Three Men in 3 Boats: a Hebridean tale of Cowardice and Mediocrity

It’s hard getting used to being landlocked here in continental Europe. Any piece of water, whether it’s a reservoir, stagnant pond or small stream now starts to take on a special spiritual significance, if like me, you are used to living close to the magnificent lochs and coastlines of Scotland. All part of the price paid for living here I guess, amidst “cafe society”, at the heart of Europe.

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The Three boats: Awaiting paddlers

If Scotland excels at something then “being wet” must surely rank at the top of the list (with midges coming in as a close number 2). If you’re looking for sunbathing opportunities this is not so good; however for canoeing and kayaking, the possibilities offered by Scotland’s wild lochs and coasts are endless. This is the story of a small expedition to the Hebrides made by our (not so) intrepid team before I departed the shores of Scotland to live on the Continent.

A Cunning Plan

Before I introduce the team, it’s important to note that we were not elite ocean paddlers intent in paddling unsupported across the Atlantic; rather we fell more into the category of bumbling amateurs who had picked up some basic canoeing and kayaking experience “the hard way” through falling into many of  Scotland’s rivers, freshwater lochs and coastal waters. So our small group consisted of two Ians (or strictly speaking one “Ian” and an “Iain”) and a Steve. 

Used to paddling calmer inshore waters, it was with extreme bravado and foolhardiness that we decided to head out West to tackle bigger waves, stronger currents and the Atlantic swells of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides; the last outcrop of land passed by generations of Scottish emigrants on route to America.  But had we bitten off more than we could chew ?

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A Motley Crew: The three men – Ian (left), Iain (middle), Steve (right)

The idea came about after I’d been reading my copy of “Scottish Sea Kayaking” and looking longingly at  images of bronzed paddlers enjoying idyllic, sun-drenched days exploring the Sound of Harris, all with a backdrop of beautiful shell-sand beaches and colourful coastal machair. This was a challenge which we were surely up for.

I discussed these plans with my old canoe buddy, Steve (a somewhat  unconventional, though inspirational, school teacher, in the “Dead Poet’s Society” mould), in the pub one night over an obligitory couple of pints. Taking Dutch courage, Steve agreed that this was indeed a great plan (he also once said the same about cycling overland to Vladivostok after a pint or 2; something still not yet achieved to this day!) and that we should make preparations forthwith. We quickly managed to press-gang a third member, the unsuspecting Iain,  into the team. He fitted the bill perfectly with his apparent nautical knowledge gained as a merchant navy seaman (though we weren’t actually aware at the time that he didn’t possess a kayak). The scene was set for brave and daring deeds; so we thought.

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Atlantic Strand: Ultra marine on the North West Coast of Uist

Our Plan was to head for the Isle of Bernerey which is accessed by a causeway from the much larger island of North Uist.  And so on a summer’s evening in early July we rendezvoused at Uig on Skye ready to take the morning ferry to Lochmaddy. A night out in Uig, the capital of Northern Skye, allowed us to discuss our game plan and set us up for the trip (as well as raising some interesting questions regarding group dynamics).

Next morning, after ditching a car in Uig, we strapped all three kayaks onto the roof of one vehicle and made our way to the ferry queue. Soon we were on board, steaming across the Minch and enjoying a hearty bacon butty breakfast courtesy of CalMac (the ferry operator which serves just about all of the Western Highlands). After the relatively smooth crossing, it seemed like no time at all before the ferry was tying up to the quayside at Lochmaddy, the “major” port on North Uist and home to a few hundred hardy souls.

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Burial Ground, Beinn Schleibhe: Religion is still a key part of life in the Uists

First Impressions

You can tell the minute you step off the boat at lochmaddy that you have arrived on a staunchly protestant island as you are greeted by threatening posters denouncing the evils of the “demon drink”. The Uists are indeed a stronghold of the “Wee Free” or Free Church of Scotland, a very pure form of Protestantism  which demands strict obedience and avoidance of ornamentation and ostentation in any of its forms. 

The Hebrides are still one of the few parts of Scotland where the Sabbath is strictly observed and its only relatively recently that Sunday ferry sailings have started up (despite strong opposition from many locals). Woe betide anyone who might consider hanging out their washing on the Sabbath day; a strong local taboo in the Uists and one not to be broken.  Not all of the Hebrides are protestant; some Islands such as South Uist and Barra are predominantly Catholic and are perhaps slightly less strict regarding observance of the Lord’s Day.

