Whilst scouring the coastline and surface of the sea with my eyeballs looking for those magical sea creatures, it is very easy to overlook what most kayakers are there to see: the sensational scenery.
I never do take it for granted, because when paddling alone there is plenty of time to take in the surroundings as well as sharpen up your eyes and ears for those nuggets of natural history. There is actually more chance of missing out if you are in company, because you may be engrossed in discussing who said what to who and why. Here’s a good example:
After five or six days in the wilderness I do find that all the senses are sharpened. This is great with regard to eyes and ears, but not so good, after five warm and sweaty days of paddling, when it comes to smell.
From a mile away I can hear the constant yelling of Oystercatchers, Wrens and the occasional Yellowhammer singing form the hillside, song flights of the Rock pipits the call of Cuckoos carrying even further. The only human-made sound is the far distant chuffing of the Jacobite steam train as it climbs out of Arisaig, and the odd Dreamliner six miles overhead.
Finely-tuned long vision isn’t necessarily all good. On my final day I was paddling towards my car on the lochside a good mile away. I could see a figure walking along the road beside the water with two large dogs racing about, one of which halted beside my car and I could tell by its aura, even at that range, precisely what it was doing. The owner assumed a sheepish and guilty sort of body language and glanced up and down the road to make sure nobody was in sight to observe what his canine companion was depositing. He then looked directly at me but quickly decided I was far too far away to have noticed what his dog was up to.
By the time I arrived by the quay he, and his enlightened dogs, were long gone, but I had to be very careful where I stood.
Loch Sunart dawn
I had an early start on a twenty mile day trip around Lochs Sunart and Teacuis, so I had to take breakfast on board.
I stopped for a coffee break on a pink carpet of Thrift beside loch Teacuis.
Next day I paddled Loch Moidart. I got to know it well because I had to backtrack a couple of miles when I discovered that the ‘North Channel’ around Eilean Shona island dried out at low tide. I should have known this because this is the access route to the handful of houses on the island. It was worth the diversion however, because I briefly saw another otter.
So I exited into the sea using the South Channel and had a brief chat with kayak guide Ali Mcghee and his group from Ocean Alba. Out into the open sea a Loon was in the process of swallowing a small flatfish:
with a fine backdrop of the hills of Moidart.
By great good fortune it was exactly lunchtime when I arrived at the unbelievably stunning white sands of Smirisary, backed by an area of short turf perfect for a bit of a lounge about and a cup of tea. (video)
Not surprisingly, the Ocean Alba group thought the same and soon arrived as well.
I spent three days paddling around the Arisaig and Ardnish peninsulars, finding a couple of decent places to camp above sandy beaches.
There was a tremendous all-round scene because out to sea were the Small Isles providing an impressive distant backdrop.
And the vista inland wasn’t to be sniffed at either.
Progress was slow as there is no way I was going to paddle past a beach like this without a bit of investigation on foot.
It wasn’t just the views that were Caribbean. The weather was largely sunny with temperature up to the low twenties. And not a drop of rain for the whole week. Not bad for Western Scotland.
Although the otter catching and eating the crab was by far my best wildlife encounter during my five days in the Arisaig area of Western Scotland, there was plenty else going on in the natural history section.
Not least the five trillion midges that came over to pester me one still and warm evening. What sort of a creature is it that deliberately flies into your eyeball and voluntarily gets blinked to death? In their thousands. Their friends in the itch depatment are ticks several of which, despite my best efforts to avoid them, managed to find their way into various cracks and crevices about my person.
More of a threat to wildlife was the two Mink I briefly saw. Despite being very fluffy and floating high on the water they are adept swimmers and seem to dive as well as an otter.
I would have been disappointed not to see an Eagle and ended up with two. Sea Eagles are so incredibly huge that if one is around you really have to be pretty daft not to see it (or eyes down on your phone…..again). One was being pestered by Gulls on the south side of the Arisaig peninsular, the second sat in a tree at loch Moidart.
The half dozen or so Great Northern Divers I saw were all nearly in full summer plumage. I’m not sure whether these are non-breeding birds that spend the summer here or that they are winter visitors that still havn’t headed north. I suspect most will soon depart.
A pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the sea in front of my tent at Peanmeanach beach and flew back to their loch in the hills calling in classic, honking, ‘Rain Goose’ (their Shetland name) style. There was no rain in the forecast however, and I suspect they got this name in Shetland because it rains much of the time and there are a lot of breeding Red-throats there.
