I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the Skye
Heather Rainsley - 2004
Setting out from Elgol - the Cuillins calling in the background - click here or on the picture for the full picture album from this wonderful trip.
You know how it is, after only one day back at work, the holiday already seems to be a distant fact, something you did years ago. So there I am, at home, on Monday evening. I am pottering around, about to fill the washing machine when a smell drifts towards my nose. Now the laundry pile is usually smelly… but this is different. I pause and sniff… wood smoke, suncream, insect repellent, perhaps a hint of whisky and of course the unmistakable odour of sweaty thermal. I am transported on a wave of odours back to the previous week. A wonderful week, a week of sea-kayaking and exploration and pleasure. I sit there amid the pile of laundry and relive the week.
Mark and I escaped from work in Dorset on Friday afternoon and hurtled North. The Isle of Skye was calling. By Saturday morning we had reached Fort William where we raided the supermarket and stocked up on a range of camping friendly foods. I really love the fact that you can carry so much food in a sea-kayak. I get so bored with the kind of tasteless rations you have to carry if you are back-packing. We wandered round the supermarket, buying everything on our shopping list and more. Pasta figured highly, as did chocolate. Lots of fuel, lots of rewards.
Then onwards to the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge. As we drove across the bridge the sky improbably cleared and the sun appeared. Weather forecast be blowed, it was sunny and settled and all signs of driving fatigue vanished as we took in the glorious Skye scenery. I had been anxious about paddling in Skye; the unknown coupled with a vague idea about unpleasant Atlantic storms and the knowledge that the coast we were planning to explore was rather remote. Somehow, as we stood in the car-park at Elgol, all those worries evaporated in the hot sunshine. Looking across a glassy sea towards the serrated ridge of the Cuillin mountains, I couldn’t wait to get the boats loaded and set off.
The view from Elgol
Loading boats is an amazing piece of magic. You start out with a vast pile of kit and food and water and somehow it all disappears into the kayaks. With the boat loading done, I said goodbye to the car and set off in an altogether quieter vehicle. I couldn’t quite believe it, just over 24 hours earlier, we were still at work and now we were paddling on glossy black water towards a grand and awe-inspiring wilderness. There are no roads into the heart of the Cuillin. The only routes are by foot or by water but you are richly rewarded for your efforts as we were to discover.
I was paddling a brand new boat, never paddled before. What a christening! It sliced through the water and I soon got used to its trim and settled into a rhythm. Looking down, I suddenly realised that we were not alone. The sea was full of jellyfish! Layer upon layer of them, looking like ranks of space invaders in some eighties computer game. We spent the next ten minutes looking for the biggest one and trying not to pick one up with the paddles. Then it was heads down and pushing on to our campsite, a tiny beach tucked in below the mountains.
As we drew towards the campsite, the mountains closed around us. What a special place. Near vertical rock walls with trees and bushes clinging impossibly to tiny crevices. The silence! The solitude! “Cuckoo!” We couldn’t believe our ears. But there it was again, echoing around the rocks, “cuckoo, cuckoo.” Who’d have thought it, cuckoos in the Cuillin. But now it was time to unload the boats again, put up the tent and have some dinner.
In the morning, Mark made tea and we took it up to Loch Coruisk; a remote Loch that is only just above sea level and whose stillness and seclusion are guarded by the walls of the Cuillin Ridge itself. Of all the places I have had my Sunday morning cup of tea; this will be top of the list for a long time. Sitting on a rock at the feet of great black mountains and staring at their reflections in the water, it felt entirely unreal. We were so small and so out of place in this stillness. We lingered as long as possible over the tea but we had things to do that day. We had breakfast and loaded the boats up… with walking boots! We spent the day on Bla Bheinn; a mountain that has views across to the main Cuillin ridge, Loch Coruisk and out to sea. Well, in the kind of weather we were blessed with anyway. A walk up a mountain is always enjoyable but paddling to the start of it made it feel almost like a grand expedition. I must say however that I don’t recommend putting dry trousers on over hot ankles at the end of such a walk. Trust me, it’s not pretty.
The author, Heather, on Bla Bheinn
We had company at dinner that night. A seal came and had a look at us and then went and got a friend. They spent the next hour courting together in the inlet by our campsite. A perfect end to an amazing day.
Our luck with the weather held again on the Monday, the weather forecasts we’d read had all been pretty gloomy but it was sunny and settled again. We took down the tent and headed out. It was Scotland, it was May and I had just put sun-cream on. The weather was amazing! We looked out for seals on a nearby skerry before we left Coruisk but they were all off fishing apart from one youngster who was decidedly miffed at having his sunbathing interrupted. We left him to it and started to cross to the small Island of Soay. We paddled into an inlet on Soay as the tide was running out. Seabirds were fishing all round us and one sleek white chap was so intent on catching the fish he’d seen that he arrowed into the water just to the right of my paddle.
Soay was the site of a shark fishing station at one time in its history. That day, it was eerily quiet in the harbour, the deserted building had half a roof and there was a rusted steam engine outside. We felt like trespassers as we sat and ate our lunch looking across at these ruins. After exploring further on the island, we set out for Skye again. We were aiming for a headland called Rubh an Dunain which the map showed was peppered with cairns and ruins despite its remoteness.
