Small Isles - September 2004
By Alastair Rose
After a summer working for “Wild Island Exploration (Rua Fiola)” in the inner Hebrides and running as many of the classic bits of white water the west coast has to offer Robin and I decided that it was time for a decent sea kayaking trip. I spent my childhood going to Arisaig and Back of Keppoch on family camping holidays and, as it is one of my favourite places in the world, it seemed an obvious choice to try and paddle around the Small Isles.
But how far would we get? Neither of us had been in a sea kayak for over 18 months and couldn’t really remember much past the fact that you could cruise on flat water at about 6km/h. A few minutes spent drawing a sketch of the Small Isles and the relative distances between and around them, along with a short discussion about alternatives “well we could go for a days paddle then if its really raining just go river paddling instead”, felt like a suitable amount of planning.
We arranged to hire some boats from a man in Balvicar on Seil island (unfortunately I am unable to remember the company’s name but very good kit and extremely helpful *) and we headed north as the sun set. We arrived at Rhu Point outside Arisaig around midnight, cleared a space in the back of the van amongst all the kit and got our heads down.
(* Editors note: Might be Sea Kayak Scotland?)
Setting off from Rhu
Day 1: Rhu Point – Eigg – Muck - Eigg
We woke early and couldn’t believe our luck, the plan was to start with the 12km crossing to Eigg and it was a flat calm. We had a hasty breakfast while individually packing our boats, our food consisting of left over expedition food from work (and some stuff the cooks had “lent “ us at the end of season) a box of red wine and a bottle of whisky. We paddled out on a perfectly still sea in brilliant sunshine getting a nice rhythm going, the only sound the splashing from the paddles as we paddled towards a bobbing group of birds.
As we approached we heard a “whooshing” noise behind us to discover a pod (?) of minke whales was passing behind us with some porpoise chasing them. Cameras were frantically found and Robin paddled off in pursuit while I sat in the sun snapping away. We reached the slipway on Eigg pleased by the fact that it had taken less than two hours but not by the busy slipway with tourist boats pulling up all the time.
Arrival on Eigg
We had a bite to eat in the sun and topped up our water supplies and talked about possibilities. We had decided to get to a decent beach on Muck from which we would then be able to paddle back to Eigg easily in the morning. By now a welcome breeze around force 1 had sprung up cooling us down as we paddled off up the south coast. The first section of coast was rather nondescript until I spotted a small wave breaking on a reef just offshore and I decided to go and investigate.
I paddled up to the back of where I thought the wave was breaking and just as I looked down to examine what the reef was like below I heard a noise and looked up. A slightly bigger swell had picked up to form a decent wee wave coming in from my left side. I was stuck side on and tried with one enormous sweep stroke on my right to pull myself around and through the oncoming wave at the same time. This worked but the wave broke right over the top of me. Clad as I was in just a buoyancy aid and thermal this cooled me down a bit and taught me not to investigate quite so closely. Robin just laughed.
We paddled out round Muck without wasting much time and with me trying to dry off before stopping where we had planned to stay the night in the bay on the NE tip of Muck. At this point we realised that it was only 5 o’clock so we decided that a cup of tea was in order and that it was about time we had a serious look at the map. This was where the plan of not having a plan started to pay off as we realised that another couple of hours paddling and we could be in the Bay of Laig on Eigg ready to cross to Rhum in the morning, and we still had loads of daylight left.
Having used the words “every match should make a fire” rather too many times over a summer teaching wilderness education it seemed only right to continue, so after a quick water and wood collecting mission and a splash of petrol from the fuel bottle (I can only hope none of the students read this) we were sitting by a small campfire. We watched the sun set sipping our red wine out of our thermos mugs, and as the sun threw the Cuillin of Rhum into the most perfect silhouette, we spread our bivy bags out on a small piece of grass and settled down to stare at the stars in our own cocoons as we fell asleep with aching muscles.
Sea caves on Muck
Day 2: Eigg – Rhum – Sanday – Canna - Rhum
The next day dawned bright again and we set off early having added to the non-existent plan with a plan for this to be “the big day”. Though we had a radio with us we did not in fact listen to the weather forecast. As any sea kayaker or fisherman will tell you the shipping forecast is at some god forsaken time in the morning which means you have to get yourself awake to the state where you can either remember or write down the cryptic instructions before then getting back to sleep as quickly as possible.