Trying hard to compete with the divers for snappiness of plumage were the Black Guillemots. I really like these busy little birds (although their movements verge on frantic) and unlike their southern cousins they have an extraordinary high-pitched whistle as a call note. A good sound for carrying distance on a windy day. In the video the second bird hasn’t quite finished moulting out of its winter plumage. (video)
The islands in Loch na Ceal near Arisaig hosted a lot of birds and the still and sunny weather enhanced the atmosphere. The main soundtrack came from the Oystercatchers. If they didn’t have such charisma I might be tempted to say what an appalling din. (video)
A pair of Common Terns looked like they were checking out somewhere to nest,
and a rather smart looking Common Gull was busy incubating her eggs beside a bouquet of Sea Pink. (could be a ‘he’ I suppose). Incidentally ‘Common Gull’ is a very bad name for what is NOT the most Common gull and is in fact an extremely neat and attractive bird.
I know it’s ‘only’ a seagull but I had to insert this video because I love the way the Gull settles back down to incubate its eggs so proudly and cosily with a contented shuffle and waggle of its tail. (video)
A pair of Ringed Plovers were a bit agitated as I passed so I guess they were nesting as well. They got a lot more stressed when a Great Black-backed Gull turned up with bird’s eggs on the menu for lunch.
Arisaig’s most prominent residents are the Harbour Seals. There are a lot of them and they drape themselves about on low flat islets and their bawls and grunts carry far over the water. They enjoy nothing more than following kayakers in large numbers and diving with a splash. They are rather more photogenic than Cornwall’s Grey Seals, and have a more dished cat-like face. (video)
I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.
A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..
but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see quite so many (tens of thousands) Moon jellyfish wafting about in the clear waters of Loch Sunart. Accompanied by a few Lion’s mane and small white jellies with very long tentacles.
The other wildlife highlight of my early morning paddle on the smooth waters of Lochs Sunart and Teacuis was the sound of birds with the songs of Blackcaps, Willow and Wood Warblers drifting down from the deciduous woods on the bank. Plus the occasional Tree Pipit and ‘zip, zip’ of a Spotted Flycatcher. Didn’t see any of them . Plus the odd Cuckoo, which I did see. I could hear one calling from over a mile away.
The rarest bird I saw was not the most glamorous and a bit specialist to the ornithologist. This iceland Gull was hanging around the fish farm on Sunart.
It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.
It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.
I could not resist the continuing fine weather for kayaking in the west of Scotland so set off armed with tent and provisions for several days of wild camping, but first I had to do battle with the roadworks on the M6.
My number one wildlife aim was to get a decent photograph of an otter. Most in southwest England are active in poor light at either end of the day and so difficult to photograph , whereas in Scotland I have seen them along the coast in full sunshine.
After two days of paddling I had glimpsed a single otter surface once and then disappear, and had a marginally longer view of a couple of Mink.
Back amongst the islands of Arisaig I had given up hope of meeting up with an Otter because it was midday, sunny and hot, and there were loads of seals around. Then I saw this: (this is a video)
Otters can look like a small seal at a distance but the tail whipping up when it dives can mean it’s nothing else!
When it came up I could hardly believe my luck…it had caught an enormous crab and I knew it would be heading to the nearest rock to consume it.
I sneaked after it as quietly as I could and sure enough it hopped out on a rock, had a good shake, and prepared the crab for demolition, but the crab had other plans and kept trying to scuttle off:
It then stared hard at me because I was at the absolute limit of frightening it, about twenty yards. Otters have pretty poor eyesight and fortunately the light wind was in my face. If it was blowing the other way the otter would still be on the way to the Isle of Skye as fast as it could swim (I hadn’t showered for a day or two). It had winkled off the carapace of the crab in one piece and still had it in its mouth as it stared.
Luckily I was blown back out out of its worry range and it got stuck in to crunching the crab’s legs. It made more noise than Rick Stein tucking in to a lobster.
It really wolfed its way through its seafood lunch and made sure there was nothing left before exiting the scene with a perfect splashless racing dive.
Absolutely excellent. This was exactly what I had hoped to witness on my paddle trip to Scotland but hadn’t expected quite such a perfect show.
Incidentally, this is the same species of otter that is found all over the UK. It is often thought, quite understandably, that these are Sea Otters because around Scotland they do most of their hunting in the sea. Sea Otters are a quite distinct species that live in the Pacific off North America.
Compared to rivers and lakes the sea is absolutely bursting with all the otter’s favourite foods. It’s chock full of crabs, anenomes and butterfish, so it’s no wonder that’s where these European River Otters like to hunt. Looking for food in the sea must be like walking into a well-stocked delicatessen, whereas trying to find food in a river or lake is very more challenging and like trying to locate the buffet car on a train.
Unlike Sea Otters, European Otters need a source of fresh water nearby in which to clean up, and always take larger prey items on to solid ground to devour them.
Getting to the top of the UK from Holsworthy represents seven hundred miles of driving and a twelve hour ferry trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Just about worth it provided it was wall-to-wall wildlife action and excitement for the entire time we were there. And ideally some good conditions for kayaking so that I could experience paddling in a new location.
