Chapter 12 – East Coast of Scotland
Our lives are so full of clutter – it is difficult to stay focussed on what we are trying to achieve. Being out on the water gives you the opportunity to remind yourself of what life is all about; what really matters, and for me that has been the love and friendship of fellow human beings and the need to protect the planet for future generations.
So I was across the Pentland Firth, another significant hurdle overcome but I still had a way to go before I could get dry and warm. I had arranged to meet Linda at Keiss, eight miles down the east coast of the Scottish mainland. There was no swell to speak of so I was able to paddle tight to the cliffs around Duncansby Head, passing the remarkable Stacks of Duncansby and numerous geos (narrow clefts in the cliffs) that even a kayaker would struggle to fit through that led to ‘secret’ pebble beaches. The mist descended once more as dusk approached and the last hour was fairly grim, the sandy shore of Freswick Bay barely visible as I took the direct line. As I felt my way, almost blind, along the rocky shore around Brough Head the sinister silhouette of a ruined castle perched vulture-like on the low cliff suddenly appeared and then disappeared as quickly. I was very glad to see the neon orange glow of two streetlights that indicated I had arrived at the tiny harbour of Keiss and I was equally glad to see Linda had made it safely and had not been carried off by some evil dracula-like being from the ruined castle. She had managed to find the only patch of grass to pitch the tent on and dinner was waiting for me. This was going to work out just fine having Linda around!
The haar had made everything cold and damp during the night and visibility was just a few miles. I could just make out Noss Head across Sinclair’s Bay as I headed out of the harbour having managed to launch from the treacherously slippery slipway at Keiss without mishap. I had the flood tide with me and I was soon approaching another castle on the southern side of the bay but had little time to admire its stark beauty as the tide swept me past the lighthouse on the headland. A few big dipper waves got the adrenalin going and I tried to use my experience in down-river racing to maintain my speed by staying in the flow but avoiding the biggest waves. The flood tide swept me southwards past Wick and the haar was burnt back leaving the coastal fringe in bright sunshine. As the haar disappeared so a south easterly breeze arrived that was to plague me once more. If I never have to paddle the twelve miles from Wick to Lybster again it will be too soon. It is a perfectly nice stretch of coast, with some fine cliffs and lots of birdlife, but for some reason; perhaps the fact that there is absolutely nowhere to get out, or perhaps it is the horrible back wash from the cliffs, for me it ranks amongst the most tiresome stretches of coastline I have ever had the displeasure to paddle along. It just seems to go on for ever and the small white lighthouse on the end of the stone pier of Lybster harbour was such a lovely welcome sight. It was high tide and the local boys were making the most of the sunshine, leaping off the harbour walls into the cold North Sea. They were suitably impressed by my kayak having seen me on the telly and bombarded me with questions. I let the first one who asked have a quick go and the others laughed at his expense as he tried to work out which was reverse gear in manoeuvring his way around the harbour. The ‘Lybster Boys’ were all very polite, full of enthusiasm and not at all mischievous and I promised to say hello to them next time I was interviewed.
It was already one o’clock but I had another eight miles to paddle to where Linda was waiting for me at Dunbeath. More bounce, more wind from the south east and by the time I arrived in the Harbour at Dunbeath I was shattered. I snapped at Linda completely unnecessarily for not waiting for me at Lybster. I can be so ungrateful sometimes. She had lunch waiting for me and I felt suitably apologetic as I wolfed down the fresh food and cake.
Even though I paddled this section of the East Coast of Scotland during our Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition, I could not remember the coastline to Helmsdale at all. I seem to recall hanging onto Ian’s wash for all I was worth and taking little notice of the scenery. I was pleasantly surprised to find a series of dramatic headlands with stacks and arches and high cliffs well populated with kittiwakes and gulls, and evidence that the guillemots and razorbills had recently departed, hopefully after breeding successfully. Dunbeath to Helmsdale would make a nice leisurely day paddle with lots of caves and nooks and crannies to explore, although it would be best done with little swell as the beaches are rather stony.
Helmsdale is a pretty place, like most of the harbours along the north east coast of Scotland it owes its existence to the herring boom of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and now has a perfectly adequate little marina which is where I landed, seeking permission from a chap in the Harbour Office to pitch our tent on some Council-owned land. It was a pleasant evening completely destroyed by the midges who overwhelmed us as the breeze died away to nothing. Linda vowed (not for the last time) that next time she would be in a camper van and I tried to persuade her of the benefits of a yacht – there being no midges out on the water.