Before leaving we had got an up to date forecast telling us that there was a high pressure for the next three days. Part of the reason for the “big day” was to get around the outmost isles of Canna and Sanday and get back onto Rhum in case the weather changed. Essentially because we were too lazy to get up for the shipping forecast we were just going to have a rather long day of paddling. The 7km crossing to Rhum was soon over and we proceeded up the coast till we saw a decent river for a wash and an early lunch (next to the mausoleum shown on the OS maps). This section of the coast was amazing with lots of sea caves to explore and many photo stops. We eventually reached the NW corner of Rhum and crossed to Sanday and on to Canna.
As we paddled up the coast we suddenly saw a dorsal fin circling in front of us. We stopped for a photo shoot of the small basking shark, joking that maybe its mother was just around the corner. As we paddled into the next bay we realised we had been right as a huge fin circled us. We estimated this shark to be around 24ft long (a good bit longer than our 17ft sea kayaks). Though we knew the sharks to be harmless I think both of our hearts were beating faster as we continuously swapped between our paddles and cameras depending on how far away our new friend was.
As we paddled on we saw another three sharks who calmly went about their business, occasionally dipping beneath our boats with their huge mouths open, and we rounded the most westerly tip of Canna and were finally heading in the right direction. For this “big day” we had decided cook dinner in the small harbour on Canna before doing a night crossing back to Rhum. We set up the stove on the harbour wall amongst the lobster creels and names of boats written on the walls by crews thankful to reach a safe haven. I remember being conscious of not unpacking too much kit, it would be all too tempting to just spend the night there instead of paddling another few hours.
We set off from Canna as the sun set behind us with a compass bearing set just inland of a bay on the North of Rhum and paddled off in a nice force 2 as the light faded. The crossing was one of those special ones, at first the sun behind us threw the island ahead into sharp relief before the sun eventually faded allowing us to watch the phosphorescence with every stroke. As we got nearer land again we could watch the torpedo like trails left by the seals as they swam underneath us. We got into what we thought was the mouth of the bay we had been aiming for and could hear waves crashing in front of us, but our headtorches showed nothing ahead except what we presumed to be more sea.
We agreed to go in cautiously and I remember feeling ready to surf in, only to realise as we paddled forwards that the waves were mere ripples, we were 2 paddle strokes off the beach and the headtorches had been highlighting wet sand. (amazing how loud things sound in the dark). We pulled the boats up, found somewhere to throw our bivi bags down, had a quick Irish hot chocolate and got some well earned sleep after 60+kms of paddling.
Sea stack on Canna
Bivy spot on Rhum
Day 3: Rhum - Eigg
I woke first to see a herd of deer playing on the beach below where we were bivied, and left Robin sleeping to have a wee explore around the ruined village and take some pictures as we had decided on a late start. It was however another perfect day and it seemed a shame not to be on the water, so after my best efforts to prolong breakfast we were back on the water. A couple of hours paddle saw us racing the ferry into Kinloch where we had lunch and were able to get a weather forecast at the ranger station. (one more day of settled weather then a low pressure system)
Skye had looked very tempting (more to Robin than myself I think) in the morning but now with a low coming in and the fact that we would just have to reverse the crossing, it was time to add again to the plan. We both had other places to be in three days time so it was decided to head back to Eigg village for the night before doing a long crossing (18km) SE in the morning, and spending the rest of that day and the next paddling North up the coast.
The crossing from Rhum to Eigg was the hardest yet with a Force 3 cross wind and the most chop we had seen so far making us stretch our tired muscles. The main thing I realised on this crossing was how lucky we had been to have a flat calm on the first day as now, with three days paddling behind us, the crossing wasn’t a problem but it could have been a very different story on the first day. We paddled on up the coast staring up at the huge cliffs now sheltered from the wind by the bulk of the island. As we paddled I remember hitting those mysterious patches of water where you feel like you are going backwards (am I the only person who feels this?).
We rounded the headland into the bay north of the village and for the first time indecision about where to camp struck, though not for long as all we wanted now was to get out of the boats. We set up camp on a small promontory sticking out into the bay and again lit a fire in amongst the rocks and cooked and chatted as the sun set on the Sgurr. We finished the last of the wine (and I think possibly had a wee dram of whisky as well) before once again crawling into our bivy bags and falling asleep out in the open.