The Machair and the Sea

Quickly leaving Lochmaddy (and swiftly moving on from religion), we made our way over to the Western side of North Uist and checked out the beach at Tràigh Hòrnais, a perfect arc of white shell-sand fringing a broad bay with a view out the small island of Boreray. 

Beaches on the West coast of the Hebrides are unrivaled for their beauty and pristine clear waters; with intense aquamarines, turquoise and indigo colours. In addition, the Scottish islands are refreshingly uncrowded, thanks largely to perceptions of the dreich Scottish climate which keeps hapless hoards of  holidaymakers at bay. Those prepared to run the gauntlet of rain and midges will be rewarded with some of the most unspoilt and spectacular coastal scenery in Europe. The weather in this part of the world is notoriously fickle, but, when the sun does shine, the sea truly sparkles and the light is intense.

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Where Machair Meets the Sea

Bordering the beach at Tràigh Hòrnais is an extensive area of machair, a low-lying sandy pasture, unique to the Hebrides. Machair occurs where alkaline shell-sand blows over areas of peatland creating fertile, species-rich meadows. In early summer these can be a blaze of colour with wildflowers such as birds-foot-trefoil, yellow rattle, lady’s bedstraw, buttercups, daisies and clovers.

Machair has been cultivated over the centuries and usually offered the best agricultural land available. Traditional management systems such as hay-cropping are still considered to be some of the most wildlife-friendly farming practices found in the British Isles today.  Farmers are encouraged to retain traditional practices through targeted agri-environment incentives.

Crofting  has favoured wildlife species endangered elsewhere and helped these to thrive. These include the corncrake which can be heard throughout the islands with its very loud and distinctive grating krek krek call. As we walked around the Robach Machair we heard frequent corncrake calls amongst the longer grass but were unable to track down any of those responsible for this breach of the peace. Machair also provides a home to many species of wading birds including dunlins, twites, redshanks and golden plovers. 

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An Earthly Utopia ?

Back to the main plot: we made for our proposed campsite on the East side of Bernerey. The idea was to camp on a grassy area down by the sea close to the small youth hostel. This combined opportunity for privacy with a chance to use the facilities of the hostel for cooking, showering and sheltering from the elements. The hostel is a charming, traditional  Hebridean blackhouse with a thatched roof . The blackhouse, of a type once common in the islands, has been lovingly restored by the  Gatliff Trust  and is managed in partnership with the Scottish Youth Hostels Association.

It couldn’t have been a more idyllic evening as we pitched our tents by the sea, enjoying the fantastic, sweeping panoramas out across the Sound of Harris to distant peaks with ocean and rocks dominating the view. We ate a hearty meal, washed down with a couple of beers and looked forward to the prospect of a great day’s kayaking ahead. Despite the fact conditions were now perfect for an evening paddle, we resisted the temptation in order to savour the moment and to adjust to the more leisurely pace of island life. As the old West Highland saying goes, “Why do today what can be done tomorrow”. 

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Sea View: Idyllic campsite on the first evening

It didn’t take long to find out, however, why this laid back approach wasn’t the way forward. In the Uists it’s a case of “four seasons in an hour” and before we noticed it, the light breeze had started to strengthen and shift direction as ominous clouds began to blow in from the West. We turned on the radio to catch a weather forecast. Not good it seemed; a frontal system coming in from the West with likelihood of gales gusting to Force 9 !

Battening Down the Hatches

The forecast proved to be well founded for once. Pretty much true to form, our earthly island paradise was transformed, within the space of a few hours, into a ranging tempest as the sky darkened to an ominous gun-metal grey and foaming breakers started to crash onto the shore within spitting distance of the tents. We decided to check out the hostel which we found to be over-brimming with jovial university geologists on a field excursion. After joining in the camaraderie for a while, we then decided to turn in for the night,  retreating inside tents and preparing to batten down the hatches for, what promised to be, a restless night.

From the relative security of my tent, I listened to the wind gusting ever stronger as the fabric stretched and the poles creaked menacingly. The gusts became progressively louder and threatening; almost deafening like a jet plane taking off, as the flysheet flapped violently in a manner reminiscent of Scott’s ill-fated journey back from the South Pole.  Salt spray, whipped up from the foaming sea, washed over the tent. I struggled to console my self by reading a book by the light of my head torch. All plans for getting “a good nights kip” were now put on hold; surviving the storm was now all that counted.

