Scotland at its best

sunset over skyeTime for a quick dash up north to get lost in the wilderness for a few days, before the onset of the dark and dreary months. A blob of high pressure over Scotland promised light winds and maybe even a bit of sunshine. Wow.

During the last twelve years since I have been paddling in the sea I have been pretty fortunate in having close encounters with all manner of fantastic sea creatures. Peregrines, puffins, porpoises, three species of dolphin, seals, basking sharks, swimming foxes,deer and badgers and even a leatherback turtle. But I have never seen a whale from my kayak. It would be easy to jet off to the USA or Canada to see the Orcas or Humpbacks off the west coast, but I really want to see one in the UK. I quite like the fact that the odds are hugely stacked against me, it makes it  more of a challenge.

Anyway, I thought if I could manage a bit of offshore paddling north of the Isle of Skye, I might just bump into one of the Minke whales that wallow about up there.

So after picking up a stupid blooming fine for spending too long in the services car park on the M6, I arrived at a sunny but windy Broadford on Skye, busting with excitement. Last time I was here it was dull and grey.

My Cobra Expedition kayak got loaded to the eyeballs and I was off.I took a swing around Guillamon island (great name) en route to the north side of Scalpay. The stiff southerly wing had been forecast but was due to drop tomorrow, so I needed to be poised for action in the right place.

As usual the scale of the place had caught me out. What I thought were the distant hills of Raasay were in fact part of Scalpay and it was a long haul around the coast to my planned camping place.In fact I started to get despondent as every bay was unsuitable for setting up a pitch. Maybe the 700 mile drive was taking its toll.

The wildlife came to the rescue, as usual. I sneaked up on the huge bulk of a White-tailed Eagle sitting on a promontory, only lumbering away at the last minute, and was surrounded by huge numbers of harbour seals.

White-tailed Eagle (plus tag)
camera-shy seal

And then the perfect sandy bay welcomed me in complete with flat grassy pitch. Unfortunately approximately sixteen thousand midges were also pleased to make my acquaintance.

The eagle flew overhead squeaking in the weird way that sea eagles do.

camp on scalpay
Camp on Scalpay

Fantastic night’s sleep, waking occasionally to the bawl of rutting stags, and the ‘worrying’ call of a Loon.

I was up and packed and paddling as the first light was damping out the stars. It was going to be a stunning sunny day and I was going to make the most of it. I hopped across to the south-eastern corner of Raasay and headed north. There was a spectacular backdrop of the saw-toothed ridge of the Cuillin mountains over my left shoulder.

cuillin mountains on skye
Cuillin Mountains

The mighty cliffs of Raasay looked superb in the morning sun. Waterfalls included.

Raasay waterfall
Raasay waterfall

The light winds provided a perfect updraught for three more Sea Eagles, and a single Golden Eagle. Fab.

sea eagle x3
Trio of White-tailed Eagles
Golden eagle
Golden Eagle

I stopped for a brief break at Brochel to work out what to do next. Continue round Raasay and Rona would be the obvious choice. But I wanted to do a bit of offshore stuff, although the sea was still a bit choppy.I might just see that whale. As I downed a peanut butter sandwich (easy to make, but stale), the whitecaps abated and I focused on the tiny white dot of Uags bothy on the south-western tip of the Applecross peninsular, twelve miles away across the Inner Sound. I had spent a couple of nights camped there last year (sheltering from a storm) and it has got to be one of my favourite places ever.

I stripped down to my vest in the hot sun and dug in with the paddle. A little bit of trepidation, all alone and a long way out. A chunky looking skua passed, not broad-winged enough for a bonxie , not rakish enough for an arctic, so must have been a Pomarine. And lots of Black Guillemots in their pale winter outfit.

Black Guillemots

Unfortunately I was paddling directly into the sun and had no sunglasses so was developing a bit of a headache. But lots of porpoises around the increasingly swirly eddylines kept me distracted. Over thirty altogether. The only two fishing boats within sight both came disturbingly close. It’s funny how that always seem to happen to me. It’s a bit like when I used to love mountain walking…..the only other people we would see all day would invariably set off on the same path a couple of minutes ahead and wear brightly coloured clothes and talk loudly and frighten away all the wildlife.