Remarkably Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, is almost exactly the same latitude as southern Greenland where Hezzer and I went on a sea kayaking expedition last year. Just above 60 degrees North. No icebergs around Shetland though.
Driving up the M6 was the usual tedious and stressful challenge (bear in mind we have no traffic queues and only one set of traffic lights in Holsworthy), possibly made worse by the poor weather forecast for Shetland….strong winds and…groan…FOG.
I picked up Hezzer and Sharpy en route and by 7pm we were on the deck of the ferry scanning for sea creatures. Glimpses of porpoises and the odd Puffin, that’s all.
First day on Shetland was a bit of a struggle, especially as southern England was basking in 30 degrees and sunshine. It was windy, cold, wet and sometimes misty, sometimes foggy. But I was determined to camp. My amateurish festival-style tent might well collapse or blow away, but we were going to give it a go. We pitched it at a sort of official campsite at the marina at Brae and although it bent and distorted alarmingly it looked like it would just about survive.
We took a stroll to a sandy beach on the adjacent island of Muckle Roe and while hunkered down out of the wind an otter appeared around the headland and started to swim towards us. The wind was in our face so it would not catch our scent (if it was downwind it wouldn’t have come within sight). Hezzer got ready with his camera but before I had time to get mine out of its waterproof bag the otter appeared in the waves breaking on the shore just in front of us. It emerged from the water and without hesitation strode directly towards Hezzer who was settled on the foreshore, with a sort of ‘what are you doing on my patch?’ type attitude (the otter, not Hezzer).
It marched forward, hesitated, then continued its approach, finally stopping when it was only five paces in front of Hezzer. When it clicked what was going on it fairly rapidly, but not panickly, returned to the sea, and carried on fishing. It emerged onto the beach again a bit further on, sniffed about a bit, and then swam back to the point where it had come from.
The next couple of days involved trying not to get battered or crushed by the wind, and working our way north to the island of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. We witnessed some superb wildlife action between Arctic Skuas and Arctic terns as the former tried to steal the latter’s lunch. Sometimes four skuas to one tern.
We camped wild one night on the west coast of Yell, and in the grounds of Gardisfauld Hostel on Unst for the remaining three. It’s got a superb view out over the sound where we saw otters, seals and all manner of seabirds. And a rainbow.
Hermaness nature reserve overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse is as far north as you can get in the UK. And it is staggering because of its wild west-facing coast with offshore stacks whit-topped with Gannets, as well as vast areas of moorland dotted with numerous pairs of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, which were either cruising about looking for trouble (as Bonxies do) or standing about displaying by throwing their wings back and uttering a primeval gulping call that sends a shiver up your spine (in a horror movie type way).
But I do like Bonxies, they are one of my favourite seabirds. Non-birders hardly notice them because they look so scruffy.
At last, after three days, the wind dropped. It was due to stay fairly calm till lunchtime the next day, which just happened to be 21 June, the longest day of the year. I have always made an extra special effort to get up extra early on the longest day so I didn’t need much persuasion to set my alarm clock for 4am, as I was itching to go for a paddle. My Cobra Expedition kayak had travelled the best part of one thousand miles on the roof of the car to get here; it would be a pity to take it back without it getting wet (with sea water).
In fact the alarm clock was surplus to requirements because a Blackbird, which had made one of only about three bushes on the entire island its home, decided to have a bit of a sing-song to welcome in the dawn at 2.30. It did well to spot the difference between night and day because at this latitude there is not a lot of difference and you can still just about read a book in the darkest part of the night.
I was all packed up and on the water by 3.40am. My earliest start ever on a kayaking trip. And was very excited because early means otters.
Less than a minute of paddling along the glass calm water in front of Gardisfauld Hostel I heard a cat yowling from the undergrowth and saw an otter hopping about amongst the rocks. Obviously not the cat’s best chum. This was followed a couple of minutes later by another (otter, not cat), also on the shore, which was an unusually pale individual.
I crossed the sound over to the island of Uyea as a couple of Red-throated Divers (Rain Geese as they are called in Shetland) arrived from their freshwater loch for breakfast in the sea, striking the water at speed breast-first with quite a splash. The sound of their honking calls as birds shuttled backwards and forwards to their breeding areas in the hills, was more or less continuous all morning.
There was a lot of honking which apparently means there is going to be a lot of rain. ‘They’ were right.
Another singleton otter as I arrived at the shore of Uyea and then I heard a piercing otter ‘whistle’ followed by a bit of a chatter as an otter on a rock communicated to its mate which was following some distance behind. All a bit too dark for photos as it wasn’t even four o’clock!