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Sea Winds out on the Wild: Not quite so idyllic

With each successive gust, the tent bulged violently as I turned restlessly, the roof of the tent just a couple of inches above my face through the sheer force of the wind. It felt like the whole structure was about to lift off, taking me with it.

I texted the long-suffering Martina (whom I had only just recently met on a walking tour in the Pyrenees) with news of our dramatic predicament. Resolutely, like any good war correspondent, I continued to provide updates at regular intervals throughout the night ; a series of garbled and increasingly desperate texts along the lines of, “Help – the tents are lifting off !” or “Oh my God, we’ve had it this time !” or “Arrgghh, we’re goners for sure now”. Needless to say, this was all somewhat at odds with the blissful picture I’d painted just a few hours earlier of an earthly island paradise bathed in sunshine.

The next morning the deafening roar of the wind and pounding surf had subsided to a more comforting level. Now there was a new deeper and more ominous sound and something that sent a shiver down my spine to the very core of my being.  This was a primeval noise, akin to that of a slumbering monster, a savage boar or some foul necromancer straight from a Brothers Grimm tale. Gingerly, I peeped out the tent expecting to come face to face with the Beast itself.  Instead I stared out across a featureless, soaked, monochrome landscape towards the other tents which had also taken a heavy battering through the night.  The monster was alive and located !

I laughed at my foolishness; the unearthly sound emanated from the direction of Steve’s tent. I’d quite forgotten just how bad his snoring could be !  Both relieved and yet appalled, I crawled back into the security of my tent and covered my head with a  pillow in an attempt to squeeze in another forty winks. Anyway it didn’t look too promising for sea kayaking that morning.

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The “Beast” Emerges From its Lair

Weathering the Storm

All day the storm winds continued to batter our small encampment as we sought refuge in the sanctuary of the hostel. Thankful the building been vacated for the day by the university geologists who were off, busily rooting about in pursuit of interesting and unusual rocks. We adjusted to the pace of island life; we chatted, read books and strummed tunes on the guitar. It was a chilled-out sort of day really, though not quite what we’d intended or come to the Hebrides for.

Occasionally, in moments of short-lived optimism, we’d poke our heads out the door looking for signs of imagined brightness in the sky (a favourite if somewhat fruitless pastime in Scotland). However the wind continued to gust and the waves continued to pound the shoreline with unrelenting vigour. All thoughts of kayaking activity were abandoned; we had cold feet !

That evening,  the geologists returned and the mood picked up, a good “craic” filling the building and raising our spirits.  All too soon however, it was time to turn-in again though. Reluctantly we retreated from the comforting warmth of the (overflowing) hostel and headed out again into the blackness of an island night, the blustering wind buffeting us and the driving rain stinging our faces. A second night of living hell followed, the tent flysheet flapping ever louder as the roof bulged downwards again, scraping my face. I updated Martina again about our battle with the elements (why should anyone else be allowed to sleep !) and rolled about restlessly into the “wee small hours” until at last sleep overcame me.

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Sailors Rest: In the calm of the Blackhouse

Bleary eyed and still half awake the next morning, I peeped out of the entrance to see the that wind had dropped somewhat and sky appeared lighter. The ominous, deep resonance of snoring once more drifted across the Hebridean landscape, breaking the morning stillness. Occasional spluttering from the direction of Steve’s tent  indicated that the “Beast” might indeed shortly be stirring again from its slumber. Iain appeared now, blinking hesitantly at the door of his tent. He  looked pale, drained and sleep deficient as he shook his head despairingly toward the direction of the “Beast’s” lair. Clearly, he had not enjoyed a good night’s sleep what with flapping tents and the omnipotent night-time snorting.

Eventually everyone emerged. Whilst Steve appeared none the worse for wear, Iain looked drained and sickly following the night-time snoring assault. Unfortunately for him, he had pitched his tent much closer to the seismic epicentre then I had. 

Breakfast and a council of war followed. It was agreed that we would get out in the kayaks that day no matter what. For once, it was only driseling instead of raining properly which, from our experience to date, might be described as good weather in these parts.

Thunderbirds are Go !

