- by Owen Merrick. A nice, laid back trip in Scottish West Coast waters. Illustrated

Going with the flow - Coll & Staffa

Owen Merrick - 2006



All the way up from England we hadn’t given a thought to where we were going not even when we’d camped overnight at the Oban site. Now we were on Mull driving around looking for somewhere to put in. We past by Ulva ferry and the wide expanse of Loch Tuath opened out before us.

“Just here looks good” we said in unison.

An hour late we were on the water Brian had even smoothed talked the local farmer into letting us park the car in his yard. “Where do you fancy then” he asked “those islands out there look good”.

“Yep, they’ll do” I said, and that was it plan formulated.

We headed straight down the middle of the Loch, it was warm, almost sunny with just a gentle breeze; what more did we need. After inspecting the “castle” on Cairn na Burgh More we found a herring gull swimming about with its head cocked over to one side and its wing held in a peculiar way. Amazingly Brian was able to paddle up and grab it. It was tangled up in fishing line with a fish hook through the web of its foot. He held the bird while I unwound the line; I couldn’t get the hook out so I just cut it off and left it. As Brian let go he got a sharp peck in the face for his troubles.

Apparently, on Fladda there are the remains of a beehive cell. Back in the days of yore the monks on Iona would test their faith by setting themselves adrift in a coracle without a paddle. If they survived then this was evidence of the hand of God saving them from a watery grave. If they drowned, well it was obvious they were just pretending to believe and weren’t worthy. As they didn’t have a paddle it was the will of the Lord where they ended up. Any monk cast ashore on an island like Fladda would have to remain there as a hermit and spend the rest of their lives in solitary contemplation. If, on the other hand the monk was cast up in a bay occupied by great big hairy Vikings, who were of course pagans, then he had to convert them to Christianity; preferably before he himself became a sacrifice to the pagan gods.

We looked but didn’t find the cell. Next morning it was foggy and raining at the same time. We headed off on a bearing and into the centre of our own private bubble; as we paddled forwards the bubble moved with us. There was no sensation of movement just the steady rhythm of the paddle. Occasionally a Puffin would swim up to us and give us a once over but other than that we saw nothing until.

“Psssh”! Just a grey shape in a grey sea against a grey sky. Then again. “Psssh”! Too big for porpoises, too big for dolphins, they had to be whales.

Now I’ve read about whale encounters, how its all mega exciting, the whales swimming over and under the boats, making eye contact, waving their tail flukes in the air, slapping the water; all that kind of stuff. Not these two, they looked down their noses at us. No doubt thinking to themselves. “They’ve no cameras, it can’t be Attenbourgh. Just ignore them they’ll go away”. And they swam off. We just sort of bumped into Coll; well it’s so big we could hardly have missed it. We were at a small bay with an island in its mouth; Port na h-Eathas. A snatched brew in the lee of the island by this time we were chilled to the bone. Where now? Clockwise around Coll or we could go to Tiree.

The weather had been getting wetter all day, visibility was down to about a hundred metres; we were cold and losing interest. Several times we tried to find somewhere to camp only to find rocky shores or huge dunes of bottomless sand. It didn’t help not being able to see what was around us. At one point we had to get out and walk, the sea was so shallow, the coast was out of sight there was just two kayakers dragging their kayaks across a featureless sea; a truly weird sensation.

After listening to rain hammering the tent for what seemed like an eternity all was quiet; we crawled out to explore our temporary home; the island of Gunna. It was mid morning the tide was flooding to the north-east, which ruled out Tiree. We followed the coast of Coll moving at an incredible rate. A headland with wild racing sea off the end, followed by a surf pounded bay backed by huge dunes; then another headland and so up the whole length of the island. Seals everywhere it was impossible to skirt around them all.

We braved the surf in Feall Bay for a brew, I was amazed that we both got through the washing machine without wiping out. Brian looked up the beach there was a family at the other end about a mile away. “No” he said “I can’t stand crowds” and paddled back out to sea. We rounded the top end of the island just as the tide turned and started to sweep us down the east coast. The typical “iron bound coast”, a wall of cliffs as far as we could see. The tide was with us so we headed for Calgary Bay.

If that was our best day, we covered fifty kilometres with ease, the next day was our worst. Going against the tide we fought for every paddle stroke and gave up on Gometra after only fourteen kilometres; totally pooped. If we were going to get to Staffa we would have to go with the flow. That meant getting up at half three and being on the water for first light; and what a beautiful morning it was. The Sun’s rays went through all the colours of spectrum as it ever so slowly climbed up over Ben More. The sea was calm and there were no clouds.


We paddled around Staffa, went into all the caves and then managed to haul out onto the wave cut platform on the west side of the island; how often can you do that? By the time the first tour boat arrived we’d had a leisurely tour of the island, climbed down into Fingal’s Cave, seen all the birds and were sitting down to our second breakfast. “The Puffin’s, the puffin’s, have you seen them? Where are they? Do you know”? It was an enormous fat bloke of about fifty, he was wearing a quilted camouflaged waistcoat over a full suit of combat kit; we were by contrast wearing flip – flops and shorts.

He carried a huge telescope on an equally huge tripod, around his neck were at least three cameras; on his back a massive backpack. His face was bright red and he was sweating profusely. He was so excited that he was literally jumping up and down. “Have you seen the puffin’s, are they here” he demanded again. “Puffin’s” I said “puffin’s, ten a penny around here mate; mind ya don’t tread on em.” He let out a strange sort of scream, ran around in a circle three times and shot off along the cliff path.

Brian was having a fit of hysterics. We were booked on the nine o’clock ferry the next day so we camped on the south side of Ulva just round the corner from the Sound of Ulva. Again we were on the water at the crack of sparrows and again it was breath taking; is there anywhere better than spring time in the Hebrides? In the short paddle through the sound we saw half a dozen otters fishing amongst the kelp.

Camped on Ulva


(Click here for MultiMap of the area)


Owen Merrick - 2006