As it brightened I had an excellent prolonged view of an otter fishing in front of me. I followed it along at a safe distance and watched as it emerged onto a rock to munch its way through a butterfish in a typical noisy, mouth open, crunchy otter way. And a half decent photograph.
As I emerged out of the shelter of the island around the more exposed east-facing shore of Uyea the otters were replaced by Grey Seals and a few small groups of Black Guillemots which were uttering their high-pitched whistling calls, one of which sounded more like a Great Tit.
As I rounded a headland the golden sandy beach of Sand Wick came into view, but before stretching my legs on the sand, I took a diversion up the narrow inlet of the Ham of Muness. A bottling seal, noisy Arctic tern colony and Fulmars nesting on an old building kept me entertained, but as soon as I saw an otter swimming directly towards me I took evasive action before it detected me and paddled round in a huge circle and tucked in to the shore, hoping it would swim right past. I held on to a flat rock on the shore and got my camera ready. The otter appeared, swimming quite happily, and then dived. The trail of bubbles approached, went under the front of my kayak, and the otter momentarily climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, close enough to touch. In an instant and a splash of water it was gone.
I felt a built guilty about upsetting this otter but I was actually stationary and the otter came to me, I wasn’t chasing it around.
At the headland I had the briefest view of a porpoise surfacing once, the only cetacean I was to see in Shetland.
I downed a king-sized Bakewell Tart (from Baltasound Bakery) on Sand Wick while a trio of Red-Throated Divers came close into the shallows.
After my pit-stop just as I was leaving the beach Hezzer and Sharpy appeared over the horizon so I stopped to have a word with them, watching the terns fishing in the bay.
Then it was back the way I had come, this time including a circuit of the small island of Half Gruney in the itinerary. I was a bit surprised to pass a lone Sanderling on the exposed rocks; they are usually faithful to beaches.
After an excellent encounter with three incredibly approachabl Arctic Terns on the way back, I arrived back at Gardisfauld at midday after an eight hour 20 plus mile paddle…my first in Shetland. And six otters….five before 5am…..that’s another first!
The rain, and wind, arrived later in the day and the tent buckled and tent poles splintered. During the night I frequently got a faceful of canvas but we all kept dry and the tent stayed essentially tent-shaped (thanks to a roll of Gorilla tape).
Our final day was spent with a steady drive back down the island chain to the ferry terminal at Lerwick, and a warm (!) sunny afternoon seawatching at Sumburgh Head, hoping for the Orca pack to appear. Needless to say it didn’t, but we had superb views of Puffins and both species of skua. Hezzer glimpsed a Minke Whale far,far out but I failed to spot it.
That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.
It was such a pleasant evening as the ferry crept across Lerwick harbour, the kayakers and paddleboarders were out in their boardshorts.
Despite the windchill from the speed of the ferry I stayed out on deck for several hours. A big swirl at the surface close by was confirmed to be a Minke whale by the only other few people left on the deck who saw it before it dived. I must have missed seeing the actual creature by less than a hundredth of a second. Probably the same one Hezzer had seen from the shore, as we were passing Sumburgh Head.
That would have been the icing on what was already a pretty good cake.
One of my personal rules about kayaking is that I spend at least as long on the water as the car journey it took to get there.
This is the first time I think I have failed, and failed in a spectacular fashion. Twenty-five to thirty hours in the car for eight hours on the water. Crikey.
Time to get back to Devon and put in some hours on my local patch.
It had to happen sooner or later. After many years of being incredibly lucky with the weather during my Spring trips to Scotland, mid May 2017 looked as though it was going to let me down. The forecast was stiff winds from the west and intermittent rain. The west coast would have been no fun. I still can’t believe I was so fortunate with my two month expedition round the west coast and islands three years ago when I only lost one or two days to strong winds.
Plan B was to paddle in the relative shelter of various freshwater lochs, and ideally the ones with no roads along the sides to maximise the chance of wildlife encounters.
I drove the 650 miles from Holsworthy to Taynuilt beside Loch Etive near Oban in one very long day, and during the night as I was curled up in my sleeping bag the car was rocked by a gusty wind coming down from the mountains. Loch Etive was definitely no-go for a kayak so I sought the quieter waters of Loch Awe a few miles away.
It was windy and quite warm and dry so pretty reasonable. I drifted close enough to a Dipper for a reasonable photograph, always difficult because they are generally not that tame and are usually amongst dark rocks which makes getting the exposure right difficult.
In a sheltered bay on the north bank I was very surprised to come across a Great Northern Diver, still in its winter plumage (although it was 12 May). This looked like a juvenile from last years brood.
I was very keen not to frighten it by getting too close but it allowed me to drift to about twenty yards away while it continued to dive. I got what I thought were some great images but noticed that every so often it would ‘gag’ slightly in a unnatural manner.
