Photos and Words by Tim Gent
From Kintyre in the south to the Cape Wrath at the very top windswept corner of the country, the west coast of Scotland represents nothing less than a wiggly slice of paddling paradise. At almost every turn lochs cut deep into the lumpy mainland, offering sheltered sea room for the paddler. Wild, exposed shores and channels test and entertain the sea kayaker, and short tide-bound rivers thunder to the shore; whitewater fans battle amidst the foam. Look up from your journey, and mountains tower in every direction, their rugged slopes often dropping direct into the gin-clear sea. Golden eagles survey their realm from high overhead, stags stand vigilant on the heather and pine-covered slopes, while seals, otters and dolphins turn a watchful eye from where they share the wet stuff with us temporary inhabitants. This is a very special place.
And should you ever grow tired of the mainland (I suppose it's possible) the myriad achingly beautiful islands lie scattered across the horizon. To provide a perfect natural defense against the almost constant Atlantic blast, each island comes with its own hills, lochs, sandy beaches, and exposed cliffs, its own often troubled history, and often its own whisky.
If all this this doesn't have you going to expedia.com to book your tickets, recent changes in legislation make a visit even better. Since 2005, and as long as you're a sensible sort of adventurer, you can go just about anywhere you want (on sea, river, loch or land), do pretty much as you please and put up a tent as it takes your fancy. The only problem you may encounter is choosing a campsite amidst so many stunning options.
Along such a spectacular coast, with paddling opportunities in every direction, the job of selection is tough indeed, but here are five favorites, which we visited often in our trusty canoe.
Reached by way of a 12-mile, single-track road from the moody mountain stronghold of Glencoe, this long, narrow sea loch is a paddler’s gem. Over much of its 10-mile length there's hardly a house (occasional shooting lodges hide in the woods). Mountains, often snow capped as late as April, fall straight to the sea, and stunning wild-camping sites line the shore. Golden eagles regularly soar overhead, and red deer sightings can be guaranteed.
Launching is simplicity itself, with space to park right at the head of the loch, close to where the River Etive meets the tide. Your drive down Glen Etive follows the river, often lined with whitewater kayakers. Those keen to experience the entire loch may see whitewater again, this time at the seaward end. Here, each ebbing tide thunders over an underwater rock shelf at the sometimes quite alarming Falls of Lora.
The Moidart area
Even if you have a chance to paddle only on Loch Moidart itself, the experience is likely to remain a lifelong memory. Intimate and almost unbelievably beautiful (even by west coast standards), the loch shelters Eilean Shona, where J.M. Barrie wrote the Peter Pan screenplay, and Castle Tioram (pronounced Chirum), one of the prettiest ruins in the land. As if this isn't enough history for one spot, Moidart is where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland in 1745.
With more time to spare, a very popular canoe trip provides an almost circular route. Launching from the head of Loch Shiel, a mountain-flanked freshwater lake next door, a 19-mile paddle leads to a short and interesting river run to Moidart. If weather conditions allow, more adventurous paddlers can then nose out beyond Shona, to work along the cliffs, across the edge of the Sound of Arisaig, and into the welcome shelter of Lochailort.
Sea kayakers would do well to see more of the Arisaig coast.
Much of the Scottish west coast can feel pretty wild, but the land surrounding Loch Hourn is truly empty and untamed. A few determined hillwalkers risk their knees each year and lug camping gear out along the bumpy 5-mile path from Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale Bay, snug at the foot of the towering Ladhar Bheinn. The journey for the paddler is much easier though--as long as any journey is timed to coincide with the tide at the narrows of Caolas Mor. At full flow this can shoulder its way through this rock-lined constriction at a surprising speed. I've stood on the shore here as the tide starts to turn, and watched two dolphins use the tide to ease them into the upper loch, passing only 10 or 20 yards from my beached canoe.
Some fine, wild camping opportunities exist along the loch, but leave your tent at Barrisdale, and you can add the ascent of a Munro or two (Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet) to your list of achievements.
Set quite a way up the west coast, the Torridon area is a Scottish mountain mecca, with many of the country's finest peaks stood tight against the loch edge. What's great for climbers is just as good for paddlers, provided with a body of canoeing and kayaking water that offers simply stunning views in every direction.
Launching is easy from the shore just to the west of the village of Torridon (which, for those not keen on the wild option, also has a small formal campsite). The shore is varied and fascinating, with many of the small settlements scattered along the coast worth a visit. The upper loch is sheltered, the outer body of water is wild and blessed with views of Skye.
I'm cheating here, as this section includes perhaps 150 islands--and that's just those over 40 acres.
From mountainous Skye or Rum, to low-lying Tiree, from windswept Harris and Lewis to the sheltered shores of Arran or Bute, each island offers its own individual paddling experience. Some of the lochs around Skye or Mull are almost as big as those slicing into the mainland, and a joy for paddlers. A few island beaches are as exposed as any in the world, marking the starting points for some challenging sea kayak expeditions.
On a calm summer day you might mistake some sandy locations for the Caribbean. In a gale, perhaps only a day or two later, things will look very different, and the often tiny populations on these British outliers can be easily understood. Mind you, a warm island welcome, often more than makes up for the sparse number of inhabitants.
Skye can now be reached, perhaps a little unromantically, by a bridge. Ferries link almost all other islands, often as much a part of the visit as taking to your own vessel. In good weather, some islands, and the Summer Isles spring to mind, even represent a reasonable goal for the paddler.
Renting a Boat
The west coast of Scotland is surprisingly mild in winter, but also rather dark. Best times to visit are from April to October. One word of warning though, the dreaded wee midge will be on the prowl in any calm weather between about May and September (you have been warned).
Bringing your own craft might be a touch tricky, but fear not, everything you're likely to need, including camping kit, can be hired. A number of organizations also offer guided tours and shuttle services. Outlets include:
Wilderness Guides, Fort William (canoe and camping kit hire, shuttle services and guided tours)
Sea Kayak Highlands, Arisaig (Kayak and camping kit hire, and can arrange guided tours)
Beyond Adventure, Aberfeldy (canoe and camping kit hire, shuttle services and guided tours)
Boots and Paddles, Inverness (Canoe and camping kit hire and shuttle services. Based on the east coast, but can deliver countrywide.)