Helen McKenna's illustrated diary of two weeks on North Uist

Hebridean Diary - North Uist

Helen McKenna - August 2005

I’m quite ashamed to admit this but until I started sea paddling 2 years ago, despite having lived in Scotland for 16 years, I’d never been any further north than Glasgow. This year Dave and I were off to the Outer Hebrides. Dave’s been there before but it was all new to me. We were going to base ourselves at Uist Outdoor Centre at Lochmaddy. Dave was taking the car up as he had more time off than me and I made excellent use of airmiles to meet him up there.

Sunday 14 Aug
Flew from Glasgow to Benbeccula where Dave was meeting me. I was very lucky and had clear blue skies which provided me with stunning aerial views over the west coast of Scotland. Doesn’t it just want to make you get out there and paddle!

Met up with Tony who had driven up from London

Benbecula from the air - lots of water!


Monday
Monday morning saw Tony building his boat (Klepper Aerius). Dave and Tony were both keen to sail the boats so the sailing rigs were put up too. UOC lies on Loch Houran which leads directly into Loch Maddy so all we had to do was paddle up the entrance of the Loch go under the bridge and we were then in Loch Maddy. As the bridge is quite low we kept the masts down until we were through it. The guys then landed to put the sailing rigs up fully and I walked 20 yards up to The Hut of Shadows – a fascinating stone built chamber that acts like a camera obscurer and projects stunning views of Loch Maddy onto the stone wall inside. More information can be found here.

Loch nam Madhadh (Loch Maddy) lies on the north east coast of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It’s complex topography was formed when the sea flooded an undulating landscape left by the retreating ice sheets about 15,000 years ago. It really is a paddlers paradise. A vast lacework of islands and small channels around which every corner is a hidden gem. On blowy days (and they do have quite a few of those in the Outer Hebrides) it is possible to find enough shelter from the elements to spend hours exploring the Loch – which is exactly what we did! If the wind was in the right direction we flew – when it wasn’t in the right direction we struggled to get to where we wanted.

Tuesday
Hmm – raining and windy! And not just a little bit either! Rather a lot. A day of exploration by car and foot it is then.

Hosta beach


Wednesday
Another windy rainy day so this time we paddled Loch Maddy while Tony sailed. We met up with him at Lochportain where we stopped for lunch. Tony struggled to get out of the Loch as the wind was in the wrong direction, however he eventually made it.

That evening we adjourned to the pub to plan our expedition – which we were setting off on the next day.

Thursday
What a great day – wind is in the right direction for sailing, it’s bright, sunny – perfect day for expedition paddling. All we have to do is pack the boats! Unfortunately Outer Hebridean pace of life has kicked in and it takes ALL DAY to pack the boats. However, by 3pm we are ready. Hmmmm .. tide is incoming. Now in the normal scheme of things this would not be a problem. BUT – and it’s a big BUT – the small channel that separates Loch Houran from Loch Maddy becomes like a mini raging river and is exceedingly difficult to paddle up. Not to be deterred we set off – paddle the 200 yards to the entrance to the channel and try to power up it. Even with 2 of us paddling we made no headway! Ok – we regroup and look at options.

Dave reckons that if we put the mast and sail half up we could maybe power up it. We go first - sail power alone is not enough but with a little helping hand from the paddle (used splits like a Canadian) we manage to make it up and pull in round the corner. Dave goes back to help Tony who is struggling to make it up under sail power alone. He shouts to him to use the paddle too for a bit of extra power and watches in dismay as half of Tony’s very expensive split paddle is torn from his hands by a combination of oily hands – due to sunscreen having been applied before we set off – and a rogue gust of wind. It then disappeared off at a rapid pace down the tidal race. Not a great start then!

We spent the next 2 hours sailing up and down Loch Houran searching for the lost paddle. We were all set to give up and were heading back to the Centre when Dave and I spotted something stuck in the seaweed. Yes – it was the lost half paddle. Relief all round!

We decided it was too late to start the expedition now so we adjourned to the pub with the intention of setting off early the next day. At least the boats were packed!

