Loch Shiel Circuit

Loch Shiel Route Map

Boy were we lucky with the weather. I’ve been having a bit of a winge about the incessant wind in south west England messing up plans for some open sea kayaking, but 500 miles further north in Scotland it’s been a whole lot worse. You might expect that to be the norm as you get closer to the North Pole, but often it isn’t. Good thing I did my mega trip up the Scottish west coast last year. If it was this ‘summer’ I would have spent an awful lot of time staring at the inside of my tent.

Our expedition was planned for early June (so this report is a bit out of date). As usual I was glued to the weather forecasts in the preceeding few days, and by sheer good fortune it seemed that the latest deep Atlantic depression was going to pull away from Scotland as we drove up the M6, to be followed by a period of slack winds.

Not worried about rain or temperature, the wind strength and direction was key to the trip as Calum and George would be piloting a Canadian canoe, and they were (justifiably) a bit anxious about the exposed section of open coast from Moidart to the entrance of Loch Ailort.

Calum and George

Brother James and I rolled into Glenfinnan after a trifling 600 mile drive from Devon, and soon found a good launch spot beside the loch. A few red deer browsed unconcernedly nearby.

With Calum and George’s Canadian loaded up with provisions we were soon on the water and looking for a place to camp, as there was nowhere suitable in Glenfinnan itself.

And before we had de-fuddled our heads from the long drive, we were straight into an encounter with a superb Scottish speciality wildlife nugget, a Black-throated Diver. While James and I (as southerners) were fumbling for binoculars and cooing over the beauty of the extraordinarily intricately marked extreme bird of the Highlands, Calum and George paddled on chatting merrily and the diver had soon submerged, not to be seen again.

camp 1 at Eilean Dubh

As I had hoped, the little beach at Eilean Dubh provided the perfect place to camp with a good view down the loch. The stiff headwind (which had apparently been blowing for many days), had been easing as we paddled…..by sheer luck our trip seemed to have been timed to the nearest minute with regard to weather. A couple of short, sharp showers during the night were the last rain we would see for the whole trip.

Day 2 was Scottish freshwater loch paddling at its best. Light winds (OK not that warm and not that sunny), big mountains all around, natural deciduous woodland alive with the song of willow and wood warblers , and the occasional cuckoo. Not a lot of sign of human existence. Fantastic.

Upper Loch Shiel

We were pretty keen to eyeball a golden eagle so during lunch on a sandy beach binoculars were trained on the hillside opposite. We did indeed spot our bird but it was at extreme range and I don’t think came close enough to be seen with the naked eye.

James Eagle hunting

After Polloch inlet on the south side of the Loch,the shape of the loch  suddenly becomes more interesting. The way forward is apparently barred by the extraordinary little island of Eilean Fhianain, where we landed for a bit of a nose around the spooky burial ground consisting of graves dating back many hundreds of years ,dotted about randomly.

Eilean Fhianain

We opted to camp beside one of the last sandy beaches just after the island before the long stretch of flat bogland which I knew from my adventure last year offered poor camping opportunities.

As we connected tent poles and pushed in tent pegs our eyes were drawn to the source of a weird wailing cry. It came from the vast silhouette of a sea eagle hanging in the wind, yelling to its mate a bit further away. Not a very regal call from such a majestic beast.

White-tailed Eagle dwarfing a pair of Hooded crows

I was awoken in the middle of the night, which never really gets dark at this time of year this far north, by the piping song of Greenshank and the bubbling call of Curlew. These ground-nesting waders are in serious decline further south, but there’s not a lot to disturb them up here in these vast tracts of undeveloped land. Long may it continue.

Our immediate aim at the start of our third day was to get a good view of the Sea Eagles. They are so massive they didn’t take a lot of tracking down. We could see one perched in the top of a tree on the other side of the loch from a mile away. Not quite such a challenge to spot as the Golden Eagles that favour distant remote crags.

James Eagle watching (again)

It lumbered off and sat in a withered tree which somehow didn’t enhance its status as admiral of the air.

The few miles approaching the end of the loch are bleak, as I discovered last year when I was paddling here in a storm. Potentially Scotland at its worst with  flat boggy shore and no shelter from the wind.

