from the northeast soon sent me back inside.
Once on the way from Uags an unexpected SE tailwind pushed me gently toward Sgeir Shalash but the breeze then turned NE, as expected. In the protected lee of the shore I paddled on north without difficulty, up to Camusteel, but when I reached the mouth of Applecross Bay, I had to fight against the wind. It funneled unhindered along the valley, whipping up the waters and raising an uncomfortable chop, until I reached some shelter in the lee of Rubha na Guailne. From there the long way north to Loch Torridon seemed a never-ending trudge. The wind had picked up to the point of pushing me hard offshore whenever I got 50 meters from the shore. I kept hugging the coast, despite the uncomfortable chop and the occasional breakers, because the wind was shifting SE, thus pushing me northward. When I eventually passed Rubha na Fearna I found myself facing the wind blowing right out of the Loch.
Loch Torridon greeted me with one of its customary gusts of which I’d had the humiliating experience the year before. I took shelter as soon as I could in a tiny cove hidden behind a natural breakwater. I badly needed a feed. After a snack and some rest, I pushed off to cross the Loch. I paddled a mile inland to gain an upwind margin of safety then I headed north. Wedged into the seat, with my legs holding tight on the thigh straps and squeezing the footrest, I blithely crossed the choppy zone, kept an eye on the most threatening peaking waves and checked off some landmarks in transit which I used to control my leeward drift with the other eye while admiring the spectacular scenery of the mountains towering over Loch Torridon (yes, all at once).
I returned to quiet water in the lee of the north shore, laid the paddle across the boat and started bailing. My open decked Incept kayak had ridden well on the waves but had shipped a fair share of water which was now swashing in the bilge. I pulled ashore in the early evening on a beautiful beach near Red Point.
The ebbing tide had just retreated beyond the tombolo that connects Eilean Tioram islet to the mainland, thus forming a placid lagoon. Some cows and sheep were grazing in the dunes undulating behind the beach. I pitched my tent in a hollow, barely sheltered from the chill NE breeze and crashed out.
Day 3 – Red Point to Slaggan Bay The night had been cold but the clear morning sky made me hope for a warmer day. When I shoved off I didn’t know that I was about to enjoy one of the most beautiful days of my paddling life. Passing Red Point I noticed with satisfaction there was almost no swell. For once I wouldn’t be shaken by the rebounding waves and could explore the nooks and crannies of this craggy coast.
The sky became overcast and the NE wind picked up as I approached Loch Gairloch. The temperature dropped rapidly and I paddled more vigorously towards Carn Deag in an attempt to stay warm. I made a brief stop on the beach at Big Sand (left) but the chill breeze urged me on. I passed downwind along Longa Island with the hope of discovering a sheltered cove for lunch but found none. I then went on across Caol Beag, passed Rubha Ban and kept paddling north with my stomach gurgling. The beauty of the coast was worth the inconvenience of being cold, numb and hungry; huge sections of sandstone cliffs that had fallen in the sea provided an extraordinary maze of narrow passages that I enjoyed threading through. Erosion had also cut multiple geos and caves also worth exploring (I didn’t know what a geo was before reading the SSKT guidebook). I eventually reached Seana Chamas beach, largely uncovered by the outgoing tide and where I landed and dragged my kayak a few yards on a carpet of seaweed.
The sea was empty except for birds and a view that stretched westward to the Outer Hebrides. The Shiant Islands were clearly visible, standing out like a motionless line of battleships. I finished my lunch just as the tide returned up to my boat. The sky began clearing as I left and when I got past Melvaig all around me glistened under the sun.
After half a mile of boulders the coast turned to sandstone crumbling cliffs again and I could resume prowling in and out of caves and geos under the bright light of this sunny afternoon. Quite suddenly behind another headland appeared – the dreaded Rubha Reidh and its striking white lighthouse. I felt the mid-tide current pick up as it dragged me over to the other side of the promontory. The whitecaps of a faster tide rip were visible out to sea but right under the lighthouse the sea was rippling gently against the reddish rocks. One of the most exposed stages on this route passed without event.
