Sound of Arisaig 2019

Location: Scotland (Google Maps marker is an approximation)

This is the third of our mini expeditions to the Scottish Highlands, and yet again, it proved to be an expedition that gave us so much more than just a trip.

Over a period of 5 days and 4 camps, we were treated to Sea Eagles, favourable winds, mercury calm waters, warm days and crisp mornings. Island and beach camping, castles, spectacular lochs and of course wondrous mountains.

The only down side (and in fairness, one which we were expecting, but hoping to avoid) `ticks`. Thousands of ticks! By far the worst year. Such a small price to pay though.

View of a loch from inside a kayak. The front of the kayak filled with equipment can be seen

So after months of preparation, the day arrived. It was early April, the trailer was loaded and our expedition packs had been loaded (now considerably lighter than our first trip as our knowledge improves), and off we set. 6am our transport rolled out and we hit the road in Cornwall, with the intention of making Fort William by nightfall. It`s a long trip, but by swapping drivers, we made our objective and checked in to the hotel for the last `civilised` night’s sleep for the rest of the week. I use the word civilised with caution, as I have to admit to finding a deeper comfort and knowledge when I`m surrounded by Mother Nature.

After a hearty breakfast (which included haggis) we set off again, this time heading for Glenfinnan (made famous by Harry Potter as `that` bridge, and it was from here at the head of Loch Shiel that we were to embark on our journey.

Loch Shiel is the 4th longest loch in Scotland and at 28 kilometres long we faced a long paddle, but is fresh water so there would be less resistance as we paddle. Given the distance to travel, we allowed for several days paddling on Loch Shiel, but here Mother Nature threw us our first helping hand. Running NE/SW with high mountains to either side, we were blessed with a following breeze, and within minutes of launching, we had all erected our sails, moved to the aft of the canoe, and put our paddles out behind us as rudders. And that was it! No more paddle strokes. An hour and a half later we pulled up on a beach for some lunch, before setting off again (with sails up) until beginning to look for a camp site around 3pm – giving us plenty of time to prepare our site. This was going to be the easiest paddling we`ve ever done.

A view of the loch on a slightly more grey day

So up we pulled, on the northern banks of Loch Shiel on a little spit of land with high bank edges and a little foreshore. A flat centre and tree lined. Perfect? Well it would have been if it weren`t for the ticks. Within minutes of putting any dry bags on the ground they were swarming. One of our group re-sited to the beach, three stuck it out on the flat with varying degrees of success in keeping these little devils at bay (again in fairness, these were mites, so non biting but that doesn`t stop you feel like you are about to be eaten), whilst I removed to the trees and slept in my trusty hammock, with a tarp for shelter. So yes, perfect!

A hammock tied between two trees surrounded by mossy woodland

Day two dawned and we were up early. We always like to make a good start as this allows us to paddle for much of the day, yet still stop early to set camp, without feeling that we have `lost` some of the day. After a cooked breakfast, we broke camp, reloaded our canoes and set off again heading south west. Yet again Mother Nature was being kind and the rising wind was still behind us, although just off our left shoulders now, so the Lee Boards (sort of like a centre board, but fitting over the edge) had to be set. Around mid-morning the loch takes a turn to the north before bearing away south west again, however just where this curve takes place there is a small island with a ruined Church. If you do this trip, take time to land here and look at the generations of a small number of clans that are buried here. Many of the memorials are lovely, some relate to sad tales and there are even a few which hint at plague.

We were very fortunate here, that whilst looking around the island, we disturbed a beautiful Sea Eagle who took flight and partially circled the island before heading off effortlessly to the mountains. Back on the loch we soon found a golden beach out of the wind for lunch, and after beginning to overheat, we again set off down the loch finding that we now had to consider dropping our sails as the loch shallowed out and we came to the river that lead from Loch Shiel to Loch Moidart, our desired destination for tonight. Now the guide book tells us of a little Grade 2 rapid which should only be attempted a couple of hours either side of high tide (Loch Moidart is a sea loch), and we were very conscious that our timings were getting a little pushed and that we might be closer to low tide and therefore have to portage around. Through the river we continued to paddle until we went over a little rock garden, and delighted that the guide book had badly described the rapid, so on we paddled until coming around a sharp bend, we heard pounding water. Now, I don`t mind admitting that I am not a fan of white water, I much prefer the gentle paddling of flat water, so my heart which had relaxed now went back into high beat, as we passed a fisherman who smiled and just shook his head (he knew what was around the corner).