The haar is never too far away but the next day visibility was good enough to allow me to take on the two long crossings, firstly of Dornoch Firth to Tarbert Ness and then of the Moray Firth to Burghead. I have to say it was a fairly unremarkable day, almost boring as I paddled for several hours with very little to look at apart from the front of my kayak. I was entertained by three RAF Phantom fighter jets that repeatedly did high speed circuits of the Firths, whilst Linda enjoyed a very different kind of flight display when she visited Dunrobin Castle and saw an excellent falconry demonstration. Whilst the visibility was not brilliant at least the south easterly wind that kept threatening to build remained manageable and as I completed the last few miles of the crossing to the Moray coast it died away completely leaving me cutting through the silky waters of the Firth into the late afternoon and evening. Linda had been waiting for me at Burghead but I somehow missed her and kept heading east until I reached Hopeman where I found a campsite right on the beach. The dark clouds that had been building all day over the land finally began to release their heavy load but between the showers we managed to eat a Chinese takeaway sat outside, despite the unwelcome attentions of the midges who seemed to be loving the warm, still conditions.
The sound of heavy rain first thing in the morning is just about the worst sound when you are camping. It was just the excuse I needed and I declared a rest day. Having got soaked walking the dog, we took a drive to Lossiemouth and then to Elgin but neither were inspiring in the miserable weather. Linda showed that she too can be hard-core and went for a run with Handel in the downpour whilst I sat and did more typing. The rain relented by evening but was replaced by the midges!
The next day was once again grey and overcast but the rain held off as I headed east down the Moray coast and as I passed Lossiemouth the sun came out making the harbour town seem much more attractive from the sea that it had done from the land. The long sweep of SpeyBay seemed to extend to infinity and it took an age for me to reach the river mouth where the tea-colored fresh water stained the otherwise clear seawater.
I was tired and hungry by the time I reached the picturesque harbour of Findochty where again Linda was waiting with all sorts of fresh goodies. My body fat was slowly recovering its former glory! The warm sunshine made it even more difficult to motivate myself to get back in the boat but I had a job to do and that was the way I was approaching it now. I knew that for the most part the real adventure paddling was done and this was now a just trial of endurance and persistence and Linda and I treated it like a race.
Having no prior knowledge of this coast it was difficult to pick a suitable place to stop in advance and with Linda scouting ahead it was proving difficult to co-ordinate. I had suggested Gardenstown but when Linda got there she found a rocky shore and very few places to camp. Unable to contact me she stayed put and by the time I arrived after a very long day, totally exhausted I was faced with a 100m carry across very slippery seaweed covered rocks to place the kayak above the high water mark. A peculiar village clinging to the steep hillside, with a small but very quaint harbour and some delightful cottages it seemed little changed from the heyday of the herring boom although the electric hum of the state of the art sewerage plant next to where we were camped suggested some recent investment.
Yet another wet and windy morning greeted us the following day. I tried to sound upbeat when interviewed for BBC Radio Cornwall but I am not sure if I was convincing. My main concern was for Linda, I would be getting wet anyway but it was not much fun for her having to drive through the rain just to be somewhere suitable so that I could be fed and watered. After a tricky launch across the rocks I headed east again, eager to get to the corner of Rattary Head where I would once again be heading south. I was amazed to find a gannet colony on the high cliffs of Troup Head, one of only a handful to be found on the British mainland. The haar came and went throughout the day and the south easterly breeze kept the temperature cool and my speed frustratingly slow. I passed the first of the big fishing ports of Fraserburgh with several huge pelagic trawlers waiting for better times. It was apparent for the first time on my journey down the east coast how the sea on this side of Britain is regarded more as a place of work and not recreation and rubbish from the industrial estate littered the forgotten shore.
As I paddled around the entrance to the harbour and into Fraserburgh Bay I immediately saw the familiar sight of Linda and Handel running along the sand towards me. She had parked the car at the other end of the beach and we enjoyed some lunch despite the rather scruffy surroundings of fishermen’s debris.
Next was the village of Inverallochy whose uniform houses had their backs turned on the cold North Sea, the shoreline of which they treated as a rubbish dump for garden waste. The haar closed in again as I approached Rattary Head. I had feared that conditions might worsen considerably as I turned the corner and headed south to Peterhead leaving no protection from the south easterly. In fact, as the fog enveloped me the wind died away and whilst I could see very little, I knew I was making good progress with the tide. Linda had managed to navigate her way to the beach at Rattary Head but when the lighthouse was swallowed up in the fog and visibility was reduced to less than 50metres she feared that she would be unable to find her way back to the car if she remained. As I passed within feet of the shore I could see the concrete base of the lighthouse a hundred metres or so offshore but the tower was obscured and it felt as if I was ‘paddling-by-braille’ as I kept the beach within touching distance to ensure I didn’t get lost in the murk. As I drew level with the gas terminal, a huge space age complex of steel spheres and towers from which flares of bright orange flame burnt fiercely, the haar lifted momentarily revealing the lighthouse off Rattary Head and golden sandy beach that stretched for as far as the eye could see.