The NE wind that had been blowing since I left Kyleakin had dropped too, but there was still some swell from the north, preventing me from sneaking through the rocky labyrinth that stretched between Rubha Reidh and the beautiful beach of Camas Mor. Beyond Rubha Reid to the east the extraordinary snow-capped skyline of the Wester Ross mountain range rose from the horizon (left). Put in a trance by this sight, I carried on on an eastward course and arrived at Caolas an Fhuraidh. I took stock at the mouth of Loch Ewe before an exposed 4km crossing over to Slaggan Bay. To the SE lay Rubha nan Sasan still with it’s WWII bunkers and gun emplacements. At that time Loch Ewe had been the starting point for many Russia-bound convoys and a haven for Allied shipping. There’s still a NATO base there today. As I paddled to Ploc an t-Slagain I hoped I’d not be rammed by a nuclear submarine entering or leaving Loch Ewe; I’d read reports elsewhere in the Hebrides of these subs rising so fast the resulting wash tipped sea kayaks bow over stern. I reached Slaggan Bay at 7pm finding another perfect landing place, a crescent of fine sand surrounded by empty dunes.
Day 4 – Slaggan Bay to Isle Ristol Under ideal paddling conditions I hugged the coast towards Greenstone Point, the last critical passage of the SSKT. The Point was flat and bare and proved even less dramatic than Rubha Reidh, although its rocky shoreline was wild and beautiful. From Greenstone I paddled on to Rubha Beag. In the distance the conspicuous peak of Ben Mor Coigach was towering over the horizon and to the NW lay a scattering of islets; the long-expected Summer Isles.
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 emphasized 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.
Once I completed this circumnavigation I paddled back to a cove called Acairseid Eilean a Chleirich (it’s quite a challenge to try to explain to other people the places I visited) where I pulled ashore onto a tiny uninviting boulder beach (left). As the afternoon progressed I uneventfully hopped through the convenient chain of islets lying between Priest Island and Tanera Mor, the biggest of the Summer Isles. I had intended to land near Althandu as I needed some of the facilities of the Port a Bhaigh campground, mostly their electrical hookups to charge the batteries, freshwater and even a shower, why not? There was also a pub close by.
But as I paddled through Old Dornie harbour I came within sight of the campground and within earshot too. The place looked packed and was definitely too noisy. After four days of solitude with no other sounds than the sea and the birds, I couldn’t stand it. So much for the camera, shower and a beer. I swung my boat south towards the lovely nearby beach of Traigh an t-Sean Bhaile on Ristol. I pitched my tent on thick grass which promised a comfortable night and the chilly cold kept any irksome midges from hatching.
Day 5 – Exploring the Summer Isles I devoted this day to exploring the archipelago as all these islands offer the type of craggy shore most sea paddlers are looking for. The sea conditions were again at their best for squeezing through narrow channels between rocks, under arches or into caves with almost no swell and light winds. I proceeded anti-clockwise around Ristol, paddling along its west coast then circumnavigated Eilean Glas Mullagrach and Glas Leach Mor.
Shags had built their nests in the crevices of the cliffs overlooking the sea. They were not easy to spot as their colour merged with the cliff but their unmistakable angry squawks betrayed their presence above me whenever I got too close. From Glas Leach Mor (the ‘large green stone’ a good description actually) I crossed to Tanera Beag. Here I gave a wide berth to a skerry occupied by a large group of singing seals that I didn’t want to disturb. The haunting sound suited the scenery perfectly.
Tanera Beag is considered the most beautiful of the Summer Isles by the experts. Close to its SW corner is a cave deep enough for a tourist boat to get in and with a very high ceiling after which it’s called Cathedral Cave. Its SE corner is adorned with an elegant arch, which is another place of pilgrimage by all paddlers visiting the isles.
After completing the circumnavigation of Tanera Beag I pulled ashore for an overdue snack and a nap in a pretty little cove where the outgoing tide had left a broad sandy beach. Between Tanera Beag and Mor Eilean Fada I entered a kind of shallow lagoon of clear water. The tide was low and I saw my kayak’s shadow skip along the sandy bottom.
Later I landed in the Anchorage on Tanera Mor, a sheltered bay that opens to the east and filled with salmon pens. There is a floating dock for the tourist boat but the tea shop/post office where I’d intended to indulge in a brew and some piece of cake was closed. Tanera Mor (currently for sale) enjoys an offshore status which allows this tiny post office to issue its own stamps but no brew, no cake and no stamps for me today.
