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In The Wake Of The Celts

Paddleboarding on the West Coast of Scotland
Mark Kalch // Photography by Martin Hartley

The ocean crashed into the rocky coastline, shooting spray high into the air. We tracked a safe line between the swell and land for hours before the rocks parted and allowed access to a small sheltered bay.

It was not raining so much as just soaking. Hills, grass, and plants all heavy with moisture made an inauspicious start to a few days of paddling and camping. We had travelled north to the wild west coast of Scotland to escape the madness of urban life. An attempt to extricate ourselves from desks, laptops, phones and television. Boards inflated, dry bags packed and secured, we dragged our gear across massive green kelp beds to the water. The drizzle cleared as our small team paddled out into the open water at the head of the loch. Time to begin.

A strengthening wind danced across the water, and up ahead, the smallest of whitecaps appeared. Our boards carried us north-west to the mass of tiny islands that dotted the sound. Sandy beaches beckoned. On a finer day than this we would have lingered, but our motivation ebbed as squalls of rain swept across the water. I used the small waves to surf downwind in between my friend’s traverse, paddling hard into the flurry, turning and gliding again.

Amongst the seaweed, seals poked their heads up to inspect us, the interlopers. A mother and her pup lolling above the waterline shuffled awkwardly back to water in a slow-motion escape. Far offshore, the isles of Eigg, Muck and Rum – enormous, striding from the sea like a giant – peeked through a grey shroud. I wondered if I could paddle there on a day of good weather.

From the skerries our course led south around the headland, but not before crossing open water. The wind was blowing strong, waves slapping our boards’ broadside. A swim would not be life threatening but, all the same, no-one wanted to be first to take the icy plunge.

The ocean crashed into the rocky coastline, shooting spray high into the air. We tracked a safe line between the swell and land for hours before the rocks parted and allowed access to a small sheltered bay. Just metres from the tempest, the water was like glass as our blades dipped and pulled us to the white sand beach.

Food stops are coveted on multi-day paddling journeys – sacred, almost. A chance to rest and refuel bodies depleted by physical and mental labour. We ate chorizo, cheese, bread, chocolate and sweets (the five main food groups on any trip), laughing and joking about the angry sea and weather as we ate. On a day of blue sky and fair winds, we could have been in a tropical paradise. Not a comparison usually afforded to anywhere in Scotland.

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With full bellies and rested muscles our journey slowly saw us around the coast and into Loch nan Uamh. The wind blew but now reached us from a more favourable direction. With some work it was possible to use the swell to our advantage as it surged and pushed us on.

Seals continued to follow our progress, never coming too close or surfacing for long. Kelp and seaweed stretched up from below. Beyond the first few metres of clear water their waving fronds faded away into the depths. Occasionally they grabbed at our paddle blades, inviting us to join them.

With clearing skies and diminishing rain we inched further into the great loch. The sides became steeper and more heavily vegetated. Waterfalls, swollen by incessant rainfall, surged from the rocks. The billowing forms of moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita, surrounded us in vast numbers, swept by the will of the currents.

By late afternoon, a blanket of fog hugged the coastline. With a morning of wind and wave bombardment behind us, the group was ready to down paddles. But where was our shelter for the evening? We could distinguish land close by, but in the distance it faded to nothing. With map to hand, our Scottish comrade pointed ahead and somehow resisted the urge to shout ‘Land ho!’.

100m yonder, at the pinnacle of a rocky and wooded outcrop, a roof peeked out – a bothy, well hidden. Everything about the scene defined the nature of this west coast: beautiful, rugged, silent. We made landfall on a wide and steep rocky beach. Differing high-water marks encouraged us to drag our boards high onto a shelf of grass and ferns. Laden with heavy dry bags, we began the climb up to our castle, struggling up, over and down slippery rocks in ill-chosen flip-flops. After squeezing through a narrow defile and hauling on an abraded scrap of rope we found ourselves at the door to the hut. The lock secured from the outside indicated that the abode was empty.

After a long day of paddling, the prospect of a night in that tiny, ramshackle building was sweeter than any luxury hotel. A U-shaped lower bunk and single platform bereft of mattress occupied the far end. At the other, a massive window framed views far out over the water. In one corner a squat, well-used wood-burning stove sat dormant, along with an ample supply of wood and kindling. Rudimentary shelving held a random array of pots, cutlery, and odds and ends.

