Chapter 9 – West Coast of Scotland
“When paddling beneath a gannet colony
Wear a hat and don’t look up with your mouth open!”
Have I said before that I hate northerlies? I had chosen to go clockwise around the UK and Ireland in the belief that the prevailing south westerly wind would blow me up the west coast. I seemed to be dogged by cold northerlies and the following day Machrihanish Bay was a mess of windblown surf, not particularly big but it was being driven down from the Sound of Jura by a Force 6 and whilst I could possibly have made some headway, it would have been at the expense of a great deal of effort for very little gain.
Still tired after the crossing of the North Channel I didn’t fancy the crossing to Islay, which would be the first of my Hebridean island stepping stones as I worked my way out to the Western Isles. So far in my journey around the British Isles I had picked off titbits of islands; now I was about to have a belly full. I just hoped that I wasn’t about to bite off more than I could chew. I was already several days behind schedule thanks to my enforced lay off because of my back. At what point should I cut my losses, abandon the ultimate goal of including all the inhabited islands of the British Isles and revert to just completing the first solo circumnavigation of the mainland? The issue had begun to pray on my mind but when I discussed it with Linda on the phone she told me there was no rush for me to finish and whilst I was supposed to return to work on the first of October I had been told unofficially that there could be a little bit of flexibility in that. I texted Fiona Whitehead; she was still weatherbound with her paddling partner Tom at Culdaff Bay back in Donegal and she also urged me to be patient and stick with the main Challenge. So I relaxed in my tent, listening to the radio which I could only just hear above the roar of surf, the flapping of the flysheet and the rattle of heavy showers.
Having caught up with my diary I went for a walk in search of a shop to buy some treats. There was no shop in the one road village but there was inevitably a pub. Using the ‘solo kayaker’ angle I reckoned I could drink my way around the British Isles and not spend a penny! People always asked where I was from, often assuming for some reason I must be Australian (I think it must have been my weather-beaten tan) and offered to buy me a drink. It was great! Sandra, the landlady came from Cheshire, south of the border but she saw the pub for sale on the internet and thought it would be fun to own and run a pub on the Mull of Kintyre. She seems to have gone down well with the locals. I got chatting to one: Dave McVicar, a seasonal fisherman who, whilst rather intoxicated, was fascinating to talk to. He had spent most of his life in the Merchant Navy and had been twice around the world visiting such places as Changi, Singapore the same year I was born (1965) and South Georgia, somewhere that I am also very keen to visit. I had long had a dream to make the first circumnavigation of South Georgia by sea kayak [a feat now accomplished by the kiwi Adventure Philosophy team of Graham Charles, Marcus Waters and Mark Jones], ever since reading the incredible story of Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition and their 800mile journey in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia. It is one of the most remarkable stories of human endurance and leadership ever told and is a great source of inspiration to me. South Georgia itself is a fascinating island, not only steeped in history; Shackleton is buried there, it was a main whaling centre in the Southern hemisphere and the first place the Argentinians landed at the start of the Falklands War; its geography and wildlife are also spectacular. Dave told me how he was on the regular supply run from the Falklands to South Georgia and described how the whaling station at Grytviken had been left in immaculate order by the last of the whalers, sadly only to be trashed by bored servicemen stationed there during and after the war. Dave remarked how, as a Scotsman he would never forgive Maggie Thatcher who, during the war stated ‘England’ would never surrender the Falklands. He was one of many Scottish merchant seamen and armed forces personnel who played a very active part in defeating the Argentinians and returning sovereignty to the United Kingdom. Having travelled the world I asked him why he had returned to fish for lobster off the Mull? He waved an arm, indicating the view from the pub window; the wide sweep of MachrihanishBay and the rolling hills of Islay and the Paps of Jura beyond.
I remarked that the tide didn’t seem to rise and fall much and he confirmed that the difference between high and low tide was only about one and a half feet during neaps, despite the huge volume of water flowing past the Mull each flood and ebb. He told me of a permanent south going eddy in MachrihanishBay which is why, with a northerly wind, the bay is relatively calm but out in the north-going flood stream conditions would be much worse. It was worth knowing for my intended crossing of that very same water the next day. He also told me how the previous week he had been out in his lobster fishing boat and had got knocked down several times by a tornado-like heavy squall. He had been convinced he was going to die and this was in the same waters I was about to cross in a kayak!
Lying in my tent that evening looking out across the bay, traditional Gaelic music played on Argyll FM. By tuning to the local radio stations I was being treated to a musical tour of the west coast of the U.K. and Ireland. As I chatted to Linda on the phone two dolphins leapt five or six feet out of the water as they played in the surf.
The northerly persisted into the following morning but I convinced myself it had eased a notch or two and got underway once again by 9am. There were fewer whitecaps certainly but still enough to give me a face full of cold water every so often as I played chicken with the surf following the trend of the shore northwards towards the small island of Gigha which I intended to use as a stepping stone to cross to Islay. The warm, subtle green shades of Islay were like a siren’s call and unable to resist the temptation any longer I prematurely set out on the 14mile crossing from Glenacardoch Point towards Ardbeg. It was a tough crossing; the wind chose its moment to shift slightly more to the west so that for the last half of the crossing the bow of the C-Trek slammed into the short steep chop, causing the kayak to shudder and lose all its forward momentum. It was energy-sapping, gut wrenching work, waves breaking repeatedly onto my chest.
Readers of my web diary had begun to think that I was doing the world’s longest pub crawl by sea kayak and would have found it entirely appropriate that the first place I landed on Islay was at the Ardbeg Distillery. Islay produces some of the finest single malt whisky in Scotland and there are six distilleries on the island. I stopped briefly for a walk around – I hoped it tasted better than it smelt! The café was busy with tourists doing the whisky trail and I was dripping wet and starting to shiver so I got back in the warm cocoon of my kayak and headed off again, southwest out and around the small isle of Texa lying off Port Ellen. I wasn’t too sure if it was inhabited so thought I had better go around it just in case. The only ‘residents’ I saw were a couple of fellow sea kayakers whose boats were pulled up on a tiny secluded beach on the south western tip of the island. They had a fine looking campsite overlooking the Kintyre coast protected from the breeze by a rocky outcrop. I strained to see if there was anyone ‘at home’ but did not want to shatter their tranquility or gatecrash their solitude so I left them in peace but whoever it was, it was nice to have nearly made your acquaintance. Crossing the bay to Rubha na Baine was much harder than it should have been in the stiff breeze. A couple of gorgeous looking beaches looked very tempting but I had set my sights on rounding the Mull of Oa, its shining silver grey cliffs had been visible outside of the showers for several days now and whilst initially out of reach across the North Channel, I was at last going to put this landmark behind me. Wild Soay sheep looked at me curiously as I paddled beneath the bare rock outcrops and smooth boulder storm beaches, strewn with the carcasses of wrecked of ships. A tall pinnacle, visible for many miles acts a monument, honouring the lives of 300 Canadian soldiers who were drowned when the troop ship they were being transported in was sunk by a U-boat in the Second World War.
I had identified a likely campsite on my map. Little Killeyan is a cove protected by reefs and stacks, a natural amphitheatre of machair surround by high cliffs.
The only draw back was the lack of signal on my mobile phone which necessitated a mile long climb up the hillside so that I could get a couple of ‘bars’. Returning to my tent, pitched on a carpet of clover and buttercups the sense of isolation was complete. No modern technology to intrude on the natural landscape of sea, rock and meadow.
It was far from quiet though; the urgent high pitched “kleep” of the oystercatcher, the melodic “tu-lee” of the ringed plover, the harsh “owk” of a great blacked back gull combined with the calls of a hundred ewes and responding bleats from their lambs and a base track of crashing waves and grinding pebbles to produce a symphony of sound whose composer must have consumed to much Islay malt! It lulled me to sleep though without any other intoxicant than clean Hebridean sea air.
The Rhinns of Islay and the small isle of Orsay with its lighthouse lay across the bay. Thankfully the wind had died during the night and the sea barely murmured in the morning still. My shoulders and arms felt sore from previous day’s effort against the wind so I promised myself an early finish – I wanted to be off the water in time to listen to the football (England versus Croatia) on the radio. I soon warmed into it though and with a favourable tide made good progress across the bay and rode a small tide race up the west side of Orsay pausing briefly for a photo of the attractive white washed brick lighthouse. The northerly breeze had appeared again so I tucked inside the reefs protecting the quaint natural harbour of Portnahaven. As I approached the minor headland of Rubha na Faing I passed a concrete construction which I later found out is a wave generated power station. When it is working at full power it produces enough electricity for the whole peninsula. It was small, unobtrusive – it looked like a very steep slipway – and produces clean energy. Why on earth aren’t there hundreds, positioned all the way along the west and north coasts of the British Isles? We will have to build them one day, why wait until we have cut all the peat, drilled all the oil and natural gas and polluted the oceans with radioactivity before tapping into an energy source that is there for the taking at no significant cost to the environment? Apparently, the reason that this location was chosen (for what is still an experimental project) is because of the amount of tidal movement which in turn causes wave action. Surely it is not unique in that respect – I have paddled through numerous tide races and past many swell battered shores. There must be plenty of places where a small power station such as this is viable. After all, small is beautiful.
As I approached the narrow gap between the rocky point and an off-lying reef I was surprised to see a river of standing waves rushing from right to left. A powerful tidal eddy had formed and I had no choice but to paddle up through it if I was to make further progress north. A tongue of water dropped over a rock shelf producing a stopper wave that formed then disappeared as the low swell ran through it only to reform as the swell passed. Haystacks of white water collapsed as they fell over themselves then were slowly reborn. I estimated the speed of flow at about six knots – the same as the maximum speed of my kayak on flat water. I approached at speed, using the eddy line to get my angle of approach right. Then I was out into the torrent, going nowhere! Even worse I started drifting backwards! I tried to surf the wave train of standing waves and by linking them together I worked my way slowly upstream. With a lucky break a swell ran through and I used its energy to propel me into a cut in the rock where I could rest out of the current. Only by sprinting flat out had I made it through this tidal gate and avoided either a long wait for the tide to change or a long detour offshore and into the wind to follow the main flood tide. It was lunchtime so I headed into yet another beach competing to join the list of ‘The Most Beautiful Beaches of the World’. Sand the colour of ‘proper’ Cornish ice cream made with clotted cream, the beach was obviously a popular choice with the islanders too as an aggressive oystercatcher shrilled at me from his watchtower on the remains of a child’s abandoned sand fortress. After a quick bite to eat avoiding the large orange beak of the oystercatcher (nicknamed “Chopsticks) who had taken to dive-bombing the strange looking, Lycra clad creature that clearly posed a threat to his chicks nearby, I left with my tail between my legs, seen off by a ten inch high warrior.
Conditions were good and although I felt tired I was otherwise in good shape and before I knew it I had left the stunning translucent waters in the channel between Islay and Nave Island and started heading across the sound to the low ridges of Colonsay. Nestled at the bottom of Colonsay and attached by causeway of sand only exposed at low tide is the tiny island of Oronsay. I had spotted a crescent beach on the map near to Oronsay Farm which I made my goal for the day confident I would be in time to listen to the football on the radio.
I was treated to some spectacular views as I made my way across the six miles of deep blue water in bright sunshine. The Paps of Jura loomed large above the lighthouse of Rubha a Mhail at the northern tip of Islay. To the northeast the Ben More massif dominated the island of Mull which I would paddle past but never set foot on. Feeling guilty I disturbed a colony of common seals crowded together on a single rock in a maze of reefs. Grelag Geese, Common Shelduck and Eider Ducks were all in residence on ‘my’ beach and I caused a bit of a commotion as I arrived but they soon settled down again once they realised I posed no threat to their young. I found a patch of flower strewn grass protected from the breeze by the undulating sand dunes and decided it was just about warm enough for a quick ‘skinny dip’ and a wash.
Re-vitalised I walked up the track to the farm, strange noises like giant crickets coming from the hay meadows on either side. I was met by Val Peacock, dog bowls in hand and two handsome, attentive sheep dogs at her feet. Her warm smile and rosy cheeks suggest that island life very much agreed with her and together with her husband Mike who is the RSPB warden for the island, they run the farm for the wealthy American landlady who owns the island. Mike gave me some water and let me use the phone to ring the Coastguard and then invited me to stay for dinner. I was soon tucking into a delicious plate of fresh pasta, incomparable with the dehydrated stuff I would have been eating.
I thought that by staying on an island with a 14th Century Priory on it I would have been a perfect example of sobriety but Val forced me to drink Stella Artois looking out of the kitchen window at the most glorious view of Oronsay. I could have spent many hours talking to them about island life; they have made a career out of living on some of the most remote islands of the British Isles including Islay, Bardsey and Fetlar in the Shetlands. They were extremely erudite about much of the wildlife I had seen and I was able to fill in many of my knowledge gaps including the strange noises I had heard from the hay meadow which turned out to be Corncrakes. Val and Mike off out between 1am and 3am to count them on Colonsay when they would be at their most vocal. Ian, a volunteer on a three week working holiday arrived to watch the football so I got to watch the match on a colour TV aswell! Anyone can go to Oronsay as a volunteer worker for periods of a week – expect hard work and odd hours but you will find no more beautiful a place for your holidays or nicer people to spend them with. You can contact Mike through the RSPB: email@example.com
By the way Mike I counted four corncrakes on the way back to my tent.