Discretion, so they say, is the better part of valour and taking this to heart we decided that the exposed open waters and strong currents of the Sound of Harris were not for us in these fickle weather conditions (especially as Iain had never been out in his boat before; he’d picked it up from a hire outlet on the road North). We decided instead to head for the more sheltered waters around Loch Dheor and Loch Siginis in the upper part of Loch Nam Madadh. In this area, a veritable myriad of tidal channels between tiny islands and  promontories offers a considerable degree of protection even from the worst of weathers.

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Sharp Dressed Man: Me ready for action

Even as we got changed, the wind whipped the foam out of the water and mischievously tried to  prise the paddles from our hands and send them flying off across to the Mainland.  Eventually though, after a wobbly start, we were water-borne. With a strong tail wind behind we were soon flying across the water ourselves and heading on a collision course with small islets. The contrast between the sheltered water, protected from the wind by the shore and the water exposed to the wind was extreme to say the least. One minute you would be becalmed and midges would emerge to bite you; the next you would be skiting, quite out of control, across the water at what seemed like 40 mph.

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Sheltered Inlet: In the maze of tidal channels around Loch Blathaisbhal

It felt great to be out though and to be battling against the elements in raw nature, or “blowing away the cobwebs” as we say in Scotland. The tidal channels were fascinating to explore with some interesting wildlife. Common seals, hauled out on the tidal islands, eyed us up suspiciously before grumpily retreating into the water with a snort and blast of salt spray from their hairy nostrils. They would then circle round, their heads and bemused faces bobbing out of the water as curiosity finally won over from fear about  the uninvited strangers entering their salty domain.

Otters also abound around the coast of the Uists. I was lucky enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of one before it disappeared in amongst the seaweed. Generally, a kayak is a great platform from which to view wildlife. Critters are far less concerned about canoeists than they are about people who walk around on two legs; the latter having a history in Scotland of  being rather more threatening to wildlife. On another part of the West Coast, I watched an otter from the sanctuary of my canoe (which was literally just a few feet away) for about  20 minutes as it blissfully gobbled down a  fish meal, seemingly oblivious to my presence.

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Taking a Break at Low Tide

We sought shelter of calmer waters in the lee of the wind and enjoyed a tasty snack before biting midges became too much of a nuisance and we were on the move again. When we had arrived the tide was just on the turn and their wasn’t much movement.  However it wasn’t long before there was quite a significant flow as the pools began to empty and were transformed, from areas of still (although windswept) water, to a series of small rapids and waterfalls. These proved to be exciting and sporting challenges which we enjoyed and which made up somewhat for the lack of opportunity to go out on more open seas. We played around in the pools and system of channels for another couple of hours or so before making landfall and dragging the boats back to the car. We headed back to base camp.

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Iain gets a feel for his new boat in a moment of calm

Tired and happy from these exertions we were happy to put up our feet and too our surprise the wind finally began to drop and the sun came out. The island world was transformed from grey monotone back to a landscape of colour and light. Iain and Steve were keen to watch some important football match or other and mysteriously  produced the required  technical gadgetry to make this possible. They were soon settled down in the car to watch the match, an occassional chorus of boos and cheers emanating from the vehicle. Although it being one of Scotland’s major religions, I have no personal interest in “fitba” whatsoever. I consequently determined to explore the island on foot to take advantage of the, no doubt, all-too-fleeting change in the weather.  

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“Fitba !”: No escape even on Bernerey

Island Castaway

I headed off around the coast like a latter-day Robinson Crusoe enjoying the intense light and the sunshine. The air was full of the sweet chorus of skylarks and meadow pipits; the whole place was alive. A gentle surf washed the long sweep of shoreline just around the corner from the hostel, a collection of six sea kayaks adding  further colour to the scene. Had these guys been out in the storm I wondered. The was no sign of the occupants and so I continued my walk around the North side of the Island with wonderful expansive views opening up towards Harris.

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Beached Kayaks: With the peaks of Harris visible across the Sound

I followed the coast around the flanks Beinn Schleibhe passing through some vivid green patches of wet meadow dotted with yellow flag iris and ragged robin. I soon found myself on the exposed North West side of Bernerey; a rocky shoreline battered by the full force of the big Atlantic breakers we’d been dreaming about. I stopped for a while in this wild and windswept place to take in the magnificent views across to the Island of Pabbay and the mountain peaks of  North Harris. The steady pounding of the ocean waves, accompanied by the lonesome cries of terns and black-headed gulls cast a hypnotic spell. I found it hard to drag myself away from this enchanted place when it was finally time to move on.