Upon reviewing the images I fell into an instant gloom when I saw the fishing line wrapped around its bottom mandible and trailing out behind it. Poor blooming thing. It’s flown all the way from Iceland or further to grace the UK with its amazing presence, just to get tangled up in discarded fishing tackle.
There wasn’t a hope of being able to help it as it seemed to be swimming and diving quite normally (and probably catching some fish) but I think its long term outlook is pretty hopeless.
I was lured into one of the lochside Bluebell woods for lunch by the dazzling colour.
Just as I was completing my twenty mile circuit and trying to avoid the many fishing speedboats around a marina on the southern side of the Loch, I had a superb view of a couple of Black-throated Divers, these ones in full breeding plumage. They are exciting enough to see when dressed in their two-tone winter outfit around the bays of SW England, but in their breeding plumage they are arguably the UK’s most beautifully marked bird. This is definitely the case if you are photographing in black-and-white.
I was very careful not to approach too close to cause them distress, but they seemed relatively happy with several small fishing boats plying past and me floating about in my kayak, and continued to look for fish by dipping their heads underwater.
Black-throated Divers at their nest sites are super-sensitive to disturbance which includes photographers getting too close for that perfect photo.
I spent the weekend with son Henry who was working in Stirling, and the wildlife action continued, now focused around his enormous telephoto lens rather than my kayak. While sitting in his hide at 6am it was a thrill to hear,simultaneously, a cuckoo calling on a distant hillside, a snipe drumming overhead (sounding more like a mosquito), the bubbling call of a dozen Blackcocks which were ‘lekking’ (displaying) nearby, and the honking call of a pair of divers (Red-throats I think) flying overhead. Tremendous, and well worth the effort of turfing out of bed early. And we saw a Hen Harrier.
The forecast was wet so when I left Henry on Monday morning I opted for a circuit around Loch Tummel clad in full waterproof gear. Exciting because I was paddling new shores but otherwise grey and damp.
I was determined to set up my tent for at least one night and although I was very aware that the further west I drove the wetter it would get, I had my eye on the southern shore of Loch Arkaig. It’s got no road access for ten miles along its shore so should feel nice and remote. I should have a decent paddle but not too far if things should ‘blow up’ (meteorologically speaking).
The first day started dry and quite still but gradually deteriorated into sheet rain with a fair old howling headwind. However I was not going to let it beat me so I dug in with the paddle and ploughed on, waves breaking over the deck, cheered up by the tumbling song of Willow Warblers and peep of numerous Common Sandpipers.
A lucky drier interlude allowed me to pitch my tent at the mouth of a small river a couple of miles before the end of the loch, and after a brew I paddled into an even stronger headwind to the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Typical, this camping spot was better as there was a large area of short-cropped flat grass with no-one in sight. Even better, a Greenshank was piping its slightly haunting and slightly mournful song somewhere upwind not very far away. To me it is the ornithological equivalent of bagpipes.
No way was I going to paddle back to my tent and bring it here in these conditions, so I enjoyed the downwind run back to my camp and settled in to read my book. I emptied out a tin of catfood I had brought to lure in the local Pine Martens but needless to say it hadn’t been touched by the time I departed in the morning.
And as usual I fell asleep within five minutes of starting to read. Fortunately a Hercules passing overhead about 5 foot (or so it seemed) above my tent woke me up. But then it was time to go to bed anyway.
The next day dawned sunny and I enjoyed the twelve mile paddle back to the car. A Merlin crossed the loch high above my head and I could hear the bubbling croon of Blackcocks coming from the patch of forest more than a mile away over the water.
My next loch was Loch Ness and I had a specific purpose. I had arranged a rendezvous with a friend who was pedalling (not paddling) from Land’s End to John O’Groats at at the pub in Dores at the eastern end of the loch. I had to be there at 1pm so I thought I should set off by 5am to allow for the odd break.
Lovely sunny day, light following wind, great paddle, but virtually zero wildlife apart from two floating (and smelling)deer carcases. And limited viewing and scenic surprises as the loch is dead straight. The trees at the end of the loch which were my destination, were over the horizon when I set off.
However it was great to see my chum Andrew plus cycling companions, and we were joined by my brother Tim who works nearby. Super pub in super location by nice beach.
The promise of lighter winds the following day lured me down to the sea at the Moray firth, with the hope of an encounter with some of its resident Bottlenose Dolphins.
I paddled out from Ardesier on the southern shore near Fort George in glassy conditions. On approaching Chanonry Point a distant splashing encouraged me to crank up the pace as it must have been dolphins. Sure enough they soon appeared, and as Bottlenose dolphins always do, they seemed big. This is because they are, and also because the individuals of the Moray Firth pod are reputed to be even bigger than normal as they are one of the furthest north groups in the world and need extra blubber to keep warm.