I woke to a gloriously still; a warm mid-summer’s morning heralding a near perfect day kayaking in the Inner Hebrides. Away by 7.30am I found a signal on my mobile as I paddled off the coast of Colonsay and caught up on a few phone calls and text messages as I floated on a glassy sea surrounded by birdlife – another surreal experience – “Yes, no really, I am on the water at the moment about a mile offshore, no really!”
It was a perfect day for spotting wildlife with a smooth sea revealing the slightest movement. I was not to be disappointed; a harbour porpoise just off Colonsay then at last, mid-way between Colonsay and the Ross of Mull, a minke whale surfaced, sleek and fast, working the food-rich waters of the Sound, monitored from above by a squabble of seabirds; kittiwakes, shearwaters and gannets, all feeding off the whale’s leftovers.
The mountains and high cliffs of Mull provided a spectacular backdrop as I approached the Ross of Mull, a finger of land pointing towards the sacred island of Iona. Like a good pilgrim I was being made to work hard to find solace on its shores as the tide swept south through the Sound of Iona. When I finally made landfall on a seemingly deserted pebble beach I had a hasty lunch and retreated back to sea, the beach invaded by a horde of the 140,000 tourists that visit the island each year.
It was time to pull another rabbit out of the hat. I had worked out that if I were to paddle direct from Iona to Tiree instead of heading up the west coast of Mull, crossing to Coll then working back down south to Tiree, I would save myself at least a day. Tiree was just a pimple on the horizon. My map showed Tiree and its neighbour Coll extending northeast towards Ardnamurchan and the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rhum and I would be able to use them as a handrail to guide me north. From my low position in the kayak no land was visible other then the pimple which I guessed had to be on Tiree to the northwest, the familiar shape of Eigg far to the northeast and much closer, the unmistakeable shape of Bac Mor or the Dutchman’s Cap and the magnificent basalt columns of Staffa “Island of Pillars” which form the famous Fingal’s Cave. Where was the rest of Tiree and where was Coll? One of the Gaelic names for Tiree is Tir bair fo thuinn (land below the waves) and it is very appropriate because the island really struggles to keep its head above the waters of the Atlantic that threaten to engulf it on every high tide. It was only the zit-like white ‘golf ball’ of the satellite tracking antenna on Tiree that convinced me I was looking at the right island and like a lamb to the slaughter I struck out towards it, steadfast in my determination to make up for lost time. The thought that this was going to be a record day of well over 50miles was a good motivator and I paddled away like the Duracell rabbit on the TV advert, unstoppable. I strained my neck to see what land lay below the horizon and slowly but surely a chain of low hill tops emerged that became linked together by golden sandy shores. I was relieved to see that my map was not just a piece of fictitious artwork.
I was day dreaming mid channel when a huge colossus erupted from the surface of the sea about three hundred metres ahead of me. To estimate size with no other visual reference is difficult but this was a BIG whale. As if in slow motion its huge head and body rose out of the water until just its tail was left submerged. Rolling onto its side in mid air, exposing its white underbelly it crashed back into the sea in an explosion of spray. It then disappeared without trace leaving me futilely scanning the ocean surrounding me for the next display and some clue as to its species. I kept looking (especially behind me!) for a dorsal fin or a tail fluke but saw nothing to confirm the identity of the huge cetacean. Surely I would have see the knife-like dorsal fin of a killer whale; it could have been a really large minke but I they do’nt normally roll on their side when breaching like that. It could have been a sei or even a fin whale but both of these would not normally be seen inshore of the continental shelf. So it remains a mystery and as Linda pointed out when I told her about my experience, I am so privileged to have seen it whatever it was. There was no-one else within a ten mile radius, no-one else saw that ultimate expression of freedom, a graceful yet powerful force of nature in it purest form. I do have one question though. Do whales look up before they do that? I had visions of a tiny yellow kayak being launched into orbit by a ballistic whale!
Tiree finally revealed itself and I headed for the southwest corner of the island passing the workings at Hynish where stone for the Skerryvore lighthouse was shaped and prepared before being shipped out to the rock. I could clearly see the lighthouse which stands on An Sgeir Mhor (Large Skerry) 11miles southwest of Tiree. Between 1790 and 1840 over 30 ships were wrecked whilst making passage to or from the busy ports on the Clyde. Alan Stevenson, the 27year old son of the most famous Scottish lighthouse engineer Robert Louis Stevenson, chief engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board, was appointed in 1834 to build the Skerryvore Lighthouse. The skerry is an extension of the ridge of Lewisian gneiss that forms Coll and Tiree and is the oldest and hardest rock in the world, formed from the Earth’s crust. Alan Stevenson realised it would be impossible to dig foundations into the skerry and only a solid structure would withstand the ocean’s pounding. He designed a tower 138feet tall, the lowest 28feet being entirely solid. Locally quarried gneiss was used at first but found to be just too hard, taking too long to be cut and shaped. Pink granite from the Ross of Mull was brought in instead and 58,000 cubic feet of it; 4,300 blocks weighing 4,308 tons were precisely cut and shaped using wooden templates and set in place on a circular floor 42feet in diameter blasted out of the reef. 296 charges of dynamite were used on the reef to remove 2,000 tons of rock leaving a base “as smooth as a billiard table”.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Skerryvore lighthouse pre-dates Fastnet by nearly half a century and you can see the similarities in the design and construction processes. Conditions for the men on the rock must have been very hard. The first attempt at building a wooden tower to provide them with living quarters was washed away the following winter. A stronger 60foot tower was constructed but even so waves would wash over the top of the structure, water spurting through the seams in the doors and rough seas would prevent supplies reaching them for seven weeks at a time. Incredibly, no-one lost their life in the construction of the lighthouse which took five years to build and so precise had been the drawings and stone masonry that the final tower was just one inch taller than expected. I have often wondered what it must have been like to have been a lighthouse keeper and whether I could have coped with the isolation. One young keeper hung himself in a cave at Hynish rather than return to the gale lashed rock.
One such gale was imminent and as I completed the crossing and headed up Tiree’s west coast the sky darkened ominously to the west. I had watched the barometer on my Suunto Vector watch drop several millibar during the last hour alone and I knew I would need to find good shelter for the night. I felt the full force of the increasing north westerly blown across the Sea of the Hebrides from the direction of the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides, the southern most of which I could see on the distant horizon silhouetted by the setting sun.
Barra Head, Mingulay, Sandray and Vatersay, their names are like music to my ears, conjuring up images of mountains rising sheer from the Atlantic decorated by pearl white beaches and bathed in sunshine. I speculated as to whether I could paddle to them direct from Tiree. Maybe in perfect conditions but my plan was to head up to Skye and make the much shorter crossing to South Uist before working my south. After a 12 and a half hour day I finally came ashore, tired but satisfied and made camp in the sand dunes overlooking Balephetrish Bay and watched the setting sun turn the approaching storm clouds a fiery red, showering the mountains of Barra with sparks of crimson and orange, heating the clouds until they glowed white hot before slowly and stubbornly, smouldering beneath a distant wave of cool Atlantic.
Heavy rain and a gusty wind meant I slept little during the night. My ThermaRest sleeping mat had developed a slow leak and by morning I found myself lying unprotected on the cold tent floor. It had done me proud though, five years old and a veteran of several expeditions and I hoped it would be possible to repair it. I felt very tired, conditions were horrible at sea and I opted for a rest day. Fancying a change of diet I dressed for winter in my wet weather gear and walked across the island to the only significant village of Scarinish and the only shop. Sticking out my thumb, the second car that passed on the quiet single track road stopped and I gratefully accepted a lift as the rain continued lashing down. Scarinish is just a collection of cottages around a small bay that was once the main harbour for the island. The village has the island’s post office, bank and Co-Operative store. The Co-Op philosophy takes on a much greater significance in these remote, island communities, and was well stocked with local produce as well as familiar global brands. I purchased lots of goodies but with my eyes bigger than my belly I was later to regret the ‘Breakfast Platter’ of sausages, hamburgers and black pudding!
Next to the Co-Op is the island’s heritage centre and I spent several hours sheltering from the rain, using the free broadband internet service and reading up about the island. The population peaked in the early nineteenth century around 4,500 when kelp (known locally as ‘brown gold’) was harvested and the new wonder crop, the potato, was flourishing in the seaweed enriched, sandy soils of Tiree. Then came the potato blight and the harvest failed in 1846. Kelp became almost worthless and the resulting exodus saw families emigrate to the New World: Canada, Australia and Argentina in particular and whilst there are now many thousands of people in these countries who can trace their roots back to the island, the actual resident population has steadily declined and now only 702 people live on Tiree and over a quarter of the population are over 65.
The island has more recently become a ‘Mecca’ for windsurfers. Strong winds sweep in unrestricted from the Atlantic and fine beaches point in every direction of the compass to produce good conditions for wave sailing all year round. The climate of Tiree is special too, rather ironically known as the sunniest place in the British Isles! Atlantic depressions sweep across Tiree and dump their rainfall on the high mountains of Mull leaving Tiree bathed in the warm Gulf Stream. Frosts are rare and the lowest ever recorded temperature is just minus seven degrees centigrade. If you are wondering where you have heard the name Tiree before, it is the first coastal weather station to feature in the Shipping Forecast on the BBC.
The following morning I didn’t need to look outside; the flap of the tent told me that the wind remained the same – damned northerlies! As I listened to the 0535 forecast rain struck the flysheet like machinegun fire. Force 6 north westerly with the possibility of a slow decrease in wind strength during the day. I nestled back into my sleeping bag – I would take a look again later. I dozed for a few hours and awoke to a weak sun trying to penetrate through the grey gloom. Okay, enough feeling sorry for myself, time to get moving. My good friends Ian Wilson and Shelley Farrar were currently driving 5hours across Scotland (in atrocious conditions) to come and see me so the least I could do was make a bit of an effort. The plan was to meet them at SannaBay on Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of the British mainland. Ian and I had been there together before, during the ‘Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition’ a 500 mile circumnavigation of northern Scotland.
So it was rather appropriate that we should be meeting up again at this beautiful location having not seen each other since finishing second in the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race together over a year previous. But first I had to cross from Tiree to Coll and then traverse the west coast of Coll before making the crossing back to the mainland. A distance of just thirty miles it should have been perfectly possible in a day but the windy conditions meant I had my work cut out to make any progress at all. At least the sun came out by the time I got on the water. It’s funny how a bit of sunshine puts a different complexion on things and initially I rather enjoyed battling the wind waves around the last bit of Tiree coast pausing momentarily to let the ‘The Clansman’ ferry operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, power its way up the channel between Tiree and Coll. The tide was pouring south through the channel between Tiree and the small island of Gunna that obstructs the channel. I had little choice but to head inside of Gunna and I crossed the bows of a fishing boat which unlike the large ferry was making hard work of it, its high bow pushing aside the oncoming waves in a repeated burst of white. We exchanged waves and I angled the C-Trek into the eddy beneath Gunna. The difficulty of the challenge I have set myself was underlined as I glided into the calm waters in the shelter of the island. By paddling seawards of every inhabited island I was always in the zone of confrontation, where wave and rock clashed and where the fetch of the wind was the width of an ocean. Had I been paddling up the east side of Coll I would have had a very pleasant day indeed. As it was I had to fight all the way.
I had assumed that Gunna was uninhabited but as I floated on tranquil waters past exquisite little beaches trying not to disturb the numerous seals asleep on the rocks I saw a house that someone with no consideration for circumnavigating canoeists had decided to build on the wee island. Of traditional design, it had thick whitewashed stone walls, tiny deep set windows and a low profile curved black tar roof. One concession to modern living design were a set of Velux windows in the roof several of which were ajar suggesting someone was in residence. A gorgeous house in a stunning location on a gem of an island and to rub it in a brand new launch with a couple of powerful outboard engines on the stern sat moored in the small creek that led to the house. So I had to do a U-turn and paddle back out around the outside of the island, back against the wind and tide. As I hugged the shore to keep out of the worst of the flow I accidentally disturbed a nursery of Greylag geese, the parents sending panic through their offspring as they half flew, half paddled out through the breaking waves. I felt awful as one little gosling, much smaller and weaker than the rest, got separated from the main group. Black-backed gulls hovered expectantly overhead as the drama unfolded and I just hope they managed to regroup before the little one got snatched away. There is so much wildlife in these islands it is impossible to avoid it all but it didn’t stop me feeling terribly guilty.