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The Mighty Atlantic: Big breakers on the Bernerey’s West Coast

West Coast

The Raw Power of Nature

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Damp Flush: Wet meadow on the West Coast of Bernerey

A long Tradition

I set off again and headed up to the summit of Beinn Schleibhe which affords a tremendous panorama of the whole island, despite the fact it’s barely 100m high.  From this strategic vantage point, Bernerey appears to be a much more settled and far less remote place with a scatter of whitewashed cottages and mail order bungalows clustered around the Eastern seaboard. On the way down the hill back to the hostel, I passed by the old burial ground of Beinn Schleibhe, an atmospheric place and testament to the islanders who have come and gone through the centuries to leave their mark on Bernerey. The Hebrides are still one of the key strongholds of the Gaelic culture in Scotland with the landscape being shaped by generations of crofters and farmers.

The islands have always proved a challenging place from which to make a living and this has often not been helped in the past by inequitable patterns of landownership. The 18th Century Highland Clearances which followed the break up of the clan system had a huge impact in the Hebrides and provide the explanation for many of the extraordinary settlement patterns found on the islands to this day. 

On neighbouring South Harris for example, many people were evicted from better quality land that they had farmed for generations to make way for sheep farming. Whilst a large proportion of islanders emigrated to the New World, those that remained were forced to eke out a meagre and perilous existence on the Island’s barren East Coast. 

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Crofting Country: Dispersed townships are characteristic of the Outer Hebrides

To scratch a living from such unpromising and  impoverished soils required considerable stamina. The people built up so-called “lazy beds” comprising alternate layers of peat and seaweed piled up over the barren gneiss bedrock and thus enabling them to grow a few basic crops such as oats and potatoes. There followed many years of struggle, poverty and campaigning before island crofters were able to win any rights of secure tenancy. The process of change continues down to the present day with recent legislation which now gives whole communities the “right to buy” their land if they can access the necessary resources.

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Sea Dreaming: Next stop America

A Tense Battle of Wits:

Back down at the hostel the “fitba” was finally finished (result unknown) and food (of sorts) was being prepared. It appeared that the geologists had vacated the hostel leaving the place empty and now up for grabs. I seized my opportunity and quickly moved my gear, lock stock and barrel, out of the tent, determining that for one night at least, I would get a decent sleep well away from wild winds and snoring monsters. Not only would I have a comfy bed to look forward to; but a whole room and the whole blackhouse all to myself; luxury indeed !

Iain, eyed me up jealously as if hinting at some undisclosed game plan. I asked him curiously if he was also planning on relocating to the hostel as common sense might dictate;  little did I suspect that there was a tense battle of wits being played out between the sharp-witted Iain and the Gruffalo-like Steve.

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Room with a View: The rustic hostel at Port Ludaig

As Iain later explained (with a hint of sadness in his eyes), nothing could have appealed more to him at that moment in time than the prospect of a decent night’s sleep away from howling winds and night-time noises. Being a pragmatist however, Iain readily understood the sheep mentality of the snoring Steve. In short, if he moved inside, Steve would be bound to quickly follow; then there would be no prospect of peace for sure. Iain also understood that Steve, having been brought up in the West of Scotland, needed to prove his machismo. Unfortunately this meant for Iain that Steve would be unlikely to relocate on his own accord and wouldn’t be the first of the two to go inside.

So it was the lesser of the two evils that Iain valiantly opted for; better to remain buffeted by the wind and storm outside in a flimsy tent (and separated by a distance of several feet) rather than face the uneasy prospect of being trapped indoors and at close quarters, with the snorer. Whatever the case, it all suited me just fine . I enjoyed a blissful night away from the wind, rain and snoring !

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Wild Rover: Scotland’s answer to Shane Macgowan

All Abandon Ship…

I awoke rejuvenated after an excellent night’s sleep. The others crawled into the hostel somewhat later; a motley crew looking tired, unshaven and dishevelled. We gobbled down some unappetizing breakfast and stared forlornly out the windows across the windswept grey, cold sea.  The wind gusted strongly, shaking the door on its hinges, howling through cracks in the woodwork and rattling the windows.

We discussed our predicament. It was unanimous ! ..We would leave Bernerey and head for more sheltered waters on the mainland where the chances of finding suitable conditions for kayaking might be somewhat better.

We packed up out gear and collapsed the tents before spending the rest of the morning chilling out. This involved taking turns to entertain (and irritate) each other with the guitar in front of the hostel.  I found the location, looking out to sea, most inspirational and conducive to composing little ditties which I still have in my head to this day.