Two outliers swam past before a group of five came past satisfactorily slowly and close to allow me a few pics. Interestingly the photographs show a sort of crease below the forehead on some of the bigger dolphins giving them the appearance of a frown, confirming perhaps that they do indeed have more blubber than some of their species that inhabit warmer climes.
I paddled a few miles up the coast of the Black Isle for lunch then back past Rosehearty beach. It was great to hear the constant cheerful call of passing terns.
The dolphin watchers were out in force as I crossed back over to Ardesier. The dolphins obliged by fishing a few metres off the point for much of the afternoon….I could even see their fins through binoculars from two miles away when I got back to the car.
My final short paddle adventure was in the rain at Loch Insh, the highlight being a couple of broods of newly hatched Goldeneye, and an Osprey.
Although I did break the appallingly slow and traffic laden drive back to Devon with a quick ten miles on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Perfect, warm ,still.
Cush and I had six days to play with before my adventure was due to end back at Oban. We started with a cruise up Loch Sunart on Sea Canter. This was my second trip up the Loch, and it was raining and misty just like the first time. However Sunart is an extremely scenic loch and the low cloud and mizzle doesn’t seem to detract too much from its splendour.
We moored at the pontoon at Salen. Superb spot. I was keen to do another hefty day-paddle and had rather regretted missing out on Loch Teacuis when I passed this way seven weeks ago.
So I was up at five and paddled across Loch Sunart to its deserted southern shore in the hope of another wildlife encounter. There is no doubt that otters and their friends are more active early in the morning.
Paddling more or less silently about ten yards off the shore I saw a pine marten working its way across the rocks of the shore towards me. It had no idea I was there. I had the perfect view of it hunting, then halting and pouncing on some unseen and unlucky small creature in the long grass. The clicking of my camera made it look hard in my direction but it soon lost interest and went on its way.
The south side of Loch Sunart is indeed wild as there is no road access. However there are a couple of fish farms which make a bit of noise. One reeling clicking noise is particularly weird as you can ‘hear’ it in the back of your head from quite a long range but it is completely undirectional and impossible to work out where it is coming from. Birders amongst you will know what I mean when I say it sounds like the song of a Grasshopper warbler.
After about an hour and-a-half steady paddling I arrived at the mouth of Loch Teacuis. It was everything I hoped it would be. Scenic, remote, interesting. Islands, tall trees, steep hills, loads of wildlife. An otter slunk off, a red deer hind stared at me from behind a bush and a couple of small and fluffy fox cubs went tearing off when I surprised them coming round a mini-headland.
And there was that reeling noise again. But no fish farm this time, it was a singing grasshopper warbler!
Quite a tidal flow in the narrow neck half way down the loch, and then it opens out to a lagoon in which I was surprised to see a couple of boats moored. And a few houses on the shore.
I stopped for a tea break on Teacuis right at its head. Then back along the western shore, trying not to disturb the large number of harbour seals plus small pups hauled out on the islands adjacent to Carna.
I stopped to watch a pair of otters fishing in the strong tidal current at the neck of the loch, and a school of porpoises, and then retraced my route along the south shore back to Salen. I didn’t fancy the north shore as it is followed by a main road. Good move as I saw three more otters.
25 mile paddle, surely one of the best in Scotland in terms of variety, remoteness, and wildlife.
Back on Sea Canter we stopped overnight at Loch Drumbuie then sailed to Dunstaffnage near Oban the next day.
I paddled round the island of Kerrera before our very final two days exploring the Ross of Mull.
The kayaking near the south-western tip of Mull is exceptional. If it was in south-western England it would be rated as the number one kayaking destination and be crawling with idiots in sit-on-tops, like me.
It’s got everything, and was certainly looking at its best as it was calm and sunny. So the white sand beaches were perfect. A very complex coastline with twists and turns and islets and a handful of beaches at the neck of craggy inlets. Lots of seals too. Golden Eagles soaring over the tops of the hills.
Then it was back to Oban, and that was it.
785 miles paddled.Plus a further 500 or so miles sailed/motored on Sea Canter.55 otters, 4 pine martens, 2 mink (all from kayak), 6 minke whales(all from yacht…still havn’t seen a whale from kayak…), 30 lots of porpoises, 10 sea eagles, 6 golden eagles, 2 basking sharks. One St.Kilda wren. And a trout and a pollack. And one Stealth Bomber.
A few key bits of kit have ensured a successful, and enjoyable trip:
1. A decent tent. I took a Vango Tempest 300. A fairly rugged D of E type tent and big enough to move around in. Easy pitching. No broken poles.
2. A good cooker/water heater. My Jetboil was ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC. Ultra quick in any wind condition. Economic on gas. I took far too much gas,in fact had enough for another two months camping.