We pulled up in the next eddy and with throw lines in our hands (for safety) walked along the river bank. Great, low tide. So we`re four hours too late and it`s quite a drop and it`s not going to be an easy portage. However, we`ve portaged before and know the routine, so we looked at each other, looked back at the river, looked at how the water was running, where it would spit us out if we judged it wrong and figured – what the hell. Out came all our kit, as we walked this around to save it getting wet, and then positioning ourselves on the river bank as safety cover with throw lines (and the fisherman now standing watching us, waiting for the carnage to ensue) we set off one at a time. What do guide books know? Thank God that`s done!!

Simon kayaking down a rapid

Boats bailed, and kit re-stowed we returned to gentle paddling (the wind had now died) into Loch Moidart and past little islands lying in the shadow of the Castle of Chief MacDonald and out towards the sea to find a camp spot. Into the slowly setting sun we paddled, until reaching a decision that back would now be best to find one of the small islands and set up camp on one of these. This we did, and as the sun set we sat with various glasses of whisky or rum and toasted our good fortune yet again.

The following morning set clear and warm, and again we broke camp early (or most of us did). We had additional time now because of the good passage we made on Loch Shiel, so decided to paddle to the head of Loch Moidart and if we could, take the northern passage out to the sea. Stopping to look around the castle, we regrouped and paddled up around the loch, just clearing the raised ford in the northern passage and therefore having a clear run to the sea. After a short lunch, we continued to paddle and coming through a small mouth, we finally came to the sea and headed north into the Sound of Arisaig. This beautiful stretch of water (now a conservation area) has mountains running to the sea, golden beaches and islets just off shore, so it is no surprise that we decided to make camp on one of these golden outcrops and again watch the sun go down. Not before the younger members of the expedition had walked up the shadowing mountain – only to find that they were now again covered in ticks!

A sunset over the Sound of Arisaig

A slightly chillier morning greeted us as we broke camp and again paddled north, today with the intention of turning towards Loch Ailort and the village of Glenuig, where we had heard there was a very good pub and had thought to treat ourselves. Here a strange thing happened. Every so often you are reminded just how small a world it is, as paddling towards us were two sea kayaks, and low and behold, one of our party knew them both!

Into Glenuig we paddled to find again .. what do guide books know! I`m sure that the pub is excellent, but unfortunately it was closed when we were there. So another lunch on another shoreline (it is proving to be a hard expedition!), before paddling on up and beginning to find ourselves with houses on our right hand side. Oh for the open space.

As the sea narrowed, Loch Ailort began and just before the loch turned north, we came across a series of small islands. After landing and making a sortie, we found that the far side of the island that we had landed on, would be suitable for camping and had plenty of firewood for a campfire.

Tents set, ticks removed and food eaten, our party fire maker set about his baby and we sat around our final campfire of the expedition watching the rays of the sinking sun gradually climb the mountain to our east before disappearing over its summit to play hide and seek with us until the next day.

Two kayakers going through the loch

Our final morning, it had been agreed that myself and one other would set off before everyone else, as I had to catch the train back to our start and bring the vehicle and trailer up to meet the rest of the group. However, the morning was amazingly crisp and still, the water was as reflective as mercury and (unspoken) we all set off at 6am and paddled in near silence, not wanting to break the beauty in which we were paddling. Some days, some paddles, some moments just defy words, we have only our thoughts and our memories. In this one moment in time I am not sure that I have ever been at more peace.

All too soon, we had arrived at the head of the Loch and all that was needed was for me to walk to the nearby train station (approx.. 2 km) and catch the Highland train back to Glenfinnan, check in with our emergency contact and head back to pick up the others.

Now comes the worst part of any expedition. Technically it is over, but we still have to get ourselves and all our equipment home, so following a lunch stop and a refuel we set off, with the aim of making Cornwall by around 7am and then getting some sleep and dreaming of this expedition and maybe the next!

One of the questions that I ask Duke of Edinburgh candidates who are on expedition, is could they stay out another night. I am very fortunate that the group of friends that I paddle with are so well organised, that we could stay out for another week – probably longer, not just in camp craft and kit condition but also in attitude.

A selfie of Simon on the last day