Later we waved goodbye the blackhouse and set off, albeit a little sadly, to join the ferry queue at Lochmaddy. We were soon heading off over the sea to Skye and pastures new.

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Over the Sea to Skye: Awaiting the Ferry at Lochmaddy

Through Pastures Greener:

In comparison with the wind battered Uists, Skye appeared like a veritable Garden of Eden with patches of broad-leaved woodland and green fields providing a welcoming contrast to the upland moors and mountainous landscapes. Our plan was to quickly drive across Skye before heading over the Bridge, which now connects the Island with the Mainland and then to drive down the fijord-like Loch Duich to Sheil Bridge where we would spend the night.

Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides (at 639 square miles) and boasts an incredible diversity of scenery and landscapes including most famously the Cuillin Ridge comprising of volcanic basalt and gabbro rocks. The Cuillin Ridge is one of the best known and most dramatic mountain ranges in the British Isles. The terrain is rough and testing and the weather conditions often poor. Despite this the Cuillins are a magnet for climbers and mountain walkers from all over the country.

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Rocks and the Water: Sunset over the Cuillin Ridge

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On the Ridge: View towards Blaven (928m) from Bruach na Frithe (958m)

I was first drawn to these hills when I was still at school and spent quite a few happy breaks in the Cuillins learning basic rock climbing and ridge scrambling before I worked out that I didn’t really have such of a head for heights after all (fortunately I hadn’t fallen off before that). Despite this, getting up onto the Cuillin Ridge is well worth it and there are magnificent views out over the Western seaboard of Scotland to the distant Outer Hebrides, Rhum, Eigg and the Torridon Hills . When the weather closes in here though, (as it frequently does) a compass will be of little practical use as the rocks are magnetic. In addition to the better known Black Cuillins, the nearby Red Cuillins, whilst being less precipitous are still spectacular in their own right.

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Red Cuillin: Marsco (736m) in evening sunlight

The mountain scenery in the North of Skye is different again in character but equally dramatic and worthy of  exploration. The Storr (located to the North of Portree) is famous for it’s “Old Man”, a soaring  and seemingly unassailable rock pinnacle  under the summit of the main peak (719m). From here it’s possible to walk the entire length of the Trottenish High level route to the equally spectacular Quirang. This dramatic ridge crest route provides sweeping coastal views in all directions and along with the Cuillin Ridge is a classic Scottish ridge walk.

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Over the Sound of Raasay: Looking East from the Storr towards the Mainland

On the Road Again

The Highlands are renowned for their winding single track roads which confuse and beguile many foreign visitors, some of whom are unused to the concept of pulling over to allow oncoming vehicles to get past. It’s not unknown to find an agitated BMW or Mercedes driver steadfastly refusing to budge or back into a passing place located just a few metres behind; meanwhile a long-suffering local person is somehow expected to reverse for 500m up a steep hill and around a blind corner.  This is a situation where common sense and courtesy need to prevail over any written rules.

In general though, single track roads are on the wane as main routes through Skye and the Highlands are increasingly upgraded with slick dual lanes, neatly cambered corners and an assortment of day-glow cats-eyes. Quite often though it’s cows and sheep that delight in slowing up the traffic on Highland roads. Whilst cows just like to simply stand there and create a roadblock, sheep have mastered the annoying habit of running in front of cars for mile after weary mile, despite numerous opportunities to get out the way.

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“Get oot ma road…”:Going nowhere very quickly on a single track road

The greatest hazard comes on Highland roads at night though when the lack of traffic encourages people to really “put the foot down”.  There is a real risk of a collision with a red deer. Sometimes the only indication you’ll get that they’re there at all is the reflection of your headlights in their eyes; then you realise that there are hundreds of them right next to the roadside and it may already be too late. I know of several people who’ve collided with red deer on Highland roads at night, often with disastrous results.

The “Other” Part of Skye

The Sleat Peninsular in Southern Skye is a green and pleasant land and is known as the “Garden of Skye”. This area seems remarkably sheltered in comparison with the more mountainous areas further North and is a land of whitewashed crofts, patchwork fields and sheltered bays. There are also great views across to the Cuillins from the West side of Sleat, including from the crofting township of Tarskavaig which is accessible by another of the winding single track roads that I’ve just described.