Friday
After an early breakfast we were ready to go. This time the tide was in our favour and there were no wee epics getting out of Loch Maddy. In fact – it was a glorious day – blue skies and very little wind! It’ll be fine once we get out of Loch Maddy said Dave and Tony. Hmmm – no – still no wind – and the Minch was flat calm – apparently a very unusual occurrence – but Hey – I wasn’t complaining (for once!). After persevering for about half an hour with the sails up and making little headway the guys decided that paddle power was the way to go and pulled into a wee cove just before Loch Eiport. We were headed for lunch at Floddaybeg and then going in around the islands to Grimsay where we intended camping for the night. It was a lovely day – weather was perfect, scenery was out of this world and we had this whole paradise to ourselves. Time ceased to exist as we meandered our way through wee channels, watched the wildlife and chilled out. Every now and then we caught the tide going the wrong way up a channel and had to put in a bit of hard work – that was a shock to the system I can tell you!

Leaving Loch Maddy

Grimsay

We reached Grimsay and started to look for a place to camp. We eventually found the perfect spot on the Rossinish headland. A lovely sandy bay with dunes at the back. Only drawback was the tidal range. It went out a long way! Still we managed to carry the boats up the beach, unload them and set up camp. So far so good – nobody has lost anything yet! Oops – spoke too soon – Dave’s leatherman had fallen off the boat when we were carrying it up the beach and then he got sidetracked and forgot about it. By the time he remembered the tide was coming in and there was no sign of it. Tony and I spent the evening watching him dig up a big section of the beach searching for it.

Leatherman divining - - -

I went for an explore of the area and found a ruined croft at the top of the hill. On further investigation a sheep had got its horns trapped under some debris and was unable to move. The animal rescue service kicked into action and we managed to get him free and out of the croft. It was very weak but at least it had a chance of recovery now.

Saturday
Woke to another gorgeous day. Still no wind so sailing gear was packed away and paddle power deployed. We had decided on a lunch stop at Peters Port and then see how much further we could get from there. The paddle there was uneventful and we arrived at Peter’s Port at about 1 o clock. Tide was out and it was not possible to land on the slipway as there was a 5 ft drop up to it! Instead we had to land at the side and I was made to climb up a rusty, slippery 20ft ladder. Oh yes – and the wind had also got up! Didn’t much like going up and certainly wasn’t looking forward to going back down! Never mind – lunch beckoned. I was so busy munching on my sandwich I almost missed the conversation between Dave and Tony. Wind … sailing rig up … see how much further we can get …! By the time I was up to speed on what was happening they were back down the ladder and putting the rigs back up again! Oh yes – and just to add a bit of interest to proceedings tide was now incoming and we were balanced precariously on a very small patch of seaweed. We made it – just! Now all we had to do was sail out of the Loch. Easy peasy with all this lovely wind! Or so you would have thought. Two hours we tacked back and forward in-between the islands and every time we got anywhere near an opening leading back into the Minch the tide pushed us back into the Loch.

Ok – it was now 4 o clock and the weather was starting to look a bit grey. Time for a rethink! We decided that we would take the sails down and paddle over to Wiay Island and camp there. Not the best of camp sites I have to say. Still – it was starting to get cold and attempting to rain. Dave dropped the s**t shovel in the water and forgot to retrieve it while unpacking the boat – luckily he remembered it the next morning and threw it onto the bank. Tony retrieved his last 2 bottles of wine from the deepest darkest recesses of his boat and we rigged a tarp, made tea and chilled for a while. An early night beckoned.

Sunday
Woke to wind and rain – weather bad! Decided to head back to last campsite as at least it would be sheltered. Packed up boats and set off. While we were in the lee of the islands the water was relatively calm. This all changed when we poked our noses out in the Minch and had to cross a big bay. The swell got big and confused and the added wind and rain made for an uncomfortable half hour! I was quite relieved to make the campsite again.

We unpacked the boats, rigged the tarp, got a wee fire going and Tony and I spent an hour watching Dave divine for his Leatherman before feeling guilty and taking a turn at divining ourselves. Sticks were no good but tent pegs seemed to fare a bit better. We still didn’t find it and by now Dave had realised that we didn’t have the s**t shovel either. I had left it on the grassy bank on Wiay! Ooops!

Plans for the next day were left open as they were weather dependant – but it had started to brighten up late afternoon. Another early night beckoned as we were all tired and we’d run out of drink! Not good planning!

Monday
Woke to another glorious day. Packed boats and set off back towards Eiport. We once again took the scenic route around Grimsay and for a large part of it were accompanied by a very friendly seal who seemed to like playing tag with the boats. He/she would follow really closely and play tag with the rudder. Very disconcerting when you’re paddling along and suddenly feel a bump. At one point it tried to mate with the Feathercraft by rubbing it’s belly along the underside of the boat and feeling the side with it’s flippers.

