In an age dominated by road transport, most journeys these days involve jumping into the car. This was not however always the case; for our ancestors rivers and lochs formed the main communication routes through the landscape. On the River Tay in Perthshire, for example, log boats have been discovered which date back more than 3000 years. The Carpow boat discovered near Abernethy on the lower Tay in 2000 is just one example of series of “dug out” boats which have been discovered by archeologists around Scotland.
Fools Afloat: Learning the hard way:
I became interested in the potential for exploring Scotland’s rivers and lochs by boat following a Canadian Canoeing expedition with my Brother, Ken, in the Bowron Lakes area of BC, Western Canada in 2001. My first excursions in Scotland were with canoeing buddy, Steve, on the river Dee and Spey in Scotland’s North East. We literally jumped in at the deep end, bought a canoe between us (which we Christened “L’Escargot”) and headed off down the river.
Although I wouldn’t recommend this approach, we learned the hard way through negotiating rapids, river currents and submerged boulders. Despite many bumps, bruises and a few near-drowning incidents (not to mention dented boats and lost paddles) we survived our initial introduction and lived to tell the tale. It wasn’t long before we bought another boat which we named “Selkie”.
Our introduction to the world of open canoeing was exciting, fun and opened up a whole new area of challenge. It wasn’t long before we were undertaking expeditions of several days duration down rivers such the Spey. One of the great advantages of an open canoe being that you can stash a whole week’s camping gear (including comfy chairs) easily into the boat.
Canoeing Around the River Tay Area:
One great area of Scotland for Canadian (or open canoes) is the catchment of the River Tay in Highland Perthshire. I moved to Perthshire in 2005 and began to explore the rivers and lochs of the area by canoe. The River Tay itself is the UK’s highest volume river and offers huge potential for open boating. It is navigable for it’s whole length from Loch Tay down to the tidal section below Perth with some bigger rapids (grade 2/3) being found at Grandtully and Stanley.
The lochs themselves also offer great paddling opportunities; particularly Loch Tay and Lochs Tummel and Faskally on the River Tummel catchment (a tributary which joins the Tay South of Pitlochry). Although loch paddling can be a placid and reflective experience , it can also be a challenging one when wind speeds increase and the Scottish glens start to act as giant wind funnels. In a matter of minutes, Scottish lochs can be transformed from a mirror-like calm to a ranging tempest which can test the nerve and skills of any open boater.
“Pirates” on Scottish Waters:
Another “hazard” to consider on Scottish lochs and rivers is fishermen. In general most are courteous, as long as you respect their interests and minimise disturbance (many of them are paying considerable sums to fish Scottish salmon rivers) by passing with a wide margin or by waiting until they have finished casting. In general we found fly fishermen on the rivers to be pleasant enough (with a few exceptions).
On Scottish lochs however, groups of “rogue” coarse (both by name and by nature) fishermen can be an issue; they can often be found occupying lochside campgrounds with copious quantities of “liquid refreshment” stashed ready for a weekend binge. With a canoe it’s usually easy enough to give this lot a wide berth (recommended !). Unfortunately many of these guys don’t take their rubbish home and can give campers a bad name.
These problems have reached epidemic proportions around some parts of Loch Lomand resulting in a wild camping ban. We toured some of the Loch Lomand’s islands and were amazed to find well established encampments complete with huge stashes of booze, generators and mobile sound systems; a case of Ibiza comes to the Highlands. Generally though, the further you are away from the cities of the Central Belt, the less problems of this kind you’ll encounter. Fortunately, most of Perthshire fortunately fits into the latter category with the greatest problems being found in the more accessible areas of Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park.
Places to Go:
Some of the places I’ve particularly enjoyed exploring by canoe in Perthshire include Loch Tummel, Loch Tay and the River Tay itself. We were joined by quite a selection of people on these canoeing trips including the already familiar Iain and Steve (see Hebrides trip) as well as others listed at the end of this item;
Loch Tay is one of Scotland’s larger freshwater lochs and occupies a deep glacial trench between the villages of Kenmore and Aberfeldy. The Loch is surrounded by high mountains including the Ben Lawers Range which reaches up to almost 4000ft in height and which is also famous for it’s artic-alpine plants, relics from the last ice age.
Loch Tay is also steeped in history and legend and is well known for it’s many crannogs. These are iron age lake dwellings which were constructed on wooden piles out over the water from the Neolithic period onwards. The crannogs were accessible only by causeways and provided relative safety and security for local tribes during periods of conflict. A reconstruction of a crannog and a fascinating interpretation centre can be found at Kenmore at the Western end of Loch Tay and is well worth a visit to learn about how people lived in ancient Scotland.