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“The Garden of Skye”: Crofts at Tarskavaig on the Sleat Peninsular with the familiar Cuillin Ridge behind

Sleat  is also home to the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, a modern purpose-built campus which has been created to ensure teaching of Gaelic culture and language to new generations of people from the Highlands and Islands. In general, Gaelic culture and music is thriving as never before. 

As a young man I remember being captivated by the music of the Skye band “Runrig” who at that time were unique amongst rock bands for singing many of their songs in gaelic. Runrig indeed did much to pave the way for popularising gaelic music and culture and were amongst the first in a long line of later artists including as Capercaillie and more recently, Julie Fowlis with her beautiful and haunting gaelic melodies.

As a spin-off from the popularisation of Gaelic, there is a growing interest amongst younger people to learn to play and perform traditional music. There are also numerous “Fèis” events held throughout the year across the West Highlands where you can spend a weekend learning to play and perform traditional music amidst convivial company. I’ve been to a few of these and would certainly recommend getting along. The “craic” is good as they say…

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Sabhal Mòr Ostaig: ensuring the future of Gaelic culture and language

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Ambient Cloudscape: Looking West towards the mainland from Skye

The last Leg

And so we passed over the Skye Bridge on the last leg of our trip and made our way down the fijord-like Loch Duich past the world famous Eilen Donan Castle (the one that has been in too many movies to count).

We checked in at Ratagan Youth Hostel, another characterful building located down by the shoreline. To our horror we realised we would all have to share the same dormitory room here. This time however, nobody had the energy or interest to put up tents again. Most surprisingly Steve, proving  that he really he was a gentleman after all, produced shiny new sets of earplugs for everyone; pointing out that he’d brought them along incase any other members of the team were bad snorers ! …enough said. 

And so the next morning we awoke to find sunlight streaming in through the windows of the hostel. The earplugs had done their job perfectly and we’d all managed to get some sleep at long last.  Outside, not a single breath of wind ruffled the mirror-like surface of Loch Duich.

Hardly bothering to have breakfast, we threw on our clothes and pushed our boats out onto the still water.  At last the gods were smiling upon us and we enjoyed a perfect morning paddling before packing up and heading off down the road. Perhaps at the end of the day, this was all we had really been seeking  from the start; were we just fair weather paddlers or, at worst, cowards seeking out the mediocre ? The big waves, strong currents and howling gales of the Outer Hebrides would have to wait for some other day.

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Such a Perfect Day: Brilliant morning sunshine at Ratagan, Loch Duich

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Becalmed on Loch Duich

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What it’s all about !

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Steve and Iain with the Five Sisters of Kintail ridge (background)

Postscript: Sea in the Blood

With hindsight our trip had not been a particularly successful one, as far as our objective of clocking up kayak miles was concerned.  However, that’s just the way it is on Scotland’s West Coast; you have to adapt to wind and weather and (to a considerable degree) learn to go with the flow. This may mean disappointments and changes of plan.

To reap the riches of Scotland’s unspoilt coastline you need patience, flexibility and most of all a high degree of humility; the sea is not to be messed with, as those who’ve felt its enormous power will know. Most importantly (and at risk of sounding like my mother), if you do want to kayak on coastal waters, it’s best to start out by going along to a club to learn some of the basics including how to deal with capsize and rescue situations.

The Scottish coastline is tremendously beautiful, diverse and unlimited in the scope it offers for exploration and experiencing a sense of freedom. Here in Continental Europe, the sea is not quite so close and the kayaking opportunities (that I used to take for granted in Scotland) are now much more limited. However, I think the sea must be in my blood; I don’t think that I’ve become a total landlubber, not just yet anyway. The kayak is safely stowed away here awaiting its next voyage…

 …and an old sea dog never forgets his tricks !

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Sea Dog: Me on the sea

West coast kayaks

No Limits: So many places to explore by kayak on Scotland’s West Coast (FSKC Photos)

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Island Sunset: Looking out to Eigg from Traigh beach, Morar

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2 Responses to Three Men in 3 Boats: a Hebridean tale of Cowardice and Mediocrity

  1. Avril says:

    Fab photos again Ian, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the text too. I’ve never made it that far north and think I may be too scared for the Cuillin Ridge now! Ax

  2. johncoyote says:

    I did some kayaking on the coast of California. I found hidden treasures only to be found by small boat or kayak. Thank you for the field trip. You took me back in time.

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