As I crossed the narrow Gunna Sound to Coll I noticed the change in the colour of sand from Tiree where the sand is vanilla white to the golden sands of Coll. And that is not the only difference; Tiree is relatively populated, with crofts and cottages overlooking most of the beaches. Coll on the other hand seemed deserted, and I had paddled half the length of Coll before I saw any sign of habitation. The beaches are less frequent than Tiree but are even more beautiful and pristine, free from human interference. Unfortunately I was unable to really enjoy the scenery as the wind swell was increasing in size and bouncing of the many rocky headlands that separate the beaches. The six foot waves had no real power in them but they were steep and broke unpredictably on hidden reefs. I was determined to reach the northern tip of Coll but it was becoming a trial of endurance and nerve as I battled to make any headway; paddling and bracing, bracing and paddling, side-on to the breaking waves. For five hours I slogged away, covering a distance that would have taken me just a couple of hours in calm conditions. Finally I had done enough and I slid gratefully onto soft shell sand in another idyllic bay and pitched my tent on soft turf just feet from the high water mark.
I had no signal on my mobile, no water and worst of all no radio reception and it was the quarter final between England and Portugal. I went for a walk to find a house. There were several rather dilapidated, uninhabited chalets dotted about amongst the rock outcrops each one on a plot with a stunning view.
I eventually found a traditional cottage being renovated by an Englishman who was in the process of trying to find work on Coll so he could live there permanently (easier said than done by all accounts).
By standing on a rock on top of a hill I found a signal and made the necessary calls whilst looking over a panorama of undulating rock, peat bog and the odd patch of turf and began to understand why any form of agriculture other than sheep farming didn’t really have a chance on Coll. Still no reception on my pocket radio I hurried my dinner then hiked up to a Trig point, denoting the highest point on the island which happened to overlook the stretch of water across to the Ardnamurchan peninsula which I was due to cross tomorrow. I followed England’s demise despite a frustratingly crackly reception but the beautiful sunset rather put the sporting tragedy in context.
The wind had gone! A glorious morning saw my spirits soar. I was afloat by 7.30am and cutting my way through the reefs surrounding Eilean Mor off the eastern tip of Coll, saying “Good morning!” to the families of seals living there. I texted Ian with my ETA for Ardnamurchan; they had stayed in a hotel that night – Shelley was recovering from a major operation and they had both been feeling a bit rough after being given a cocktail of vaccinations in preparation for joining an expedition to look for snow leopards in Outer Mongolia – as you do! I had plenty of time so enjoyed a leisurely cruise through waters teeming with life including porpoise, millions of jelly fish and hundreds of birds including Great Skua.
With fabulous views of the Small Isles I felt I should really be heading towards them but I was looking forward to seeing Ian and Shelley and catching up on what has been going on in their lives. Beyond the Small Isles the ‘exact and serrated blue ramparts’ of the Cuillin Mountains of Skye looked enchanting, perfectly described by the distinguished gaelic poet Sorley MacLean:
A company of mountains, an upthrust of mountains
A great garth of growing mountains
A concourse of summits, of knolls, of hills
Coming on with a fearsome roaring
Within a couple of hours I was passing beneath the benign gaze of Ardnamurchan lighthouse and into SannaBay, for me one of the most beautiful places on the west coast. The rugged peninsular of Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on the British mainland has steadfastly refused to be tamed by modern man. Its rolling moorland hills and secluded lochans are a haven for wildlife including red deer, sea otters and golden eagles.
Once ashore it was a rare chance to lay my kit out to dry in the warm sun and relax, writing my diary until jumped by Ian who had had crept up unseen by me despite the yellow Inuk sea kayak on his big red van. Shelley looked a little fragile but otherwise gorgeous as usual and Ian, well the years go by but he doesn’t change a bit.
We went for a short but very enjoyable paddle back out to the lighthouse; an opportunity for me to have some pictures taken by Ian since I had got so very few of me on the water up to this point in the journey.
Ian knew I would have loved to have had his company for the whole expedition but it wouldn’t have been solo then would it? Afterwards Ian and Shelley laid on an extravagant barbeque. Sporting his Crocodile Dundee hat Ian was keen to show me his latest acquisition – a fold out miniature table and we were in stitches as we watched him put the thing together in a way only ‘Epic’ can, dropping a key piece of the jigsaw puzzle in the sand several times before he finally produced the masterpiece, soon to be the envy of every camper. It was wonderful to see them and good to see them so totally in love and looking forward to the future.
After the hottest day of the year and with conditions so perfect on the water I knew I should at least try and make the crossing to Rhum that evening – I hoped it would be beautiful camping out there. It was hard to drag myself back into the boat but needs must and after more photos and hugs I headed out into a splendid Hebridean evening after the hottest day of the year so far, mountains and islands everywhere I looked.
The lyric of Robert Stevenson’s ‘The Skye Boat Song’ came to me as my eighteen and a half foot sea kayak bounced on over the waves:
Mull was astern,
Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow
Well not quite but it was close enough. Rhum has always held a certain magic, a sense of mystery for me and I had yet to land on her shores. Passing west of Muck, the mighty basalt stump of An Sgurr dominated the neighbouring island of Eigg. Like the upturned prow of some ancient warship it must have made an excellent fortress for the Picts in the early years of the first millennium, guarding one of the main sea paths of the Celtic world. The shelter created by this rock wall has created a sub-tropical microclimate where the island’s flora, including rare ferns and palm trees flourish.
During the crossing of the Sound of Rhum the wind picked up from a gentle breeze from the north to a stiff breeze from the south east. I knew that a south easterly gale was forecasted but there was no suggestion from the sky that it was imminent. By the time I had paddled beneath the high peak of Askival 2664 ft above, the wind was already gusting to F5 making it difficult to steer as it tried to force the C-Trek to head upwind.
I had a campsite in mind; hoping to find a beach where the deep glacial valley of Glen Harris met the sea. It hoped it would be protected from a gale by the surrounding peaks and as the sun sank into the cleavage of the island of Canna to the northwest I stepped ashore onto my ‘magical isle’. The tent was up and I was in my sleeping bag before darkness fell. In fact, with a clear sky and bright half moon I am not sure if it ever got completely dark and only a handful of the brightest stars were visible.
I was awoken at 4am by some fierce gusts that shook the tent violently. So much for the mountains shielding the valley from the gale! Indeed the wind was swirling around the flanks of Rhum and blasting into the glen and my tent was right in the firing line. I should have moved it to a more sheltered spot but apathy ruled and I went back to sleep. I woke again for the Shipping Forecast – F8, SE. I looked out to see, it didn’t look too bad. Then a gust of wind roared like a freight train down the side of Ruinsival and ripped at the surface of the bay. Spray torn spume spiralled out to sea and I knew I would be going nowhere. I wanted to let people know I was okay and off the water so I took a walk up the slopes of the mountain on the north side of the bay hoping to get a signal or reception on my VHF. Nothing! The wind was knocking me off my feet so I didn’t fancy the six mile mountain track to the other side of the island and the only real habitation at Kinloch. Torrential rain convinced me that was a bad idea and I went back to bed. As I lay in my tent, handwriting my diary as my laptop had again run out of juice despite only re-charging it yesterday, the rain lashed the flysheet and several times the wind flattened the single-poled tent convincing me that I should move it as soon as the rain stopped. Suddenly “SNAP!” The pole snapped in the middle and the tent collapsed around me. Great! All my kit was getting soaked, including my treasured and expensive laptop.
“Come on Morley, you are supposed to be good in a crisis!” I shouted encouragement to myself as I worked as quickly and efficiently as I could, trying to prioritise items in order of importance as the rain did its best to penetrate everything. In the middle of this mayhem a large military style helicopter flew over. Oh double great! Now they have sent a helicopter to come and find me! I tried to look as if everything was fine, resisting the temptation to wave in case they thought that was a signal that I needed help. Thankfully it flew off right over the ridge of mountains above me, into the clouds and into the teeth of the gale. It was serious weather to be flying around in!
During my walk earlier I had investigated the only cottage in the glen, which had a sign on the front door, “Goat Project HQ (Not a bothy)”. Well sorry but needs must and having established that the front door was not locked I sought refuge from the storm. I know, technically I was trespassing but I thought in the circumstances they wouldn’t mind and I would leave it as I found it. From the signs on the bedroom doors I think the inhabitants were female and called Lesley and Roz and they had done their best to make the place seem homely. With no electric and no telephone I still had no way of contacting the outside world but at least I was dry and able to repair my tent pole using a bit of wire, a tent peg, some string to lash it and good old ‘Gaffa’ tape!
As I wrote my diary rain rattled the window pains and the wind rushed noisily through the gaps in the front door and whistled and howled as it tore at the very foundations of the cottage. But I guessed that the old building had seen a few storms, probably many much worse than the one battering the island that summer’s day and I was content in the knowledge that I could relax in the dry and let the storm blow itself out. I had tied the kayak to a rock and a wooden pallet so that it would not blow away amd I just hoped that the swell didn’t increase too much otherwise getting off the beach would be a problem.
Outside, as afternoon became evening the wind slowly abated and I took the opportunity to photograph some of the locals; herds of highland cattle with shaggy coats blowing in the wind and wild ponies with gracefully flowing manes, elusive red deer stags with prized antlers and a motley collection of goats.
The very impressive Bullough Mausoleum stands adjacent to the cottage overlooking the bay, the last resting place of George Bullough, the former owner of the island until 1957 when he sold it to the Nature Conservancy Council for £26,000. The juxtaposition of the mausoleum with the cottage, the animals and the mountains, in the twilight of a moody sunset was quite remarkable but I am not sure I managed to capture it successfully with my camera.
There was what I assumed to be a guests bed in the sitting room of the cottage so I made myself comfortable feeling a little bit like Goldilocks! I made sure I left a note to say ‘thank you’ and some chocolate for the residents upon their return.
Summer gales rarely last longer than twelve hours and so it proved on this occasion. The sea was by no means calm and the wind was still gusty but it had veered to the southwest by the following morning and there was just a three foot wave running onto the beach. I was as keen to leave Rhum’s shore as I had been to arrive and by 7.00am I was afloat and heading north beneath towering cliffs of shattered rock heading for Canna, the last island in my tour of the Small Isles. I kept a sharp look-out for white-tailed sea eagles as these magnificent birds had been successfully introduced to Rum from Norway in the 1970’s but I was unlucky. It was a good reason to go back to Rum whose mystery and uncanny charm had only increased during my brief stay.
I didn’t know much about Canna and as I emerged from the mist and low cloud hugging the mountains of Rhum like a shroud I was surprised to see a spectacular barricade of cliffs at the west end of Canna that would rival any for their grandeur. Only a short distance from Rhum, it is remarkably different with columns of black basalt and reefs extending some distance from the foot of the five hundred foot cliffs. A deep ocean swell the like of which I hadn’t experienced since the west coast of Ireland thundered against the rocks and I had to watch my step as set waves suddenly reared over reefs hidden beneath the water sending walls of white water crashing against the foot of the cliffs. To have been caught by one would have meant certain disaster but there is something about the lure of breaking waves that entices me in, closer than I need to be as if intoxicated by the potential for doom. I was eager to get around the outside of Canna and into the harbour where I hoped I would find some habitation and a telephone. I had not spoken to anyone for over 36 hours and just wanted to make sure that the Coastguard and Linda knew that I was safe and well. I have never been so pleased to see a traditional red telephone box stood next to a wooden shack that purports to be the island’s post office which is open just one day a week. I rang the Coastguard who had wondered where I had got to and then spoke to Linda. No, she hadn’t been the least bit worried! At least not until I told her about the storm and the damage to the tent and I think she could tell from the emotion in my voice that it had been quite an experience. I had been thinking about how I might get the poles replaced and gave her instructions to pass onto her father Clive, asking him to go into the outdoor equipment shop Taunton Leisure in Exeter and request that a new set of poles be sent to Stornaway Lifeboat Station, Isle of Lewis. Nick, the manager at Taunton Leisure had given me a 20% discount on equipment for the expedition and when Clive subsequently saw him he agreed to supply and deliver the poles free of charge – awesome service – thanks Nick!
I had a long paddle planned for the rest of the day; up the west coast of Skye around the Duirinish peninsula to Milovaig. From there, weather permitting, it should be an easy crossing to South Uist in the Westren Isles the following day. The magnificent Cuillin Mountains of Skye were obscured by cloud. The long and difficult traverse of the Cuillin ridge remains top of my list of mountaineering challenges still to do. I was lucky to have seen the saw toothed ridge from Coll because it was now impossible to see anything other than sheer wall of sea cliffs with the occasional break indicating a deep sea loch lost in the mist. The tide was running hard to the north so I made excellent progress, running with the south westerly breeze. I saw another brief glimpse of a minke whale about a mile from Canna. Storm Petrels flitted about the swells in front of me searching the water’s surface for titbits. As soon as the Duirinish peninsula appeared out of the mist I turned north and the sky cleared miraculously providing me with wonderful views of MacCleod’s Table and enormous, perfectly sheer cliffs that continued north past Neist lighthouse in a formidable and impenetrable line. With a large powerful swell pounding the reefs there was no possibility of a landing until I reached Loch Pooltiel overlooked by the small village of Milovaig.