3. A good boat. Controversial one this, I suspect. Everyone thinks they have the best kayak. But I would consider my Cobra Expedition sit-on-top (SOT) hard to beat. Long.Narrow.Fast.Huge hatches (yeah, OK, they leak a bit).And the ease of use of a sit-on-top. Just hop on and go.
Plenty of opportunity to move around if you get a sore butt.
And of course hugely safe. If you have a spill you just climb back on. Or do you? In the same way as I would suspect that a average paddler in a conventional sea kayak could not roll up if they get tipped over in a big sea (and if they did,they would be subject to exactly the same conditions that just tipped them over,so they would probably go over again), I would worry that I may not be able to get back on my SOT. It’s fine if it’s flat, but conditions bad enough to result in a capsize (surf excluded)would be pretty nasty anyway.
However at least I would have the chance of a simple re-entry and not be struggling with a swamped kayak, pumping it out etc.
The sit-on-top/sit-in kayak (SINK) debate is potentially very long. I just like to keep things ultra simple. Simplicity means more time on the water and less time faffing about. Float it out onto the water.Sit on and go. No struggling with a spray deck on the beach and then scrunching across the stones it into the sea.
Yes OK you need a decent drysuit for all season SOT paddling, but apart from that, clutter is a minimum.
Considering my expedition round the west of Scotland as a whole, there were three or four occasions when I was concerned about my safety because of the sea state. Probably unnecessarily so, as I never came close to capsize. But paddling round the ‘dark side’ of St. Kilda I would have been in a state of severe anxiety if I was in a SINK. The unsinkable, unswampable feature of SOTs with their drainage holes provide a feeling of security.
I suppose it boils down to enjoyment. My expedition was probably 80% enjoyment, 20% worry. If I was in a SINK that would have been 50%/50%.
I could go on,and on, and be a bit of a bore about the SOT advantages. Maybe it’s because they are so sneered at by most SINK sea kayakers.
Just one more thing. How many times have I ventured out onto the water on a foul day on a SOT when if I only had a SINK it would have stayed in the garage. A lot.
Anyway, Scotland over, its back to footling about in Devon and Cornwall.
Most disastrous bit of kit was my ghastly trainers I bought from our local factory shop for a fiver. Unbelievably cheap, unbelievably plasticky, and unbelievably smelly. like the worst teenagers socks. The combination of permanently damp feet and overwhelming stench was a recipe for nausea, but I think it helped keep the midges away.
Expedition Scotland (part four). Outer Hebrides and St. Kilda.
Phase two of my kayak expedition involved ‘nipping’ over to the Outer Hebrides and working back down to the south of the island chain before crossing back to Oban to complete the entire circuit of Western Scotland.
Enter Cushing with his yacht. He had left Bristol in early May and we met up to discuss plans on ‘Sea Canter’ at Kyle of Lochalsh. Das boot (my kayak) fitted snugly on the foredeck, so the second half of my trip was going to involve stealing a lift for all the nasty and tiring bits so I could cherry-pick all the best bits. And Sea Canter had some nice big storage spaces for food…and drink.
Together with Marcus and Gordon who had just got off the train at Kyle, we sailed up the east coast of Skye, crossing over to Scalpay in North Harris on a still, misty day. I did a bit of exploring by kayak up the north Eastern tip of Skye before we crossed, along the line of the very dramatic Trotternish mountains , and checked out the lofty waterfall near Staffin.
Are the Outer Hebrides starkly beautiful or appallingly bleak? I suppose it depends on whether a landscape devoid of trees and composed largely of rock appeals to you. The sun would help the appearance enormously but we didn’t see a lot of it, initially. In fact we didn’t see a lot of anything because of the mist.
We anchored in the perfect natural harbour at Rodel, poised for an assault on St.Kilda the next day. We couldn’t believe our luck at the favourable forecast, a large area of high pressure anchored to the west of the UK. Only questionmark was a bit of mist and fog.
So the next day we motorsailed up the Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic. Slight swell, light winds. No problem. Six hours later we saw the St. Kilda islands ahead. The outline of the main island of Hirta looked a bit dull in comparison to the jagged relief of Boreray and its adjacent stacks.
We anchored in village bay and worked out our plans for the next day, keen to make the most of the UK’s number one adventure destination.
I was dead keen to paddle round the island. I have a huge amount of respect for those few who have paddled to St.K from Uist…not sure I could have done it. So I HAD to paddle round it. Had a quick preparatory paddle early in the morning and found a tiderace off the tip of the island of Dun that I couldn’t paddle against. Pity our arrival coincided with June’s biggest high tides. The local seals didn’t seem too phased by the nasty tide race though.
We all ventured ashore and got absorbed in the history and haunting basicness if the row of old stone houses in village bay. And the astonishing number of stone storage huts or ‘cleits’ dotted about all over the place including way up the side of the steep hills.
