Expedition Scotland (part three) Loch Ewe to Handa
I knew the favourable weather window wouldn’t last so I needed to keep clocking up the miles. However I was also keen to explore into most of the sea lochs that cut into the heart of the Highlands. The compromise was to paddle round all the lochs without main roads beside them and bypass the others e.g the Loch Brooms.
Another sunny stillish day as I circuited Loch Ewe , skirted Isle Ewe and had a bit of a stock up in Aultbea stores. I was having a very social two days having spent the night in a friend’s house in Cove, and then meeting my brother and another chum for camping at Mellon Udrigle.
Lots of jellyfish about including a large Lion’s mane jelly:
Another big headland beckoned, Greenstone Point. Another easy one with calm water. And upon rounding it another vista of fantastic Scottish mountains to enjoy. Farewell the Torridons, hello to An Teallach and the Sutherland peaks.
Mellon Udrigle is the perfect white sand beach, the only problem was that a lot of other people thought the same and it was actually quite busy. My companions arrived and we sped off to the Aultbea hotel for gnosh. One too many pints of the local brew led to a slovenly start the next day, and it was the last of the still days so multi miles was essential.
Friend David came along in his Prowler for the first half of the day. David quickly spotted movement amongst the rocks on the shore and we were astonished to see a pine marten hopping about. Reasonable view.
The Gruinard beaches are sensational, and looking their best in the sun. We stopped for a snack on one of the many and then on around to Mungasdale, another beauty, where I bad farewell to David. Despite being certified free from Anthrax, we bypassed Gruinard island.
I was suddenly gripped with an urge to blast onwards, fast. In the back of my mind I was worried about Coigach Point and the weather forecast for tomorrow. The sea completely glassed off allowing me to maintain 4 to 4.5 mph which is about my max cruising speed.
I sliced across the mouth of Little Loch Broom and as I was passing Cailleach Head I made the spontaneous decision to cut straight across to the Summer Isles, five miles away. This would mean missing Loch Broom and Ullapool which wasn’t going to be the greatest disaster.
Avoiding nearly being run down by a trawler I passed up the middle of the Summer Isles, heading for Isle Ristol where I knew there was a decent beach. But stupidly I stopped short on a shingly beach pointing south and set up my tent in a bog. Bad. A good campsite is hugely influential in deciding whether I have had a good day or not.
Next morning another three or four battle squadrons of midges needlessly erased their existence in and around my face, and I noticed my hands were shaking as I folded up the tent poles. And my mouth was dry. I really was getting in a bit of a stew about rounding Rubha Coigach.
It was because the weather had broken. Overcast, drizzle, and steadily increasing SW wind. And my fears were proved correct. A moderate swell, whitecaps, bounceback from the cliffs and stiff tide stream (at least in my favour) led to a hairy five miles. Gannets and fulmars zipped past and it was a bit concerning that the bonxies were hanging around shadowing me, no doubt discussing amongst themselves who had first peck at my eyeballs when I tipped out.
Pretty stupid really. But suddenly I was around the point and paddling SE in a completely different world. Calm , sheltered and laden with interest in the form of coves, cliffs, stacks and caves. Otter, seals, peregrine.
I was soon on my way north up the amazing rocky coastline of Enard Bay. Barren and remote. Like a twit I sopped early at Inverkirkaig and camped at a lousy spot beside the river mouth. Even more midgy the next morning.
And another nervous day. Onshore wind and swell creating a bumpy ride. As soon as the sun comes out everything looks friendly. When it goes in the sea becomes battleship grey and seems hostile.I had a nose at Lochinver and bought a cup of coffee in the Spar. As I got back to my kayak I slipped on kelp and landed hard on my backside on a rock and hurled the coffee all over me. Much to the amusement of the people waiting for the bus.
I cowardlily cringed out at Clachtoll campsite after only thirteen mies but at least this put me in a good position for Stoer point tomorrow.
Didn’t like Clachtoll. No good reason apart from the fact that I really should be seeking wilderness campsites and leaves the cosy places to the campervanners. I needed a shower though.
Stoer point was a thrill. It had everything a major headland should have. Mighty cliffs, lighthouse, squadrons of Guillemots and Razorbills zipping about, islands, surging tide currents, and the most unlikely towering stack, the Old man of Stoer, which had a narrow kayakable channel on the inside.
Excellent. Then back into calm waters in the shelter of Culkein and Clashnessie Bay. I had my eye on a camp on Oldany island. Spotted a sandy bit on the north-east corner on the map. I needed a good camping spot after a succession of bad ones.
Ooh perfect. Short turf overlooking a sandy beach. Nobody or nothing else in sight apart from a deserted bothy.Just the usual plovers, arctic terns busy on a nearby island, eider ducks cooing. I set up camp and took a quick spin around the island.
My penultimate day paddling up the Scottish west coast mainland was probably my most enjoyable. Oldany island to Kylesku bridge and then around both the remote sea lochs that carve into the mountains from there. Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu. Huge variety of scenery and wildlife.
It was a reasonably sunny day so paddling wasn’t an effort. I called in at the Kylesku hotel to ask if I could use their outside tap to fill my water bottles. Shoudn’t have bothered because the water tasted so horrible (iodine I think, hopefully not weedkiller) I ditched it and scooped some out of a stream containing a couple of sticklebacks instead.
Then I paddled into Glencoul. Terrific. It took me right into the heart of the mountains consisting of 50% rock ( obviously 100% rock, but 50% rock showing at the surface). As usual I paddled silently along close to the shore in the hope of seeing a Scottish speciality creature. Something russet moving amongst the rocks caught my eye. A pine marten. It was a long way from the nearest pine, in fact there weren’t any trees in sight. It worked its way over the rocks and stopped to study me briefly before deciding I wasn’t a threat and carrying on with its hunt.
I continued through the narrows to Loch Beag and was quite impressed by the huge waterfall further up the Glen which I was told would be a disappointment.
Then round into Glendhu. An even more impressive craggy glen and another top wildlife encounter. I had crossed to the north side of the Loch to try to shelter from the increasing headwind and was tucked in only yards from the shore. An otter surfaced a few feet in front of me and was heading in the same direction. I followed it for five minutes as it busily dived and surfaced and slithered through the kelp, intermittently coming to the shore to noisily munch some of the huge marine worms it seemed to find.
My final day paddling up the mainland could not have been more of a contrast to the previous day in terms of weather. The rain started in the early hours. I was on the water at 5.30 because I was keen to get on (you don’t say) and the midges were worse than ever.
The W wind steadily increased and the day panned out exactly as I had feared. First bit to Kylesku bridge….easy. Second bit to Badcall bay, strengthening headwind and moderate swell. Heavier rain and feeling colder. Third bit from Badcall Bay to entrance of Handa Sound….terrible. Strong headwind with wavechop, swell and long cliffy sections providing a whiteknuckle ride. Fouth bit, up Handa Sound to the beaches….more sheltered…phew.
As a last fling I paddled round Handa island, admired the vast number of seabirds, including a few puffins, paddled in, around and under the Great Stack of Handa, got to the legendary cafe at Tarbert before it had opened (so missed out on food) and watched a bonxie eating a dead Guillemot, which I suspect it had just killed.
Then the sun came out, I paddled back to Scourie, and was picked up by my brother Tim. Just outside Scourie beach were a load of moon jellyfish and the apology I made every time I accidentally whacked one on the head with my paddle were the first words I had uttered for a week (apart from the very brief exchange with the hotel manager at Kylesku).
So that’s it for phase 1 of my adventure.. No more genoa cake for lunch. 550 miles completed.
Next: the Hebrides….and St. Kilda!
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