There are also fascinating abandoned “ferme touns” or early settlements located around the shores of Loch Tay, many of which were abandoned following the Highland Clearances. The settlement of Croft Feunaig above Chamaschurich (Bay of the Corracle) is a particularly atmospheric, haunting place and is evocative of a time when gaelic culture and a transhumance cattle economy flourished in the area.
Up in the hills, the remains of many sheilings (summer dwellings for graziers) can also be found. There are also many fascinating legends about the “Lady of Lawers” a Gaelic seer (or prophet) in the well establish Highland tradition of the “second sight”, The “Lady” prophesised many significant events which were later became true. The ruins of the abandoned village where she lived and grew up can also be found tucked away on the North shore of the Loch far below the main road.
Whist Loch Tay is a beautiful Loch, it can also be a tricky one for canoeing when the wind picks up. The West end of the Loch by Killin is by far the most sheltered with waves building progressively the further East you go. Around Killin there are also some interesting small islands to explore close to the mouth of the River Dochart. Killin also has some interesting historic associations with local clans; the McNabs and the Campbells. Finlarig Castle, the traditional home of the Campbells of Glenorchy, can also be found hidden away in the woods close to the Lochshore.
Loch Tummel is surely one of Scotland’s most picturesque lochs and is famed for it’s well known “Queens View”, an idyllic outlook point much-loved by Queen Victoria. The iconic view down the Loch towards Schiehallion (the Fairy Hill of the Caledonians) is superb and features widely in much Scottish tourist promotion literature. As well as reputedly having supernatural properties and being beloved of the “Little People”, Scheihallion (due to it’s near perfect symmetry) was also used in early experiments to determine the mass of the Earth.
Loch Tummel was artificially deepened as a result of hydropower development in the last century, creating a series of beautiful and attractive islands which are visible from the Queen’s View. Although the water level has been artificially raised, Loch Tummel still manages to preserve much of its natural beauty with no area ugly area of exposed foreshore as is found around many other “man-made” reservoirs.
One of my favourite locations for paddling in Highland Perthshire is the Eastern end of the Loch which provides sheltered bays and a series of ever unfolding views as you progress Westward along the Loch. The islands make great places to visit and we spent quite a few happy nights camping out there (well away from the clutches of “coarse” (or coorse) fishermen. Below, Loch Tummel, the River flows down through the beautiful Linn of Tummel where it joins with the Garry before flowing into Loch Faskally by Pitlochry and then finally into the much larger River Tay.
Down the River Tay to Dunkeld:
A great section of the Tay for open boating is between Kenmore, situated at the East end of Loch Tay, and Dunkeld. The river is fast-moving in the first part with grade 2 rapids around Chinese Bridge between Kenmore and Aberfeldy. Just above Aberfeldy is the confluence with the River Lyon (we also ran a section of the Lower Lyon in spate conditions with at least one dramatic “wipe out” i.e. when a boat fills with water and sinks).
Below Aberfeldy, are the famous Grade 3 rapids of Grandtully with their awkward angles and famous “Boat Breaker” rocks poised ominously just at the end of the rapids. Being cowards (and having already experienced rather too many “wipe outs”) we took the boats out the water and portaged them around to the next section.
From Grandtully down to Dunkeld, the Tay is a more placid beast as it passes through open farmland with beautiful views of the surrounding hills. Although there are no significant rapids on this section, there are strong currents and the prospect of a capsize in some of the deep, black pools with their “boiling” undercurrents seems rather uninviting; every year the Tay claims one or 2 lives and so a cautionary approach is best.
As you come near to the ancient village of Dunkeld, you pass through a spectacular “tree cathedral” of exotic Giant Sequoias and Douglas Firs situated in the grounds of the Dunkeld Hilton Hotel. Many of these majestic and exotic trees were introduced to Europe by intrepid Perthshire plant hunters such as David Douglas and Archibald Menzies. It’s mainly through the legacy of these pioneers and the devotion of the famed “Planting Dukes” of Atholl, that Highland Perthshire has acquired it’s new name as “Big Tree Country”.
The “take out” point at Dunkeld is next to the charming old Cathedral, one of the earliest seats of Celtic Christianity in Scotland. Dunkeld is also the home of Scottish singer-songwriter, Dougie Maclean, who has done much to romanticise and promote this part of Perthshire through his “Perthshire Amber” music festival held in and around Dunkeld every autumn.
True to form, Steve (well-known for his love of the water), managed to fall in just at the take-out point; a fitting tribute to a great river trip…
Finally a word of thanks to all those who joined us on our “pioneering” canoe journeys especially to: Steve, Iain, Nathan, Ivor, Brian, John, Hilary, Pedro and James. We wouldn’t have gone far without you all !
For more information on Highland Perthshire and “Big Tree Country”: