Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition

‘No Reason!’
The Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition

By Sean Morley & Ian Wilson

‘Those that ask the question will never understand the answer –
those that understand the answer will never ask the question’
 (with acknowledgement to Wally Herbert and Sir Ranulph Fiennes)

I like circles. A circumnavigation has a sense of completeness about it. Ever since man discovered how to float he has been circumnavigating the variously sized lumps of rock on this watery planet.  To do this in a kayak, the most simple, yet versatile of watercraft, where the only means of propulsion is the symbiosis of wind, wave and paddle blade, is doubly satisfying.

The idea of a circumnavigation of Northern Scotland came to me whilst paddling around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in the summer of 1997. I started at Lyme Regis on the Devon/Dorset border and finished 9 days and 413 miles later on the Devon/Somerset border at Porlock Weir. Although a bit of an epic in itself the ‘circle’ could not be completed.  I had paddled ‘Around the Sharp End’, it seemed logical that my next trip should be around the other end of the Great Britain and this time it would be a true circumnavigation.

The journey would begin at Fort William at the Atlantic entrance to the Great Glen.  The route would be initially south west down Loch Linnhe, then north west through the Sound of Mull to the Small Isles and the Isle of Skye. Continuing north through the Inner Sound and along the shores of the Minch to Cape Wrath, the north western tip of Scotland.  A traverse of the north coast, the ‘Roof of Britain’ to the Pentland Firth and John O’Groats before turning south, down the more sheltered east coast to Inverness, the opposite end of the Great Glen.  The circle could be completed by following the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen back to Fort William.

Ian Wilson

I asked Ian Wilson to join me on the ‘Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition’.  He has proved that he is one of the toughest endurance kayakers in the country by completing a record breaking crossing of the Irish Sea with Jim Morrisey and myself in just over 11 hours. He has finished three 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Races with his K2 partner Peter Jacks and has come a close second in two Western Isles Challenges.  He is a mountaineer and ocean sailor having done the Fastnet and Round Britain and Ireland.  In fact there is not much that Ian hasn’t done and if anyone comes up with a daft idea that involves getting wet, cold and hungry, he is the first to say “Let’s do it!”

This is how he put it to his long-suffering wife Theresa:
I drove home to Essex (after the Irish Sea Crossing) and burst through the door of our house full of the excitement of what we had achieved over the weekend. I was met by Teresa,
“Hello dear, we got the record and Sean wants to know if  I can go for a paddle next June?”
She looked at me with an air of suspicion she only shows when I mention Sean’s name.
“Where?” Teresa asked with a tone that suggests I am about to suffer physical injury.
“Oh, around Northern Scotland”  I answer casually.
Over the years I have found that it’s best not to lie in these situations, it’s a damage limitation exercise. Teresa looked at me like an animal eyeing up its prey,
“So what about me, the children, the up-keep of the house, finance, your career?”
The list was endless.
“How exactly are you going to fit it in?” she added.
I figured we were reaching the end of the negotiations, things seemed to be going well and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I`ll tell you what I`ll bin the Mont Blanc trip,” trying to make it sound as though I was making a tremendous sacrifice.
“Sounds good to me” came the answer. Hooray! I had a pass!

His ability as an extreme sea kayaker aside, the main reason I asked Ian is that even in the most testing, uncomfortable conditions imaginable, like in the middle of the night, 90 miles into the D.W. race, when everyone, including the support crew is at their lowest ebb, he will come up with a funny joke that has everyone in stitches.  His ability to laugh at himself and get everyone laughing with him makes him the perfect companion for the journey I had in mind.

My original intention was to raise money for charity.  I approached a national charity that both Ian and I felt we could support but unfortunately it took them so long to decide that they would indeed like us to raise funds for them that it was too late to do anything about it.  Next time perhaps.  We wanted to do the journey anyway, but it led to the inevitable conversation with onlookers curious as to why we were putting ourselves through such obvious discomforts,
“Why are you doing it?”
“No reason……!”

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whom I have had the privilege to paddle with, in his book ‘Mind over Matter’ quotes Wally Herbert, another great British polar explorer, as answering his critics by saying:
“And of what value was this journey?  It is as well for those who ask such a question that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask”
(Ian has adapted the quote slightly for our title so that even I can understand it!)

An alternative title for this account could have been, ‘Rev-heads do Scotland!’  The concept of paddling around a stretch of coastline as quickly as possible does not really conform to the stereotypical image of sea kayaking.  I would be the first to agree that this mode of travel does not give much opportunity for exploration or for soaking up the atmosphere of a place.  But I am impatient by nature. I had never been to the Western Highlands and Islands. I wanted to see as much of it as I could in one go. With my marathon racing background I actually find it less tiring to crack on at a fast pace than to potter along at a slow cruise.  I knew from our close battles during several sea kayak races that Ian and I had identical fast cruise speeds.  He shared the same impetuous, youthful (some may say immature) desire to get from A to B as quickly as possible. I also wanted to prove that the Inuk sea kayak, manufactured by Kirton Kayaks, could be used for an extended expedition in what was likely to be fairly serious water.  I had already shown that the Inuk is surely the fastest sea kayak on the market by the 65 mile days I was able to put in paddling up the North Coast of Cornwall and Devon and by our Irish Sea record.
Ian is an Inuk fan too:
The Inuk is fast. Designed by Rob Feloy, it is a very sleek-looking craft with an almost straight bow and very low stern. The bow is superbly designed, curving out from the bottom to the deck so as it falls off waves it lands level rather than falling left to right and therefore needs no body adjustment. Concentration can be kept on the stroke, an advantage that we both appreciated as our trip progressed. The boat also has an ability to reach, almost unaided, if the wind is on the beam. The boat also has the dreaded rudder! Ever since we started to race the Inuk we have both been told the main reason we win races is because we have rudders, nothing to do with our ability or perhaps that we train all year round. I accept the rudder helps the boat point more accurately, unlike a conventional sea kayak which requires the paddler to continually change his paddle stroke and the amount of  pulling effort he puts into each side. It reduces fatigue. The rudder also helps the boat to surf  longer, by giving the paddler the ability to link up with  waves ahead if the wave he is on dies away, but it still requires an amount of skill. We also were aware that being lower volume there was a belief  that the Inuk could not take the amount of equipment required for a decent expedition. A fourteen day self supported paddle around Scotland should dispel those thoughts.

The solution was to utilise all the available space within the kayak and with that in mind I approached First Ascent, a company who import Seal Line Dry Bags and other products designed and produced by the American company Cascade Designs.  I had seen a brochure containing their Kodiak tapered dry bags with air release valves to keep their volume to the absolute minimum.  They seemed perfect for getting kit up into the very ends of the Inuk kayak.  I was delighted when they replied to a speculative letter informing them of our forthcoming expedition.  Not only did they supply us with the dry bags we needed but they also gave us other products from the Cascade Designs range to try out including Ultra-lite ThermaRests, PackTowls, waterproof map cases and Platypus waterbags.  We are very grateful to Angela Pendry of First Ascent who put her trust and faith in us to complete our journey without mishap and the products she provided greatly enhanced our comfort during the expedition.

I also approached Arktis, a local company in Exeter.  They have been producing a range of specialised products for the Special Forces of the Armed Services and Tactical Firearms Units of various Polices Forces around the world for a number of years.  They have recently entered the outdoor leisure market and their knowledge and experience of what really works in extreme conditions has enabled them to produce simple, but extremely effective products that will soon be recognised as breaking new ground in this growth market. Ian was not amused.  Arktis wanted me to try out some kit to see if I would be more comfortable in the various climatic conditions than he was.  He complained that his kit was ancient, that his cag, which certainly looked as if it had been used it for all the 20+ years he had been canoeing, could not be compared with my brand new kit from Arktis.  After several days of constant moaning I gave in and gave him the Pertex jacket which I knew he had been eyeing up with increasing envy.  He was like a kid with a new toy and I now bitterly regret giving it to him.  It was such a nice jacket!

Our kit worries sorted, Ian volunteered to organise the food for the journey.  I told him that I would eat anything, I wouldn’t mind what it was as long as there was lots of it.  I had no idea what a task I had given him and I must take this opportunity of apologising to Teresa who spent many hours individually bagging two weeks worth of food under Ian’s supervision.
I’ll let him tell the story:
I was given the task of organising the food, a subject very close to my heart.  So I started arranging the logistics of menus and quantities of food about a month before we were due to set off. The problem I had was that I was doing ten days yacht racing in the two weeks before our paddle.  I returned home from sailing, took the morning off work and hunted the shelves around Sainsburys and Tescos. I thought at one stage I was going to get thrown out for loitering!  I decided there was a need to vary the menu and make sure we would not eat the same meal more than twice. It amazed me the variety of long life food available to the budding explorer, from Naan bread to pasta sauces in light weight plastic containers, fresh fruit in easy to open tins and minute boil pasta, ideal for a quick lunch stop.  No need to buy expensive, cardboard-flavoured de-hydrated food. I also decided to pre-pack porridge, mixing it with sugar and milk powder and dividing it into separate day bags. What a laugh that was, measuring what Teresa and I decided was a hearty bowl of porridge for two people. Anyone that has tried to get Readybrek from a mixing bowl into a sandwich bag will know what a mess it can make. We were finding porridge flakes all over the house. It became a real problem for the kids trying to explain to their teachers why they had porridge on their homework.  On past paddling expeditions I have done all the food had been loaded into the kayaks at the beginning of the trip and at the end of each day we would have to ferret about in the boats looking for morsels to make up that day’s meal. To stop this happening again I made up bags containing an individual evening meal; day bags consisting of a lunch and nibbles; and a breakfast bag. This system worked brilliantly and I would recommend it to anyone considering a self supporting paddle.

In return for Ian doing the food I volunteered to get some sort of route plan together and get the boats ready.  I had already spent many a happy hour studying the Ordnance Survey 1:250 000 scale maps of Western and Northern Scotland.  I now needed to study the route in a bit more detail.  The local library has proved an excellent resource for my various trips.  I could photocopy and cut into bits the various OS maps and Imray charts of the route and gather all the pilotage and tidal information I needed.  I believe in keeping things simple as much as possible and Franco Ferrero’s book on Sea Kayak Navigation follows that principle.  It was an excellent reference.  I knew that weather permitting we would be doing some fairly committed open crossings to some of the islands and across some pretty big bays.  Having photocopied and laminated every bit of coastline I could, I set about transferring tidal information relevant to our trip onto the numerous sheets using an indelible pen.  Several coastal Guides from back issues of ‘Canoeist’ magazine also proved useful.  The main difficulty was that I could not be precise about when we would get to the various problem points along the route. I resolved to plan each day’s paddle the night before. I am glad that I did not bother to plan too much in advance.  As it turned out we started half a day early which immediately threw my tidal calculations upside down!

Kirton Kayaks were again fantastic, allowing me to take over an area of their workshop to tinker with the works Inuk kayaks they were lending us for the expedition.  With foot pumps fitted, rudders fine tuned and deck lines renewed where necessary it was then a case of wondering where all the kit was going to go.

Taking a wee break on Loch Linnhe

Day 1 :  Fort William Pier to Camas Chil-Mhalieu  (18 miles)
As we live at opposite ends of  Southern Britain the plan was to meet near Preston where friends of Ian’s had offered to put us up and look after my car whilst we were away.  To get me in the right mood I listened to an audio book of Moby Dick on my drive north.  Clive and Dorothy were well used to Ian invasions and seemed completely unfazed as we emptied the contents of two cars on their lawn.  We stuffed and packed and re-stuffed and re-packed by the light of our head torches until we were fairly confident that we could at least get the majority of our kit in the kayaks.  We headed off again early the next morning sharing the driving on the long journey to Fort William.  The journey went quickly, chatting all the way.  This set the tone for the rest of the expedition.  We have so much in common, not just through our job but our shared outlook on life.  Even though we had only met a couple of years before and had seen each other perhaps six or seven times during that period we had established a firm friendship based on healthy competition and a deep respect for each others ability.

The weather was excellent as we entered the Highlands and I saw for the first time the majesty of Glen Coe in all its glory.  Patches of ermine-white snow like robes draped regally over the mountain tops reminded us that winter had not long left these lands.  We stopped briefly at Bunree to look at the Corran Narrows where the tide sweeps through at up to eight knots.  The flooding tide was producing standing waves mid-stream but I was confident that if, for some reason, we ended up paddling against the tide it would definitely be possible to make ground using the eddies, given a fair wind.  Fort William is a busy place.  Perhaps not the most beautiful of towns it is functional and a focal point for most activities in the Western Highland region.  A look in either direction and you are immediately reminded of its location at the gateway to the Glen. Steep sided mountains falling into lochs with roads clinging to their sides.  And of course there is the Ben.  The big brother, omnipresent, creating its own cloud which seems to keep the town in permanent shade.  I was never to see the summit of Ben Nevis.  The days when the summit is free of cloud are rare but that maintains its aura, its mystery and explains why thousands of people trudge to the top every year.

Having arranged to leave Ian’s car at Fort William police station all that remained was to wait for morning to commence our journey.
I thought aloud, “the wind this evening is blowing straight down Loch Linnhe towards the sea”.
Ian read my mind.  Something else that was to follow a pattern during our journey.  Whenever I suggested a change in plan Ian was already on the same wavelength.  There was rarely any need for discussion, it really was like we knew what the other was thinking.
“You want to start now?” he confirmed.
“It’s a lovely evening and just look at that wind, we’ll surf all the way to Mull!”

A quick bite to eat at the local supermarket cafe then we got changed in the car park.  The first of many occasions when Ian exposed his bottom, albeit briefly, to the population of Scotland.  Having packed the boats earlier at our selected start point on Fort William Pier, I was somewhat concerned when we (only just) managed to lift a kayak at either end and it sagged horribly in the middle.  I had visions of our craft folding in half before we had even got them on the water!  That would have been a little difficult to explain to our sponsors.  We had managed to get 12 days food and all our kit in the boats.  Testament to the superb design of the Inuk kayak and the efficiency of the SealLine taper dry bags.

I gave Ian a deck bag I had hurriedly ‘invented’:

As we were about to leave Fort William, Sean gave me a present. A new bit of kit he had picked up. It was a large mobile phone case from the days when you needed a shopping trolley to carry your phone around. By putting some shot cord and some hooks on it he had made quite an effective deck bag that could be anchored on the deck in front of you and contained lots of goodies.  The bag also made an effective wave break, except that instead of the wave travelling up the deck and flooding over your spray deck, it now travelled up the deck, hit the bag and smacked you fair and square in the face. How I hated that bag by the end of the trip!

We got the kayaks onto the water without mishap and at 4.30pm on Friday 11th June we headed off down Loch Linnhe towards the sea.  The proprietor of the sea food restaurant on Fort William Pier, Lorna Finlayson, who had shown considerable interest and some concern at our intended journey waved us off enthusiastically, entering into the spirit of adventure by taking a photo of us then hanging precariously off the end of the Pier to give Ian his camera back!

Conditions could not have been better.  A Force 4 on our backs we surfed down through the Corran Narrows into the long expanse of Loch Linnhe, the warm evening sunshine on our faces.  With Ben Nevis as a back drop and the summit silhouettes of Mull in the distance it was the perfect start to our adventure. We covered some eighteen miles in two and a half hours!  Ian describes the paddle:

I’ve paddled fully laden sea kayaks before and they all seem to handle so much better full rather than empty, gliding through nearly all sea conditions.  The Inuk is no different, it cut through the water with a real ease and grace.  The sea state was just enough to give us continual small surf to glide down the loch on, about  a foot high, just enough to bury the nose and send a wall of water travelling up the bow of the boat and sweeping around the cockpit. Now this is where a rudder really comes into its own, by working the foot bar continually you can chase each wave and plan your course to accommodate another wave as the one you are riding dies away, ease off the stroke and let the swell do the work, you can achieve massive runs with out any big power strokes and can cover long distances with relative ease.

Ian had badly injured his shoulder the preceding November in a 50 metre fall off Sharp Edge on Blencathra.  It had caused him some concern leading up to the start of our expedition but it seemed to sort itself out during this ‘warm-up’ paddle.  We spotted an ideal campsite in the small bay of Camas Chil-Mhalieu (your guess is as good as mine on the pronunciation!).  The gently shelving beach meant a fairly long carry up to the high water mark on a grassy bank.  We were approaching spring tides and would have to be mindful of this in our selection of suitable stopping places.

We met a German couple who had parked their camper van on the raised storm beach.  They only had a limited supply of drinking water so despite their generous offer Ian went and saw the local farmer who had just driven his tractor and trailer onto the beach.  He offered to give us a lift on his trailer back to the farm where, he said, we would find “the best water in the Highlands”.  It probably was but unfortunately it had acquired the taste of the hosepipe through which it was delivered.  Still it was good enough for cooking and Ian soon had the first of many excellent meals underway.  We immediately adopted a routine without discussion whereby Ian would cook whilst I planned the next days paddle and took photos of our campsite.  I would then do the washing up and we would both settle down to writing our diaries.  We had resolved to keep independent diaries throughout the journey to see how our perceptions varied.  We were both aware that friendships can be put to the test during this type of expedition.  Myself, I had never before slept in a tent with another male for such a long period of time. Ian was quite used to it – which was even more worrying!  Peter Jacks had very generously loaned us his Terra Nova Quasar ETC.  Apparently he rarely had the opportunity to use it because it was permanently on loan to Ian.  It proved to be the perfect expedition tent, the extra tent canopy (ETC) giving Ian sufficient space to create his culinary  masterpieces whilst I admired the view out the back.  It very soon became our home, a haven not just from the midges but also from the wind-chill that seemed to be a permanent feature however warm the evening sun.

It was my first opportunity to try out my ThermaRest.  We had opted for the Ultra-lite, willing to sacrifice a little comfort to save weight.  We need not have worried.  The Ultra-lite was unbelievable compared to a normal foam sleeping mat.  It took seconds to inflate and once it was, you couldn’t get me off it!  It was a revelation for me.  I had always been put off by their price.  Believe me they are worth every penny!  Having enjoyed a sunset over Mull we were soon asleep.  Almost mid-summer the sun was setting at about 10.45pm.

Day 2 : Camas Chil-Mhalieu to Kilchoan  (39 miles)
I awoke at 4.30am.  It was well and truly daylight.  I dozed until 7.30am whilst Ian slept soundly. I’m a ‘mornings’ person and will always wake at daybreak.  I’d have to adjust to the short nights if I was not to become over-tired through lack of sleep.  Breakfast of ReadyBrek mixed with powdered milk and sugar was quickly consumed.  Ian, bless him, was fastidious about ensuring we got equal quantities of grub.  I pointed out that with his high metabolic rate and low body fat he could not afford to lose too much weight. I reassured him that I would not be upset if he gave himself a little extra.  I had deliberately pigged out in the fortnight leading up to the trip, so much so that I was keen to re-discover my abdominals!  It was certainly my experience during the South West peninsular challenge that it was impossible to eat enough during such a prolonged journey.  I had visited just about every bun shop and fish and chip take away on the coast of Devon and Cornwall and still I had lost half a stone in 9 days.  This expedition was likely to be even more demanding of calories as the weather was considerably cooler.  It took us two hours to get breakfasted, packed and the boats to shore.  The gently shelving beach had been transformed overnight by the falling tide into a painful trial of strength as we carried each boat in turn over the two hundred metres of rotting seaweed, sharp rocks and slippery pebbles to the  soft sand at the waters edge.  We resolved to be more selective with our choice of campsite; the steeper the beach the shorter the carry.  Good in theory, in reality we were not able to be that choosy.

The wind of the previous evening had died away and we had our first topless paddle!  It is an odd tan one acquires whilst sea kayaking.  It ends somewhere above the navel.  Indeed I have various banding according to the garments worn.  At least the backs of my hands were brown!  I am in favour of wearing a hat to shield the sun from my eyes.  I find the salt water soon crystallises on any sunglasses worn making them completely opaque.  Ian dislikes hats and would resemble some monster from the deep by the end of the day with large deposits of salt around his eyes.  He was already weather beaten by the considerable sea mileage accomplished earlier in the year during other exploits.  With his short, dark, curly hair and rugged looks, he looked more Gaelic than many of the locals.

We were reminded that this was most definitely the sea when thousands of jelly fish appeared near the surface.  We also met our first seals.  These inquisitive creatures make an exaggerated fuss as you approach, diving as if their lives depend on it, only for them to resurface just a few feet behind you as their curiosity gets the better of them.  As we approached Rubha an Ridire, where Loch Linnhe emptied into the Sound of Mull, the wind died altogether.  This heralded a change in wind and tide. As soon as we turned the corner and started to head north west up the Sound the wind was right on our nose. Blowing a steady Force 4 it was enough to get us wet as the chop broke over our decks.  It did occur to me that it was going to be a very hard paddle up the west coast if the wind remained in this quarter.  Our first porpoise cheered us as we bashed across to Fishnish Bay.

After what seemed like an eternity of ploughing through cold steep seas we reached our planned lunch stop. We glided up a fine shingle beach and jumped out of the kayaks for the first time in a good few hours. I got my dry cag on and some water-proof  trousers and set to preparing lunch. Sean was already sponging any water out of the boats and making sure everything was still strapped on.  Although we knew each other fairly well we had not actually been away together and it was a bit unknown how we would get on. Yet here we were on the first real day with a routine of  jobs to get done and no discussion as to who was going to do what. It was as if we had already completed an expedition together.

It had become overcast and before long we were shivering with cold.  I found it almost impossible to keep warm in salt-water soaked clothes, despite the best efforts of my Nookie Aquatex Sea Cag and Helly Hannsen trousers.  Ian donned his favoured Palm dry cag but he too was uncomfortably cold.  We hurriedly got back into our boats to get warm.  This proved to be a continual problem.  The paddling kit we had was excellent for paddling in, the dry kit we had was lovely once we had got it on.  It was that period in between when we would get very cold, often doubling up in uncontrollable shivers.  As soon as we were paddling we quickly got warm and had to shed clothing.  There is not a simple solution, especially when weight is such a crucial factor.

The afternoon paddle was tough.  Again a Force 4 bang on the nose.  We measured our progress by passing close to the lighthouse on Dearg Sgeir.  It was a shame; the wind was all but cancelling out the benefit of a flooding tide.  Once we had rounded the aptly named Rubh’ an t-Sean Chaisteil (‘Headland with Sean’s castle on’ as I chose to call it) we tucked under the heavily wooded cliffs of Gualan Dubh, out of the wind.  The area reminded me of one of the most dramatic stretches of cliff scenery on the North Devon coast between Ilfracombe and Porlock weir – a ‘must’ for any sea kayaker.  We sneaked between Calve Island and the ‘mainland’ of Mull and into the picture postcard harbour of Tobermory.  It is a prosperous, busy wee town although little is left of its once significant fishing fleet.  Its continuing prosperity relies on tourism and the affluence of the visiting yachtsmen.  It was nearly 6.00pm so they were unlikely to get much out of us.  I was suprised to see several shops were still open, including a bakery.  The temptation was too much and we sat scoffing Scotch Pies, caramel slices and iced doughnuts until even I felt quite sick.

I rang the coastguard at Oban informing them of our progress so far.  I had written to them some time ago and had promised to keep them informed of our plans.  The provisional route plan I had sent them was already superfluous but they seemed happy enough so long as we rang them at least once a day.  We chatted to a girl working behind the counter in the bakery.  Her other occupation was whale research.  She informed us that we could expect to see minkie whale the next day.  Our energy levels restored we prepared to put to sea again.  However we first had to explain, in some detail, our journey and the different bits of kit on our kayaks to some interested local boys.  Ian was tolerance personified.  He has a special ability to ‘chat’ with people on their level. His skill in developing an immediate rapport with anyone he meets was used to good effect on several occasions during the trip.
He describes the encounter:

When we got back to the boats three lads were standing by them. They were about 8 years old and fascinated by the kayaks especially when we told them we had just paddled up the Sound and where we were intending going. They told us they had been guarding them for us, in case of pirates I imagined. So we took a photo of the lads and they stood in their best poses. I wonder what stories they told their parents and whether their parents believed them. 

We hugged the north east coast of Mull avoiding the worst of the now opposing tide.  Our destination was Kilchoan on the south side of the Ardnamurchan peninsular.  It involved a four mile crossing from the lighthouse at Rubha nan Gall.  I kept checking our transits as we made excellent ground into the small bay, protected by the mountains from the north westerly breeze.  We had covered about thirty nine miles in our first full day of paddling.  Most of it into a head wind.  We could have gone on but it was 7.30pm and there was no suitable landfall between Kilchoan and Point of Ardnamurchan, our first big obstacle.  We chose our campsite carefully finding the perfect spot.  A steeply shelving beach backed by a grassy field with a suitable level area for the tent. The short cropped grass was perfect and we soon had the tent erected and our wet clothes hung out to dry on the barbed wire fence. The only problem was that we were overlooked by several crofts.  On our way to the telephone kiosk a short way down the single track road we passed the first croft.  I saw the occupants staring at us with just a little hostility.  I waved at them and mouthed the question,
“Is it okay to camp there?”
The elderly couple came out to speak to us. It would have been more polite to ask first but then we might have been refused.  The old man explained how he put his sheep on the land every day during the summer.  When we explained what we were about and that we would be gone first thing in the morning they seemed pleased to help.  Again another trend was set.  Whenever we had cause to ask for assistance from the local inhabitants, be it fresh water or the use of their phone, we were met with a warmth and generosity that re-established our faith in human nature.  We met so many people on our journey who understood completely what we were about and wanted to help in any way they could.  My theory is that this wild and untamed landscape attracts or keeps a hold of anyone with an appreciation for natural beauty.  That common thread runs through both the resident population and the many tourists who return to the Western Highlands and Islands year after year.

Approaching the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan

A four cheese ravioli with garlic and mushroom sauce mopped up with nan bread, followed by rice pudding consumed to the sound of Gaelic music on the radio, with a view of the impressive 528 metre Ben Hiant, finished the day off nicely.

Day 3:  Kilchoan to Armadale Bay, Isle of Skye  (38 miles)
Ian entertained me with his snoring during the night.  He had adapted to sleeping in a tent so quickly it was as if he had been doing it most of his life (which he has)!  An occasional nudge was enough to allow me to sleep until the alarm woke me at 6.00am.  It had been raining for much of the night.  A real blessing in disguise as the wind had backed south westerly.  Much more favourable for our first big crossing.  The Point of Ardnamurchan is the most westerly point on the British mainland.  Suprised?  I too had always thought it was Cape Cornwall, but check it out – it’s true!  The rugged peninsular thrusts out into the Atlantic and has steadfastly refused to be tamed by modern man.  Its rolling moorland hills and secluded lochans are a haven for wildlife including red deer, sea otters and golden eagles.

Sadly we saw none of these as we left Kilchoan under leaden skies. The massive cliffs obscured all but the next heather-clad headland.  The sense of remoteness increased as we headed west then north, the swell increasing as we rounded Corrachadh Mor.  This feeling of isolation was spoilt somewhat when Ian spotted a set of traffic lights on the single track road leading to the lighthouse!  Someone with a sense of humour must have come up with that idea.  There were many times more seals than there were ever likely to be cars.  A quick photo and a crunchy bar, there was nowhere to get out so we pushed on towards Sanna Point.  Having rounded the headland we could see the Small Isles of Muck and Eigg as dark smudges on the horizon.  Visibility was poor,  the wind increasing all the time. I was not looking forward to the crossing.  Ian, as usual, was up for it.  I insisted on a pee stop then we headed out into the murk.  I already had a bearing worked out for Port Mor (on the island of Muck) seven miles away.  The wind was playing tricks on us.  It had been south westerly first thing. Then it had veered southerly and now east sou’east.  It was a solid Force 4 with gusts of 5 to 6.  By confusing the residual south westerly swell it made for an uncomfortable paddle.  We had gone about half way when I called Ian over.  I pointed out that if the wind stayed as it was or went even further to the east it would make the crossing from Muck to Eigg extremely difficult.  We agreed to alter course and head for Galmisdale on Eigg, passing just a couple of miles east of Muck.  I had wanted to spend some time on the Small Isles of the Inner Hebrides but the weather was not good and the last thing we wanted was to get stuck on the islands for several days.  Ian describes the crossing:

The rain was coming in squalls and would occasionally reduce the visibility. Sean and I started to move away from each other.  Not too far, just enough to keep each other in sight in the swell. Having paddled so far together on the Irish crossing we have found that when the conditions are rough enough it pays to put all your effort and concentration into what your doing not your partner, plus it makes the time fly by when you can switch off. After about an hour we saw a large yacht approaching in front of us. It was about 50 feet in length, an ocean-going ketch. The bow was burying into the water sending sheets of water cascading over the decks. As she ran along side of us the cockpit hatch opened and a man stuck his head out into the wind and rain, to check if we were okay or needed anything. I bet he could not believe his eyes seeing us crashing through the surf on such a dreadful day.

We decided to have lunch on Eigg and then head directly across to Point of Sleat on the Isle of Skye.  The lyric of Robert Stevenson’s ‘The Skye Boat Song’ came to me as we bounced on over the swell:

Mull was astern,
Rhum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow

Well not quite but it was close enough. In the Sound of Eigg we were buzzed by a hundred or more Manx Shearwaters.  I became quite giddy as they circled erratically around us.  The mighty black rock of An Sgurr on Eigg is one of the most distinctive features of the Inner Hebrides.  It really does look like an upturned ships prow and must have made an excellent fortress for the Picts in the early years of the first millennium, guarding one of the main sea paths of the Celtic world.  The shelter created by this rock wall has created a sub-tropical micro-climate where the islands flora, including rare ferns and palm trees flourish.  We found no such shelter from the bitter south east wind and heavy rain that welcomed us as we arrived in the small harbour.  We were just trying to find a refuge on the shore when a call came across the water,
“Do you fancy a cup of tea?”
We turned to see a grey-haired, sun-tanned face smiling at us from the cockpit of a wooden yacht moored in the small bay.  We warned him that we were soaking wet but he reassured us and we paddled over to the yacht called Tammie Norrie (Caithnesian for Puffin).

At the back of the yacht was a small inflatable, Sean took no time in jumping out of his boat and diving into this small craft, as he tried to get his balance he looked like someone drunk on a bouncy castle. He quickly grabbed hold of the stern of the yacht, over the rail and was gone, into the cockpit and into the warmth. I tied a line to my boat and clambered aboard the floating bouncy thing. I got my balance and shuffled to the stern of the boat and was just about to dive into the warm interior of the yacht when Sean (expedition leader) stuck his head out the companion way and shouted:
“Ian get the maps off my boat, can you?”
I am now shivering with cold and can hear the kettle whistling as it’s starting to boil, but I have to make my way back into the bouncy thing that has a couple of inches of cold water in it. By the time I get onto the yacht Sean is comfortably seated inside talking to our host.
Hugh Eaglesfield was sat in the cabin of his yacht surrounded by all manner of books about the sea and adventure. He was a rugged looking man who from his appearence had written most of the books from his personal experiences. By the time I had finally got into the tiny yacht, Sean was well away, telling Hugh the details of our trip and was seeking his advice and any hints to assist us with our navigation.  There was nothing left for me to do but to establish myself in the galley and get on with lunch. While I beavered away at my cullinary master piece, two minute boil noodles, I listened with interest to Hughes advice. It appeared that Hugh had sailed every part of  Northern Scotland and was still going strong. He had worked at Doonreay, the nuclear power station on the north coast, on retirement he had moved to the east coast. His wife did not sail, so once a yaer he would sail over to the west coast and appeared to know the waters back to front. I served lunch and finnally sat down in the small cabin. It was great just to sit down on the soft seat instead of the hard cockpit of the Inuk. As I tucked into my noodles it was not long before Hugh and I were exchanging stories of our adventures at sea. Although I have competed in some classic major yacht races, such as the “Fastnet” and the “Round Britian and Ireland” it was obvious Hugh had far more experience than I did.
Sean and I started to relax, we were warming up and the sound of the rain and wind certainly did not intice us outside.  Could this be the end of the day’s effort?  No such luck!
“You won’t break any records sitting in here” said Hugh, “best you get out and start paddling”.
We looked at Hugh and knew he was right and also knew he was not just trying to get rid of us, he knew we had a lot of hard work in front of us and he also had every confidnce in us and sitting in his boat telling war stories was getting us nowhere. We climbed outside, the wind had got stronger and the rain more persistent – a constant drizzle, it really was very cold and unpleasant.

Thanking Hugh for his hospitality and promising to keep in touch we headed north, following the saw-tooth ridge of Beinn Bhuidhe until we could see Point of Sleat some eight miles away.  We took a bearing straight for it.  As we passed the northern tip of Eigg the massive bulk of Rhum was revealed.  A shifting window in the clouds allowed watery sunlight to filter through, foreshortening the distance to the island turning the heather-clad flanks the colour of burnished bronze.  The island beckoned us but we resisted the temptation.  It would have meant a really hard paddle from Rhum to Skye later that day. It was a major disappointment for me.  I yearned to see white-tailed sea eagles soaring below its four high volcanic pinnacles.
“I’ll be back,” I promised myself.

The Cuillin Mountains were obliterated by thick oily clouds.  In my mind’s eye I had pictured Skye, perhaps the most romantic of all the Hebridean islands.  It had looked nothing like the real image that now presented itself.  The steep low cliffs backed by forbidding hills under a gloomy sky. We entered the Sound of Sleat, a steep choppy sea making the going difficult despite the flooding tide.  At last conditions began to improve.

The rain had stopped and the sun was starting to come out, it was actually warming up. I was feeling really strong and was enjoying the fun of the surf as we shot along, waiting for the nose of the boat to start to dip as the next wave picked up the back of the boat.  A quick sprint and you were on it, roaring down the face.  I find surfing so exhilirating using the power of the sea to push you along. Sean was also having a great time and between sprints, when the two of us tried to out do each other with the longest surf ride, we swapped stories and told jokes.  This really was the life!

There was the promise of a bed at Ornsay, a friend of a friend – you know how it is, but that was too far.  We had to settle for Armadale Bay where we knew there would be a phone and fresh water.  There appeared to be lots of places to pitch a tent on the lush green grass.  Closer inspection revealed it to be salt marsh riven with little gullies and ankle breaking pot holes.  Eventually we found a solid piece of turf, just a few feet above the high water mark.  I was conscious again of the imminent spring tides and we waited until we could be certain of pitching the tent without it being flooded .  The morning tide would be higher again so we would have to be up bright and early.  Phone calls made to the coastguard and respective partners, I was happy about the progress we had made in what could only be described as crap conditions but Ian’s thoughts were with Teresa:

We phoned the girls, neither was very happy. It does not matter how many times a year I go away it’s never easy leaving Teresa and the kids, if you have a loving family I do not suppose you get used to being away. It’s a good job I never remember how guilty I feel or how much I miss them when I’m away or I would never get out of the front door.

We used the toilet at the nearby boat yard.  Cor! A sit down job!  We were shattered by the days effort and it was tent, grub, bed in rapid succession.

Working our way up Kyle Rhea against the tide

Day 4:  Armadale Bay to Applecross Bay  (39 miles)
I did not sleep well, whether it was the rain squalls rattling the tent or the subliminal worry about the morning high tide, I’m not sure.  I woke with a start just after 6.00am.  Quickly looking outside, the sea had crept silently to within two feet of our tent.  I shook Ian, still deep in sleep.
“I think we had better get a move on!”
As it was the tide came no closer and we were able to eat our porridge without getting wet.  It had given us an early start though and by 8.00am we were getting into our paddling gear.  Ian describes the daily ritual:

The next morning was a fairly early start and we were more organised packing away our kit, plus we only had to carry the boats a few feet to the water’s edge. It was raining and cold, our canoeing clothing had been hanging on the fence all night and was soaked. I have been canoeing since I was seven, for the last ten years I have been paddling at least four times a week all year round, but I still cannot get used to the feeling of putting on wet canoe gear. You see, in our house I am not allowed to bring my canoe kit in the house; something about it smelling; so unless I dry it in the car during the day or find a boiler room at work, it stays on the line all year round. Now the car thing is okay but it can make passengers gag when they get in – I suppose the smell of wet rubber booties and cagoules has its own particular bouquet! I was slung out of the boiler room at work because of the fire risk when I filled it with tents and climbing kit –  some rules are so strange!

Paddling out of the bay we were into a following sea.  The wind was being funnelled up the Sound of Sleat and we made excellent progress towards the island of Ornsay, gliding through the shallows into the small port.

It was raining heavily as we trudged into the only shop, water dripping all over the bare floor boards.  It was busy with local people getting their morning paper and bottle of milk.  No-one batted an eyelid as we searched the shelves for something tasty.  They must get visitors dressed in neoprene skirts all the time!  As we discussed what we could supplement the days lunch with Ian performed a neat juggling trick with a can of beans.  As it slipped from his grasp he batted it across the room narrowly missing a display of carefully placed bone-china trinkets, probably worth a small fortune.
“I thought it was set up for bar billiards”, he explained.
“Do you take credit card?” he asked the shopkeeper.
We left the shop in tears of laughter and found shelter from the downpour in a marquee erected on the harbour side.  It was the remains of a very posh do; chandeliers, ‘champers’, the lot.  We felt a little incongruous as we sat there, our warm bodies slowly steaming. When it was time to head off again we both felt the urge as soon as we stepped out into the cold.  Having completed our business against the nearest hedge I was just adjusting myself when a very smart looking woman appeared from around the corner.
“Do you work here?” she asked in a very English accent.
“We were sheltering from the rain” I explained.
“You’re in my garden” she exclaimed indignantly.
I did not bother to communicate any further.
I puzzled as to what job she thought we might have been performing.  Perhaps all her servants dress in dry cags, waterproof trousers and wetsuit boots!

Our delay had been deliberate.  We were about to enter Kyle Rhea, a fjord-like channel between Skye and the mainland.  The tide would be flowing at up to 8 knots in the wrong direction and would not be turning for another couple of hours at least.  We decided to push on anyway – at least the wind was behind us.  The channel narrowed until the steep wooded cliffs engulfed us.  Dramatic falls of brown peaty water cascaded down hidden gullies as if the very mountains themselves were bleeding to death in some sacrificial act.  A pair of Peregrine falcons shrieked obscenities as we passed underneath.  The wind was more than a match for the tide so long as we hugged the shore.  The six foot swell kicked up by the weather tide helped us surf past each rocky outcrop.  It was stunning scenery despite the miserable weather and I revelled in being able to defeat the opposing tide.  We reached the reverse eddy in the bay of Bagh Dunan Ruadh without a problem.  The next section presented a bit more of a challenge though.  The channel was just three hundred meters wide and we were reminded of the speed of the south flowing tide as a large Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel came crashing down through the standing waves at high speed.  It was an impressive sight and was evidence of the depth and volume of water rushing through the narrow gap.   At first glance there appeared to be no way that we would be able to paddle against it.  On closer inspection however it was apparent that if we hopped the eddies along the Skye shoreline we could just about do it.  After a couple of careless break-ins where the tide swept us 180 degrees back the way we had come we got the angle right and with the speed of the Inuks we were able to paddle upstream against the flow.  We were being watched, not just by the passengers and crew of the ferry working the narrow crossing, but also by a gang of seals fishing and playing in the eddy lines.  As we finally made it into the reverse eddy by the lighthouse half way up the narrowest part of Kyle Rhea we came across a colony of a hundred or more seals of all shapes and sizes.  The young pups had possibly never seen a kayak before and could not have been taught about the historical use of the craft in Arctic waters.  They came to within a few feet before diving in a melodramatic flail of fins.  One youngster had obviously watched too many ‘Flipper’ episodes as he came leaping past with carefree abandon.  We just floated and admired their agility in the water.  Any attempts to photograph them were hopeless as they deliberately dived at the critical moment.

We could have sat there all day but we were both getting hungry and we still had a few miles to do before lunch.  Turning the corner into Kyle Akin the wind was on the nose again.  It just goes to show that any wind forecast is almost irrelevant in these parts as the islands and glens just direct the airflow down the line of least resistance.  It was a hard thrash across to Kyle of Lochalsh, passing underneath the controversial Skye Bridge.  I do not pretend to understand all the issues but I have some sympathy with the opposition to such a bridge.  Anything that takes away what Jim Crummley describes as the ‘Island-ness’ of Skye is sad and I would be the first to agree that the many ferries that serve the Hebrides should be subsidised by central government to ensure their economic viability. However, unless national and local government policy has, as its aim, to keep the young Hebrideans on the islands by providing opportunity and prosperity the identity of this place will be lost – forever.

The depopulation of the Highlands and Islands began when the Hanovarian army crushed the Jacobite uprising at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.  The lairds and landlords, once dependent on their tenantry for military support found they were no longer able to raise arms.  At the same time they realised there was more profit to be had in sheep and sporting estates.  The relatively large populations in the glens and on the islands of Scotland’s west coast, were forced off their crofts and given little option but to emigrate, mostly to Canada and America which they did in great numbers.  The Clearences continued until the Crofter’s Act of 1886 when a degree of security of tenure was introduced.  Emigration caused by unemployment and the promise of ‘a better life’ in the cities continued through the twentieth century and only recently has the trend been reversed.  How many of the once empty crofts have been renovated by settlers from the city in search of ‘the good life’?  The interest in all things Celtic has done much to revive the economy of the Hebrides.  Whether the building of a bridge will detract from the romantic ideal of the Isle of Skye is difficult to say.  It has certainly made it more accessible to those lacking imagination who are slaves to the car.

Ferry gliding through Plock of Kyle we sought shelter in a gully to the north of the town.  Ian did his ‘chef thing’ whilst I tried to find the shortest route into town.  I came across an old man collecting huge lumps of coal from the side of the railway line.  Relics of a by-gone age they still provided good fuel, he explained.  Kyle of Lochalsh is the terminus for one of the great rail journeys of Britain.  With lunch eaten in warm sunshine in the undergrowth to escape the chill westerly wind, I volunteered to walk into town to buy some extra gas canisters.  Ian had purchased a gas conversion kit for his Trangia which was proving to be very efficient, boiling a kettle in about eight minutes.  He was now able to estimate how much gas we would use for the whole trip and as this was the last town for many days it seemed sensible to get it now.  I left Ian sat in his boat to keep warm.  Even so by the time I had returned from a successful shop he was shivering with cold.

We headed north.  My original plan had been to go across to Scalpay and up through the Sound of Raasay to Iona.  The Force 4-5 westerly put paid to that idea.  Instead we crossed Loch Carron to the Crowlin Islands.  The Skye peaks of Sgurr Mhairi, Beinn na Caillich and Bla Bheinn (926m) with the Cuillin massive behind were silhouetted in the late afternoon sun.  Looking across to Ian, the sunlight turning the spray from his paddles into showers of molten metal, I was moved by the enormity of what lay ahead.  We were leaving the shelter of the Inner Hebrides, heading up into the Minch and beyond to the North Atlantic.  Cape Wrath, the notorious ‘turning point’ seemed so far away, yet it was just one of many major headlands that now lay between us and the relative sanctuary of the east coast.

Despite the strong side wind and the fact that Ian had been unable to get warm since lunch, our pace was perfectly matched.  We arrived in Applecross Bay in pleasant evening sunshine.  Finding a nice spot next to a stream beside a couple of wooden boats resting quietly on the turf, we soon had our kit strewn everywhere.  A very tame male Chaffinch entertained us as we fed him left-over crunchy bar.  He sat happily on a deck hatch whilst we prepared his and our supper.  As the sun sank over the Western Isles I was reluctant to get into the tent.  Another big day to come,  I was making the most of being warm and dry.  This was why we were here,  this was just the beginning.

Day 5 : Applecross Bay to Mellon Udrigle  (48 miles)
I awoke early but dozed until 7.30am. The bay was calm with a light south westerly breeze just ruffling the surface.  It had been a great campsite and for that reason perhaps we were in no hurry to leave.  By 9.30am we were finally underway.  I had a tendency to ‘faff’ which occasionally meant Ian was waiting for me to get my butt into my boat.  It was a tail wind again.  I made a silent prayer of thanks to whoever was responsible because we needed a big mileage day if we were to reach our goal of the Summer Isles.  We surfed past the Royal Navy exercise area off Ru na Lachan.  I could see someone watching us from the traffic control tower as we sped past at around seven knots.  We were now due east of the northern tip of Rona with its gleaming white lighthouse.  This narrow island ridge is high on my list for a return visit. Further west the broken ridge on the Trotternish peninsular of Skye dipped towards the Outer Hebrides, clearly visible on the western horizon.  As we crossed Loch Torridon the three great mountains of Liathach, Beinn Eighe and Beinn Alligin dominated the view inland, cumulus cloud just caressing the high summits.  I took a photo of Ian; he had climbed most of the mountains in the Torridon range but he had never seen them from this angle.

We were reminded of how far north we were by the first of many Great Skua.  These powerful birds would glide low towards us, checking us out to see if we were edible, angling away at the last moment.  We passed Red Point, our progress slowed by opposing tide.  Without a break we pushed on to Longa Island, in the entrance to Loch Gairloch.  Ian was going well. His ability to surf his Inuk down the steep following seas whilst I floundered around in his wake, convinced me that my rear hatch was full of water.  The large hatch cover was several years old and quite perished.  I had decided it would do one more expedition but I was concerned it may be letting in water whenever it was rough.  I inspected it at lunch time – the rear compartment was dry, so I had no excuse I had to face facts – Ian was supremely fit and his confidence and familiarity with his kayak was increasing with each day.  I would do well just to keep up with him.

There was no beach on the island but having paddled non-stop for three and a half hours we were both desperate for a break.  We hauled the kayaks over large rounded boulders above the surge of the small swell.  We ate lunch in the lee of a low cliff in the entrance to a cave the size of a double garage.  A gang of seals we had accidentally disturbed on our way in came to see what we were up to.  Ian posed for more photos.  His father ran a business importing vacuum bagged Saarlander sausages from Germany.  These mini ‘Bullets’ really hit the spot when we were feeling hungry.  During a long trip I have found that just eating high energy cereal bars leaves you craving something savoury.  A couple of ‘Bullets’ were a convenient way of taking the edge off that desire.

Having scoffed half a packet of Chinese noodles, a Fruitini and half a plum loaf each we were ready to make more miles.  The falling tide had exposed a forest of two-foot-tall kelp between the boats and the water.  Sliding up to our waists between the boulders and mindful of the many sea urchins, we heaved the reluctant boats back into the sea.  By the time we had accomplished this we were hungry again!

Following the coast due north we approached Rubha Reigh.  Huge caverns and countless sea stacks kept us fascinated, then under the lighthouse, seemingly one of the few that is occupied, Ian pointing out the clothes fluttering on the washing line in the stiff breeze.  We landed on the isolated beach of Camas Mor, the virginal sand and vertical stacks reminiscent of the golden beaches of Cornwall’s north coast.  A quick toilet break trying to not feel guilty about soiling somewhere so perfectly pristine, we made yet another big crossing to Greenstone point eight miles away. The flat headland of layered Torridonian sandstone, ‘one of the oldest rocks in the world’ Ian informed me, seemed to take forever to reach.  The western horizon was darkening with the approach of a warm front.  The wind picked up as we crossed Loch Ewe.  I doubt if the crew of the Royal Navy destroyer even saw us as they entered the loch behind us. By now it was raining and the wind was steadily increasing.  The Summer Isles were another ten miles of open water away.  We decided to head into Gruinard Bay to the curiously named Mellon Udrigle which, according to my map, at least had a telephone.  As we arrived Ian spotted an ‘old’ lady walking her dog on the crescent of white sand.  She might have been advanced in years but she was ‘young’ enough to paddle her own sea kayak out to the many islands that litter the bay.  She warned us that unless we asked permission at the croft up on the hill, we were likely to be kicked off the grassed sand dunes that formed a most basic campsite.  The concept of paying to pitch our tent was somewhat alien to us and I am still not sure what we actually got for our £2 – there were no toilets or fresh water provided, but we worked quickly and efficiently to get the tent up so that we could shelter from the steady drizzle.

Ian was at it again.  He went up to a very smart looking caravan to ask if he could use their washing line to hang his wet kit on.  Within minutes we were ensconced on their luxurious sofa consuming tea and ginger cake.  Ian warned me with a look that did not need reinforcing with words.  He did not intend moving from that spot until he absolutely had to.  I went off to phone the coastguard and Linda whilst he did what he does best.

I returned three quarters of an hour later to find him still chatting away to the very pleasant couple.  Chris, it turned out, spent most of the year at Mellon.  He had left in December last year returning again in February.  His partner joined him whenever she could.  Chris reassured us that it is lovely there when the sun shines and I am sure he is right.  It was just a shame that right then the warm front had brought visibility down to less than five miles and it was not looking good for the next days paddle.

Before going to sleep Ian and I chatted about the trip so far.  I had come to the conclusion that it was not what you do that matters but who you do it with.  During my journey around Devon and Cornwall I had become incredibly lonely.  It took me by surprise and I did not really have a strategy to deal with it.  I missed Linda to the point where I became desperate to finish the paddle, somewhat undermining the adventure.  Before this trip I had mentally prepared myself for this and Ian’s company meant that I was really very content.  Of course I still have the same feelings for Linda and was already looking forward to seeing her again, but although sometimes alone during a long crossing or because I felt like some space, I was never lonely.  Ian proved to be the perfect travelling companion and I was so pleased he had agreed to come with me.

Forecast for the next day?  3-4 sou’sou’westerly increasing 7-8 later!

Day 6 : Mellon Udrigle to Reiff  (13 miles)
One look outside confirmed the forecast had been accurate.  It was drizzling and the western horizon was an ugly, dark shade of grey.  Well into the routine now we had the boats packed and we were away by 8.30am.  We could just about make out Achiltibue on the mainland behind the Summer Isles so we felt confident of at least getting some mileage out of the day.  Our first waypoint was the eastern side of Priest Island.  Once we came out from its lee we began to feel the first gusts from the impending gale.  Heading for the northern tip of Tanera Beg, the smaller of the two main Summer Isles, the sea began to build.  We were doing a broad reach with the occasional surf run.  We saw several Great Skua, thugs of the bird world.  One flew directly at me low and fast, staring me right in the eye as if trying to intimidate me.  It worked, the thickset shoulders and hooked beak looked quite menacing from three feet away!

The tops of the five to six foot chop began breaking over us.  We took a line straight for Reiff Bay, Ian dealing well with the increasing seas, the biggest he had ever been out in he revealed later.  The Inuks held their line despite the oblique angle of the swell but as we approached Reiff Bay it was becoming apparent that to continue would be foolhardy.  After Reiff Bay was the major headland of Rubha Coigeach with little prospect of a safe landing if we needed it.  Our only option was to wait for the wind to drop.  We looked into Reiff Bay but the surf made the stony beach too risky.  We decided to head into the small bay to the north which should at least offer some shelter from the breaking seas. A tricky paddle with seas breaking all around us confirmed our decision to get ashore as quickly as possible before the storm really blew in.  As we came into the bay I was disappointed to find just a steep storm beach of large boulders and no sand whatsoever.  We had no choice but to gingerly get out on the smoothest rock we could find and haul the boats above the high water mark.  I apologised silently to Kirton Kayaks as we left deep scratches in the hulls of their works Inuks.  Once they were clear of even the most determined swells we searched for a place to pitch the tent.  We found the only patch of level, boulder free turf in the lee of a dry stone wall, an effective windbreak.  We got the tent up quickly and dived in for a rest.

It had been an epic morning and we both felt the need to communicate with our partners.  We walked alongside Loch of Reiff, a small brackish stretch of water strewn with jetsam both interesting and foul smelling, evidence of many more severe storms that have battered this lonely spot.  Arriving at a small collection of houses that in these parts represents a village we met some mountain bikers out for a blast.  We sheltered from the rain behind a rocky outcrop as we shared our experiences.  They had not seen a phone for a least a couple of miles.  We walked on.  As we passed a bungalow a young girl swept onto the drive in her Golf GTI.  She confirmed the nearest public phone was in the next village, twenty minutes at least on foot. This was her mother’s house but she wouldn’t mind us using her phone.  We did not need to be asked twice.  Ian and I were soon sat in the bay window, the right side of the double glazing as the wind and rain came in with a vengeance.  I scored an immediate hit with the elder daughter, a middle-aged, stern faced woman dressed in a donkey jacket, jeans and men’s leather boots;
“I love that picture”
I indicated a large, bold, colourful oil painting of three fishermen dragging a net in over the side of the open boat.  It transpired she was the artist.  It really was an excellent work.  I particularly liked the way she had used a tartan pattern of blues, greys and black to represent the choppy sea.

We sat for three hours talking to mother and daughter about life in the North West.  Reiff was known as ‘the busiest dead end in Scotland’.  The area had suffered much at the time of the Clearances and was now sparsely populated.  Nearby, Achiltibue had until recently an active salmon fishing station and still has a smokery, but now most of the fishing in these waters is done for sport.  Many locals still practice the crofting way of life and are part farmer and part fisherman but, to an increasing extent, the revenue-earning activities are now more likely to be related to tourism.   The unpredictable weather meant you could not rely on one source of income.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the distance to the nearest town, Ullapool, some thirty miles away by road, their quality of life was good.  Sky TV kept them in touch with the rest of the world.  It was clear though that fashion was not high on their list of priorities as mother sat talking to us in her floral dress and Wellington boots! It was good to talk to Linda on the phone, although it was apparent she was unable to comprehend just how bad the weather was here in Reiff.  She was complaining about being sunburnt at home in Devon! When the children arrived after their hour long journey home from school it was time to leave.  We thanked them for their hospitality leaving a pound coin beside the telephone despite mother’s protests.

We ran all the way back to the tent a mile or so away along a slippery path, the rain soaking our backs.  Gasping and laughing we dived into the tent soaking wet.  We crashed out in our wet clothes our bodies steaming. We must have slept for well over an hour.  I was awoken by sunlight through the walls of the tent.  The storm had passed.  A strip of blue sky the length of the Minch was coming our way.  The sea was still too rough to make launching for an evening paddle an option.  We set about drying our kit and hauling the boats over the narrow isthmus onto the shore of Loch of Reiff.  We had decided that to launch into Reiff Bay would be safer if the swell was still big in the morning.  A shallow watercourse would allow us to float the boats out of the loch and into the bay.  I attempted to take a few artistic photos in the evening sunshine.  The quality of light was superb, my skill in capturing it on film questionable.  Large clumps of Sea Pink and thick hairy lichen clung tenaciously to the cliffs.  The view back towards the Summer Isles explained how they had got their name, the rocky islets bathed in bright sunshine surrounded by a sea of deepest blue.  An isolated croft in a small valley of its own demanded closer inspection.  Not a bothy but clearly someone’s wilderness hideaway.  I was enthralled by the Hebridean sunset, Ian found his ThermaRest more attractive!  Radio 4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ then sleep.

Day 7:  Reiff to Cape Wrath  (51 miles)
The plan to paddle down the loch to Reiff Bay worked well. We walked the kayaks down the manmade watercourse and launched without difficulty.  There was a residual swell from the previous day’s storm but we rounded Rubha Coigeach without much problem. The target for the day was Kinlochbervie or possibly Sandwood Bay, the last possible landing before Cape Wrath.  It was important that we achieved big mileage again as we had lost our half day advantage because of the storm.

From Rubha Coigeach we commenced the first of the day’s three big crossings.  Ten miles to Point of Stoer, the lighthouse clearly visible.  Sea conditions improved the further out to sea we went.  The substantial north westerly swell rolled beneath us at a rate of knots.  We were able to catch the occasional perpendicular runner caused by the light south westerly breeze; just enough to lift the kayaks in a forward surge for a few metres before dying back. The view to the east was dominated by Cul Mor, Suilven, Canisp and Quinag, the height of these peaks exaggerated by the surrounding ice-scoured lowland.  Once as mighty as the Himalayas, the mountains of the North West are now just stumps but no less beautiful for that.  The action of wind, rain and ice have left rugged, craggy summits that can provide some of the toughest mountaineering in Europe with extremes of weather and total isolation.  Our excellent progress towards Point of Stoer was almost halted by big clapotis caused by the north westerly swell being reflected back off the vertical cliffs.  As the rebounding wave met the on-coming swell the wave height would double, often exploding in a burst of spray.  It was impossible to maintain any sort of rhythm as we were thrown first one way then the other, the bows of the Inuks slamming into each wave trough.  I had to use every bit of strength I had to maintain any forward momentum, heaving the boat up the oncoming wave faces.  It was the biggest swell of the journey so far and I would estimate it at around twenty feet from trough to crest.  We were suffering the consequences of passing too close to the cliffs, something we would remember for the rounding of  Cape Wrath where the clapotis was likely to be much more severe.

As we neared The Point, the 66 metre pinnacle of The Old Man of Stoer came into view.  It was first climbed by humans in 1966 but the only rock athletes we saw were guillemots and razorbills.  As soon as we got past The Old Man, the clapotis died away.  We found nowhere to get out.  We had been in the boats for nearly three hours.  We resigned to the inevitable.  Readers who have not had the pleasure (?) of sitting in a kayak for hours on end will probably be disgusted by the thought of urinating in the boat.  Certainly I would not do it out of choice but the bent paddling position and constant twisting of the trunk and abdominal muscles produces an overwhelming desire to relieve the pressure on the bladder.  There are catheter systems that have been used effectively on very long open crossings but we were not that well prepared. I will admit to enjoying the warm trickle down my legs and promised myself a quick dip in the sea at lunch time!  The problem was that having given in once, my resistance was gone and the floodgates opened – literally.  During the next two and a half hour crossing I had to go three times.  My cockpit smelt pretty unpleasant I can tell you!

Taking a ‘potty break’ in the kelp

As we paddled away from Point of Stoer heading directly for the solid buttress of Handa Island,  I began to allow a thought that had been in the back of my mind all morning to come out into the open.
As we sat consuming another pack of ‘Bullets’ I ran it by Ian.
“I’ve been thinking, with this great weather just now and a bad forecast for tomorrow….”
“ I know what you are going to say, you want to do Cape Wrath tonight.”
As usual we were on exactly the same wavelength.  We both knew that Cape Wrath was the crux of the whole trip.  Once around the Cape, we should have the wind on our backs or be in the lee of the cliffs along the north coast.  At least that was the theory.  I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen if we were unable to get around Cape Wrath.  To paddle back to Fort William the way we had come was out of the question.  We would’ve had to leave the kayaks somewhere safe and make our way overland back to the car.  It would be a costly, soul destroying fiasco.  I had therefore banished such thoughts and focused on the positive.  The problem was that Cape Wrath was still over twenty miles away.  It was a major undertaking, a totally committed paddle and not something to be under-estimated.  My original plan had always been to attempt it in the morning when we would be fresh.  To do it last thing in the evening after a hard 45 mile paddle was perhaps not such a good idea.  We agreed to postpone a decision until we had obtained the latest weather forecast from the coastguard at lunch time.

The Cape could be seen emerging on the northern horizon.  It did look tantalisingly close.  But first we had to finish the crossing to Handa Island.  The cloud cover was breaking and we were soon down to just rash vests.  As we approached we were met by dolphins who criss-crossed our path at high speed, seemingly frustrated by our pedestrian pace.  A couple of high leaps within feet of my bow and they were gone as quickly as they had arrived.  Their effortless grace and vivacious energy made our efforts seem cumbersome in comparison.  We could hear the thump of big swell hitting the reefs on the west face of the island.  The shock waves caused by the explosive release of compressed air could be felt as well as heard.  Several puffin, and many more guillemots and razorbills came to inspect us as we entered the Sound of Handa.  An RSPB reserve, Handa Island is further evidence of the excellent work done by this charity.  An aluminium launch ran past us ferrying more twitchers to the various hides perched high on the cliffs.  I smugly contemplated how none of them were likely to ever get as close as we could to the bird and animal life of this wild place.

We arrived at Tarbet tired but in good spirits.  Two major crossings behind us and with the prospect of settled weather for the rest of the day we knew that Cape Wrath was possible.  We chatted to the two fishermen from the launch we had seen earlier.  Red headed, thickset, Viking blood still in their hearts, they appeared contemptuous at first.  But as Ian chatted to them, outlining our journey so far, their respect for us grew.  They confirmed the forecast we had heard that morning predicting a blow the next day.  We needed a quick lunch so that we could get back out there.  We decided to splash out on a meal at the very expensive but extremely pleasant cafe over looking the small harbour.  As we sat there dripping all over the carpet I was very self conscious of our body odour.  No-one seemed to mind.  The customers and staff were fascinated by our adventure.  The French waitress was a slim, middle-aged, good-looking woman with a mess of dark curly hair.  Her pleasant, deferential manner reminded me of my mother.  She lived in Lourdes but spent three months each summer in the north west of Scotland – she liked the contrast!  The quality of the food matched the price so, fat and happy we headed off again at 2.30pm towards Sandwood Bay.  We were quiet though,  both of us knew that the afternoon’s paddle was potentially the most challenging and dangerous of our lives.  Success was essential, the consequences, if things did not go to plan, did not bear thinking about.

Am Buachaille, ‘The Shepherd’.

I had spent many hours studying the tidal streams around the Cape.  We needed to delay our approach if we were to avoid wind against tide conditions with resultant overfalls.  I planned to land on the beach at Sandwood Bay before making our final assault.  As soon as we came out of the shelter of the Sound of Handa the swell was massive.  Huge walls of water threw themselves on the reef slabs just to our right. Cascades of foam and froth poured from every gully as the swells retreated, wounded but defiant.  In no time at all we were into the clapotis off Rubh’an Fhir Leithe.  A fore-taste of what was to come off the Cape.  It confirmed our strategy.  We would give the Cape a wide berth and aim to be at least half a mile off the cliffs until we were due west of the lighthouse, only then would we start heading east.  The Cape was still six miles away and we needed to wait for the flood tide. Am Buachaille, ‘The Shepherd’ had been a prominent feature in my sub-conscious.  The layered stack of Torridonian sandstone at the southern end of the beautifully remote Sandwood Bay was as significant a landmark as any we had passed on our journey north.  It told me we were right there, at the crux of it.  Months of training and planning were now to be realised.  In my mind, perhaps mistakenly, the next couple of hours would determine the success or failure of the circumnavigation.  If we could just get around Cape Wrath surely we would make it all the way around and back to Fort William.

We were unable to land anywhere on the mile-long beach.  The surf was huge, well in excess of six foot.  The lulls between sets were too brief and every so often a monster would rear up from the sea bed, threatening to break over us as we sat contemplating our next move.  We decided to push on, in spite of the tide.  It would be virtually slack by the time we got to the Cape itself.  We headed out, making a conscious effort to put distance between us and the towering cliffs.  The lighthouse came into view, built by Robert Stevenson in 1827,  I wondered just how many vessels had passed beneath its gaze.  Very few as small as ours I mused.  The swell was large, perhaps twenty feet, but the clapotis was not as bad as it had been off Point of Stoer.  We continued to head north resisting the temptation to turn right.  Only when we were due east of the light did we allow ourselves to drift in, passing within a few metres of the north-facing cliffs.  Viking longships sailed these seas in the Middle Ages, making forays south from their bases in the Orkneys.  The name Cape Wrath comes from the Norse, “Hvarf” meaning ‘turning-point’ and I could see why.  For days we had been following the cliffs and mountains forever northwards.  Suddenly the coast bore away to the east and the only thing between us and the Arctic Circle was ocean; vast, storm-ravaged ocean.

The huge gneissic slab forming the most northerly point of the ‘foreland’ was a bird city.  A vertical conurbation of individual bird colonies; kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, puffins all competing for space on the guano ledges.  Thousands of birds whirled above our heads like a plague of huge insects.
“I see what they mean about these Scottish midges!” Wilson remarked.

We hugged the cliffs searching each geo for the slipway indicated on the map.  We were both shattered and had decided to call it a day.  We knew there was little likelihood of finding a phone on this remote stretch of coast.  We resolved to walk up to the lighthouse, hoping that its three hundred foot elevation would be sufficient to enable our VHF hand-held radio to reach Stornoway Coastguard.  We eventually found the jetty and a fisherman’s hut which would do nicely as our shelter for the night.  There was certainly nowhere to pitch the tent in the steep rocky valley.  Having lugged our kit up to the hut using an old wooden thingamajig (I have no idea what it is called but it was designed perfectly for the job!) we soon made ourselves at home.  We then set out on a march up to the lighthouse.  The track seemed to go on forever, climbing around Dunan Mor giving a view back across the peninsular to Sandwood Bay.  Inland the Flow Country of bog, moor and mountain stretched as far as the eye could see without any sign of human habitation.  The weather had closed in and it started to rain.  Yet again we had made it around a major obstacle in the nick of time!

At last we arrived at the lighthouse, a rather forlorn building lacking the charm of its Southern cousins. It was surrounded by an odd assortment of outbuildings some of which were clearly in use, others seemed to have been abandoned to whatever fate befell them.  We took a look around to see if anyone was in residence.  I knocked on a few doors but the place was apparently deserted.  Our slim hope of borrowing a telephone faded.  Suddenly Ian called out.  I ran around the corner to see him talking to a couple of very odd-looking chaps.  I use the word ‘couple’ deliberately.  They were clearly very good friends with matching short-cropped haircuts, bushy moustaches and effeminate voices.  They were from the Netherlands and had walked all the way from Fort William along the coastal path.  It put our efforts into context.  They were fascinated by our journey too and Wilson related tales our adventures so far.  I wandered off to try the VHF radio.  I was disappointed to find that Stornaway Coastguard were unable to hear me.  It further reminded me of our isolation.  I was concerned that we were unable to inform the Coastguard of our safe arrival at Cape Wrath, especially since the weather was deteriorating all the time.  I did not want a Search and Rescue mission initiated mistakenly on our behalf.  I expressed my concern to Ian who suggested I call up a passing ship.  It had worked on the Irish Sea crossing, why not give it a go?  I put out a broadcast to “any vessel”.  I immediately got a reply and was able to relay a message to Stornaway via a passing trawler.  A hint of disbelief in the voice of the radio operator, he seemed pleased to help.

We asked the ‘Dutch Boys’ to take a photo of us and the lighthouse, then we bid them farewell.  They were camping in the lee of a stone wall on the cliff edge and were hoping to catch the minibus that infrequently makes it out to Cape Wrath and return to civilisation.  We yomped back to our valley.  It was raining heavily by the time we got back.  More kit to dry out.  We searched the boulder ‘beach’ beside the jetty for wood for a fire. It was barren.  The evidence suggested many other travellers had used this unofficial bothy and almost everything combustible had been turned to ashes in the soot blackened hearth.  We found a few meagre scraps and those combined with our own rubbish gave us sufficient for a small fire that lasted long enough to light the dark interior of the windowless hut during dinner.  Then it was diaries by headtorch whilst snugly cocooned in our sleeping bags.  The wind rushed down the valley sides buffeting our small home, rain clattered on the slate roof.  The only radio station we could pick up on my little Sony was Norwegian.  We had no idea what the next day would bring but at least we were on the ‘Roof of Britain’ and comforted by that thought I slept soundly.

Ian approaching Cape Wrath

Day 8:  Cape Wrath to Strathan  (21 miles)
It was windy, very, very windy.

I tried to rationalise it.  Yes it was windy, at least a seven with gusts that were much, much stronger.  But it was off-shore, or at least cross/off-shore.  Surely the cliffs would give us shelter?  We did not really want to stay where we were.  We had no contact with the outside world apart from the VHF and we needed to save the battery life for a real emergency.  We were out of drinking water and the stream had turned brown with overnight rain.  We discussed our options.  I was keen to press on.  Ian was more reserved.  He reminded me that he had sailed in this sort of wind and knew we would not be able to paddle against it.  I argued that we shouldn’t have to.  Ian agreed to give it a go with the proviso that if it got worse we would stop at the first opportunity.

We were quickly sorted and afloat.  The wind immediately blew us out of our little gully.  I shouted at Ian to hug the cliffs.  The sea was essentially flat but sheets of spray were being torn from the surface and whisked out to sea by the frequent gusts.  The swell offshore was just visible through the murk.  Horsetails of spume suggested a valiant struggle as the waves attempted to make headway against the fearsome wind.  Ian describes the paddle:

The thing that struck me was the noise. The roar of the wind on the cliffs and the waves breaking on the huge stone slabs was deafening, any conversation was minimal. We could do nothing else but run with the wind and try and enjoy the ride but I really wasn’t happy.  It was a case of hang on to the paddles and try to angle the wing blade so as to offer the least resistance to the wind, otherwise the force was either too much to hold onto or the paddle was forced across the boat making the kayak unstable. It was a blessing having the rudders, we could just let the wind blow us and steer the best course we could.  As we were being pushed along eastward, our bodies buffeted by massive gusts, our paddles trying to tear themselves from our hands, we both looked at each other and tried to take in the enormity of the situation. I have been caught in gales in yachts and Sean has paddled off the Devon coast in some big winds. We were both of the opinion that this was a Force 9 gale.  We were committed, it was just too strong for us to paddle back to the safety of our jetty.

We made rapid progress in the lee of the cliffs to the small bay of Geodha na Seamraig.  Then we saw it!  A shark’s tooth stack perhaps 150 feet high, wreathed in a swirling vortex of spray.  Between it and the towering cliff a narrow gap, twenty feet wide. A raging cauldron of white water.  Catabatic winds were descending the peaks of Beinn Dearg, Fashven and Sgribhis-bheinn, accelerating down the Kearvaig River valley so that when they hit the surface of the small bay they were gusting in excess of Force 9.  The stack stood boldly in the wind’s path and as if enraged by its defiance the wind screamed around the rock tearing water from its base sending it spiralling upwards. You will have to take our word for it, but we had never seen anything like it before.

The cliffs of Clo Mor provide much needed shelter from the wind

We had no choice.  Although we were only a couple of hundred meters from shore there was no way we could paddle against the wind to reach the rocky beach and if we did manage it – then what?  To go outside of the stack meant the risk of being blown out to sea.  We had to go for the gap.  Into the heart of the whirlwind!  It would have been out of the question if there had been any swell.  We were blown directly into the melee, we could not paddle, it took all our strength to hold onto our blades.  I fought with my tiller bar to prevent my kayak from hitting the rocks.  We were blasted through the gap out of control.  I was slightly ahead of Ian. Trying to back paddle to keep us together, I caught a glimpse of his face.  He did not look happy!  With each gust I was being pushed flat onto the front deck of my kayak.  My wing paddles were trying to live up to their name.  They whipped about, trying to take off like some wild bird making a frantic fight for freedom.  All around us water was being sent skywards.  There was no distinction between land, sea and sky, it was all one tumultuous, chaotic mess and we were right in the middle of it!

We had to go for the gap. Sean was quite excited by the prospect.  I was very aware that we were on the edge of ability and strength of kit and knew that there was no chance of any rescue should it go wrong.  As we entered the gap the noise was deafening and the spray was stinging my face so hard it felt like I was being pelted with gravel. Waves seemed to come from all angles, the clapotis throwing the boat from one side to the other.I held onto my paddles with all my strength as they were being twisted about, the wind trying to throw them across the kayak.  My body was being slammed from behind pushing my torso involuntarily forward onto the cockpit, I could see Sean just in front getting the same battering, I was just concentrating hard to keep myself upright and in a straight line, low bracing and slap supporting every time I got control of my blades.

Strangely enough, I was enjoying the experience.  This was nature at its most raw.  This is what I had come to the North Coast for.  This was ‘Extreme Sea Kayaking’.  I was confident in our abilities and did not allow myself to contemplate the consequences if things went wrong.  We had passed through the gap but there were more stacks ahead.  Much taller, these megaliths blocked our path to shelter.  We braced ourselves as we rushed towards them. As we roared past I began laughing to myself.  A crazy, manic laugh of someone on the edge.  I was loving it!  We were close to catastrophe but I was loving it.  I was brought back to reality by Ian, fighting to maintain his balance:

It is fair to say I was scared, perhaps I have had too many near misses in my life and want a bit of space in my ability to fall back on, but paddling under these conditions I felt there was no margin for error.
I looked at Sean and shouted,
“I WANT OUT!”
I immediately realised what a stupid thing I had said, as if right there and then Sean could have done anything about it.  He looked at me and said very carmly,
“If I could get you out of this I would”.
Fair enough, at least he was being honest.

It served to remind me of the seriousness of our situation and I felt guilty about placing Ian in this predicament.  He hadn’t really wanted to paddle that morning and in retrospect he had been right.  There had been no margin for error whatsoever.   Eventually we passed the last stack and the wind dropped.  Stopping to catch our breath we discussed our situation.  Ian had clearly been shaken by the experience and I was careful in my choice of words.  Yes, we had been out of control, but even if the worst had happened and one of us had capsized and failed to roll……we would have coped?  Ian was unconvinced.  I thought back to an article I had read in Sea Kayaker magazine about the tragic death of Lone Madsen off the coast of Greenland when she had got separated from her partner in a squall.  Surely we would be able to stay together whatever the conditions?  I resolved to listen more carefully to Ian in the future.  If he was in two minds about whether to paddle we would err on the side of caution. Ian again:

Sean asked me to estimate the wind speed coming through the stack and I compared it to being at the weather station on the summit of Cairngorm, when there was a recorded wind speed of 98 mph. At that time I could not even stand up and tea was being wipped out of my mug.  To be at sea in those conditions did not bear thinking about, but here I was!  Looking back on it now as I am writing this account I find it difficult to put the whole situation into words.  I am sure it is a case of “you had to be there”.  It is still vivid in my mind and is quite exciting but at the time it was just awesome.

We had glided into an eerie calm.  Looking back we could just see the last pair of stacks in the gloom.  I took a photo knowing the drama would be lost in the monochrome grey.  Looking ahead the awesome cliffs of Clo Mor disappeared upwards.  The highest cliffs on mainland Britain at 920 feet, they were home to hundreds of thousands of sea birds.  The stench of guano was over-powering.  Puffins, razorbills and guillemots leapt suicidally from perches hundreds of feet above us. Dropping almost vertically towards the rocks at the base of the cliff they would pull up at the last second to fly low and fast across the surface of the sea, their fat tummies bouncing off the wave tops, until they ‘landed’ in an undignified heap above their chosen fishing site.  Sometimes they would not land at all but just fly aimlessly around within a few hundred meters of the shore and having completed a couple of circuits they would return to their nest as if their doctor had advised them to take regular exercise.  How they avoided a mid-air collision is a mystery to me.  An individual call was indecipherable in the cacophony of squawks, squeaks and screeches that came from the audience on the cliffs. Whether it was a show of appreciation or loved ones telling their partners to be careful I am not sure.  As I watched them return safely to the nest I came to the conclusion that they should feature in the next advert for Pepsi Max.

The bulk of Clo Mor provided sanctuary for a while but we were soon heading south east into Balnakeil Bay.  The very beautiful Kyle of Durness was hidden from view by horizontal drizzle stinging our hands and faces.  As soon as we had gained the ‘angle of dangle’ we worked a close reach to Faraid Head.  This narrow peninsular of jagged rock and cliff linked by high sand dunes provided a little shelter from the wind.  Once around the north east tip we were into the teeth of the gale.  The small town of Durness was the only opportunity for shelter but it seemed impossible to reach.  As each gust hit us we were at a standstill, sometimes even blown backwards.  By hugging the rocks and using the small degree of lee they provided we were able to work from eddy to eddy and slowly but surely we made ground.  The spectacular stacks of Clach Bheag na Faraid and Clach Mhor na Faraid were only appreciated for the brief respite they gave from the head-banging toil.  It took us an hour and a half to paddle the three miles from Faraid Head to Sango Bay.  By the time we arrived on the sandy beach we were completely exhausted.  There was no discussion – we were getting out!  It was chucking it down, but at least the exertion of the last few miles had kept us warm.  Now we had stopped we were quickly overcome by uncontrollable shivers.  We needed to get the boats above the high water mark.  We had no idea how long we would be stuck there and both of us felt it was unlikely we would paddle again even though it was not yet midday.  To get the boats above the high water mark meant a tricky carry up sharp rocks to get to the grass covered slopes behind.  As we struggled with my Inuk Ian cried out in pain, dropping the stern of my kayak onto the rocks.  He describes what happened:

The rain was hammering down and we were immediately feeling cold. Sean spotted a grass cut leading up to a car park and it looked like a good spot to leave the boats out of the wind.  It would mean however negotiating a small section of rocks leading up to the grass section. My boat was first and did not seam too much of a problem. We started to manhandle Sean’s over the rocks. I was leading with the stern of the kayak. As I started to walk on the stones my foot went through an old outflow pipe.  I lost my balance and started to fall sideways with the weight of the boat. I could feel my ankle become trapped and thought it was going to break.  I had no option but to drop Sean’s boat. It landed heavily, the rudder jammed on the edge of the grass as I grabbed it, but the damage was done. The rudder fixing plate, attaching the rudder mechanism to the stern of the kayak was bent upwards the rudder pointing skywards. I could not believe it, this could jeopardise the whole trip. There was nothing to do but to bend the plate back into shape and hope it did not snap. A bit of brute force and ignorance and the plate went back to more or less its original position.  I felt so relieved.

His wetsuit boot had been punctured by the edge of a broken drainage pipe.  Typically he was not concerned by the injury to his foot but was upset because he had damaged my boat.  I must confess to a little panic when I first saw it – I did not fancy paddling back to Fort William without a rudder, but closer inspection revealed that it would probably last out the trip.

We quickly unpacked and changed into warm clothes.  The wind was unrelenting.  I could only just open the door to the telephone kiosk.  Whilst I chatted to Linda I watched a flock of black headed gulls being fed on the wing by a man through the side window of his camper van.  The gulls were flapping furiously to stay level and in contention for the best titbits.  It was a surreal sight.  As the rain battered the perspex panels of the kiosk Linda described how she was having to be careful not to get too sunburnt in the heat wave back home.  Marvellous!

We sought refuge in the Tourist Information Office which afforded a great view of Sango Bay.  We got talking to a couple of Swiss girls, their hire car had got a puncture and they could not find the spare.  They had left the car and walked five miles in the pouring rain to get help.  I offered to take a look – it is, after all, what I do for a living – helping stricken motorists.  We had nothing else better to do.  I left Ian ‘in charge’ of the gear in the warm and dry and having found a lift with an English couple on their annual holiday to the North Coast, I soon located the car and the spare wheel.  They had not thought to look under the carpet in the boot!  The girls offered to buy us lunch in gratitude.  We declined their generosity but did share a table with them very conscious of the fact that as soon as our bodies started to warm up we began to smell – bad!

We found an excellent shop after lunch where we re-stocked on cereal bars and other bits and pieces.  On my mission of mercy I had seen the next stretch of coast in glimpses through the drizzle.  The wind seemed to be very much cross-shore and would be on our backs for most of the time.  By 4pm we were itching to get going.  We decided to try again.  Ian was bemused by the local humour:

As we left to walk back to the boats we spoke to a Durness local,
“Some gale wasn`t it?” I said.
“Gale? What gale? It’s always like this – Durness is the ‘ windy town’” came the reply.

The wind had decreased appreciably and we were soon crossing the mouth of Loch Eriboll towards Whiten Head.  It was still windy mind, especially with the increased fetch in the middle of the Loch.  It lived up to its nickname of Loch ‘Orrible given by the serviceman stationed there during World War II who had little to do but wait for battle.  Spray stung our faces but we were able to get the angle right to surf most of the way.  Whiten Head has the last remaining breeding colony of grey seals in the caves at its base.  We were careful not to disturb them as we paddled past.  Curiosity as always got the better of them and we soon led a procession of bobbing heads. Dusk was going to arrive early with the heavily laden skies so we decided on an early finish.  Paddling into a beautiful bay near the village of Strathan, a perfect wave curled onto a submerged sandbar.  Ian nearly got caught out as a large set came from nowhere, threatening to send him bongo-sliding onto the rocks.  A nifty combination of back paddling and draw strokes prevented that disaster.  Discovering a perfect campsite under a rocky outcrop overlooking a virgin beach of white sand we relaxed, pleased to have come through an epic day relatively unscathed.

Needing water and the use of a phone we walked up to a nearby croft.  A curious colour scheme, the corrugated iron walls were freshly painted cream, the windows a bright red.  Numerous red and yellow buoys were neatly arranged along the front of the cottage.  The old man who answered the door was as deaf as a post.  Fortunately his wife/sister/daughter (it was hard to tell) came to the door and showed us the outside tap.  She explained that they did not have a phone but the local Coastguard lived just over the hill.  A mile or more by road, if we followed the dyke over the ridge, his was the newly built bungalow with the Highways truck parked outside.  We found it easily and a large burly man dressed in oil stained overalls confirmed he was Her Majesty’s Coastguard.  He was delighted to help and rang Stornaway on our behalf.  We chatted for a while admiring his new pad.  He was pleased with it, having built it himself on land he had inherited.  He had lived all his life on this remote coast with no plans to go any place else. His wife had made a valiant attempt to cultivate a flower garden but it had been destroyed by the gales leaving the plants in tatters.  I asked him about the surf in the bay.  He described how sometimes the waves broke from one end of the bay to the other, ‘just like Hawaii’ he described. Interesting!

We enjoyed a watery sunset from our perch above the bay.  Chatting, we agreed that it would be a day we would never forget.  We had paddled through the eye of a whirlwind – and survived!  What would tomorrow bring?

Day 9: Saturday 19th June 1999 (46 miles)
The weather was overcast in the morning, the forecast for wind, Force 3 to 4 sou’sou’westerly, increasing 6 sou’sou’east later. According to my original plan today was to have been a rest day, a chance to explore.  But with only 21 miles achieved the previous day and the likelihood of more bad weather to come we decided to crack on.  Scrabster was our destination for the day if all went well.  That would put us through the Pentland Firth a day ahead of schedule.  A traverse of the ‘Roof of Britain’ in two and a half days.

But first we had some major headlands to negotiate, not least Strathy Point.  A thin finger of rock sticking out into the North Atlantic, it had its own permanent north-going tidal stream along its eastern shore.  Leaving Strathan, timing our paddle-out through the barrelling surf, we were soon amongst the Rabbit Islands.  No rabbits, but more seals, porpoise and Great Skua – which could explain the lack of rabbits!  Kyle of Tongue has always captured my imagination.  The beautiful island of Eilean nan Ron with its abandoned crofts and remote bothy, this too was worthy of far more attention than we gave it in our head-down thrash eastwards.  The further east we went the more the swell built from the north west.  Each headland had its own clapotis that had to be fought through like mogul fields on a ski slope throwing us this way and that.  We could see the light on Strathy Point and decided to attempt a landing on Ardmore Point before making the five mile crossing.  Paddling into the rocky amphitheatre of Port Mor, expecting to find a jetty or at least something to assist us with getting ashore, we found nothing but a steep rock beach.  The swell was persistently throwing a two foot wave onto the shore.  The risk of damage to the boats was high but we needed to get out – badly!  Ian found a large cave which seemed at first to offer more shelter.  I paddled in to investigate.  Just as I manoeuvred inside a three foot wall of water reared up.  I was broadside to it.  By diving into the wave, capsizing as it engulfed me then hip-flicking to let the wave pass underneath I somehow avoided being dragged sideways onto the rocks.  Eskimo Rolling back upright I spluttered and grinned at Ian,
“Close one!”
We still needed to land.  That little bit of excitement making the call of nature more urgent than ever! Timing it carefully we surfed between the largest rocks and graunched up onto the shore.  Once bodily functions had been completed I had to launch backwards to avoid ripping off my damaged rudder.  All these stops took time and energy.  We needed to press on.  Heading out north east to avoid the inevitable clapotis, the swell got bigger and bigger, the wave length longer and longer.  As we came due west of the lighthouse we turned and ran down the swells which I can only estimate at in excess of twenty five to thirty feet.  By far the biggest swell I have ever experienced.  There was a little tide running with us and the wind had eased so there was no danger of the waves collapsing.  We just enjoyed the ride.  They were travelling far too quickly for us to be able to surf them, but we got a certain amount of forward momentum as they lifted us skywards then rolled away underneath us towards the distant shoreline.  There was a group of walkers on the headland, goodness knows what they were thinking as they watched us paddling past.  It must have looked fairly spectacular, our tiny kayaks dwarfed by the titanic swell.  I hope our audience appreciated it as much as we did – I doubt it.

We could see Dounreay Nuclear Power Station just visible in the murk.  The only good thing about the place is it makes an excellent landmark.  The white dome is now a listed building!  We headed in towards Melvich Bay.  It is known for its surf and as we passed the reefs of Sgeir Ruadh six foot barrels sucked the rocks dry before collapsing in cataclysmic explosions of foam and spray.  Further into the bay I could see ‘boardies’ taking big left-handers into the river mouth.  At that point in time though I was far more interested in finding shelter and getting food down my neck.  The rain had returned with a vengeance, we had paddled well over twenty miles already and needed sustenance.  We found the pier indicated on the map which effectively blocked the swell and allowed a safe landing on oil-soaked railway sleepers.  These had been placed at intervals down the slip way to assist with launching fishing boats.  They were a little too efficient however and it was difficult to land without sliding back into the sea.  After several attempts we finally got onto ‘dry’ land and hurriedly ran to the only building we could see.  It turned out to be the oil-shed.  It stunk and the floor was covered in thick black slime.  But we had little choice and we made the best of it.  Health and Safety went out the window as Ian lit the Trangia stove on an old fuel tin.  It was a cold, miserable lunch it has to be said and I was pleased to get back in my boat.  An exciting seal launch down the sleepers and we were at it again.  Crossing the bay we were able to paddle close to the cliffs of Red Point despite the huge swell.  The angle of the reefs at the base of the cliffs meant there was virtually no re-bound, hence no clapotis.  Approaching Dounreay with morbid curiosity we paddled close to a dive boat moored off the power station.
“What do you think they’re up to?” Ian asked me.
“I’ve no idea, catching lobster?  Radioactive lobster!”
“Yeah, it cooks itself!”
(It was funny at the time).

Perhaps this is not the place to debate the pros and cons of nuclear power but one thing was abundantly clear to us as we paddled past this monument to the twentieth century.  By running before we can walk, generating power from a source that as yet we do not have the technology or will power to deal with safely, we have left a legacy that future generations will despise us for.  We refuse to take ownership of the problem, a problem that is on a global scale.  Russia’s problem is our problem.  Shipping nuclear waste around the world or burying it underground demonstrates our attitude – “Out of sight, out of mind”.  Whilst we are generating electricity at an incalculable cost to society there is ‘free’ energy displayed in spectacular fashion on the very rocks upon which Dounreay is built.  Massive swell demolishing itself without good cause, energy that is going begging if only we had the will to utilise it.  The daily flood through the Pentland Firth, the incessant sweep of Atlantic lows bringing gale after gale; these are sources of ‘free’ energy that will, without doubt, one day be exploited.  By then though the damage will have been done.  We must stop producing this poisonous waste,  deal with what we have already produced (globally) and put our infinite resources towards developing wind, wave, solar and tidal power stations on a grand scale.

Supporters of nuclear power would point to the abundant bird life on the nearby cliffs as evidence of the ‘cleanliness’ of nuclear power.  Without doubt the bird cities that line the cliffs for mile after mile along this north coast suggest that these waters are healthy and their juxtaposition with Dounreay is bizarre.  The fact is that what we see now is just a nano-second in ecological time.  The waste products from nuclear fuel will be in our oceans for thousands of years.  We have no way of knowing what their impact will be.

Past the lonely St. Mary’s Chapel,  towards Ushat Head and the famous point break at Brims Ness, I was not disappointed.  A solid ten foot peeled onto the reef, the offshore wind holding the faces up nicely.  I could not believe there was no one on it.  It was one of the best waves I have ever seen, comparing favourably with Porthleven in Cornwall and I could have had it all to myself.  The lack of surfers was probably explained by the strong tide now running westwards at several knots.  We had to paddle close to the break zone to avoid the worst and the swells jacked up un-nervingly on hidden reefs.  Judging it to perfection we got a couple of nice runs down green faces before they backed off into deep water.  It was with a certain arrogance that I paddled within a few feet of disaster. One day I will probably get caught out – may I live to regret holding the ocean in such contempt.

The impregnable ramparts of sedimentary rock continued without a break to Holborn Head.  Caithness flagstone is world famous for its hard wearing smoothness.  Even the constant pounding from the North Atlantic seemed to make no impression.  We sat watching in awe as wave after wave exploded at the base of a stack perched precariously on a slab tilted forty-five degrees towards the water.  Ian exclaimed in his best ‘Essex man’ accent,
“These rocks are WELL ’ARD, know what I mean!”
Deep fields of foam created by the breakers drifted along the coast.  The soft, warm caress of the bubbles was the only gentle thing in that harsh landscape.

At last we rounded Holborn Head getting a couple of ‘runners’ as we followed the cliff line into Thurso Bay.  We watched a car ferry head out on its way to the Orkneys.  We braced ourselves for a re-introduction to civilisation. Paddling into the large industrial harbour of Scrabster I wondered what reception we would receive. I needn’t have worried.  A fisherman used our arrival as an excuse to stop scraping barnacles from the hull of his boat.  He seemed genuinely impressed with our achievement so far.  He could hardly believe we had paddled around Cape Wrath a couple of days ago; I will not repeat the expletives he used to describe our mental state!  He lived in Kyle of Tongue and confirmed it was worth another visit.  As we chatted, Gordon the harbourmaster arrived.  Fearing that he may be about to tell us that we were not welcome in his port I explained our expedition to him.  He recalled the blind guy and his mate in a double kayak doing a similar thing.  I asked him if there was anywhere we could crash out just for one night.  He could not have been more helpful.  He suggested we get changed while he tried to find somewhere.  By the time we had sorted ourselves he was back and offered us a room in the brand new Harbour Offices overlooking the port.  Within minutes we were ensconced in the board room, the Queen Mother watching us as we stripped and spread ourselves across the carpet.  In no time at all we had covered everything in smelly kit and Ian had installed himself in the small kitchen cooking up the night’s feast.

We gained valuable information from Gordon and his colleague about the Pentland Firth which was our route to the east coast the following day. As far as I was concerned, from a navigational point of view, the Pentland Firth was the last major obstacle – if we got this one right we were as good as home.  I had heard all sorts of horror stories about the Firth: thirty foot waves collapsing without warning,  twelve knot tides sweeping vessels into bottomless whirlpools. Medieval names such as the Merry Men of Mey and the Boars of Duncansby conjured up images lost souls of shipwrecked sailors and voracious waves ready to devour a passing kayaker. I had read every bit of information I could find and it all said the same thing – the passage eastwards is much easier than going west.  It had been a major factor in deciding which way around to do the circumnavigation.  The only thing that was troubling me was the opening paragraph in the pilot:
“This potentially dangerous channel should only be attempted with moderate winds (less than F4), good visibility, no swell and a fair neap tide…”
Well two out of four wasn’t bad!
The swell was massive, the wind forecasted at Force 5, but the visibility was good and it was a neap tide.  I confirmed my timings for the east-going flood.  We needed to be at Dunnet Head at the start of the Firth at HW Aberdeen +0240 as the east-going flood starts to make.  It is eight miles to Dunnet Head from Scrabster so it would take us about one and a half hours to get there.  We would have to leave at 9.00am without fail.  A comfortable night was ruined as I tossed and turned, worrying about the next day’s paddle.

Day 10: Sunday 20th June 1999 (58 miles)
We were on the water for 9.00am as planned.  We made excellent progress towards Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the British mainland.  Visibility was superb, the high cliffs of Hoy clear to the north.  I vowed one day to return and do the crossing to the Orkneys and may be even out to the Shetlands via Fair Isle.  It is twenty five nautical miles from North Ronaldsay to Fair Isle and a further twenty two to Sumburgh Head, the most southerly tip of the Shetlands.  That must be possible, it may have already been done?  So what about a crossing from the Shetlands to Norway?  Now that is a long way!  That would definitely be a ‘first’ worthy of note.  It is there to be done and Ian and I could be the men to do it!

As we closed on Dunnet Head I became more focused on the day’s events as we entered an area of monstrous clapotis.  Reflected waves met the North Atlantic swell, refracted and steepened by the influence of islands and headlands, creating huge haystacks as the waves crashed together.  Ian would disappear from view for what seemed like ages, then all of a sudden he would reappear on top of a giant swell just a few yards away. Progress was very slow.  It was impossible to maintain any forward momentum as waves reared up in front of us stopping the boats dead.  Slap-supports became necessary as the peaks collapsed around us.  We kept well away from each other as we had little control over the direction of our kayaks.  We could hear the booming of surf on the base of the sheer two hundred foot cliffs.  Geysers of spray were sent exploding upwards mixing with a waterfall prevented from reaching the sea by the strong northwesterly, blowing it back up the cliff for another try – a ‘hydro-perpetual-motion machine’!

We had been warned that the Scrabster lifeboat would be exercising in Thurso Bay, it being a Sunday morning and they may come out to check on us.  As we clawed our way through the last of the big clapotis I turned and saw it approaching Dunnet Head.  Thinking it would make short work of the big swell I was suprised to see the Arun class lifeboat completely disappear into the troughs as it ploughed through the walls of water.  It would have been an uncomfortable ride for its crew as the boat tilted violently, first one way then the other, sheets of spray bursting from its bow as it drove into the confused sea. It was great to see it and really gave an idea of scale to support my estimate of the wave heights.  The lifeboat approached to within a hundred metres or so and once satisfied that we were through the worst the crew waved and spun it around heading back through the melee, this time fighting the tide as well.

Past Dunnet Head we paused for a rest, we had plenty of time now and I was happy to let the tide carry us east.  I was disappointed at the rate at which we drifted.  I had hoped we would have a ‘free ride’ through the Firth.  In actual fact, even with a following wind it was a long hard paddle to St. John’s Point.  The sloppy sea, now much reduced in size, made it difficult to steer.  My damaged rudder was really starting to give me problems, my feet becoming badly bruised as I fought to keep the boat straight.  I became increasingly frustrated as Ian surfed effortlessly away from me.  Ahead I kept a sharp look-out for any signs of activity on the reefs of the Merry Men of Mey.  Sure enough as we approached to within a mile or so I could see eruptions of spray in mid-channel.  I shouted to Ian to ensure we kept together.  I had visions of him surfing a runner onto the exposed rocks.  The tide did accelerate significantly as we passed the headland but nothing like I have experienced on the Bitches tidal rapid between Ramsey Island and St. David’s Head on the Pembrokeshire coast.  Waves broke in confusion on the Merry Men of Mey but we were able to paddle safely within a few metres of the reefs.  Following the passage information closely, we headed in to avoid being swept onto the Skerry on the southern tip of the Isle of Stroma.  Here the powerful set of the tide was apparent and had we not followed the instructions given we would have passed the Skerry and its associated whirlpool far too close for comfort.  As it was we remained mid-channel and headed on towards John O’Groats and the Boars of Duncansby.

Visitors to Land’s End cannot fail to be impressed by the natural beauty of the pink granite headland and the real ‘Edge of the World’ feeling you get as you stare out towards Longships and North America.  Even Peter De Savary’s attempts to turn it into a theme park do little to detract from the wonder of the place.  I have to say that the Scottish equivalent is pretty pathetic.  If I’d travelled the eight hundred and seventy six miles to get there on foot or by pedal cycle or shopping trolley I would be rather disappointed when I arrived to find a motley assortment of buildings that clearly are in the wrong place!  The person who decided that John O’Groats was ‘the other end’ must have either had a stake in the real estate of the village or needed a lesson in geography.  I feel sorry for the lighthouse at Duncansby Head.  It surely deserves to be more widely recognised as ‘the other end’.

Pausing momentarily for a compulsory photo we became aware of a rough area of water ahead.  The swell had gone, blocked by the Orkneys.  This must be the Duncansby Race.  Swept into it at six knots,  it was really good fun.  Four foot standing waves, the Inuks cut through them easily, driven by our adrenaline charged muscles.  Way above us spectators watched from the lofty summit of Duncansby Head.  Laughing and grinning like a couple of kids, our fatigue forgotten, we broke out of the current beneath the lighthouse.  To our left was the North Sea and ahead of us the long awaited east coast leading to the Moray Firth and home.
“The east coast!” I exclaimed, stating the obvious.
“It would be nice to have some land on the left…..” Ian thought out loud.
“Oh yeah! We can turn around and go back the way we’ve come if you like!” I suggested un-helpfully,
“You just can’t please some people!”

We were euphoric.  There was no doubt now that, barring disaster, we would complete our circumnavigation.  To celebrate we took time out to explore some of the cavernous geos underneath Duncansby Head.  I recommend them, some of the best I have seen, just wide enough for a kayak but fifty metres high.  Subtle shades of brown, orange and grey, intricately blended and encrusted with guano.  Guillemots behaving just like penguins, their not-so-distant cousins, hopped along the rocks to get out of our way. Forgetting that they had the ability to fly they would follow each other until they had nowhere else to go. Comically they plopped into the water. At that point they were transformed and would dive like silver torpedoes under the kayaks, shafts of light picking out their streamlined bodies as they darted about in the crystal clear water catching elusive fish.  The speed of the birds underwater is astonishing.  They seem more at home underwater than they do on land or in the air.  It was impossible not to disturb the numerous colonies of seals sunbathing on the flat rock ledges.  We took a short meal break on a large boulder beach beneath the Stacks of Duncansby.  Despite being out of the wind and in bright sunshine we soon got cold, our fatigued bodies had little resistance whilst we remained in damp gear.  We had decided on a quick lunch and to not bother cooking-up to save time.  A decision we were later to regret.

As we approached Skirza Head the steep cliffs fell away exposing us to the stiff north westerly.  Strong gusts raced out to sea and we had an extremely uncomfortable crossing of Sinclair’s Bay to Noss Head. The outside of my right foot became more and more painful as I jammed it against the ineffectual tiller bar fighting the cross-wind.  I was grateful for the large hood of my Nookie Sea Cag which protected my face from the blasts of spray.  The low shoreline continued to Wick where one look into the cold grey harbour convinced us to push on further.  High cliffs made a welcome return.  Aptly named, the vertical rock face of Scarlet Head glowed in the late afternoon sunshine.  Pink sea thrift contrasted beautifully with the yellow lichen covering the red rock giving the appearance of shimmering gold.  We devoured mile after mile following the south westerly trend of the cliff line.  I had neglected to include this section of coast in my series of laminated OS maps so we only had a planetary scale map to go from.  It had become a standard joke that I would have the OS 1:50 000 map or chart to navigate from whilst Ian had the map that included the whole solar system!  He is perfectly able to read a map effectively but was happy to just follow me around Scotland.  When asked by a curious onlooker where we had come from or where we were heading to Ian would have to turn to me because he normally didn’t have a clue!

As we rounded headland after headland past hundreds of stacks, countless geos and many more caves I became increasingly confused as to our exact whereabouts.  On the map it showed lots of small villages by the shore.  The last place that we could have got ashore was Wick.  There had been little or no sign of habitation since then and that was several hours ago.  We became increasingly tired, regretting the hurried lunch.  We kept having to stop to refuel with crunchy bars and ‘Bullet’ sausages.  The cliffs were only a hundred feet high but they were sheer and there was literally nowhere to get out.  Being self sufficient we did not have to find a village although the use of a land-line phone was now necessary as Ian’s mobile had packed up.  We had settled on Lybster for the night.  I knew it was famous for its golf course and I tried to spot the manicured turf when we caught an occasional glimpse of the hinterland behind the impregnable cliffs.  There was no sign of a golf course or anything that looked remotely like a village.  We passed a lighthouse at Halberry Head which confused the hell out of me because it wasn’t marked on my map.  The only lighthouse I had marked was at Lybster.  May be Lybster was up above us somewhere and we couldn’t see it.  Maybe there was no beach, no port, no landing at all.  We continued on, increasingly frustrated.

We arrived in a small bay.  A beach!  Backed by steep cliffs I could make out a precipitous footpath leading to some houses.  There was the remnants of a fishing net lying above the high water mark.  I pointed it out to Ian as a possible bed for the night.  Perhaps this was it?  Ian wanted to press on until we found a better campsite.  Good call!  Just around the next corner we unexpectedly found a second lighthouse and paddled into the very picturesque old herring port of Lybster.  I kicked myself as I instantly recognised it from a photo in a guide book I had read in preparation for the trip.  We were too tired to laugh and our epic day was not yet over.  The only places to get out were either up some steep stone steps or up a stone slipway covered in bladderack seaweed.  We opted for the latter as it involved a shorter carry to the only level bit of grass we could find.  After much grunting and cursing we finally got the kayaks ashore and stripped off our damp clothes without much thought for the locals.  We were past caring.  Once into dry clothes and feeling a lot better we took a look around.  There was a nice spot on the edge of the lawn of a curious old cottage set into the hillside.  Battlements around the flat roof suggested an alternative historical use for the property.  Before pitching the tent we thought it wise to seek permission but there was no reply from the cottage.  A large modern bungalow occupied an imposing position above the little port so we climbed up through the deep grassed hillside to see if anyone was in.  We met Mr Curry on his way down to meet us.  My first impression of a bolshie old man about to tell us to “Get off my land!” could not have been more wrong.  He was fascinated by our adventure, introducing us to his wife and offering us food and water.  We ‘borrowed’ his phone and accepted some drinking water but politely declined the offer of food.  We still had plenty and we were buggered if we were going to carry half-way around Scotland and not eat it!  We spent a delightful half- hour chatting, Ian gossiping with Mrs Curry discovering people and places they had in common, whilst I explained our route and the more technical aspects of our journey to Mr.  It must have been obvious that we were tired and hungry and they wished us well as we made our excuses and left to set up camp before it got dark.  It had been a record day, we were completely shattered but it had been well worth it.  Another like that and we would have cracked the east coast.

Day 11: Monday 21st June 1999 (43 miles)
The next day began slowly.  Having faffed about, breaking camp and loading the boats it was 10.00am by the time we were on the water. Mr and Mrs Curry waved us off from the patio of their bungalow.  We must have looked rather amateur as we feebly paddled out of the harbour. The previous day’s effort had taken its toll and progress was painful until we had fully warmed up.

The cliffs continued, the scenery reminding me of one of my favourite paddles: from Looe to Fowey, on the south coast of Cornwall.  I began to feel strong in the warm sunshine and for the first time in the trip I began to set the pace, Ian content to sit on my wash.  As my Inuk kayak scythed through the calm sea it threw up a small wake sufficient to give Ian a ‘free ride’ if he positioned himself precisely on my stern.  We cranked out mile after mile in this fashion.  I had my marathon head on and enjoyed the feeling of power as my back and arms worked in harmony with my legs driving the kayak forward with each paddle stroke.  We were now supremely fit and as long as we kept refuelling regularly we were able to paddle at six miles an hour all day long.  We passed Dunbeath without realising it and were delighted to discover the excellent progress we had made when we saw the ancient navigation marks on the cliffs above Berriedale.  More high-rise bird cities and many more seals gave an optimistic prognosis for the health of this part of the North Sea.

By 1.00pm we were in need of grub.  I had found on my journey around Devon and Cornwall that for repeated long days of paddling carbohydrate was just not enough.  After all, the relatively low output meant that fat was a main fuel source.  I had come to crave chips and my mind was at it again.  I explained this to Ian who was sceptical at first, arguing that complex carbohydrates was what he needed and that he would not be able to digest a stodgy chip meal.  I could see nothing but big, fat  chips however and on our arrival at  Helmsdale Ian agreed to walk with me into town to find a take-away.  What we found was “La Mirage”, perhaps the strangest chippy in the land.  With a tastelessly flamboyant pink decor, the proprietor, Nancy Sinclair has created an oasis of colour in an otherwise grey town.  She models herself on the author Barbara Cartland who has a holiday home nearby.  There are a myriad of photographs of Nancy with various showbiz celebrities, including Michael Barrymore with whom she seems to have taken a particular fancy.  We sat there in dripping canoe kit eating an excellent jumbo sausage and chips surrounded by pink flamingos and palm trees. Totally bizarre!

Ian agreed that the chips had ‘hit the spot’ and fully restored we set about our last major crossing from Helmsdale to Tarbat Ness fourteen miles away.  The Moray coast was visible to the south.  The hills of Eastern Ross rolled down to the sea ahead of us.  For a while, I must confess, we headed for the wrong bit of land until I checked the compass against the map I had (foolishly) given to Ian.  I pointed out that Tarbat Ness should be almost due south of our position and we were heading south west.  I smugly pointed out a needle like lighthouse that I had just spotted in roughly the right area and took the ‘Mickey’ out of Ian’s navigational skills.  He gave as good as he got and the banter continued for a while as we headed out across the Dornoch Firth.  The wind soon kicked up a steep chop that kept me quiet as I began a losing battle with my rudder.  Ian surfed away leaving me to mutter under my breath.  He was gracious enough to wait for me several times on the long crossing.  Three porpoises provided a short interlude and cheered me up.  It took an age for the tall red and white lighthouse to get noticeably closer and only when I could clearly see individual buildings and trees did I buck my ideas up and ‘race’ Ian to the point.  It had been an unwritten rule, an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement that we would always paddle around, through or past any major point together, as a team and so it was on this occasion that we paddled into the slipway in the lee of the lighthouse together, as one, after a two and a quarter hour crossing.

We were very much on the home straight now, just over thirty miles of the Moray Firth between us and Inverness and the start of the Caledonian Canal.  We were in great spirits and the temptation was to paddle into the night.  But there was little advantage to be gained.  The tide was against us and we hugged the coast to the small village of Rockfield, nestled at the water’s edge with an enviable view across the Moray Firth.  We remembered our manners and asked to pitch on what was essentially the front lawn of a number of terraced cottages.  It was a perfect spot, a short carry with the boats and just yards from a telephone.  Our idyllic situation was marred by a problem that had appeared over the last couple of days.  Both of us had nasty looking blisters on the backs of our hands.  Ian had suffered a little at the start with friction blisters on the palms of his hands as you might expect with prolonged gripping of the paddle in rough seas. Neither of us had experienced anything like this before.  These were blisters caused, we can only assume, from hours of exposure to cold wind and salt spray.  It certainly wasn’t sunburn!  They had first become apparent on the north coast but now they had become excruciatingly itchy and sore to touch.  It made any manual task laborious and painful.  At night when we stopped paddling and our hands warmed up they felt as if they were burning and we tried using different remedies; Ian’s nappy rash cream, my sunblock, without success.  We had to sleep with our hands outside our sleeping bags to try to keep them cool. We discovered on our return to ‘civilisation’ that we had been suffering from chilblains, a mild form of frost bite. The answer I am sure would have been to have used ‘pogies’, nylon paddle mitts, to protect our hands from the wind.  Our hands were never actually cold enough to have felt that was necessary but it is something I have learnt for next time(?)

We eventually got to sleep.  It would be our last day on the sea tomorrow.  Then the canal.  Surely it would be a doddle after what we had been through so far?

Day 12: Tuesday 22nd June 1999 (35 miles)
The stench of rotting seaweed hit my senses as I woke with the sun.  It stimulated something inside me and I urgently had to find somewhere to go.  Not easy when you are camped on someone’s front lawn!  After a trek down the shore I came back to find Ian up and at it.  We packed the boats dressed only in swimming trunks which attracted a few appreciative comments from a passing group of housewives.  It was a lovely day, the hottest so far and we set off in rash vests and shorts, a cool breeze off the sea preventing further exposure of bare flesh to the inhabitants of the Moray Firth.  We set a cracking pace following tight to the shore past the curiously named Hilton of Cadboll towards the narrow opening into Cromarty Firth.  We saw hundreds of star fish scattered on the sea bed visible through pane glass water.  Ian saw something large and very fast pass quickly beneath him.  He was convinced it was a shark but sadly we never got a chance to confirm.  The cliffs beneath the Hill of Nigg were crammed with sea birds and right on cue, as we began the short crossing to Blue Head three large dolphins, arching rhythmically, approached to within a hundred meters or so.  We had been told by Hugh Eaglesfield on his yacht back on Eigg that we could expect to see up to a hundred of them and we were not disappointed.  They made a magical spectacle as they hunted in the mouth of Firth.

Looking into Cromarty Firth I was shocked to see huge oil rigs awaiting repair.  The proximity of the oil terminal and fabrication yard to the tranquil marine home of the dolphins is both worrying and confusing.  These animals are free to live wherever they please, yet they choose to live within sight of a massive industrial complex that serves to exploit the ocean for profit.  Perhaps the dolphins are there to remind us that we are the guardians of the world’s oceans.  That carelessness or deliberate acts of environmental vandalism cannot be tolerated.  Organisations like the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) with their ‘Oceans 2000 – Seas for the Future’ strategy should be supported by everyone with an interest in the long-term well being of the oceans (and that means all of us).  As an island nation we should be at the forefront of research into the impact of man’s activities on marine bio-diversity.  We should lead the way; developing policy for sustainable fishing; carefully limiting the exploitation of oil and mineral resources; eliminating discharges of inadequately-treated sewage and other pollutants into the marine environment.  Our aim should be to create many more Marine Nature Reserves to help protect our more vulnerable marine habitats.  A once romantic pastime, beachcoming is now a depressing glance into the oceanic trash can.  The old fallacy, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ will come back to haunt us when there is no more room in the ocean for the world’s rubbish.  Incidents of e-coli poisoning and other viral infections to water users and marine mammals will become common place unless radical measures are taken to halt the decline in bathing water quality.  It is a sad fact that 63% of the beaches failing the minimum standard in the Good Beach Guide 1999 (published by the MCS) were in the North East, North West, Scotland and the Isle of Man.  We saw many raw sewage out-falls pouring down the cliffs on our journey down the East Coast of Scotland.  It must be our aim, at the start of a new millennium, to halt this disgraceful practice.  The South West of England have had to pay the highest water bills in country.  South West Water directors’ salaries and share-holder’s profits aside, water quality has improved in the last couple of years – ask any surfer.  Every region of the country has its part to play, what goes into the rivers goes into the sea.  Can we expect anyone in Europe (or the rest of the world for that matter) to take us seriously unless we clean up our own act?

Cromarty Firth is guarded by forts and gun emplacements on South Sutor built in 1914 on the authority of a young Winston Churchill.  An underwater metal net was strung across the entrance to the Firth.  Despite these defences on 30th December 1915 HMS Natal was mysteriously blown up with the loss of over 400 lives.  Perhaps this was the first ever attack successfully carried out by kayak?  Germany was, after all, the birth place of the folding kayak at the turn of the century.  Was it the inspiration for Operation Frankton – the incredible story of the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’.  In December 1942 a team of ten Royal Marines from the Boom Patrol Detachment paddled up the Gironde river and despite heavy losses attacked a number of ships in Bordeaux harbour.  Led by the late Lt. Col. ‘Blondie’ Hasler (whose name is immortalised in the  U.K. canoe marathon racing national club championship), it has been a source of inspiration to me ever since first reading about their incredible courage and resourcefulness as a kid. One of many acts of heroism that we must never forget.

It is with these thoughts that I continued to paddle with Ian down the Moray Firth, ever closer to our goal.  We took a quick lunch break in the lee of some rocks.  Despite the bright sunshine a cool south easterly wind kept us shivering as soon as we were out of the boats.  The Firth narrowed dramatically as it was pinched between Fort George, home to the Queen’s Own Highlanders and Chanonry Point.  The tide had turned in our favour and soon after lunch we left the open sea astern as we surfed the steep chop towards Inverness. As we passed under the impressive Kessock road bridge carrying the A9 northwards we knew that was it, no more ocean.

We drifted gently onto the muddy shore of the Beauly Firth beside the sea lock, the start of the Caledonian Canal.  Ian thanked me for getting him around the coast safely.  He would not have been so generous if he had known what was in store on the canal!  Carrying the kayaks one by one up the steep rocky embankment we had our first look at the canal.  Fresh water!  It looked lovely and we quickly slid the boats down into it.  Paddling for just a few hundred yards we came to a halt at the first (of many) portages where it was necessary to haul the fully laden kayaks ten feet up onto the tow path, then carry them one by one around the lock.  British Waterways understandably do not allow canoes and kayaks into the locks.  Unfortunately no attempt has been made to facilitate easy portaging with kayaks along the Canal,  something I would urge the Scottish Canoe Association to discuss with British Waterways with the increased popularity of canoe and kayak journeys along the Canal.  The canal was built to provide a safe route for maritime traffic avoiding the treacherous seas around the north of Scotland.  It is one of the greatest feats of 19th century engineering taking Thomas Telford twenty years to construct it along the ‘Great Glen’, taking advantage of the three lochs, Lochy, Oich and Ness, which account for about two thirds of the route. There are twenty nine locks linking sections of canal and loch together to produce a 60 nautical mile waterway capable of carrying vessels up to 45 metres in length, with a maximum beam of 10 metres and maximum draft of 4 metres. By the 1900’s three steamboats a day would leave Inverness bound for Fort William and the West Coast.

The first portage around Clachnaharry Lock wasn’t too bad.  Into the Muirtown Basin and the bustling, noisy, smelly outskirts of Inverness.  In a strange way I had been looking forward to seeing civilisation again; bus stops and taxi cabs, street lights and zebra crossings, terraced houses and net curtain.  Now we were here I wanted ‘out’ again.  Plastic bottles and crisp wrappers had replaced puffins and jellyfish.  Revving combustion engines had replaced the roar of the surf.  Dodgy drains had replaced the smell of guano.  I had left my heart somewhere on the West Coast.  My mood plummeted as we reached the next portage.  A steep flight of four locks had to be overcome.  We decided a shoulder carry was the best method.  It was a huge effort to lift each kayak (mine seemed especially heavy for some reason) but once on our shoulders it was easier to walk or stagger two hundred metres or so before we were forced to rest.  As we were lugging the second kayak up the tow path a drunken young Scotsman disgraced his country by swearing abuse at a young girl apparently walking home from work.  She was clearly upset as she was forced to go out of her way to avoid walking past the idiot.  Fortunately a slightly more sober friend of the lad intervened just as he turned his attention to us.  Welcome back to the real world!

The next section of canal took us away from the built up area into the beautiful Glen Mor.  The disappointment of Inverness was soon forgotten.  We sat on each other’s wash as we revelled in the silky smooth surface of the canal after days on a lumpy sea.  We were tired but our marathon mentality meant we could have gone on all night.  As it was we reached the immaculately kept campsite at Dochgarroch Lock at about 6.30pm and decided to call it a day.  The forecast was good so there was no reason to push on for the sake of it.  We soon relaxed into holiday mode, enjoying our first hot shower for nearly a fortnight!  My feet were badly bruised after fighting with my tiller bar along the north and east coasts.  The backs of our hands were a mess, the chilblains producing large blisters that begged to be burst.  I popped mine hoping they would heal in the clean water of the canal.  Ian had much better self control and was quietly proud of the huge plasma filled bubbles.  As our hands warmed so the itching would start.  Enough to drive a man insane we had tried every combination of cream without relief.  The midges soon provided a distraction though.  Until joining the canal we had suffered very little from the pesky little insects.  The warm still air in the Glen was perfect for them and they were out in force.

Whilst we were finishing off dinner a big white Mercedes camper van pulled into the site.  There were several kayaks on the roof including a couple of plastic Lettmann sea kayaks.  Once they had got themselves sorted I went over for a chat.  It turned out to be Jochen Lettmann, son of Klaus Lettmann and his girlfriend on holiday in the Highlands.  Lettmann have produced quality kayaks and paddles in Germany for many years and Jochen is himself a former Olympian achieving a bronze medal in whitewater slalom at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.  Like many ex-slalomists he has turned his attention to whitewater rodeo and showed us the cranked carbon-kevlar rodeo paddle he has been developing for the past two years.  It was fascinating talking to him about many aspects of paddlesport.  I was particularly interested in his design for a retractable understern rudder for sea kayaks which, if robust enough, would solve many of the problems we had experienced on our journey.  I drank his beer and would have chatted all night but sadly the midges forced us to cut short our conversation, probably much to his girlfriends relief!

Day 13: Wednesday 23rd June 1999 (38 miles)
I slept soundly once my hands had stopped itching.  I had set my alarm for 5.50am to catch the weather forecast.  As soon as it sounded Ian was up and at it again.  When he realised what time it was he cursed me but decided we should get on with it anyway.  We were packed and portaged by 8.30am.  It was going to be a glorious day.  Paddling upstream, hugging the banks we were now in the River Ness that empties the Loch into the Moray Firth.  It is a beautiful stretch of water and it occurred to me that it would make a great marathon kayak race from Fort William to Inverness: a two day race with a stage stop at Fort Augustus.  We entered Loch Ness passing Aldourie Castle on our left, one of many guarding the Great Glen.  I made yet another silent prayer of thanks as we glided out across mirror-calm water, not a breath of wind to disturb the perfect reflection of heather-clad mountains.

We aimed for a point just before Urquhart Bay on the northern shore.  We sat side by side matching each other stroke for stroke, our rhythm un-broken for several miles.  Pulling onto the shore for necessary relief it was an opportunity to take in the grand scale of the Loch.  It contains more water than all the lakes and reservoirs of England and Wales put together.  It is 24 miles long, over a mile wide in places and up to 750 feet deep making it the largest body of fresh water in Europe.  Following the spectacular geological fault of Glen Mor or the ‘Great Glen’ it almost cuts Scotland in two and has provided a way through the Highlands for centuries of travellers.  I had been concerned that the prevailing wind in the Glen is south westerly and that Loch Ness, with its long fetch, could have been really hard work with head winds all the way.  As it was, we could not have asked for more perfect conditions.  We stripped off down to our wetsuit shorts.  Time for a tan!

As we continued on, passing below the battlements of Urquhart Castle it was not difficult to imagine the scene in the tribal days of the Celtic Clans when feudalism caused disputes to be settled by war and violence.  Now the peaceful silence of the Loch is broken by the symbolic strains of bagpipes played by kilt-clad buskers at every viewpoint.  We passed by un-noticed.  The hordes of clansmen armed with swords and dirks (daggers) had been replaced by Japanese tourists armed with different types of Canon. Low-flying jets roared down the loch like a scene from Top Gun. Forget your fast bikes and cars these guys really motored, doing Loch Ness in seconds before blasting up through one of the side glens in search of prey.

It became a race to see how fast we could ‘do the Loch’.  Taking it in turns; two minutes on, two minutes off; taking up the pace then sitting on the other’s wash.  We ate into the miles.  The first faint zephyrs of a breeze caressed our backs.  The polished surface of the Loch became tarnished, taking on texture and form as if the monster was awakening. We didn’t see Nessie – we never expected to.  Old sea dogs like us, we don’t believe in such things – but it would have been nice and I will confess to a sense of anti-climax as we paddled into Fort Augustus.  Talk of cream cakes soon appeased my disappointment.  In the end we had Scotch Pie and chips and girdle scones, fresh and delicious, sat in the sun by the lock cut. For the first time in the trip it was hot.  We sat soaking up the ultraviolet rays whilst we contemplated the afternoon’s paddle.  For a little while we had even contemplated trying to finish that night, but discounted the idea.  It may have been possible but what would we have achieved?  We were intending to stay with friends of Ian’s on the outskirts of Edinburgh before heading back to England.  If we took our time now we would still easily finish by lunchtime tomorrow which would give us the opportunity for a leisurely drive through the Highlands to Edinburgh in the afternoon.  It had always been our intention to complete the circumnavigation in as short a time as possible but now, in the pleasant warmth of the Highland summer, there seemed little point in rushing.  It was nice to have the time to relax and enjoy the last few hours of our adventure.

Taking a break on Loch Ness

Perhaps it was the impending portage up a flight of five locks that had caused our reluctance to get going.  Finally we could delay it no longer and heaving my kayak up onto our shoulders we staggered off up the road beside the lock.  I felt somewhat incongruous as we grunted and sweated our way past ice-cream-licking tourists.  A pleasant paddle to Kytra Lock, our fifteenth lock, saw us at the summit of the canal, 106 feet above sea level.  Fourteen locks to go.  At least they would be downhill.  Following the channel marker buoys through the complex of islands on the humorously named Loch Oich we had to paddle hard into a stiff head breeze.  It is an interesting phenomena of the Great Glen.  The wind can change direction with remarkable suddenness. It always follows the fault line of the Glen, blowing southwest or north east.  Often, as was the case today, a sea breeze off the west coast would meet a sea breeze off the east coast somewhere around Fort Augustus, producing the hot still conditions we had enjoyed at lunchtime.  Sailors on the two biggest lochs, Lochy and Ness had to be wary of sudden 180 degree wind shifts as the two air masses fought for supremacy.

Battles of a different kind were waged from the ramparts of Invergarry Castle although why anyone wanted to fight in such a romantically beautiful setting is beyond me.  The crumbling ivy-clad ruins poked above the surrounding beech and oak.  A ‘des-res’ for any canoeist or lover of lake and mountain.  Another two mile stretch of canal led us to Laggan Locks where we found a perfect campsite right by the water’s edge.  Therma-rests out, it was dinner and diaries in the evening sun before the midges ruined everything.

We had been overtaken by an old dredger called Barrow Sand in the Beauly Firth on our approach to Inverness.  We had seen it ahead on several occasions along the canal but had been unable to catch it.  It was now moored at Laggan and I enquired with the skipper about what time he would be leaving.  I had hoped to catch a few washes off pleasure boats on our way down the canal but the only craft up to now had been yachts travelling far too slowly.  If we could only get on the wash off Barrow Sand we would have a free ride to Fort William.  He laughed and replied in broad Scots that he aimed to leave between 7.00 and 8.00am.  Great, how vague is that!

Phone calls to respective partners left us with mixed emotions.  Of course it was great to talk to them but hearing about problems at home brought us another step closer to the end of our adventure.  It was very nearly over and I would certainly be sad to leave this beautiful country.  We had seen people arrive by car at the lock and walk up the tow path to an old tug.  Investigating we discovered a real gem.  Scot II was a floating pub, popular with locals and passing yachtsmen.  Ian rarely drinks but we had a pint to celebrate the imminent completion of our circumnavigation.  We chatted to an Irish lass from the Dutch barge ‘Fingle’ moored on Loch Lochy.  Converted into an outdoor pursuits centre, they sailed their clients up and down the Caledonian Canal giving instruction in sailing, canoeing, mountain biking, hill walking and rock climbing.  There was even a jetski on board that had been buzzing around the loch like some demented insect earlier that evening.  She was a strange girl with rather more testosterone in her veins than there should have been.  It turned out she was only talking to us to avoid the unwanted advances of one of her mature male clients.  I was far more interested in making friends with Fingle, a handsome tan and gold collie-cross named after the barge that was his home.

One beer was enough to set me yawning and we retired for our last night under canvas.

Day 14: Thursday 24th June 1999 (21 miles, six and a half hours paddling/portaging)
The alarm woke me at 6.30am.  I nudged Ian.
“Time to get up if we’re going to catch that barge”.
Like a Spaniel, eager to please, Ian sat bolt upright eyes wide open and immediately started packing.  His friends back home nicknamed him ‘Spaniel’ because of his boundless enthusiasm and willingness to crack on with whatever needed doing to get a job done.  It was amazing to watch.  One minute he had been fast asleep, the next minute he was wide awake and raring to go.  He looked pretty awful but then so would you if you had paddled over 500 miles in a fortnight with just one shower!  We hurried to get de-camped but our haste was futile.  Barrow Sand left at 7.30am and we watched it throw an enormous wake as it headed out into Loch Lochy.  We would have done well to stay with it in any case.

Afloat by 8.00am we took a leisurely pace, again we were blessed with perfect conditions on the Loch.  The steep forested mountain sides climbed into the clouds on each side of us.  To the south we once again saw the Ben Nevis massif,  snow still covering the upper flanks.  Legend has it that if the snow ever leaves the summit then ownership of the Ben will revert to the Crown.  Its ownership not in question the Ben was a welcome sight and further indication we were coming to our journey’s end.
Entering the canal once more having enjoyed a pleasant paddle down a very beautiful Loch Lochy we arrived at Gairlochy Lock.  Again no provision had been made for ease of access/eagress for canoes and kayaks even though the lock had clearly had a recent facelift.  We had to get out at least a hundred metres short of the first lock gate and when we had eventually heaved and lugged the boats past the two lock gates we were shattered.  As I looked down the newly grassed slope to the lock basin twenty feet below a man dressed in overalls yelled at us from the swing bridge he was closing.
“Don’t even think about it, I don’t want you going down there, you’ll just have to carry them”.
His terse attitude immediately raised my hackles.  I walked down to him to see what his problem was.  He was clearly Mr Angry and not a big fan of canoeists.  Probably a fisherman I decided.  I acquiesced, remembering we had our sponsors logos splashed all over our boats.  It meant a further four hundred metre carry across the road and down past the lock basin to a difficult ‘put-in’ down a steep rocky bank.  We were both getting pretty fed up with this portaging business.  Neither of us minded doing portages with a marathon racing kayak, there are 76 portages on the Devizes to Westminster race which I have done twice and Ian three times.  But with two fully laden sea kayaks it was not much fun and our shoulders were getting increasingly sore.  Ian was beginning to stagger under the burden.  His skinny legs bowed with the strain.  We were later to discover he had lost a stone and a half during our circumnavigation.  He was lean when we started and could ill afford to lose that sort of weight.  My compact (many would say stunted) build helped with this sort of weight lifting.  Even so I was reaching my limit of endurance.

The final stretch from Gairlochy to Banavie and the infamous Neptune’s Staircase seemed to take forever.  We could smell the sea.  I was tempted to portage into the River Lochy which was just below us but out of sight behind the embankment bordering the canal but decided that we should see it through to the bitter end.  A pleasure boat gave us the opportunity of a wash ride but he overestimated my boat speed.  Allowing Ian to have the first wave I did my best to hang on to the second wave behind the thirty foot motor launch.  I had to paddle flat out to stay with it and my arms soon filled with lactic acid.  Panting, I yelled at Ian to stay with it and I would see him later.  Like the true gentleman he is he gave up his free ride so that we could paddle it together.  To make things worse the sea breeze had picked up and the last four miles was a real head bang along the most boring stretch of the canal.  At last we arrived, already shattered at the start of Neptune’s Staircase.  We went for a recce.  It was our worst nightmare.  It must have been an eight hundred metre walk from top to bottom.  My shoulder ached just at the thought of it.  It takes an hour and a half to transit the nine locks in a boat.  It took us the best part of an hour to complete the portage with the two kayaks.  But complete it we did and after a very tricky ‘put-in’ between the lock gate and the road bridge we paddled tiredly towards the sea lock at Corpach.  The wind was bending the trees as it came in off the sea loch of Loch Eil.  Was there to be a final sting in the tail?

Sure enough, having arrived at the twenty ninth lock, we looked out across Loch Eil towards Fort William.  The south westerly breeze would be right on the nose for the final part of our journey from the sea lock at Corpach to Fort William Pier.  The last, but by no means the easiest portage completed we were on salt water again.  We headed out, determined to finish in style.  Despite the stiff breeze and flooding tide we covered the last two miles in no time at all.

Closing on the small stone pier I had expected to be overcome with emotion.  After all, the circle was complete.  We had done it.  A circumnavigation of Northern Scotland in two weeks.  I was pleased, of course I was.  But there was a tinge of sadness.  Would I ever get the chance to do such a thing again?  It has been my life’s ambition to do a solo circumnavigation of the British Isles.  My commitment to Linda and my career make the likelihood of me ever realising that ambition appear remote.  Was this a comma or a full stop?  When I finished my circumnavigation of Devon and Cornwall I had already decided on my next adventure.  Now I was at the end of that journey I was undecided on what to do next. Wasn’t it about time I got on with real life and stopped dreaming about ‘the ultimate kayak adventure’.  I thought of my hero, Paul Caffyn and his book ‘Dreamtime Voyager’; his circumnavigation of Australia.  Surely that was ‘the ultimate’?  Would I have to accept that I could only read about such journeys in books?

Ian snapped me out of my introspective day-dream.  Grinning from ear to ear it was really good to see him so stoked with what we had achieved.  Only he knows what it meant for him.  All I can say is that I could not have wished for a better travelling companion.  He generously described paddling with me as “inspirational”.  That brought a lump to my throat!  I hope in this account I have conveyed my great respect for this man but suffice to say that should any of my day-dreams ever become reality he will be the first person I will ask to join me on my next adventure. We landed at 2.30pm, it had taken us 12 days, ten hours to paddle around 508 miles, averaging approximately 40 miles a day.

Why did we do it?
No reason!
Ian and Sean would like to thank:
First Ascent – U.K. importers of Cascade Designs excellent products.
Kirton Kayaks – manufacturers of the finest racing and sea kayaks.
Arktis – Quality of Endurance
Saarlander Sausages – makers of ‘Bullets’
A&S Watersports, Exeter.
Rob Feloy – designer of the Inuk – The High Performance Sea Kayak
Teresa and Linda for their love,  patience and understanding.

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