I hopped back in the boat and crossed the Anchorage diagonally and skirted Rubha Dubh, the east corner of the island. Here I entered a narrow cove choked with seaweed and backed with a pebble and boulder beach. High spring tides and gales had filled the depression beyond the beach thus forming a lovely pond, An Lochanach. I pulled ashore soon after two other kayakers. The guy didn’t look very happy to see me and curtly turned down my offer to help them to carry their heavily loaded sea kayaks. So I minded my own business, as I had just been advised to do. His wife came and offered remorsefully to give a hand, but I declined politely.
It had been a hot afternoon and I’d paddled without cag and without a cap for the first time in five days. But cold came back after 7pm and the Franco-Welsh relationships in the cove did not improve. Although our respective pitches were located 300 meters apart, each on one side of the beach, no invitation to share dinner was exchanged. It nice to be alone of course, but I like chatting with other paddlers too. Another time perhaps.
Day 6 – Tanera Mor to Ullapool On a beautiful sunny morning I headed SE towards Loch Broom and Ullapool. Sunny but cold, chilly indeed, so chilly that I had my breakfast in my sleeping bag.
In the meantime, the wind had shifted SE so I slogged against it all the way to Horse Island. I paddled through the tidal gap which divides this island from its northern tip, Meall nan Gabhar. Once through I pulled ashore and found a very convenient pitching spot. I regretted not having carried on to this place yesterday, instead of staying next to unsympathetic paddlers. So seemed to say the half-dozen seals romping about behind me. The sky was promising some fair weather that had been a long time coming. As the breeze didn’t abate I took shelter in the lee of Acheninver. But as soon as I got past Rubha Dubh Ard I fought the headwind again until I reached the base of Ben Mor Coigach.
Then I paddled below the sheer slope of the mountain until I got to what looked like the white sands of Camas Mor beach. Actually, it’s a pebble beach facing Isle Martin and the guidebook said amethysts can be found here, but I didn’t find any. By 2 o’clock clouds covered the sky and some chill air forced me back into my cold-weather gear.
I shoved off shortly after lunch and enjoyed passing the last natural monuments of the Trail. I rounded Rubha Cadail, addressed the last salute to Ben Mor Coigach and entered Loch Broom. The wind unexpectedly veered NW and pushed me gently towards Ullapool.
Once ashore I pitched my tent under the stares of some motorcyclists wondering where the hell I’d come from. A leather-clad fellow told me the owner was already gone and would return early next morning to collect the fee. Meanwhile, I washed the Incept to remove the grit scattered in the bilge, wiped it dry, deflated it, rolled it, and pushed it into my huge 160-l Ortlieb Kanurucksack. The K40 doesn’t fold as compactly as my good old hypalon H2 but I was relieved it crammed into the bag. I enjoyed dinner at the water’s edge overlooking at the now placid waters of Loch Broom, glowing in the satisfaction of my achievement. It has taken three years and two different boats, but I’d completed the SSKT in an inflatable sea kayak along with one of Europe’s most striking shorelines. Celebrations continued at the Ferry Boat Inn where I e-mailed friends and family, sipping some good beer, the sound of music replacing the soothing sound of the sea lapping the shore.
Ullapool to Kyleakin The weather was set to improve in the following days and I wondered whether to paddle north and round the Point of Stoer, take the ferry to Stornoway for a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides, or complete the exploration of Raasay and Rona that I’d started the year before. The first two options required maps that I was not sure to find in Ullapool. and I was also missing sailing directions.