The fog clagged in once more as I approached the port of Peterhead. I found it quite unnerving padding into the large commercial harbour unable to see more than 30metres. I knew Linda had found an excellent campsite by the marina but where was the marina? By sheer luck I paddled to the entrance to the marina avoiding the commercial shipping that was still moving about in the harbour despite the fog. The facilities on the Council owned site were first class but the ambience was ruined as we were watched closely by a group of rather unsavoury characters who congregated around the shower block just yards from our tent. Watching us was obviously a new spectator sport for this crowd who were regulars, up visiting friends and family at the nearby prison. We left them to it and headed into Peterhead for what is reputed to be the best fish and chips in the U.K. As a proud resident of Cornwall I have to say I still favored our local chippy in St Ives.
There was a bit of pressure on me the following day; I had to make Aberdeen by 5pm where I was led to believe there would be a bit of a welcoming committee. Ian Wilson had managed to obtain permission from the harbour authority for me to paddle into the harbour (normally a restricted area) and up to the lifeboat jetty. He was eager to welcome me to his adopted city and I didn’t want to be late. I kept texting him as I paddled south, only just able to tell where I was in the awful fog. It was dense all day and whilst I am told that I paddled along some really nice cliffs, I really couldn’t tell you much about them as it was all I could do to stay in contact with the breakline. I did see to dolphins in CrudenBay who seemed to be circling one of the many floating net contraptions that are a feature of this shore. They did not seem terribly interested in me and I soon lost them in the murk.
The day was slow and monotonous but the wind remained light and as it transpired I was going to be too early and had to slow up to ensure I arrived as directed at the entrance to the harbour. I played with the gentle surf breaking between the groynes on the beach and when I found the harbour wall I followed it out to the entrance to the harbour, where I sat listening to the electronic fog horn for ten minutes until a Harbour Authority launch suddenly appeared out of the gloom from the direction of the open sea. I was accosted by one of the crew who asked what I thought I was doing hanging about the entrance to the harbour. I explained I had permission to enter and once they had checked over the radio that this indeed was the case their attitude changed and they were all smiles and waves, requesting me to follow them in. So I had my first wash ride in over 3000 miles as I was escorted into the large commercial harbour busy with shipping servicing the oil industry. A small crowd waved from the pier but I felt obliged to keep following the Harbour Authority launch to our mutual destination; the jetty for the lifeboat. Several of the crew were there to welcome me including Roddy, the coxswain. Ian and Shelley were there, along with an old paddling pal from Truro, Mark Bragg and his girlfriend Suzanne and Richard Lang, a local paddler who had given me a fierce battle in the Hebridean Challenge a few years ago. It was a lovely reception and we spent a very enjoyable hour or so chatting with the lifeboat crew and listening to some of their stories.
Ian and Shelley took us back to their gorgeous house in the hills near Kintore where we planned to take a couple of days off to relax and catch up on washing, boat repairs and of course, the diary. It seemed to be becoming a tradition to go for a run on my rest day. Ian was keen to take us up one of the local hills, Clachan Ben, a ‘Corbette’ approached through some beautiful woodland. Although the low cloud kept the peak hidden it was hot, steamy work climbing to the summit. Ian was waiting for the rest of us at the top and despite my best efforts remained in front of me on the way home. Linda had been doing a lot of running whilst I had been away and really imressed me with her fitness.
I had become aware of some furtive text messages being sent and phone calls being made and all was revealed when we returned to Ian and Shelley’s house where Dominic Miles and his brother Ben were waiting having just driven up from London! Dom’s web design company “Icetea” was responsible for the excellent ‘Expeditionkayak’ website and Dom had invested a considerable amount of his time and effort into making it look great and run efficiently. He had asked Ben to come with him to basically find us wherever we were so that he could do some video filming for the website. They had expected to find us camping in the wilds on some remote Scottish coast not relaxing in the luxury of Ian and Shelley’s country retreat. But it meant for a very sociable evening and some very informal interviewing over dinner during which Ian, hilarious as always, came out with some real crackers!