After lighting and stoking a roaring fire, the stove soon radiated heat enough to warm the small cabin. In dry clothes, with a mug of hot tea in hand, life felt pretty good. The bothy guest register – nothing more than a tattered old exercise book – revealed a history of a shelter oft visited. Guests arrived by land and sea, some to stay overnight like us, others just for the experience. All were impressed by a simple shelter whose roof was held down by cam straps and twine.

Even with a sky masked by cloud, daylight stretched for hours. With mugs now refilled with whisky or red wine, we considered the time behind us and the days ahead. The forecast for tomorrow was much more agreeable and this pleased all as we gradually shifted ourselves onto bunks and into sleeping bags.

With clearing skies and diminishing rain we inched further into the great loch. The sides became steeper and more heavily vegetated. Waterfalls, swollen by incessant rainfall, surged from the rocks. The billowing forms of moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita, surrounded us in vast numbers, swept by the will of the currents.

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If the view the evening before had been spectacular, our eyes now took in something even more sublime. Views unhindered, the west of Scotland lay before us in an endless panorama.

Morning came early as light from a blue sky streamed through the window into the single room of our abode. After breakfast to fuel our labour, we stuffed bags with gear, tidied the bothy and replaced firewood. Retracing our perilous trek through the gorge and back to our boards, a new day began.

More islands dotted the water, some just piles of rock, others replete with grass and pine trees. This day our destination was a much larger island. We paddled deeper into the loch to lessen a crossing before cresting the promontory into another. All around us mountains rose from the shores, slopes fringed with a scattered covering of trees.

Our goal was encircled and defended by high rocky ramparts, impenetrable save via a single stony shore. No shelter here save our own made of nothing more than waterproof nylon. With our boards made secure, we followed a narrow path through head-high ferns towards the summit, water-laden fronds drenching us from head to toe as we slipped and clawed our way to the high point. If the view the evening before had been spectacular, our eyes now took in something even more sublime. Views unhindered, the west of Scotland lay before us in an endless panorama.

We found barely enough room on the hilltop to pitch our tents for the evening which fast approached. A one-man tent here, a two-man tent there and another to its side, flysheets thrashing in the breeze.

The setting sun obscured by slate-grey clouds cast striking light and colours across the loch. The thought that we shared our island with two Iron Age vitrified forts or lookout posts evoked an even more dramatic scene in our minds. Two thousand years past, Celtic warriors perhaps manned a signal fire, one link in an ancient telegraph chain, the same wind, the same rain falling upon them.

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Through the night, the gale beat at our exposed camp as intermittent rain fell around us. It was some time before we were able to cast off into sleep and dream of the next day.

Pleasant thoughts of night were obliterated come morning when I emerged from my shelter. The fabled Scottish midges in their thousands – tens of thousands, more – swarmed over every part of my body, covered and exposed alike. Mouth, nose, ears and eyelids all attracted their wrath. With a bellow I alerted my fellow paddlers. Escape from the summit and from this island became a frenzied task as the marauders bit at our flesh. At speed, we tore down the muddy fern track, trailing bags, tents, mugs and pans. We jumped quickly onto boards and paddled away from that place.

It was an exciting conclusion to our journey – and one that we eventually found laughable. To shore we floated, and into cars, then a full Scottish breakfast at Morrisons in Fort William. We all felt that pleasant sense of being slightly on the nose, muddy and dirty, bodies aching and smiling wildly amongst early-morning shoppers. Iron Age Celts come to life, wearing waterproofs and flip-flops. At least now we might return to our own battlegrounds behind desks and on London’s bike lanes with newfound spirit.


This adventure was kindly supported by Alpkit, Red Paddle Co, Leatherman, Klean Kanteen and Biolite. Thanks to Barry from Wilderness SUP for his time, skills and knowledge.

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Alpkit Red Paddle Co Wilderness SUP Co Biolite Leatherman Klean Kanteen

Mark Kalch is an expedition paddler whose 7 Rivers 7 Continents project will see him complete source to sea descents of the longest river on each continent. He has so far completed descents of the Amazon River, Missouri-Mississippi River and the Volga River in Russia. Early in 2016 he paddled 1000 miles in 50 days by SUP board in Australia’s outback. He has also walked alone across Iran from north to south. Mark founded and runs the expedition paddling apparel brand Paddlers First.
Website: markkalch.com
Website: 7rivers7continents.com
YouTube: @Proexplorer24
Twitter: @markkalch
Instagram: @MarkKalch

Martin Hartley is an internationally respected adventure & expedition photographer. He is also the Director of Photography for Sidetracked.
Twitter: @MartinRHartley
Instagram: @martinrhartley

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