The tide turned against me before I reached the lighthouse but by hugging the cliffs and taking on the clapotis I was able to paddle against the flow and eventually, six hours after leaving Canna I landed at Meanish Pier, tired but pleased with the day’s efforts. At the pier I met Derek Martin, originally from ‘down south’ with a strong London accent he was a fellow paddler who had set out to paddle around Great Britain but ended up falling in love with Milovaig and got no further. Made redundant from British Gas he has made a life for himself on Skye, doing a bit of fishing and a bit of central heating engineering and a lot of socialising with the locals who still call him “The Mad Canoeist”. He told me how he had paddled much of the west coast and clearly enjoyed talking about himself and his paddling ‘career’ which didn’t start until he was thirty eight. I was happy to listen to his stories and look at his photos, eating a fresh scallop stir fry that would have cost at least ‘a tenner’ back home in St Ives. As I sat listening and drinking his beer, I couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t ask me once about what I was doing or where I was from; perhaps I was a painful reminder of a challenge he had started but failed to complete. I just hope I don’t suffer the same fate. We were joined by a local and I listened as they reminisced about wild and impromptu celidhs held in the store sheds down on the pier. One chap had been the last lighthouse keeper at Niest lighthouse before it was automated some twenty odd years ago. He had also done two weeks relief on Skerryvore lighthouse and I was fascinated to hear about the specially made round furniture and how the solid granite structure still shook in a big swell. The lads headed off to have ‘one can at Roddy’s’. That sounded like the makings of a heavy session to me and I knew that if I was to have any chance of crossing the Little Minch to South Uist the following morning I would have to have to resist the temptation to join them. The long mid-summer day meant it was still light enough to see yet it had already gone 11pm by the time I settled to the sound of curlew down by the loch shore.
I was up with the midges, the still warm air encouraging the little beasties to dance in front of my eyes, bite my ears and nibble at my scalp. I moved fast and was packed and ready to go by 7.00am. Derek obviously had the constitution of accomplished drinker because he was awake in time to see me off. He was a different person that morning; rather less egotistic he even showed some interest in my journey, impressed perhaps with my single-mindedness and determination to finish what I had started. Whilst not always endearing myself to my hosts or people I met on the way, who may have thought that I was rather impolite in my haste to move on, I remained convinced that the only way I could complete the Challenge was by remaining totally focussed on the job in hand. I felt I owed it to Linda and all the people back home that had shown their support to keep moving whenever possible and perhaps Derek recognised his own shortfall in this respect. Perhaps the reason that I didn’t warm to Derek was because he reminded me very much of someone I know who has a similar retrospective outlook on life and I am quite the opposite, always wanting to look towards the future and to better things. After all a pessimist would never set out on a journey such as this would they?
I was pleased to be away and I prayed that I wouldn’t be forced to swallow my pride and have to return later that day. The forecast was marginal for the twenty mile crossing of the Little Minch with a Force 3 to 4 southwesterly increasing to Force 6 from the south later in the day. I would be heading south west to Rubha Rossel lighthose on South Uist beneath the twin peaks of Hecla and Beinn Mhor. There was plenty of safety cover though with a big NATO exercise going on in the Minch and ships and planes everywhere. I had decided on an early start, hoping to get across before the wind really picked up, with a south-going tide all morning which meant I could steer a little further west and take the edge off the head wind which would make all the difference. I felt strong despite the long paddle the previous day and soon had the gaunt cliffs of the Duirinish peninsula receding behind me.
My eyes were focused on the little white dot of the lighthouse that I could just see beneath the bulk of the highest mountain on South Uist. The long chain of mountains that form the spine of the Outer Hebrides marched southwards and northwards and I hoped it wouldn’t be too long before I would be looking at them from the other side, from the west coast. The sky over the Minch was clear although cloud was already bubbling up over the mountains of Skye and to the west beyond the islands Outer Hebrides I could see high cloud; the line of a front drifting slowly towards me. It became a race and I was again grateful for the years spent training and racing in kayaks which allowed me to set a pace that would see me across to Uist before the weather arrived. It was close but I made it before the wind shifted and cranked up a gear, and the sun disappeared behind a bank of dark cloud. I pulled into a cove for a comfort break and a bite to eat. As I casually scanned my eyes over the usual collection of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the exposed beach I did a double take –has that green bottle got a note in it? Sure enough, a small green glass bottle with a screw cap had a rolled up piece of paper in it. A message in a bottle! I had always dreamed of finding such a thing as a child whilst beach-combing. I could not undo the cap so regrettably had to smash the bottle to read the note:
“29 Sept 2002
My name is Conner Ewen. I am five years old and have just been fishing with my dad. No fish here today. Let me know when you found this by writing to me at….”
The handwriting was remarkably good for a five year old and I suspect that Conner’s dad had perhaps had a similar dream to me. It was a lovely welcome to South Uist and I sealed the note in a plastic bag and packed it safely in the kayak. Of course I later wrote to him asking him to email me which he did several weeks later once he had returned to the islands from his summer holiday.
It had started to rain and the wind had increased to a Force 6 southerly as forecasted. Having covered twenty miles in five hours it took me over three hours to do less than ten miles. I had hoped to reach civilisation in the form of Lochboisdale but I began losing the will to keep head banging into the wind. I passed Loch Eynort and was passing inside of StuleyIsland at the foot of Stulaval when I spotted a creek that looked just too perfect a campsite to pass by. I had managed to contact the Coastguard by radio just before coming ashore at Rubha Rossel so I had no need for a mobile signal. There was fresh water running off the mountain, I still had a can of Derek’s Stella Artois lager in my kayak – what more does a man need? It was perhaps the most remote place I had ever camped with no visible sign of human interference.
There was just me, a resident grey seal and perfect silence. I slept for the rest of the afternoon then sat on a rock eating my dinner, whistling tunes to the seal who sniffed and snorted his approval or otherwise. I had hoped to see the ever elusive sea otter but had to make do with a ghost-like short eared owl that flew silently over the mountain side until it got too close to the nest of a pair of peregrine falcons where upon an almighty row broke out. The ensuing aerial combat went on for several minutes before the owl flew off, less a few feathers. There was no doubt I had reached the Outer Hebrides, one of the few true wilderness areas left in the British Isles and I hope they remain this way forever.
I was awake by 4.30am. It was already light and the sun was just about to rise above a misty horizon. I wanted to catch the early tide south to Barra and beat the wind. I managed the former but sadly by the time I was afloat at 6.00am the wind was already in my face. I was soon crossing the entrance to Lochboisdale though and without so much as a second glance I was passing Eriskay and crossing the Sound of Barra.
This was my fourth visit to the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles and the seascape was reassuringly familiar. In 2000 I competed in the Western Isles Challenge, a five-day team adventure race which evolved into the Hebridean Challenge or ‘The Heb’. A unique event, teams of five race in a relay from one end of the island archipelago to the other using sea kayaks to paddle between the islands and a combination of running, cycling and mountain biking to traverse the rugged mountains and treacherous peat bogs. I had got to know most of the 13 inhabited islands fairly well and they remain one of my favourite places in the British Isles. The Heb was due to start the following week and I hoped to meet up with Steffi Sargent, the event organiser and Jon Brooke, the race director and a member of my team the pervious three years at the finishing party and celidih if I could get to Stornaway in time.
The wind had increased to a steady F4 which meant a slow hard slog, trying to gain what little shelter I could through the maze of islands until I reached the Barra shoreline. Even then I had to keep my head down and with eyes focused on the oncoming waves I continued to work hard until at last I paddled past Kisimul Castle and into the shelter of Castlebay where I had more supplies waiting for me at the lifeboat station and the prospect of a real bed and proper rest.
What ever the weather forecast I planned to take a day off and use it to catch up on my admin and typing my diary which I had hand-written for the previous week since the battery on my laptop had died. With the help of Martin, Second Coxswain of the Castlebay lifeboat who had been looking after the box of supplies for me, I found an excellent B&B with a picture window looking out across the bay towards the ‘Bishop’s Isles’. The only drawback was the lack of mobile phone signal but that proved to be a blessing in disguise and allowed me to get some uninterrupted rest.
Having spent the morning on my diary I walked into Castlebay for a late lunch and to use the post office. Castlebay is an odd place really; whilst the landscape is beautiful; the 383m summit of Heaval mountain overlooks a deep blue sea fringed by stunning beaches, the architecture of the town, certainly of the 20th century buildings is purely functional with no attempt made to blend them in with the magnificent scenery. A strange paradox, but I got the impression life was fairly stressful for the locals who rushed about in their cars on the dangerous single track road as if they were terribly late for something very important. Only slowing down for the speed bumps outside the school they would otherwise blatantly ignore the speed limit and I felt at more risk walking the mile or so into Castlebay from the B&B then I ever had on the water!
There is an old saying on the Western Isles that “When God made time he made plenty of it”. There should be a road sign with that on as you enter the village to remind folk of something that they seem to have forgotten. I guess that for visitors like me travelling through such remote communities, it would be easy to assume that the pace of life is slower than on the mainland. Maybe it was just that I had spent so long at sea that things like cars were alien to me. Wherever you are these days the demands of modern life and the stresses that go with it cause people to rush about and forget to take time to appreciate the beauty that surrounds them. I knew that when I did finish the journey I had embarked upon it would take me a little time to adjust back to normal life, a process that I was not looking forward to.
It was the 1st of July and after another wonderful night’s sleep at the B&B and hearty breakfast I caught the island bus into Castlebay with all my gear and headed for the lifeboat station. It took all morning to do my admin on the internet and pack the boat so I didn’t actually get on the water until gone 1pm. All morning the southwesterly wind had been increasing and it was now a solid Force 4. I overheard two fishermen discussing the size of the swell on the west coast of Barra on the VHF radio. Now it occurred to me that if local fishermen were saying the swell was big then that meant it probably was. Martin gave me some useful advice about a tidal anomaly on the exit from the Sound of Sandray that lead to the west coast and I had no idea at the time how valuable that nugget of knowledge was to prove to be!
Thanking Martin for his assistance I headed out of Castlebay, south towards Vatersay. Not strictly an island anymore as it is linked to Barra by a causeway it was accurately described by one of the guests at the B&B as looking like a jigsaw puzzle. It boasts some gorgeous beaches and dramatic views south over the Bishop’s Isles of Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray, the chain of uninhabited islands that extend further south to 190m high cliffs of Barra Head. Had conditions been good enough I would have loved to explore these remarkable islands – Mingulay in particular is supposed to be a stunner. Unfortunately conditions were far from ideal and as I paddled out into the Sound of Sandray I knew that going around Braa Head would have been out of the question. A powerful swell rolled through the Sound and looking west towards the open sea all I could see was a wall of white water. The tide was running hard west to east through the Sound and I worked hard to paddle against it. Martin had told me how the tide peversely flows south into the Sound during the north-going flood and that I would need to paddle well offshore to avoid it. Had he not told me this I would have been totally confused and may well have turned around and gone back to Castlebay. Armed with this knowledge I paddled out into a swell that doubled in size as I reached open water, then doubled again as I worked my way around to the west side of Vatersay. I passed Bagh Siar, the site of the tragic wreck of the emigrant ship, Annie Jane. It was in 1853 that the ship, bound like many others for the ‘promised land’ of Quebec turned to run before a storm, seeking shelter in Castlebay. Unfortunately in the fog the captain mistook Bagh Siar for the Sound of Vatersay and drove the ship onto the beach. Nearly 400 were drowned and there is a memorial to the disaster above the beach.
As I approached the small headland of Biruaslum the swell was gigantic, the biggest I had ever been out in. Ian Wilson and I had encountered some big seas whilst traversing the north coast of Scotland during our ‘Roof of Britian’ kayak expedition but even that wasn’t as big as this. I kept telling myself it was safe enough because it wasn’t breaking but as the huge walls of water reared above me I have to admit I was terrified. I knew that if one of those monsters had toppled over with me underneath it I would have been lucky to survive. I wondered if I would have my own memorial next to that of the Annie Jane and imagined the inscription: “To a bloody idiot”!
There was no going back now though as I would have been unable to paddle against the strong south westerly wind that kept pushing me north. The tidal eddy curling into the Sound of Sandray must have been running at several knots as I slowly forced past Vatersay. Following Martin’s advice and in an attempt to find the north-going flood I headed offshore pleased to get as far away as possible from where the huge swells were exploding on the reefs and rebounded off the cliffs of Barra. It was an unforgettable experience; dark, menacing clouds threatened to engulf me from the south; forbidding cliffs and mountains towered to the east; but bright sunshine from the west created a perfect rainbow and gave me hope of finding sanctuary and shelter to the north. To estimate the size of swells is difficult when you have no reference: thirty, maybe forty foot? All I can say is that I felt very, very insignificant in comparison to the waves which were coming at me broadside and when I sat in the trough looking up at the next crest it was like a cliff of water approaching at thirty miles an hour! Once again it was a demonstration of the seaworthiness of a sea kayak. Had I been out there in a yacht or a small fishing boat it would have been very dangerous but because a sea kayak is so small and light in comparison it just rides with the swell and deals with it. I told myself to relax and kept heading out into the Atlantic, searching for the flood tide. Once clear of Doirlinn Head I started to feel its benefit and I accelerated up the west coast of Barra towards Greian Head when things got a lot more sensible and as I crossed the Sound of Barra back to South Uist the swell halved, then halved again. I had been seriously concerned about the size of the surf I was going to encounter on the west side of the Uists but the swell decreased as I went further north. I was making really good ground, surfing the wind waves achieving rides of thirty metres or more. The C-Trek surfs really well, its long length means it picks up waves quickly and the generous rocker means you can steer the boat accurately as you scream down the face of the wave, scattering spray each side of the flared bow. The afternoon sunshine caught the droplets of water as they cascaded about me and I was reminded of Joshua Slocum’s description of his yacht, the Spray as he set out on his solo voyage around the world:
“Waves dancing joyously across Massachusetts Bay met her coming out of the harbour to dash them into myriads of sparkling gems that hung about her at every surge. The day was perfect, the sunlight clear and strong. Every particle of water thrown into the air became a gem, and the Spray, bounding ahead, snatched necklace after necklace from the sea, and as often threw them away.”