I spent the next day editing and naming the latest photographs for the website and caught up on my diary. Of course it was hard to concentrate with a houseful of people so Ian and Linda went for another run! Ben interviewed me in a more structured fashion whilst Dom supervised the filming. I also made a start on the repairs to the hull of the C-Trek – nothing major – just where the laminate was wearing thin as a result of me dragging it on the sand or where I had clumsily scraped rock.
Roddy, the coxswain of the Aberdeen lifeboat had invited us to go down that evening to have a look around their Severn Class lifeboat. I think it’s fair to say we were all in awe of the boat and the girls were in awe of the men in oilskins and we spent a fascinating couple of hours with the crew; thanks guys!
To celebrate everyone being together and our second wedding anniversary the following day we all went out for a very nice meal at “The Square” in Aberdeen, thanks SO MUCH Dom!
A poor forecast was all the excuse I needed to take another rest day. I still had to finish the repairs to the hull and had made little progress with my diary. Linda and Ian went up another hill (walking this time much to Handel’s relief). Dom and Ben headed back down south and when Shelley got home from work (a strange concept for me) we had a gorgeous meal and viewed photos of their latest trip to Siberia looking for snow leopards. Whilst they didn’t see any leopards they did find Lynx puke and the faeces of other scarce creatures but let’s be honest, Ian would have been happy finding diddly squat as long as he had another hill to run up! Shelley and Ian were wonderful hosts and the extra day of rest had been just what I needed.
I couldn’t put it off any longer; it was time to get back on the water and begin the long haul south. Ian was on duty but Mark Bragg saw me off from the banks of the River Dee by the Aberdeen Boat Club. I kept to the south side of the harbour as instructed and headed out into some fairly lumpy conditions but with a light north easterly and a few hours of flood tide left I made rapid progress down the Aberdeenshire coast to Stonehaven where I met Linda in the cove below Dunnottar Castle.
It had started to rain heavily and Linda and Handel were already getting wet. By the time I reached the mouth of the North Esk River north of Montrose, Linda who had been waiting in the wind and rain for over an hour was completely drenched. It was a grim day on the land but I was going well on the water and kept pushing on, eating up the miles until I reached Arbroath where I pulled into the harbour, very pleased with the days efforts. By the time I was changed it had started to throw it down again and I had to rather rudely cut short a chat with Innes, a local paddler who had come to say hello and Linda and I scuttled off to the nearby restaurant to dry out and get some cheap but cheerful grub. As we were eating, Steve the coxswain of the Arbroath lifeboat came in to say hello and to offer to let us stay in the boat house. I could have hugged him as it was not a night to be under canvas. Indeed we were hearing reports of landslides, roads blocked and persons trapped at Dunkeld in Tayside just a few miles away and we gratefully accepted the hospitality of the lifeboat men who had come out especially on this foul night to meet us. It was very good of them and we had a very comfortable and dry night as a result.
The haar had been forecast to return as the wind dropped the following day and sure enough visibility was just a couple of hundred metres when I set out from Arbroath harbour, heading south for Fife Ness. Using my GPS to be sure I wasn’t paddling any further than necessary I paddled through the murk, keeping a sharp lookout for shipping entering the Firth of Tay. A couple of fishing boats startled me as they appeared from nowhere and it made me realise that I would have very little time to react if I did encounter any large ships moving as fast as they do. I only encountered one such vessel however and that was at anchor and going nowhere. As I crossed the shipping channel and headed out into the wide Firth the haar lifted and I was able to relax and get into a mile-churning rhythm. It was a long, rather boring crossing and I was not looking forward to the repeat performance that afternoon when I had another long crossing of the Firth of Forth to undertake. I cannot honestly tell you what I think about on such long crossings. I try all sorts of mind games to stop me thinking about how far it is and how much my bum hurts! I would love to tell you that I have some secret technique but the truth is I find it as hard as anyone else would; it’s just that I am daft enough to keep doing it!
There was a small tide race around Fife Ness and I was conscious that I was right under the noses of the Coastguard, whose Headquarters overlooks the race, so I tried to look competent. Linda was heading into Perth for the day so I had lunch on my own, except for a few folk who stopped to chat. I took a call from the local Lifeboat press officer who asked me to pop into Anstruther for a photo call. I had intended to head straight across to the Isle of May so it was a bit of a pain but had to be done. Having done my duty I had a short debate with myself as to whether the Isle of May is classed as inhabited as I believe there are only people living there during the summer months. When the island appeared through the gloom as I headed across the Firth of Forth I knew I would have to go out around it. Thrashing into the headwind, the C-Trek ploughing through the chop, the island’s vertical west facing cliffs slowly drew closer. The Isle of May is a small oasis of wilderness on the east coast. Its skerries are home to a large population of Atlantic grey seals and the cliffs and ledges provide nesting sites for thousands of sea birds. Many of them had already departed the nests for the open sea but I met many puffins on my approach. Guillemots and razorbills were conspicuously absent again which was troubling as I would have expected to see them at least in the vicinity of the island.