So I packed all my gear in my three-bag travelling arrangement: boat and paddling gear in the 160l Kanurucksack, camping gear and clothes in the 59l XPlorer bag, food, cooking gear, books, maps, tools and all the rest in the 49l Rackpack. The result was portable but heavy and I had a half mile walk to the bus station by the ferry terminal. Luckily the owner came by for the fee and gave me a lift. Soon we were en route to Inverness by bus; an alternative would have been leaving the bus at Garve railway station, halfway to Inverness and hopping on a train to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Eventually, I decided to park up in Kyleakin on Skye and undertook a very enjoyable three-day tour around Raasay and Rona. The year before I’d experienced the charms of these islands despite the unsettled weather – this time conditions were ideal. Back at the pier three days later, I was giving the Incept a wash on the slipway when a Land Rover towing a trailer full of sea kayaks turned in. A party of men got out of the truck, unloaded the kayaks and started putting paddling gear on. As they carried the boat to water they came over to say hello and asked about my boat and my trip. They were attending a kayak class beginning this very day. Their first-day program was a shakedown paddle in sheltered waters before a guided multi-day run to Sandaig. The guide joined the conversation and yet again I endured the usual hardsheller’s drivel about IKs. Ten minutes later I watched the student awkwardly clambering in their kayaks; for some of the clumsier it took quite a while. I told them they were lucky modern kayaks had such larger cockpit coamings – but not as big as mine! By the time I got to my car the temperature inside was like an oven, despite the screen I’d fixed over the windshield. My chocolate bars had melted. In northwest Scotland? Whatever next.
Right now the skies are slate grey while white horses gallop across the sound and the washing hangs horizontally. Ardmair just recorded 49mph. But as often happens up here, Sunday was forecasted as sunny with winds of just 4-5mph; a perfect day to paddle the 15-odd miles to Ullapool. Come the morning the predictions had inched up to 6-7mph, still manageable. Even the three-metre tide was with us, turning as we set off from the awkwardly rocky shore below my place (below right) for a run that we figured would span the six hours until high water at Ullapool.
Six of seven mph winds don’t sound much, but coming right at us from the SSE it was enough to raise a chop of up to a foot over which my K40 slapped like a RIB. Jon’s Scorchio LV cut stealthily through the wavelets like a blacked-out commando with a knife in his teeth. You got to hand it to these proper sea kayaks, they look as good as they go, until you need to hop in or out of one or carry it on your head. As it was in the conditions we had we were pretty evenly matched.
An hour later we were abreast of Horse Island and heading out into mare incognita. But not before I’d lost half my paddle. I was just thinking I really must get a leash for this thing for windier days, even if it means yet more entangleable cordage lying across the cockpit. As I made this vow I decided to wipe the sweaty right grip in the crook of my elbow, and in doing do, popped the button and flung half the paddle over the side. Mayday-mayday! Jon took a while to manoeuvre his 17-foot cheese-cutter into position, although I probably could have retrieved it using the single paddle. Must remember not to do that again. As we entered Horse Sound the wind rose into double figures and white caps formed so we bowed our heads towards the point at Rubha Dubh Ard opposite the guillemot-clad skerry of Iolla Beag (see map). We then passed the last of the dwellings around Culnacraig and edged towards the 2400-foot mass of Ben Mor Coigach which tops out just a mile from the shore. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the steepest summit-to-sea gradient in the UK. Slip up there and you’d roll uninterrupted straight down into the sea with a huge splash.
Two hours hard work on deck and it was high time for a refuel, so we set our sights on a beach formed by the creek which runs off the back of Ben Mor. But with more slip, slap and slop over the waves, it took twice as long as it looked to get actually there (left). It’s since occurred to me why. In this pic the ordinary-looking mountain seems quite near, but its actually an unusually big 2400-foot (730m) mountain far away. Or we were just slow.
After the spell of fairly intense paddling, walking on the stony shore took some adjustment, but it was good to unbend. Up above a lone walker was pacing the thin path which runs along this steep, exposed coast east towards Ardmair.Duringa snack I kicked about among the usual enigmatic flotsam: a giant tennis ball, a baby elephant’s welly and a Filipino flip flop. I picked up a bit of old rope to sell on ebay later while Jon pinched some nice stones for his giant aquarium back home. During our break the wind had abated a little and as we set off again through a seal patrol, Isle Martin helpfully blocked the wind-borne fetch from the southeast. The creased, folded and weathered sandstone of guano-covered red cliffs drifted by, suggesting a second visit on a calmer day, but it was after 2 o’clock so we decided to save our energy and clipped the edge of the Isle. We didn’t want to leave it too late and end up paddling tired up the narrow part of Loch Broom on a turning tide and a headwind.