It was exhilarating and a bottle-nosed dolphin came over to share my excitement. It swam towards me on its side, head out of the water, tail working to drive its big glistening grey body alongside me, matching my speed. It grinned at me as only dolphins can and I looked deep into the unfathomable depths of its eye. It was a special moment; a definite flicker of communication between species and it had an immediate effect on me. The tension of earlier had gone; I was laughing, thrilled at having been out in huge seas on my own and grateful to be alive. I was making the best part of ten knots, surfing my way north along the continuous beach that forms the west coast of the island. Looking inland the mountains of Beinn Mhor and Hecla that I had already passed once going south were now glowing in the evening sunshine, that special light you only get between downpours. Each curtain of rain had a vivid rainbow at its leading edge. From my low position in the kayak all I could see was a line of surf, beach, machair and mountain with very few buildings interrupting the natural splendour. An eagle, Golden or White-tailed I am not sure, glided quickly and silently past, heading south following the shoreline. It was the first eagle I had seen having been disappointed not to see any around the Inner Hebrides.
I studied the map and identified a rare break in the almost continuous beach at Tobha Mor, where a small loch emptied into the sea. Having negotiated the large combing breakers piling onto a couple of rocky promontories I found the river mouth, successfully timing my entry between sets and avoiding a trashing. The tide was on the ebb but there was still enough water to allow me to paddle several hundred metres upriver disturbing flocks of redshank and other unidentified waders, reaching a bridge where I found a perfect campsite on the machair, in a bed of buttercups and daisies.
Three months had gone now and I had reached the half way point in the expedition. Whilst it may been a ‘media event’ and Stuart Elford at PDQ Comms Ltd, who had been working extremely hard on my behalf sending out press releases and still trying find the ever elusive corporate sponsor was keen to make a big thing of it, I was only too aware that the most difficult part of the journey was still to come. Not only did I need a break in the weather to get out to St Kilda, I then had the Butt of Lewis, Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth to look forward to, to say nothing of the ‘short’ excursion out around Orkney and Shetland! It would only be once I reached the east coast that I would allow myself to feel confident about finishing the expedition and even then I felt sure the North Sea would have a few surprises.
I was away late after doing another interview for BBC Radio Cornwall and there was only just enough water left to float me downriver to the sea where the surf had all but gone. Heading north I still had the wind on my back which was wonderful; effortless cruising past mile after mile of beach with the odd reef to break things up. It was like paddling through a wildlife documentary; Great Northern Divers, Grey Seals, Eider Duck and Shelduck with attendant young which are growing up fast.
I stopped on a beach where a father and son were collecting shellfish, having driven onto the beach in their tractor. It was a scene that was reminiscent of days gone by – except the tractor would have been a pony and cart. I rang Andy Worth at Kirton Kayaks to arrange for Linda to collect some spares and materials so that I could put a keel strip on the hull of the C-Trek. Whilst the hull was fine for now – the soft sands on the Hebrides were being kind to it – I knew that once I reached rockier shorelines it would need some reinforcement. Under normal circumstances I would not recommend a keel strip – it can encourage you to abuse the boat but for a solo kayak expedition of this duration perhaps in retrospect it would have been a good idea. But with Linda coming up to see me in less than a month’s time it could be easily sorted. You see – wives have their uses! It was good to chat to Andy, who is always entertaining and I was able to catch up on the news from Exeter Canoe Club where Linda and I had been members prior to our move to Cornwall.
I made good progress all day, by some fluke missing the heavy showers all around me and paddled for most of the day in warm sunshine. I followed the chain of islands, most now linked by causeways, stopping for lunch near the airport at Balivanich on Benbecula. During the Second World War the air base was used for long range anti-submarine parols using Hudsons, B17 Flying Fortresses and Wellingtons. Shorter sorties in tough Swordfish biplanes were conducted by Fleet Air Arms squadrons later in the war and the airfield is still used by the military but shared with daily civilian flights to the mainland, Stornoway and Barra. Skirting out around North Uist’s most westerly point Aird an Runair I could see the low Monach Isles further to the west. About 10,000 Grey Seals breed and mate there each autumn, one of the largest colonies in the world. The line of sand was broken by low cliffs around Griminish Head and the tide accelerated towards the Sound of Harris. Looking northwest I saw the collection of islets called Haskeir which would be my first waypoint on the way out to St Kilda. I had rather given up hope of getting out to this unique island archipelago situated over forty miles out into the Atlantic. Described as ‘The Islands at the Edge of the World’ I needed a three day window of settled weather and light winds and that just did not seem likely. My initial plan had been to use the Monarch Isles as a stepping stone but then decided to continue past and stop at Griminish Point on the northwest tip of North Uist and just see if the wind would drop.
I just got a feeling that maybe; just maybe the crossing to St Kilda would be possible. Andy Worth had said on the phone that if I didn’t get out to St Kilda it would niggle away at me and he was right. If I had learnt anything on the journey so far it was to never, ever give up. The isobars were due to widen out and the wind slacken and I listened anxiously to the 5.50pm Shipping Forecast. Sure enough the wind was supposed to veer north westerly the following day and then light winds were forecasted for the Sunday. By late evening the wind had indeed dropped away and I looked across a glassy sea out towards where St Kilda lay beneath the horizon. I rang Murray Macleod of Seatrek who had generously offered to provide me with safety boat cover for the long crossing to St Kilda. I had first met Murray at my first Western Isles Challenge when he had provided safety boat cover for the race. Murray used to work for Delta Power Sevices and helped develop the renowned Delta range of rigid inflatable boats (RIB’s). He competed in the British offshore championships in the early 90’s and had circumnavigated Scotland on many occasions. He now runs his own private and commercial boat charter business from his home village of Uigean on the Isle of Lewis. There was no-one better qualified to say whether the trip to St Kilda was possible and he promised to take a look at the charts and ring me back. During my negotiations with the RNLI whilst planning the expedition one of concessions I had made was to have a safety boat for some of the more extreme crossings and I felt obliged to stick to the deal. In any case, after my experience on the west coast of Barra I was more than happy to be escorted out to St Kilda. I was relieved when Murray rang back, his deep Scottish accent somehow reassuring. He agreed it was looking good for the Sunday so I pitched my tent amongst the creels and nets of the well-used pier, overlooking the channel and Vallay Island and settled down to wait.
I slept badly that night, probably because the ground upon which I had pitched the tent was neither soft nor smooth. My self-deflating mattress didn’t aid sleep either and I woke up at 2.30am amazed to see how light it was – dawn was very much on the way. Sleeping in fits and stats I managed to miss the early shipping forecast even though I had set my alarm. It was obvious though that the wind had swung north and I was rather glad I wasn’t due to be going anywhere. Looking out on a sea of whitecaps, I felt less optimistic about my chances of getting out to St Kilda but I spent the morning relaxing and writing my diary – there was a power point down on the quay for the fishermen but I felt sure no-one would mind me abstracting a bit to keep my laptop charged!
It was when I had time on my hands and I was not on the water that the loneliness really started to kick in. A handful of fishermen came down to the pier to load their boats with creels (lobster pots) but they had a job to do and I didn’t want to get in the way. I rang Linda, she was having lunch with my Mum in Truro – it was Mum’s birthday on Monday and that made me feel even worse. Feeling homesick for the first time I decided to go for a walk. Between the light showers the sun was pleasantly warm despite the keen northerly wind. A low spring tide meant that the channel through which the fishing boats had departed for the open sea was now almost completely dry and the white sand firm to walk on. There was not a soul about, no-one to share the beautiful scenery with.
I was determined not to feel sorry for myself as I knew there were many people who would never get the opportunity to see some of the wonderful sights that had come my way during the journey so far. But it would have been nice to have had someone to share it with. As far as I was concerned the school holidays can’t come soon enough because that was when I would next see Linda.
As I followed the shoreline south towards Griminish Head I had to be careful of the route I chose so as not to cause too much disturbance to the array of birds that had nests on the machair. Lapwings, redshank and oyster catchers all took flight, screeching abuse at me but soon settled again once I had passed. I tried to follow the edge of the machair where only the most foolhardy bird would lay a nest. Then I was into Arctic Tern territory; their nests hidden on the shingle and pebble storm beach. I walked below the high water mark to avoid them but even so these seemingly fragile little birds with finely pointed wings and delicate swallow tails are fierce aerial combatants and they soon let me know if I was straying too close to their chicks with screeching dive bombs aiming for my head. They are quite capable of seeing off large gulls too and work as a team to keep their airspace clear of would-be predators. I walked across another pristine beach, the only other footprints than mine belonged to Ringed Plovers that zipped about the beach like radio controlled toys, their little legs a blur.
And then the animal that I had been hoping to see: an otter! No, two otters! They saw me and shot out of the rock pool they had been hunting in and into the sea. Then one of them stood on a rock, stretching its sleek brown body up out of the water anxiously looking at me and then to the rock pool they had just come from. I could see the water and seaweed moving then up popped a baby otter, half the size of the other two and with a wriggle and a splash it joined its parents and they swam off. I could still see the three of them beneath the clear water for a few seconds, their thick long tails waving like that of an eel and then they were gone hidden amongst the rock and weed. I was stoked – I had managed to get a photo of an otter and it proved my theory that the wildlife is there all the the time you just need to sit still long enough to see it.
Walking out to the head the views towards Berneray and across the Sound of Harris were fabulous and out to the west lay Haskeir and barely visible, St Kilda. I was satisfied there was no way I could have paddled out there that day; the stiff northerly had ensured that, but what about the next day?
I ran back to the tent to listen to the Shipping Forecast and general weather forecast for Sunday but it was still giving 4 to 5 northwesterly. That was too strong and I knew I would have to wait yet another day. As if on queue Murray Macleod rang; he too had listened to the forecast and checked the weather maps. He agreed that the forecast was no good for Sunday but said he could wait until Monday. I was so close; I could see my goal but would the weather relent and give me the chance to paddle out there? I had to be realistic; there are very few days in any year when a paddle to St Kilda is possible and I would need to have been extremely lucky to time it just right. I decided to wait until lunchtime the following day when Murray would look at the long-range forecast and we would then make a decision. I was keen to not keep Murray hanging around unnecessarily. He was being extremely generous with his time as it was but he did have a business to run and I had another two thousand miles to paddle!
I spent another uncomfortable night and another day fretting, anxiously looking out to sea, quietly praying for the wind to drop. I am never sure who I am praying to or whether it does any good but when I spoke to Murray later in the day the forecast was for northwesterly 3 to 4 for Monday which was satisfactory as far as he and his crew were concerned and Murray left the decision to me as to whether I wanted to give it a go. The safety boat thing had given me much cause for thought during the planning for the expedition. I wanted it to be a ‘solo’ expedition but accepted the rationale put forward by the RNLI that it was only sensible to have a boat available for the longest crossings in case of injury or illness. That said it was never been part of my strategy to use the safety boat as an option should I get tired or if I found the conditions too hard. To me that would have been irresponsible – I should only set out on a crossing when I was totally confident that I could complete it under my own steam. Of course weather forecasting is not an exact science and it has been known for conditions at sea to dramatically worsen unexpectedly and with little or no warning but to set out thinking in the back of my mind that I might not make it and that I could always get a lift in the safety boat would have been unethical and not in the spirit of a ‘solo’ journey. So the decision to go for St Kilda was a big decision for me to make. NW 3-4 was not an ideal forecast – it meant a head wind all the way but so long as it did not increase beyond a Force 5 then I knew I could make it across, albeit slowly. I decided it was on and made final preparations that evening so that I could make a quick getaway in the morning. I set my alarm for 4am with a plan to get on the water as soon as possible after that, thinking that the wind would normally build during the day and I could get the bulk of the crossing done in light airs. A good theory!