The stone built lighthouse looks more like a stately home and the island’s tiny natural harbour is approached through an impossibly tight gap in the menacingly sharp rocks. The temptation to land and explore was considerable but I knew Linda would be waiting for me on the opposite shore and time was already pressing. Leaving the island astern the sense of having briefly returned to the ocean wilds was increased when I saw a large minke whale surface just fifty metres or so in front of me. Its smooth shiny black body arched and its small dorsal fin cut through the air before the beast descended into the depths again. It was a brief encounter but it made my day. I thought I had seen the last of the big cetaceans on the west coast and it was good to see that the North Sea can still provide a home for these beautiful creatures.
I had seen photos of Bass Rock but they did not prepare me for the huge size of this bird fortress that dominates the south shore of the Firth of Forth. Advance parties of gannets had been sent out on reconnaissance missions and had spotted me sneaking into their waters. Soon I had a whole squadron circling overhead and as I drew closer to the rock which lays just a couple of miles off the shore I could see tens of thousands of these elegant birds like the icing on a gigantic Chelsea bun covering the top of the rock. The sky was swarming with them and it was a truly spectacular sight. Bass Rock is within reach of most competent paddlers and should be on everyone’s bucket list.
It was already late by the time I reached the shore east of Tantallon Castle. I rang Linda who had found the campsite near the lighthouse at Barns Ness but I still had a further eight miles or so to paddle before I arrived there. It was gone 8pm by the time I squeezed through the narrow entrance to Dunbar harbour where I rang the coastguard to inform them of my late finish but could only just make myself heard above the din produced by hundreds of kittiwakes roosting on the cliffs overlooking the harbour. When I finally arrived on the beach Linda had described, the neon glow from the open cast coal mine at the back of the beach threw an unnatural light over the huge metal structures that rip the heart out of ‘Mother Earth’. It’s okay because we fill the hole left with our rubbish then cover it up with soil and landscape it with a few bushes so ‘She’ won’t notice the damage.
Linda explained that the quickest way to the campsite was up a steep and very muddy track but she didn’t think our little Peugeot Partner would make it up. Oh ye of little faith! Okay it took two attempts and a fairly radical approach but it made it and avoided the necessity to unload and reload the kayak to negotiate the barrier across the entrance/exit of the car park.
More rain fell on the already sodden campsite through the night, making Linda’s job of packing up camp a grim task. She had already dropped me back down to the beach and I headed south east, past the power station and on towards St Abb’s Head. Purple heather clung to the slopes of Telegraph Hill above the seemingly delicate remains of FastCastle. The sea was lumpy and confused with a north easterly wind pushing a fairy large swell against the cliffs. As I approached St Abb’s Head I realised that even with the tide with me this was going to be a rather testing paddle and I regretted not wearing my lifejacket. As I passed beneath the lighthouse I had a mile or more of some of the most challenging conditions I had experienced on the whole journey with 3 metre swells piling in one after the other with short wavelengths and alarmingly steep faces.
The sun had finally come out though after days of grey and I was really enjoying the challenge with adrenalin keeping me alert to everything the North Sea threw at me. Past the deserted nesting cliffs the sea remained rough all the way to the entrance to St Abb’s harbour which was by no means obvious for a tourist like me. I did a double check but it really was approached between two reefs upon which the sea was pounding sending white spray exploding into the air. Taking a gulp of courage I went for it and surfed through the narrow entrance and into the tranquil waters of the picturesque and bustling harbour.
Linda was there with a feast for me and the press officer for the lifeboat station came over and said hello before rushing off to get his camera. It made a change to have lunch in warm sunshine and we sat and watched the going’s on in the harbour, including a group of divers who were preparing to embark on a boat dive. I enquired where they would be diving as it seemed too rough to be diving close inshore. The chap I spoke to didn’t seem to know where they were going, he was just pleased to have managed to find a skipper prepared to take him out. I was surprised and a little alarmed and when I mentioned my concerns to one of the members of the lifeboat crew he shook his head in resignation. He also runs a dive boat and had decided not take people out because of the rough conditions. The skipper now departing with a boat load of divers is apparently well known for pushing the limits of safety, motivated by hard cash. Of course it is each individual diver’s choice whether to go or stay ashore and all too often it is bravado that clouds one’s judgement. I hope they made it home safely.