Its a bit of a pity there is a military installation right slap bang on the shore in village bay with a generator the size of a ship’s engine running 24 -7.
We sent off a ream of postcards with the St.Kilda postmark. I was pretty pleased to see a St.Kilda wren singing from a chimneypot, and surprised to see a pair of swallows zipping about.
SOLO ROUND ST.KILDA
So back to the kayaking.Low tide might mean the tide races were less so off I paddled, anticlockwise. The tops of the hills and cliffs were lost in dense mist which was a pity as they are the highest in UK. When I rounded the sharp corner to the north facing coast I ran into a fair swell which was bouncing back off the sheer cliff. Very atmospheric with the hoards of fulmars circling around, but I was on the edge of my comfort zone and was gripping the paddle very tight. Ten miles of vertical cliff, no shelter, no beaches.And no rescue.
Everything about this place was primeval. The cackling of gannets and fulmars, the raucous clamour of auks on their nesting ledges, the boom of the swells breaking under pressure in the sea caves, and the haunting cry of the seals.Don’t supposed its changed a lot since the ice age. In fact probably since a long time before that as St. K wasn’t covered in the ice sheet.
I was not hanging around and arrived at the gap between Hirta and Soay quicker than I had thought. Still a stiff tidal current but it was in my favour. I was a bit concerned there was even more swell on the west facing coast although was kept distracted by the tens of thousands of puffins rafted up on the lively sea. Although I’m sure it is usually a lot livelier.
I could have missed out the island of Dun by nipping through the gap but wasn’t ready to finish yet so tackled the tide race at the end again which was just manageable, although against my direction of paddle, predictably.
I was quite relieved to arrive back at Sea Canter in village bay. It allowed the colour to return to my knuckles,and pulse rate to return to a level more sustainable for long term survival.It was only ten miles and only two and a half hours but probably my most exciting paddle ever.Totally extreme. I was pleased to have got one over on the raft of Bonxies that were sitting about in Glen Bay, clearly discussing how my body parts were going to be shared out when I came to grief.
We departed for South Harris the next morning and our very memorable St.Kilda experience was nicely rounded off by seeing a Minke whale close to the yacht, including hearing it ‘blowing’ as it surfaced.
CIVILISATION AGAIN (sort of)
Back at Rodel we had a shower and a meal in the excellent Rodel Hotel to celebrate Cush’s birthday.
Then down the east coast to Lochmaddy. An extrordinary place. A ferry terminal, a hotel, a line of houses and a shop.Actually quite busy for Uist.
I paddled right round Loch Maddy. 14 miles. Good thing I took my map because getting lost amongst the maze of islands was highly likely. And some astonishing tide traps. I shot down one rapid into a lagoon but then had to fight my way UP the next one as the tide was surging in from the other direction as well. 6-7mph flows.
Great for otters as I don’t suppose they get disturbed by kayakers very often. One attempted to hide under the weed. Unsuccessfully.Four altogether.
Next day, farewell to Marcus, and Cush and I set off down the east coast of N.Uist, Benbecula and S.Uist. Overnight anchorage in Lochboisdale and on towards Barra. Two days of sailing and hardly a house to be seen.
We had Vatersay as our target and a white sand beach. Upon arrival I paddled ashore to hunt for the legendary Corncrake. They used to be common throughout the UK but change in farming practices has led to them just clinging on to normal life in the outer isles.I wandered across the amazing machair and its swathe of flowers, listening hard for those raspy calls.
I had given up and was nearly back at my kayak when I heard a characteristic call wafting over on the wind, coming from a hayfield behind the crofter’s houses. Yes, a Corncrake, and several more answering nearby. Stare as I might, I couldn’t see them. They keep their heads down in the grass.
Next day I set off on a big paddle around the south of Barra, east of Vatersay and over to Sandray. And would you believe it, the sun came out and we saw the white beaches and turquoise water shown off at its best. I rubbed shoulders with a couple of sea kayak groups in Castlebay, watched a Sea Eagle and Golden Eagle flying together, and stepped ashore on the most perfect beach on the east of Sandray.
MINKE and MINK
Time to head back to the mainland. A drizzly start but flat calm as we motored away from Barra. Perfect for wildlife spotting. Three Minke whales, two Basking Sharks, loads of porpoises and seabirds including shearwaters, skuas and storm petrels.
The sun emerged as we approached Ardnamurchan point and headed for the marina at the crazily quaint town of Tobermory.And our first trees for two weeks.
Rather surprised to see a Mink hunting on the shore during my early morning paddle the next day.Evil little beasts, they are very bold and approach the kayak before getting in a panic and tearing off into the rocks when they realise I am not edible.
Last part of adventure coming soon…part 5 ‘Final Fling’