Monday 5th July – Mum’s birthday, so I sent her a text. As well as always giving me unconditional love she taught me the benefit of a bit of hard work and that was a valuable lesson in these circumstances! I had woken up before my alarm (how does your brain do that?) and an instant rush of adrenalin at the thought of the day ahead had me up and sorting the tent and the remainder of my kit in record time. The prevalence of midges encouraged me to hurry too and their presence was an indication of the lack of wind. It was virtually still and without wishing to count my chickens too soon I was thanking the power responsible for at least giving me a chance. I was away by 4.45am, threading my way out of the channel at low water, turning left and setting a course for Haskeir which was clearly visible to the west northwest. As I cleared Griminish Point and started heading offshore I could already see the vague outline of St Kilda directly behind Haskeir. The north westerly breeze increased as the sun rose in the sky and soon my bow was burying into the small oncoming waves sending spray washing over my foredeck. There was a bit of turbulence produced by wind against tide as I approached Haskeir but little or no swell and I was able to get out for a pee on a barnacle and limpet encrusted rock ledge without scraping too much gel coat off the hull. Murray had asked me to inform the Coastguard once I was west of Haskeir but unfortunately I could not raise them on my handheld VHF radio. Strange because I could clearly hear Murray booking on with them as he left Uig headed south towards me. I had texted him as arranged confirming my departure time so I was confident he would know that I had already passed Haskeir. Even so I attempted to call him every 15 minutes after that as I didn’t want him wasting fuel looking for me. I heard him again speak to the Coastguard as he arrived at Haskeir and this time I was able to get through and confirm my position; approximately five miles WNW of Haskeir. It was a delight to see them as they powered towards me, spray shooting out each side of the bow of the 9.5 metre RIB.
‘SeaTrek’ is quite some craft; built to Murray’s specification by Delta (since he used to work for them he knew exactly what he wanted) with a single 300 hp Volvo diesel jet drive, Murray had made several modifications to make it a versatile workhorse yet at the same time the ultimate ‘big boy’s toy’. Throughout the summer SeaTrek offers wildlife cruises all around the Outer Hebrides including St Kilda. In a recent poll it was voted No.4 in the top ten wildlife experiences in Scotland. When you consider for a moment some of the spectacular wildlife to be seen north of the border you can appreciate that that is quite some accolade. Seal watching is very popular and sightings are virtually guaranteed. Dolphins, porpoises, whales and basking sharks are all seen frequently. Indeed Murray saw a basking shark as he left Uig just 100m offshore and I had been buzzed by approximately six Risso’s Dolphin a couple of miles off Haskeir. With the abundance of otters, seabirds, golden eagles and even white-tailed eagles the Outer Hebrides are as close to wilderness as we have in the UK and there is no better way to see the islands than from the water.
As Murray expertly dropped her down off the plane and drew up alongside me he gave me a big smile and introduced me to his crew (and nephew) Tom and two friends Andre and Alex who are radio hams and were catching a lift out to St Kilda as part of their ‘island bagging’ tour of the Hebrides. I was eager to not delay with still such a long way to go so we quickly slotted into place, me leading with Seatrek pottering along quietly about 100metres behind. For much of the journey I hardly knew they were there, just occasionally they would buzz about to break the monotony of my slow pace, Murray and Tom always careful not to force my pace by drawing level. Having provided safety cover for the Hebridean Challenge Adventure Race for several years Murray was well used to supporting kayakers and knew to keep his wake well away and to allow the paddler to set the pace. There is nothing worse on a long crossing than feeling you are under pressure to get there more quickly than you are able.
For me it was a long, fairly uneventful crossing. The lads on SeaTrek saw more Risso’s Dolphins but I missed them. St Kilda is such a deceptive island. You can see it from such a long way away and I was utterly convinced that I had inputted the Lat and Long Co-ordinates wrongly into my GPS – there was no way it could still be forty kilometres to go – I could see the islands so clearly!
At 431 metres Conachair, the highest point on the main island of Hirta is a mountain that rises sheer from the surface of the sea and the tall stacks of Boreray, Stac an Armin and Stac Lee 7 km to the northeast are just as impressive. The wind thankfully never increased above a four and the majority of the time was just a three which was just as well because it was absolutely bang on the nose and even though not strong, was very tiring and ensured my speed over ground was at times little more than 2.5 knots.
I went through all sorts of self-doubt, questioning not just my ability to complete the crossing but to finish the entire journey and I struggled to shrug off the negative thoughts. Slowly though my Silva GPS counted down the kilometres suggesting that I was indeed going to make it just fine so long as I kept plugging away. I stopped every 10km for a bite to eat and Murray or Tom would dutifully bring SeaTrek in closer to confirm I was okay. Of course there was never any doubt that I would make it – conditions whilst not ideal, were not particularly difficult – just slow and tiresome and with 15km to go I agreed with Murray that he should take Andre and Alex ashore and then come back out to see me in. As SeaTrek zoomed off riding effortlessly over the short chop I watched with envy, the bow of my much shorter kayak slamming into each wave face. The scale of the islands in front of me where brought into perspective as the large RIB disappeared beneath the towering pinnacles. They were still a long way off but I could see much of the detail including the white ‘icing’ covering Stac Lee – part of the largest gannetry in the world. I was aiming for the middle of Hirta, where Village Bay lay hidden in the shadows. By the time Murray and Tom had returned I was starting to feel tired but was close enough to not need to look at my GPS and kept my eyes fixed Village Bay and my mouth set in a determined and concentrated pout.
As cloud bubbled up over St Kilda I expected conditions to deteriorate as I crossed the tide sweeping slowly past the islands. Conversely the wind dropped and as I passed the saw tooth ridge of Dun, through rafts of puffins and into Village Bay there was barely a ripple to mar a sea of deepest blue. Having seen very few sea kayakers during my journey around the British Isles I was amazed to see a line of five of them paddling out towards me. The lead kayaker smiled broadly as we rafted up and I shook hands with Donald Thompson whom I had corresponded with via email but never met. Donald is an experienced sea kayak instructor and had several notable long open-sea crossings to his name including that from Orkney to Shetland and I had been picking his brains via the internet. He was with a bunch of paddlers from Aberdeenshire who had much more sensibly chartered a motor yacht to bring them out to the islands. It was super to see them and we arranged to meet up later in the pub. They were off for a late afternoon excursion to Boreray and allowed me to paddle into VillageBay on my own to a welcoming committee of St Kildan residents and visiting ‘yachties’.
I had rung Natalie McColl, the National Trust Warden the previous day to confirm our intention to make the crossing and it seemed that she was largely responsible for the tremendous reception I received as I approached the small pier. Approximately thirty people stood on the shore and cheered and clapped as I glided in. I was rather choked to be honest. I had been thinking about the paddle to St Kilda for so long – its image had been there in my subconscious ever since I first dreamt up the idea of the circumnavigation and I had never been confident that the weather would allow me to include it as part of my Challenge. But there I was and so much for it being the most remote island in the United Kingdom; there were more people on the quayside than I had seen for some time – and they were all cheering for me! I am never very good in these situations, rarely able to think of something appropriate and witty to say and this was no exception. All I managed was a pathetic “Thank you for coming to see me”.
Natalie and a couple of colleagues helped me carry the kayak up onto the pier where I had a curious audience asking me questions whilst I changed and sorted my kit. I was just thankful I had managed to abstain from urinating since leaving Haskeir so I didn’t smell too bad! Once Murray and Tom were ashore we were given the “welcome to St Kilda” spiel by Natalie and then the accommodation manager of the base, Pete Crowther showed us to our rooms. Through a combination of Gary Tompsett (friend and race organiser of the Hebridean Challenge in 2003) and Murray Macleod using their contacts with QinetiQ (the civil defence company that runs the missile testing range radar stations situated on St Kilda and the Uists) and National Trust for Scotland (NTS) it had been arranged for us to receive full board and lodging for the duration of our stay. We were treated like celebrities and I whilst I was so tired I wasn’t too sure what was going on most of the time I was just happy and grateful to go with the flow. Everyone was very kind and I would like to thank Ken MacDonald and all the staff at the base who made us feel so welcome.
It had been an eleven and a half hour crossing so I was pretty bushed but dinner soon had me going again and I managed to find the stamina to make it to the famous Puff Inn for opening at 9pm! Natalie had made up a poster welcoming me to St Kilda and put a pint glass on the bar for donations to my two charities. By the time last orders came a healthy sum had been collected but not satisfied with that Pete took the glass and accosted folk for more donations. Then came an impromptu auction of a very cool ‘Seatrek – Outer Hebrides’ baseball cap and T-shirt and by the time the evening had become morning £229.26 had been donated. Since there were probably no more than fifty people in the bar that night it was an incredible amount and in particular I would like to thank Kenny who paid £50 for the T-shirt, which he then asked me to sign reducing its true value even further! It had been quite a day and I still had a trip around St Kilda to look forward to.
I could have waited all summer for suitable conditions to paddle around St Kilda, the jewel in the crown of Scottish islands but I was able to do just that having only been delayed for two days. You quickly run out of superlatives when trying to describe the scenery of St Kilda. It is simply the most remarkable place I have ever been. Formed by volcanic action about 60 million years ago the island archipelago – Hirta, Soay, Boreray and Dun with their attendant skerries and inaccessible stacks – are the remnants of a huge caldera that has been transformed by storm force winds and huge Atlantic swell into the most sensational piece of offshore geology in the British Isles.
Murray and Tom on board SeaTrek accompanied me around the islands so that I would have some photos to put on the website. Once again Murray was discreet and allowed me the space to immerse myself in the islands splendour.
The sheer scale of what I was seeing was well and truly brought home when I caught up with the Aberdeenshire crew around Soay. Their tiny kayaks were dwarfed by the huge, sheer or overhanging cliffs, the rock washed clean for fifty feet or more but beyond the reach of the winter storm waves the nooks and ledges teemed with birdlife; a dazzling display of well over 250,000 breeding pairs including shearwaters and petrels, fulmars and kittiwakes, puffins, guillemots, and razorbills and the worlds largest gannetry with over 60,000 nesting pairs. Here there was no risk of scenery fatigue – but definitely a danger of neck ache!
SeaTrek and I headed over to Boreray where Murray very neatly found an area free from tidal influence where we sat and had lunch on board Seatrek – I know, I know, not very purist but there really is nowhere to get out when a swell is running. The gannets circled above us, causing Murray to keep the food covered to protect it from aerial bombardment but we survived unscathed despite some near misses! The highlight of St K was still to come; Stac Lee and Stac Armin and the craggy pinnacle of Boreray. Murray thinks it is one of the most beautiful sights he has seen in the world and he has been around a bit! Having missed out on the Skelligs off the west coast of Ireland I had the ultimate in gannet encounters below the gannet skyscraper of Stac Lee; perhaps a thousand birds overhead, circling, some diving close to check me out. It was truly an incredible sight.
That evening after dinner Pete drove us up to the radar site near the top of the mountain, a white knuckle ride in a wheel spinning Toyota Hilux 4×4 on tarmac. The 360 degree view including every mountain of the Outer Hebrides was laid out beneath us. The foreshortened hop to Haskeir and the mainland made me wonder why on earth it had taken me so long to paddle across and I was able to visualise the return leg.
The 2000 year history of human habitation on St Kilda is as dramatic as it is tragic; the life and death of a community that lived at the edge of the world. The highest recorded windspeed ever recorded on St Kilda is over 170mph and it is said that after one hurricane the islanders were deaf for a week! Now that is serious weather! Little wonder that the islanders did not consider fishing as a means of sustaining themselves – to venture out in the seas around St Kilda in a small boat was considered far too dangerous! Instead they harvested nature’s bounty; slaughtering thousands of Gannets, Fulmars and Puffins every year, wind-drying the salted birds in drystone sheds called cleitan and even now there are nearly 1300 of these remarkable structures dotted around the hillsides. They were able to grow a little corn, make hay and rear primitive Soay Sheep and later Black-face Sheep as well as collect bird’s eggs, but life on the island must have been incredibly tough producing a people with such independent spirit that when, in 1930 they finally accepted what was perhaps inevitable and asked to be evacuated, they never really adapted to life on the mainland. Indeed during the islands occupation the islanders, with little immunity to infection, were prone to the ‘boat cold’ brought to the island by visitors. Any disease would sweep through VillageBay and prostrate the island for weeks. When the islanders were finally removed to the mainland many suffered from illness and several died. The Government was less than generous in supporting the islanders in trying to rebuild their lives on the mainland, causing the break up of the extended families and several returned to the island in subsequent years but to stay in isolation proved impossible.
The evacuation of St Kilda was poignantly described by one witness, Alasdair Alpin Macgregor,
“The loneliest of Britain’s island-dwellers have resigned their heritage to the ghost and the sea-birds; and the curtain is rung down on haunted homes and the sagas of the centuries”.
It is impossible to walk along the ‘Street’ in Village Bay and not feel a sense of sadness, that a unique way of life has been lost forever. St Kilda is an island museum and well deserves its World Heritage status which has recently been extended to include the natural marine environment. I am told the underwater topography is as dramatic as that above the surface and I hope to go diving there one day. The relationships between the civil defence firm QinetiQ and the National Trust for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage are perhaps unique; the valuable work being done on St Kilda – archaeological digs, bird studies, Soay sheep research could not take place without the infrastructure and support provided by QinetiQ. It is bizarre really that a company that services the needs of the world’s military, hell-bent on death and destruction should be so positively engaged in protecting the environment. Perhaps there is hope after all!