One boat - one seal

Weather conditions were perfect for sailing so it wasn’t long before we stopped and put the rigs up. For once the wind was in our favour and the sea was calm with a nice swell. I was lulled into a false sense of security! This was great – I could sit and watch the scenery – not have to do much work – life was good! All too soon we made it to the mouth of Loch Maddy. We re-grouped in the lee of Maddy Mor and discussed options. General consensus was that conditions were favourable and we could make it to Berneray. Things were Ok for about 5 minutes – until we left the shelter of Maddy Mor and crossed the mouth of Loch Maddy. The water was choppy and confused and waves seemed to be coming from all directions.

It was a very interesting crossing! This was the first time we’d really sailed the boat in these conditions and once I’d got used to it really enjoyed myself. It was certainly exhilarating. We rounded the headland and sailed into the network of islands in the Sound of Harris. Again we had the wind in the right direction and fairly flew across to Berneray. Plan was to stay in the Black House Hostel. The rest of the journey was uneventful until we reached the sandbar just off Berneray and went the wrong way round it. We ended up 100 yards from where we wanted to be! Not a problem you would have thought – except that 100 yards was up a really strong tidal race which was running at about 7/8 knots. We should be OK with the sails says Dave. Hmmm … famous last words! We started off OK – got ½ way up the race and all of a sudden was propelled back at an un-godly speed and thrown up on the rocks. The boat ended up ¾ out of the water. Attempt was aborted and we paddled round to the slipway and hauled the boats out there. Wind was picking up quite a bit by now so we decided to spend the night in the hostel. Yippee! Showers, warmth, comfort.

Tuesday
Weather had again become windy so we decided to paddle back to Loch Maddy. The boys mentioned a short cut which would shave 3 hours off the journey. All we had to do was paddle round to Cheese Bay and portage 200 yards over to Loch Maddy and paddle back to the centre. Cool plan – except if you don’t get the tide right it becomes a nightmare journey. We missed the tide by 5 minutes and had to walk 10 minutes in gloopy mud to the road. In pulling the boat Dave managed to fall flat on his face twice and was covered from head to foot in it! Tony fared slightly better and had gained a bit more ground than us so managed to get his boat up a small channel before it had dried out. I was cold, tired and had become grumpy again! Tony was all for carrying on, I was all for getting a lift back – upshot of it was Tony paddled, Dave hitched back and got car. The locals are all very good and don’t mind stopping to pick people up if they are going their way.

We timed our arrival back perfectly as the wind had started to pick up quite a bit and a force 8 was predicted for that night. And it arrived! At 4am Dave and I were pinned in our tent (know what it’s like to be vacuum packed now!) and it was an hour before we could escape into the centre. The tent broke a pole and a guy rope! Loads of photos were taken of those tents that withstood the Force 8 gusting 10 winds! These were all hilleburgs and will no doubt appear on various websites soon!

Hmm - it was windy then?

Wednesday
Weather was bad so we went to the supermarket to stock up on drink/provisions and then went to Hosta and sat and watched the surf. It was big! Caught up with people who were over for the Symposium. Met quite a few people who use the www.ukseakayakguidebook web site. It was great to put faces to names. Dave and Tony ‘fixed’ the tent! Spare pole and a cats cradle maze of guy ropes did the trick! They were obviously making sure that if the wind didn’t get me the guy ropes would!

Thursday
Start of the Symposium. Weather was good and we did Berneray to Loch Maddy trip (well Dave and Tony did – I got out at Cheese Bay). Great trip with good company.

Sound of Harris

Friday
S**t shovel retrieval day. Dave was determined he was going to find it so we drove to Peters Port and Dave and Tony paddled out to get it. Mission successful! We then went to Grimsay where the boys went for a paddle round and I found a nice wee exhibition on lobster pots through the ages and pictures of Grimsay Boats.

 

Saturday
We were all shattered – weather forecast was doom and gloom - so spent the day packing up and got the 4 o clock ferry back to Skye. Saw the rescue helicopter arrive for the symposium rescue practice. Spoke to one of the coastguard crew who’d witnessed our attempt at getting out of Peters Port on Saturday. She said I did wonder how you’d get on as it’s a notorious place to get out of. Nice to know it’s not just us then!

Coastguard exercises at the Symposium

All in all a fantastic 2 weeks. The paddling is out of this world. I would recommend tapping into as much local knowledge as you can as the tides there are laws unto themselves.

Helen McKenna signing off .. till next time …

The full picture set, including some not shown above, is here.

Click here to link to MultiMap.