At last I reached the northern tip of the Crowlins and I was pretty pooped. It was just about the biggest tide of the year, and low water, so I hauled out amongst a huge area of kelp, and sea urchins.

Before nipping across Caolas Mor to Uags bothy I followed the side of the island, and was rewarded with a prolonged view of an otter hunting and diving in front of me, carving quite an impressive wake.

fast moving otter

I arrived at Uags while the sun was still strong. And I was certainly superheated by the time I had lugged all my camping stuff up from the low tide beach. So I stripped off (almost completely) and had a wash in the burn. As I was air-drying beside my tent I was taken aback to hear voices like Benny and Bjorn from Abba drifting across the water.A mile out to sea were a group of seven Swedish sea kayakers, heading towards the bothy.

Uags view
view from my tent towards Skye
A tent with a view

A very pleasant crowd, as sea kayakers usually are, and I was very grateful for their appearance when I tagged along with their flotilla for the crossing back to Plockton in thick fog the next morning.P1100190

As soon as I split off from them beneath the Skye bridge, otter number two put in an appearance. The increasing headwind provided a tough paddle back to Broadford.

Skye bridge
Skye Bridge
Otter number two

I was going to head back down south after a visit to my brother and his family in Grantown-on-Spey, but forecast of fog on the M6 made me do a rethink.

I decided to return to the west coast and paddle a circuit of the islands of Seil and Luing. Lightish winds again but this time grey and overcast. I was aware that there are some pretty savage tides in this area but because I only ended up here on a whim I hadn’t done any planning. By sheer good luck I arrived at Cuan sound between Seil and Luing at exactly slack water. It was glass still. Or maybe it was bad luck as it lulled me into a sense of false security and I thought that maybe this tide thing was blown out of all proportion. And anyway if you stick close to the shore surely you can dodge the current. Wrong. Very wrong. Oops.

I happily paddled down the sheltered water on the east side of Luing and along the side of Shuna island. Luing was a bit disappointing as it is largely fields and not very wild.Funnily enough I remember dehorning a Luing cow in Tavistock as a student 35 years ago.

On the very southern tip of Luing I had a great view of a very tame Great-Northern Diver and good encounter with an otter which came out onto a rock to munch a fish.

fat otter
Otter number three

And the wonderful haunting sound of rutting stags wafting across the water from Scarba.

And another, very strange, sound. The sound of a vast amount of water moving extremely fast. No wind chop or waves or surf, just a sort of sound like a prolonged exhalation. A bit sinister.

I didn’t feel the current till after Black Mill Bay. It was initially strong only at the headlands but I hit an absolute wall where the tide was squeezed between Luing and the island of Eilean Mhic Chiarain. Water was pouring over a two foot ‘waterfall’ and even the smooth water was flowing at a fearful rate. The whole sea was sloping uphill. I took a couple of minutes to prepare my muscles and then set off as fast as I could paddle. I gave it everything I had got and just about nosed my way against the current. I was paddling at about 7 mph against a 6mph flow. Blimey. I could always have hauled over land but it was rocky and rough. Good thing it wasn’t 6mph against a 7 mph current.

By the time I arrived at the idiotically calm Cullipool I was absolutely roasting and down to my vest again.

A bit further on, and my second passage of Cuan sound was rather different to the first.( I paddled the two islands as a figure of eight). It was absolutely ferocious.Really sinister swirling whirlpools and upwellings that made me brace the paddle on the surface in expectation of a wobble. The ferry crossed the current pointing upstream at an angle of forty-five degrees.

And into the shelter of Seil sound it was suddenly all calm again. It was further than I expected to the Bridge over the Atlantic at Clachan (maybe because of my exertions around the west of Luing, and twenty miles covered so far), and I just squeaked through the tidal narrows, bottom of kayak scraping the sand, before they dried out. Once again paddling against the current!

Bridge over the Atlantic, Seil
Bridge over the Atlantic

I was pretty shattered as I at last arrived back at Easdale and the line of squat slate quarrying cottages, not looking their best under more typical leaden Scottish skies.

grey scene, Easdale
Grey scene, Easdale

Time to head home now the fog had cleared.

And still no whales.cuillin mountains