As it was I was hoping to snatch a quick sail (left) as we turned briefly southwest towards Rubha Cadail lighthouse, but while I did creep forward perceptibly, it was hardly worth it; bad angle and too much lee off the point. Still, the good thing with the Pacific Action sail is that it’s light, lies out of the way and is no effort to flick up on the off chance of a breeze. Rounding the stumpy lighthouse near Rhue, (below right), we could look back across outer Loch Broom to Polbain and the Summer Isles – maybe we should have planned the day in the opposite direction. Whatever, now it was time for the final 3.5-mile stomp into the wind to Ullapool jetty, hoping that the afternoon ferry from Stornoway wouldn’t sneak up from behind and wash us into the middle of next week.
I observed that Jon typically cruised at four strokes for my five and put it down to the superior glide of his hip-wide LV. In fact he was deploying a textbook exemplification of PPT or ‘proper paddling technique’, instilled by his personal paddling trainer (also PPT). I’d read about this technique in books: put blade in by your feet while turning torso and pull back by re-pivoting the torso, not just pulling on the arms like an ape climbing a vine. It worked; I was a bit faster but it all felt a bit stilted and robotic, not the way I naturally paddle, for better or for worse.
However you do it – ape-vine or PPT – it’s fun to paddle a little kayak into a port used to big boats coming and going from who knows where. Ullapool sea front milled lightly with late-summer tourists and it’s possible to interpret one’s arrival as faintly heroic in their eyes, at least compared to a gannet floating beak-down in an oil slick. Sunburned, crusted with wind-dried salt and not a little stiff, we pulled our boats ashore just over six hours after leaving Polbain. With probably five hours of actual paddling to cover what was indeed only 15 miles but felt more, that’s a fairly ordinary 3mph moving average. Not something to get Ullapool’s summertime bunting in a flutter. Had the headwind been stronger it would have turned into a right old slog, but always with the option of a take-out and ice cream at Ardmair then an a hour’s walk to the car.
We did wonder what it must be like doing this day after day out here as say, Gael has done lately. We celebrated with a creamy cappucho and a slab of buttered fruitcake at the Ceilidh Place (as good as it gets in Ullapool). Recharged and with the anatomical creaks re-oiled, we reckoned we could have pushed on for another three hours if we really had to. But we didn’t so we popped into Tescos for more saccharine tucker and drove home.
Sadly it looks like the amazing start to the summer may be over up here – or rather it’s back to normal. Since March it’s been one of the driest periods for years. June just gone was the driest ever while down south in places it was the wettest ever.
But the jet stream has flipped back into position and so it’s business as usual: the south is getting its overdue share of sunshine again while right now the wind howls periodically, it’s lashing down and I can barely see a mile across the bay.
It was the same deal last weekend, but midweek the winds dropped and so did the pressure of finishing the current job. So I slipped out one evening across Badentarbet Bay to try and thread a loop through Horse Island. Not having paddled for weeks, as usual I went through the usual neuroses as I parted with the shore (“Crikey, this water really looks dark and deep”. “I really must take a spare paddle.” etc, etc…) while cautiously tracking some low cloud or mist coming up with a southern breeze. Horse Island is actually further than it looks, about 5km from the pier, and once I decided I’d survive the crossing I planned to slip through the gap between Meall nan Gabhar (see map, above) and head back. The passage is no longer pictured right by Gael who passed that way a couple of months back in his Incept at the culmination of his epic run up the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail.
As I rounded the corner and frightened some seals with a splash, it turned out Meall (a ‘hill or mound’) is a separate island only during the top half of the tide. On my arrival with the tide bottomed out, a bank of seaweed-covered boulders rose two metres out of the sea (below), creating a broad causeway between Meall and Horse. No matter, it made getting out easy and as a seal popped up and eyed my movements, I scrambled up the knee-high heather and scrub for a look around Horse, finding a broad grassy platform with various sheltered nooks for a sheltered camp. It’s said local farmers periodically drop off their sheep here to graze, but the only presence was the high-pitched caw of a large bird of prey hovering over its nest up on the hill. The clouds parted briefly to shine onto Ben Mor (above) and pleased with my offshore excursion, I powered back to the pier.