As we neared the headland, the wind began to pick up for the first time since we arrived on Skye. I had to push hard to maintain my pace. Mark paddles an impossibly skinny, tippy and fast boat. Nothing seems to slow him down. I was feeling quite tired as we neared what I thought was our landing spot. Mark carried on past it. I argued but he said that it would be easier to land on the other, more gently shelving side of the headland which meant another few hundred metres of paddling. He was right about the landing but I knew that the sea was lumpier round the corner. Suddenly I remembered that this was still a strange boat and I started to feel a bit panicky. We turned out into the chop and I turned into a novice. I am sure we’ve all been there, that time when we stiffen up with nerves and forget to put our paddles in the water. Of course, when this happens, the boat starts to be tippy and you stop going anywhere. At times like this, Mark used to try to give me advice which, when I’m stressed I have to say I am not good at listening to. He’s learned now, poor chap, he stayed quiet and gave me space to get my head together and start paddling again. I put my head down and ploughed on and round to the bay where we landed. I shouted a lot when my feet were finally on dry land. The waves hadn’t been that big but I was tired and it had to be someone’s fault. Poor Mark! By the time we had put up the tent, I had warmed up and calmed down. We went off to explore the ruins we were camped among. This remote and empty headland had once been very crowded indeed. There were ruined crofts everywhere and the remains of some pretty intensively farmed land. Now there were just sheep… and us, oh and the cuckoos. A romantic spot now but with a sad history common to so many parts of Scotland that were cleared by land-owners who were looking to make some money from sheep. We ate dinner watching the sun go down over the sea.
I woke up to the flapping of the tent the next morning. It was windy, the sea was lumpy and we weren’t going anywhere soon. Our radio had failed to pick up any weather forecasts but things had clearly changed. The Cuillin ridge had cloud over it for the first time since we had arrived and we watched as the peaks played hide and seek in the rapidly moving billows. By early afternoon, the wind had dropped and the sea flattened. It was a few miles up the coast to Loch Eynort but this was a committing few miles. No landings on the way if the wind got up again. I wanted to go on but wasn’t confident. Then the sun came out. I don’t understand why this tipped the balance but it always does for me. Everything seems possible in the sun.
So off we went. I found it hard work, we were paddling into the wind but were making sensible headway so we carried on. Off to the West, we could see the Western Isles and we started to see sea stacks in front of us. Eventually we were at the foot of the nearest: shaped like a bottle (three storeys high) with a hole in the middle. We stopped and rafted up to look and eat ginger cake. As we ate, I realised that we were being blown towards the cliffs. I stuffed my half of the cake into my mouth at one go and abandoned Mark. I tried to explain myself but the cake stopped me, I tried to chew but there was just too much cake. Mark thought I had gone mad. He started to paddle on through the gap between the cliff and the stack, I saw him pause as he felt the wind coming through the gap and then a cormorant dive-bombed into the water right beside him. I am sure I saw him jump out of his seat, I just couldn’t stop laughing. Not good when your mouth is full of cake and you’re trying not to be blown onto a cliff. I followed Mark through the gap, tears of laughter streaming down my face. The wind was whistling through the gap and the waves were quite lumpy on the other side. I was relaxed in the boat and I unexpectedly found just how well it handled the swell when I was loose and paddled calmly.
Mark looked relieved when I came through the gap laughing. He wasn’t sure how I would react to the larger swell but I was enjoying the way the boat was slicing through it. Besides, my mouth was still full of cake. The swell for this last mile was quite intense but I now knew that the boat and I were more than equal to it. Mark was probably having a bumpier ride in his boat than I was. Before very long, we surfed into the shelter of Loch Eynort and found a camping spot. I spent ages collecting drift wood and building a fire. We didn’t get a chance to enjoy it, because then the midges arrived. We had seen the odd one or two before but that evening, as the wind dropped, the midges descended in their millions and we hid in the tent.
We had planned to carry on up the coast past more sea stacks and high cliffs the next day, but the wind stopped us. It was in our faces and just too strong for us to commit to at least ten kilometres of exposed paddling with no landfall. We were disappointed but because our radio had let us down, we just didn’t know what the weather was going to do. We decided to head up Loch Eynort to the road and hitch back to the car. Seven hitches later, we closed the circle and picked up the car. For the rest of the week, the wind stayed too strong to head out in the boats again. We explored the island on foot but felt so blessed with the days we had spent out along the coast that we didn’t feel cheated. We didn’t go that far really in those few days, but the remoteness and the beauty of where we did go made it worth it. And the sea stacks we missed… well there’s always next year.
OS Landrangers 23 & 32
Imray C66, Mallaig to Ruda Reidh and Outer Hebrides
Scotland; The Rough Guide.
The Scottish Islands, Hamish Haswell-Smith
The Isle of Skye: A Walkers Guide, Terry Marsh.
The Scottish Sea Kayaking Photo Gallery http://www.gla.ac.uk/medicalgenetics/seakayaking.htm
The UK Sea Kayak Guidebook http://www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk/
Thanks to Bournemouth Canoes for introducing me to my new boat.
Heather Rainsley - 2004
See also the discussion on this trip