Whilst I had really enjoyed my short stay on the island, to be honest it was with some relief that after another excellent cooked breakfast I launched to head back to North Uist. Murray and I had been watching the wind with some concern – it was forecasted to veer north easterly which was a little cruel and meant I endured a headwind on the return leg as well.
Thankfully there was more north than east in it and it remained light for much of the crossing meaning I was an hour and a half quicker which was probably just as well for poor Andre who was suffered badly with sea sickness on board SeaTrek. Of course a RIB is one of the most stable craft afloat at normal speeds but to be forced to go at the pace of a kayak – apparently five and a half knots on the way back – meant that she wallowed in the side swell and must have been pretty unpleasant for all of them.
I was keen to let Murray go as soon as possible – he had been more than generous with his time. With 10 km to go to Haskeir they sped off to see if they could make a landing so the lads could ‘bag’ another island. Unfortunately it was too rough and having returned to me we said our goodbyes, Andre, poor fella, only able to manage a feeble wave as he lay helpless on his back. It had been really good to meet Andre and Alex and to find out a bit about amateur radio. They managed to speak to folk as far away as Japan and Vancouver from St Kilda! The idea is to transmit from as many different islands as possible and these guys are among Scotland’s leading “Radio Hams”. As Seatrek blasted off into the distance I was left with about 2 km to Haskeir then 16 km back to Griminish. I insisted that I would be alright even though it was evident that the wind was picking up and the sea state worsening. I knew that the guys still had a least an hour and a half’s run north back into Uig. I felt strong but that last bit to Griminish Point was a bitch with a steep chop and a strong northerly making it very unpleasant. I made it in okay though and camped on the machair behind the beach where I had seen the otters what seemed like a lifetime ago. The crossing to St Kilda was done; I was still on track to circumnavigate all the inhabited islands of the British Isles and I knew how lucky I had been.
The cool northerly had dropped to a gentle breeze overnight. It was a gloriously sunny morning and as I ate my breakfast with the sky full of the sound of bird song, a red deer stag stood looking at me for several minutes before trotting off waggling his white bum. I had a crossing of the Sound of Harris on the day’s menu and in normal circumstances that would present quite a challenge in itself but after the last few days I had hardly given it a thought. My body was a little tender from the hard paddle back from St Kilda (it was my feet and bum that hurt – everything else felt fine) so I took it fairly steady as I began to cross the Sound. I was heading for Hushnish, a beach I had been to before during the Hebridean Challenge which I knew to be a lovely spot to camp. Visibility was superb and I took one last look at St Kilda, still visible on the western horizon and bid her goodbye wondering if I would ever have the privilege to visit her again. As I crossed the Sound, the unmistakably jagged ridge of the Cuillin Mountains of Skye was visible through the Sound way to the east. All I had to do was nip around the north of the Isle of Lewis and then I would see the Isle of Skye again from the north as I crossed back to the Scottish mainland. My focus shifted from St Kilda to the equally difficult challenges ahead; a 30 plus mile crossing of The Minch, the notorious Cape Wrath and Pentland Firth, then a trip out around Orkney and Shetland. It was all a bit daunting and I needed to have completed all of that before I would see Linda again.
The northerly increased again during the day as I island hopped across the Sound of Harris, playing with the tidal eddies then continued up the west side of Harris past the ‘Castaway’ island of Taransay, the location for one of the first reality TV shows and one of the few that has been worth watching. The mountains of Harris were stark, silhouetted under sombre skies. The ferry port of Tarbert just a few miles to my right was getting a good soaking from a heavy shower whilst I paddled in glorious sunshine. Hushnish lies on a small promontory beneath the wild island of Scarp. It has glorious sand on either side and I chose to stop on the south side which gave a little protection from the cool north wind.
It was still early in the afternoon but I thought I deserved an early finish and took the opportunity to dry some of my kit and use the iSun solar charger to re-charge my mobile phone and VHF radio. I had intended to catch up on my diary and send some emails but the beach was busy with holiday makers and several people stopped for a chat which was nice. I decided to try and buy some bread from a couple with a camper van parked up nearby. They gave me some bread and a beer into the bargain and we sat chatting in the warm sunshine when two people I recognised pulled up in their camper van. It was Geoff and Val Long, Jim Morrissey’s partner Sarah’s parents who I had seen at Jim’s place in Ireland. I knew they had come over to the Western Isles on holiday but how on earth had they found me? Apparently they had been ab;e to follow my progress through my twice daily reports to the Coastguard but it was sheer luck that they picked the same beach as me to head for. It was really good to see them and catch up on news. Jim had texted me to say he had been selected to represent Ireland in K2 (double kayak) at the World Marathon Championships in Bergen, Norway later that month which was an awesome achievement. Geoff and Val were really making the most of their retirement; they would have spent 50 nights that year in their palatial VW camper by the time they got home from this trip. And we had both picked the best place on the island because whilst much of the east side of Harris and Lewis was getting drenched we bathed in warm sunshine and soaked up stupendous views back across the Sound. I was wined and dined in some style in the camper van and the diary was forgotten for another day!
I had been invited to stay at Murray’s place the following night at Maivaig, near Uig. I had decided to get an early start to beat the wind that seemed to increase through the day. I was away by 6am before ‘the campers’ were awake. I was uncertain whether there were holiday cottages on Scarp – I had looked across the narrow Sound from Hushnish and one of the abandoned cottages looked as if it had been recently renovated – so I decided to paddle around the outside of the island just in case. I had been out around Scarp before, in one of the RIB’s supporting ‘The Heb’, leaping off the tops of swells at 35knots! I knew the island to be a very special place and it was no hardship to see it again from the west and most rugged side. That said the inside of Scarp is also a magical bit of water with deep lochs penetrating into the heart of the mountains of North Harris and the lack of roads and human population make this one of the most remote and beautiful areas in the British Isles. I craned my neck upwards to admire the high craggy cliffs of Lewisian Gneiss and kept a sharp lookout for eagles as I headed around Scarp but was once again disappointed. Tucking inside I landed on a beach Murray had told me about on the small uninhabited Mealasta Island.
Sunlight bursting through the clouds, reflecting off the silver/grey gneiss crags, picking out the greens and gold of the valley sides, shimmering off the aqua marine sea; the view was quite breathtaking and there was not a sound, a perfect silence found only in wild places.
I couldn’t resist a spot of beachcombing on the deep soft shell sand. Countless billions of tiny shells were piled high on the corner of the island and a fascinating assortment of flotsam had been left by the winter gales. I found two large whale bones, picked clean by a gang of hooded crows who were gathered waiting patiently to finish off the rest of the carcass which lay partially buried by the sand. It was difficult to tell the species – there was not much left – but my guess is it was a small minke. It was a nice place to be laid to rest and the crows were only doing their job.
Heading north again I began to realise that the wind was not going to pick up the way it had done on previous days and I was making good time. I started to form a cunning plan. By missing out on a rest day I had already regained a day on my schedule. If I pushed hard, was it possible to gain another day by getting all the way to the Butt of Lewis? Of course it meant missing out on seeing Murray and meeting his family which would be a great shame but when conditions were good I had to press on and I knew that Murray of all people would understand and approve. I reached Gallan Head by midday and instead of turning into West Loch Roag I headed straight across, stopping on Floday to make a phone call and give my apologies to Murray and his wife. I was now on a mission – to get to the Butt and I just kept going; ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen hours before finally I landed on the surf beach of Eoropie. The surf was small but I picked a spot protected by a reef just in case it should pick up during the night. I was completely exhausted but very pleased with myself – I was within kicking distance of the Butt of Lewis and now just five days behind schedule. I was somehow relieved to find I had no mobile signal. I had managed to call the Coastguard before it cut out and I was able to concentrate on getting water and food inside me. I was still trying to force food down my neck at 11pm but eventually gave up and fell asleep with the radio on.
It was a cold bleak morning. The northerly wind had returned but at least the surf remained small. I could see white water off the Butt of Lewis, one of the windiest places in Great Britain and regretted not having rounded it in the calm conditions of the previous evening but I had not thought it sensible after such a long day. As it turned out all the action of wind against tide was going on well offshore and I was able to sneak around on the inside, away from the boiling tide races. It was a significant moment for me bouncing through the clapotis beneath the tall red brick lighthouse, one of Scotland’s major landmarks. I could clearly remember standing with my back to the tower at the end of the 2000 Western Isles Challenge looking out to a windswept North Atlantic and across to Cape Wrath and thinking back then that one day I would paddle past during my circumnavigation of the British Isles. To be doing just that, living my dream, was a poignant reminder of how lucky I was and I said a little prayer of thanks for being given the opportunity.
Nestled just beneath the Butt of Lewis is the gorgeous little bay and harbour of Port of Ness where each summer the men of Ness set off for the isolated rock of Sula Sgeir 65km further north where they harvest young gannets or gugas much as they used to do on St Kilda. They are a much prized delicacy and are sold throughout the islands and around the world. The saying goes that “no Nessman of working age ever died in his bed” and by that they meant that they either lived to a good old age or died at sea! The Nessmen fish with longlines or handline using small boats called sgoths, similar to those found on Orkney and Caithness and the Norse influence is everywhere in the place names and traditions of this northern outpost.
The line of cliff runs unbroken for several miles south east of Port Ness bordering the largest peat bog in northwest Europe and it felt as remote as any coast I had paddled past. I was not in a mood to enjoy it however; my body aching after the long day up the west side of Lewis and my brain just wanted to be somewhere else. I started to feel a bit sorry for myself, my emotions ebbing and flowing with the tide and I knew it was an indication of fatigue. Struggling to get a grip on reality I paddled through a gap between a perfect natural arch and a tall stack. Fast asleep in the narrow channel bobbed a small grey seal – a female I think. She was as cute as they come and blissfully unaware of the hairy brute in a bright yellow kayak who mischievously glided past within inches, resisting the temptation to bop her on the nose! It cheered me up immensely and I picked up the pace, using the northerly to surf south towards the lighthouse on Tiumpan Head on the Point peninsula east of Stornoway. I had decided there was no need to go all the way into Stornoway – the delay waiting for the weather to get out to St Kilda had meant I had missed the celidh at the end of ‘The Heb’ and so planned to stop on the peninsula ready for the Minch crossing the following day. BroadBay teemed with life beneath grey skies and I was entertained with the antics of the gannets, guillemots, razorbills and puffins as I weaved my way between them.
Pulling into the small cove of Portvoller, three local chaps were sat on the slipway having a quiet five minutes. They kindly gave me a lift up the pebble beach with the kayak and then offered to keep an eye on the kayak whilst I headed by bus into Stornoway. My waterproof camera had leaked again! I could not afford to buy another one so would have to make do with disposables for my ‘on the water’ shots for the rest of the trip. I also had to pick up the replacement tent poles that Nick from Taunton Leisure had posted to the lifeboat station for me free of charge. I managed to get hold of Martin Murray, the mechanic who very kindly came down to let me pick up my post. I would like to have spent more time in Stornoway – I had hoped to have a beer with my friend, lifeboat coxswain and sea kayaking legend Murdo Campbell but he was making the most of the good weather and was sea kayaking off Harris somewhere. Murdo, with others from Stornoway Canoe Club has completed all the major crossings to the outer islands of the Western Isles, including Sula Sgeir and North Rona, The Flannan Islands and St Kilda. I met Murdo at my first Western Isles Challenge. A quiet man whose warm-up before a race invariably involves smoking a roll-up, he is a very tough paddler and what he doesn’t know about the waters around the islands isn’t worth knowing. I left a message on his mobile wishing him well. I had received a message from Iain MacIver, a freelance journalist in the own. He was keen to do a story on me and some filming for independent TV. He had offered to buy me dinner which was very kind of him. I had been trying to get in touch with Steffi Sargent all week. Race Director of the Hebridean Challenge, she is what makes the Hebridean Challenge happen and I was keen to find out how this year’s race had gone. It is fair to say there had been a few issues the previous year and I had done my bit to persuade my fellow team mate Jon Brooke to take on the technical side of the race. I was delighted that Steffi could join us for dinner and we had a very pleasant meal in the Sunsets restaurant in Stornoway. The Heb rather dominated the conversation; it had gone really well and the sponsors OneTel were delighted and it is looking good again for next year. Steffi offered to let me stay at her place which just happened to be less than a mile from where I had landed at Portvoller and she offered to help with filming the following day.
There was no rest for me on the Sabbath which is strictly observed by many residents on Lewis. I had arranged to meet Iain MacIver and cameraman Michael Skelly down at Portvoller and Steffi had offered to get Michael afloat in her little inflatable tender. It had the makings of a farce but hopefully Michael got the shots he needed. As always I fluffed the interview – for some reason I find it really hard to think of things to say with a camera pointing at me. Hopefully it will come out okay. Michael told me not to be surprised if I saw the Coastguard helicopter during my crossing of the Minch. Apparently he had ‘an arrangement’ with the pilot and I agreed that filming from the air would be the best way to show the true magnitude of a 30 mile open-sea crossing compared to the size my tiny kayak.