Getting ready for the crossing with the Sgurr in the background
The long crossing back to the mainland.
Day 4: Eigg – Mainland - Bothy
The next day dawned bright and we dragged ourselves out of our bags, into our boats and round to the slipway to quickly top up the water supplies before leaving. We paddled SE straight into the morning sun with our hats pulled down over our eyes and our sunglasses on, while the kms we had to cross stretched away in front of us. We had opted to paddle straight for the headland between Ockle and Ardtoe about 18kms away. There wasn’t much talking that morning and even less when I realised I needed to pee as we approached half way. The choices were either, have Robin hold my boat while I stood and tried to do my business, what my grandmother would call “bucket and chuck it” with a water bottle, or paddle as hard as I could and try and ignore the watery sounds around me.
I put my head down and started paddling as hard as I could focusing on good technique while singing to myself to keep up the distraction (which if anyone has heard me sing will agree is extremely distracting). The compass bearing I had was no longer needed as a headland appeared out of the landmass and I kept up my sprint towards it. Robin arrived a couple of minutes after me, wondering why we had had to go quite so fast, but seemingly pleased that his GPS was working for the first time in the trip and had recorded us as having traveled at an average of 7/8 km/h (amazing what a bit of determination can do). My pee stop turned into an impromptu early lunch break, until the tide started to lap at the barnacle covered rocks we were perched on, forcing us to move on.
The next section of coast seemed extremely leisurely as we had now completed our main mission of paddling around the small isles and were back on the mainland again (and the fact that I was no longer desperate for a pee!). We followed the coast line around the bays poking our noses in to peek at the holiday cottages and stopping to photograph some friendly seals. We decided to go inland around Eilean Shona as neither of us had been there, and as soon as we were tucked into the land there was such a change of scenery, instead of the windswept heather and rocks of the islands here we were in the middle of tree lined waterways, feeling the heat and humidity of the still air and listening to the insets buzzing around us. Not for long though, as soon we were back out on what I think of as proper West Coast, stopping at a wee bay to surprise some sheep before carrying on round into Loch Ailort and the Sound of Arisaig.
We were headed into a lovely bothy, of which again I had fond childhood memories, but the paddle up the loch was taking forever as neither of us appeared to have any energy left. Even with the best intentions to keep paddling we would alternately put our paddles down and stare into the distance. The weather was now changing, and instead of the perfect blue skies we had come to expect we had ominous grey clouds behind us. I remember feeling glad we had the bothy to look forward to.
Outside the bothy.
Looking out of the Bothy.
With tired arms we pulled the boats up the beach in front of the bothy as the sky overhead got steadily greyer. Dragging the boats above the high tide line and removing all that we would need, we turned the boats over and made our way to the bothy door as the first drops of rain began to fall. Amazingly we had again fallen on our feet, as we discovered the annual work party had just left leaving stacks of wood for the fire and of course a very clean looking bothy. There were even some pictures on the walls (that actually fell off as soon as we got the fire going and some heat built up), and a small library.
I made a quick skirt around the beach collecting some mussels, and the night passed as nights in bothies should, sharing the garlic mussels between us while we told stories, talked about what we would both do next, and passed the remains of the whisky between us. The wind got up and started battering the windows with rain and whistling through the eaves as we lay in our cosy bothy with the dying fire throwing shadows around the walls.
Day 5: Bothy – Rhu point
The last morning of the trip could not have been more different from the rest, forcing us to swap t-shirts and sunglasses for dry-cags and woolly hats. Packing the boats for the day happened in a flash as we desperately tried to stop the rain getting into the dry bags and compartments. We set off down the sea loch with only one thing in mind, to get around the headland safely and back to our dry clothes in the vehicles at Rhu Point. Paddling out of the sea loch was hard work as the strong southerly (F5/6) hit us side on and the odd larger wave broke over the top of us, but knowing it was the last day meant we could just enjoy the fight.
As we rounded the headland and started to head north the boats started to surf down the waves, at last propelling us in the right direction and pushing our speed up so that at one point we were averaging 9km/h. The final paddle back into Rhu Point left me with a mixture of emotions, glad to see the vehicles were still there, happy to be finished, but sad that the trip was coming to an end.
We were extremely lucky with the weather, the West Coast of Scotland in good weather has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it felt great after a summer of working to a timetable to have no plan and make it up as we went along.