However today we were lucky…..little wind and the start of a favourable current to suck us into the mouth of the River Shiel for our journey down to the sea. A quick stop in Acharacle for milk.

This short river is really excellent. Completely different to the previous 20 miles and there is an unexpected treat with a mini-gorge and ancient bridge before it opens out a bit into sweeping bends.

River Shiel

Our planning was perfect. Nearly. We knew there was quite a drop into the sea at Loch Moidart creating a challenging short section of rapids, but at high tide this is ‘washed out’ and covered by high water. It probably would have been if it had been a Spring tide, but as it was Neaps the rapid was still very evident. And the recent heavy rain meant a powerful flow.

I pulled every zip on my drysuit as tight as it would go before tackling the shoot and only just avoided a dunking with a nasty surge from the left which nearly flipped me.

A couple of Canadian canoeists were not so fortunate.

Canadian catastrophe

And so out onto the extraordinary Loch Moidart, with its steep heavily wooded banks, many islands, and nucleus of the crumbling Castle Tioram. We had a leisurely paddle of the Loch before sauntering down the south channel to the bottom left-hand corner of Eilean Shona and its sandy beach for a place to camp. Perfect, with a view over the open sea out to the west, and the Isle of Eigg with its Sgurr.

Castle Tioram

And even better for the serious birdwatcher, good views of Twites, another West coast of Scotland speciality. Barely distinguishable from a sparrow to the casual observer (in fact maybe even duller), so not surprisingly beaten to the front pages of tourists brochures by the more dramatic White-tailed Eagle and more charismatic Black-throated Diver.

Day 4 was crunch day. Three miles of exposed west-facing coast before the haven of Loch Ailort. Phew. The wind was light and it looked good enough. Just.

I sneaked ahead for an early morning otter-spot and nearly knocked into one which was eating something on a rock and got almost as much of a surprise as I did.

George’s recollection of seeing someone tip over in a Canadian canoe and only just make it to shore last time he visited Eilean Shona didn’t help. There was a noticeable quiet about our group, and it was indeed a bit lumpy past the rockier sections with a bit of wave bounceback from the sheer cliffy bits.

In front of the Sgurr of Eigg

Things looked up as we were lured to the lovely sandy (but surprisingly busy) beach at Smirisary escorted by a posse of seals. James followed a smart breeding-plumage Great-Northern Diver around the bay for a closer look.

Stoked up by (yet another) cup of tea from the Jetboil, and a noticeable decrease in the wind, the second section of exposure was looking like a doddle. And it was, just an excellent paddle with the backdrop of the small isles including the lofty peaks of Rum.

We were soon ashore again stretching our legs on Samalaman island and feeling so smug with ourselves that we even decided to bypass the trough-stop of Glenuig Inn, which had been the main carrot for doing the ‘exposed bit’ in the first place.P1010271

Instead we found a perfect sandy beach lunch-spot on Eilean na Gualain, at the head of Loch Ailort. And the sun came out and the sea turned from battleship grey to a Bermudan green and all was well.

Lunch beckons

It got even better as we crossed over to the remote Ardnish peninsular and pulled up on the wide sandy beach at Peanmeanach for our final camp. A huge area of flat short-cropped grass perfect for camping. The well maintained bothy was not an option (although would have been if it had been raining and/or windy).

Camp at Peanmeanach

With the tents set up I took a solo paddle to the end of the Ardnish peninsular and spent a long time peering at a pile of boulders on the shore from which emanated a chattering scolding noise. I suspect pine martens but saw nothing.

James opted for minimalist camping and opted for his bivvi bag. Maybe it was time I changed my socks.P1080284

The final day for the easy paddle up the length of Loch Ailort was about as relaxing as it could have been. Glass calm surface. Silence apart from the clamour of an assortment of seabirds, mainly terns.

Glassy Loch Ailort

Finish. A ten mile shuttle to pick up Calum’s car. Mini adventure over.

This near complete circuit has to be the most interesting in terms of variety of scenery and variety of paddling (freshwater loch, river, wooded sea loch, open sea, sea loch) in the whole of Scotland. And all packed into a mere 50 miles. Fab.

But beware the ticks. I was scratching for days.


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