Steffi was so full of energy after such a hard week, surviving off just four hours sleep. Her enthusiasm for life is infectious and she passed some of her positive energy on to me. We also swapped ThermaRests, Steffi kindly taking my leaking wafer thin one and me gratefully accepting her nice thick leak-free mattress. Thank you Steffi!! When I finally headed east, leaving the lighthouse on Tiumpan Head astern, I felt great. The wind was just a gentle north westerly, the mountains of Sutherland were visible on the horizon beneath dark skies and I was felt refreshed. Just a mile or so off Tiumpan Head I saw a couple of minke whale and I soon got settled into a fast rhythm, eating up the miles east. It was nigh on perfect conditions for a crossing, cool with a slight tail wind and a gentle rolling swell. I hadn’t bothered with the GPS knowing I just needed to point slightly south of east and before long I could see the white spot of Point of Stoer lighthouse. The sun came through a hole in the clouds and my body temperature rose forcing me to strip off layers of clothing until I was down to a single Helly Hansen thermal top with the sleeves rolled up. I kept working hard knowing I was setting a great pace. Totally focussed, I never saw them coming. Suddenly there was an eruption of grey bodies to my left: maybe eight Risso’s dolphins burst out of the water just metres from me heading right at me. I threw in a couple of reverse strokes convinced I was going to hit them but they had judged it to perfection of course and flashed underneath before spinning around and following, their graceful dorsal fins rising on either side. Heavily scarred white bodies darted past beneath my kayak as well and I laughed, not knowing where to look or where to put my paddles. After thirty seconds of mayhem they had had enough of me and were gone, their bodies arcing in synchronicity as they headed south.
I saw more minke whales off Point of Stoer and all the way across the Minch was a-buzz with sea birds including marauding arctic skuas and great skuas who had me shouting “Puffin Killers!” at them as I witnessed several attacks by great skuas on poor defenseless puffins. I had given up on seeing the Coastguard helicopter. My crossing time was much quicker than I had expected and I was just a couple of miles off the headland when the machine, like a huge dragonfly came whirring in from the southwest. It passed low and fast then banked steeply, doing several passes. I don’t normally wave to helicopters or planes just in case the crew mistakenly assume I’m in distress but I couldn’t resist giving a salute of thanks as the rescue helicopter hovered above, the pilot expertly directing the downdraught away from me. Michael the cameraman and the helicopter winchman waved from the open door and then they were off, heading back across the Minch. “How cool was that?” I chuckled to myself all the way into Lochinver.
As I arrived in the large commercial harbour, David MacAskill, 2nd Coxswain was there with his two sons to meet me. His boys had spotted me coming in even though I was several hours earlier than expected. I am embarrassed to say that I had several pees in the boat on the way across so I was stinking and so was the cockpit of my kayak but they were polite enough to appear not to notice. We were soon joined by Stuart Gudgeon, the mechanic and they helped me carry the kit I needed to the lifeboat station where they had been looking after a box of supplies for me and I gratefully accepted the offer to let me stay the night in the station. It was the chance I needed to catch up on my diary and I headed down to the Culag Hotel where I pigged out on some great scran only to find out afterwards that the bill had been ‘sorted’ by the lads from the lifeboat. I typed until the wee hours until I could stay awake no longer.
After a very comfortable night’s sleep on Steffi’s ThermaRest which I’d placed on a row of chairs in the lifeboat station I began working again on my laptop at 6am. A quick glance outside at a grey, wet and windy morning convinced me there was no urgency to get on the water. Having caught up on my diary and answered a few emails, I then packed my new supplies into dry bags, binning any excess food – I always seemed to have the same items left over – stuff I really could not face eating no matter how hungry I was.
At 11am I was done but before heading off it seemed sensible to get a decent lunch inside of me. The lads suggested we went to the ‘Fishermen’s Mission’ or to give it its full title – the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. I had not visited a Fishermen’s Mission before although I knew them to serve excellent low priced food and also somewhere I could get a hot shower if I needed to. They are a bit more than that though. The Mission has been giving financial, practical and spiritual help to shipwrecked, sick, distressed, disabled, retired and sea-going fishermen, their wives, widows and children for over a century. Fishing is our most dangerous industry; in recent years an average of ten fishermen have been killed or seriously injured and two vessels lost each month which is a frightening statistic and should be borne in mind next time you complain about the price of cod. There are many more Fishermen’s Missions on the east coast than there are on the west and I vowed to make good use of their facilities during my journey south.
As always, it was good to spend a bit of time with the lifeboat men and like all those I have met, they are extremely professional, very knowledgeable and eager to help. By 12.30pm I was heading out of the loch into a stiff westerly which made the paddle up to Point of Stoer fairly hard work but the morning’s rain had cleared to reveal warm sunshine that soon had me sweating. North of Loch Inver there are several exquisite little paying campsites right by the edge of the sea with their own beaches. The view inland was dominated by the mountains of Sutherland, especially the sugarloaf peak of Canisp. As I passed the Old Man of Stoer, a fine needle of Torridonian sandstone that has refused to succumb to the erosive powers of the sea, the erratic wind swell increased significantly and from the Point all the way past Handa Island I was tossed about like a rag doll, my back being given a really good workout as I tried to keep up some sort of momentum. The C-Trek handled it all reassuringly well but it was slow, uncomfortable work and rather took away the pleasure of what should have been a memorable paddle along a coastline indented with peaceful lochs and dotted with rarely visited islands. The largest of these is HandaIsland, an RSPB reserve and home to tens of thousands of sea birds who nest on its west-facing 100m sheer sandstone cliffs. The air was thick with the sight, sound and smell of them and even in the messy backwash it was a wonderful experience to be right in amongst them. It was fascinating watching the small fat razorbills, guillemots and puffins running the gauntlet of the patrols of great skuas ready to rob them of their catches or even their lives.
The slop continued all the way past Loch Laxford to Kinlochbervie. I decided not to go into the fishing port but instead opted for the more remote and beautiful beaches of Oldshoremore. I was aware that Fiona Whitehead and her paddling partner Tom had camped there a couple of nights ago and I wondered if they would still be there. I found my perfect beach and patch of grass to camp on and whilst sorting myself out received a text from Fiona to say she was still thereabouts. They offered to come and find me whilst I got some (cold) food inside me. When they arrived on foot they looked tanned and fit; I felt rather weather-beaten and worn out in comparison. I strolled with them back to their campsite. They had found an interesting tiny ‘natural’ harbour which had clearly once been used to launch boats judging by the rusting winch and pebble beach cleared of major rocks. Someone had done a lot of hard work to produce this little haven and it seemed a shame that it was no longer in use. Sipping some of Fiona’s deliciously heart-warming rum we sat and chatted until dusk. It was fascinating to hear how their trip had been going and how the weather had slowed their progress north. It’s funny how conversations like this normally degenerate quickly to discussion of the most basic human functions but I was relieved to hear that it wasn’t just me that found that the need to go for a pee tended to dominate the day! I discovered Tom had joined Fiona on the west coast of Ireland and would be paddling with Fiona until they reached Inverness when he would head down the Caledonian Canal and leave Fiona to head south to her start/finish point at Portsmouth. We discussed tactics for Cape Wrath and Fiona was very honest about her unwillingness to take risks and intention to only attempt difficult sections when conditions were right for her. No-one could blame her for that; she had time on her side. We agreed I had to push the limits much more if I was to succeed in my Challenge as the distance I had to cover was so much further by including the inhabited islands. There was a temptation to paddle as a group for a while but my need to paddle solo and our different attitudes to risk inevitably meant we would carry on doing ‘our own thing’ and we wished each other good luck and safe paddling, promising to meet up again once we had both finished to have a proper de-brief over a pint or three. Fiona may not have been going quite as far as I was but be under no illusion – what she was doing was hard enough and more than many men could cope with and she deserves full respect. She is one tough lady.
The 13th of July is perhaps not a good date to be going around Cape Wrath – if it had been a Friday I would have definitely had second thoughts. So what was my strategy for Cape Wrath? Well it may seem a bit odd but I had decided to go around against the tide. During the west-going ebb there is a strong eddy running north up the west side of the Cape. I planned to use this and so long as the swell wasn’t too big I figured I could hug the cliffs and sneak around inside the main tidal stream using small eddies in amongst the skerries that are found on the north side of the headland. It was a slightly risky plan in that should I find the swell too big once I got to the Cape I would be unable to head offshore to avoid the clapotis as that would put me out in the west-going ebb that would almost certainly sweep me out to sea!
So as I paddled through the narrow sound inside of the uninhabited Eilean an Roin Mor I was relieved to find the swell running south was smaller than the previous day. Working my way past the broken red sandstone slabs that have tumbled down the storm ravaged cliffs I reached Am Buachaille (The Shepherd), a 300ft stack that to me is a sign post saying “Welcome to the North”. Ever since seeing a photograph of Bill Taylor paddling past the same monolith in his book about their circumnavigation (“Commitment and Open Crossings”) this stack has featured large in my subconscious. Indeed this whole section of coast is like a memory lane for me as I can remember very clearly almost every rock that Ian Wilson and I passed during our ‘Roof of Britain’ expedition five years previous. The weather was remarkably similar although the swell was smaller and the wind a little stronger this time. I was able to pass inside of Am Buachaille and began humming the hymn “The Lord’s my Shepherd” as I headed into SandwoodBay. When Ian and I had paddled into the bay we had intended camping on the shore of the lochan but big surf had prevented us from getting ashore. I was determined to land if I could just because I wanted to set foot on what for me wins the title “The Most Beautiful Beach in the British Isles”. Not just because of its mountains, lochs and golden sand but because of its location; high up in the far northwest, the most remote corner of the mainland Britain. The surf was pushing in at about four feet with the occasional much bigger set. To the north end of the bay I spotted a bit of beach where a burn entering the sea had set up a rip current that was keeping the wave height a wee bit smaller than elsewhere so I headed in, timing it carefully to follow the last wave of the set. I landed without drama and duly christened the beach with urine as is my want whenever I make landfall!
Getting off the beach wasn’t to prove so uneventful. Certainly I had picked the spot where the wave height was smaller further out but what I hadn’t spotted was the vicious little beach dump that I had somehow avoided on the way in. It took me five attempts just to get afloat, each time I sat in the kayak, by the time I had sealed my spray deck the surge had pushed the bow of my kayak left or right such that there was no way I could spin it back to face the next set of waves. Fifth time lucky and I slid down the steep sand with the returning backwash into the teeth of the next little brute. “SLAP”, the wave whacked me in the mush but I was through the beach dump and heading out towards the main surf break. From where I had been stood on the beach the waves didn’t look too big but now sat low in my kayak they looked plenty big enough. I rode over a couple of walls of soup, pumping my arms to keep some forward speed as each wave tried to drag me back towards the beach. Then a three foot wave broke cleanly on my decks, cold water shooting down the unfastened neck of my cag. Sprinting, I just avoided getting planted by a four-footer and launched off the back of the wave landing with a shudder that made me wince as thought of my fragile laptop in the front hatch. Thinking I had cleared the break line I was quite pleased with myself but then I saw the next set beginning to jack up fifty metres further out to sea. Sprinting with all the power my now skinny body could muster (I had now lost well over a stone since starting out) but even a flood of adrenalin rushing through my arteries caused by the realisation that I it was going to be very close wasn’t enough to get me out in time and I got stopped by the first, nailed by the second and creamed by the third. My world had gone dark, but then I realised the wave had pushed my beanie hat down over my eyes! Thankfully when I could see again I saw that it had been a three wave set and I was through. A quick inventory check revealed nothing missing from my deck lines which I try to keep clear as clear as possible for just such eventualities. It was if the ocean was telling me not to get too cocky; that it could give me a damn good spanking if it so wished and I was just that bit more cautious as I headed up to tackle Cape Wrath.
The north-going eddy dragged me quickly up the weather-shattered red sandstone cliffs, blocks the size of houses precariously balanced just waiting for the next big storm. As you approach the Cape from the south it looks like just any other headland; just a fairly innocuous looking lump. The swell wasn’t too bad and I was able to hug the cliffs as planned. The lighthouse came into view, built by Robert Stevenson in 1827; I wondered just how many vessels had passed beneath its gaze. Very few as small as mine I mused. Viking long ships sailed these seas in the Middle Ages, making forays south from their bases in the Orkneys. The name Cape Wrath comes from the Norse, “Hvarf” meaning ‘turning-point’ and I could see why. Suddenly the coast bore away to the east and the only thing between me and the Arctic Circle was a vast, storm-ravaged ocean. The huge gneissic slab forming the most northerly point of the ‘foreland’ was another bird city. As I reached the northwest corner of Britain the tide was ripping past, pouring westwards and out into the deep Atlantic. I decided against squeezing down the narrow gully that cuts inside the rocky islet that sits beneath the lighthouse. Instead I sprinted out into the main flow, kicking my rudder hard right and timing it nicely so that I rode a swell around the corner into a small eddy on the other side. I was as simple as that. I had gone around Cape Wrath without even getting my face wet!