we saw both the beauty and the horror of nature; an inquisitive young seal coming up round the boats trying and work out what we were and a greater black back gull mobbing, drowning and then eating a greylag gosling. It is a place I keep returning to for the rawness of the environment.
Little did I realise the journey I was leaving on, when Mike invited me to launch our sea kayaks from the beach at Bosta on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis towards Bearrasaigh, the island stronghold of Neil Macleod the pirate. Thirteen years of adventures later I am close to completing my circumnavigation of the Outer Hebrides. On the map in my office I have been trying to join the dots by paddling the whole of the coastline; like all maps it tells a million stories and here is a taste of my map tales:
The Outer Hebrides lay at 58°N pushing out into the Atlantic less than five hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. Over one hundred and forty miles long and about twenty miles from the mainland, they protect the north west of Scotland from the ravages of the Atlantic gales: Nine inhabited islands; connected by causeways or separated by Sounds crossed by ferry, about twenty seven thousand people and one of the last strongholds of Scots Gaelic.
WH Murray, who wrote the classic Mountaineering in Scotland, described the view from Toe Head in Harris over the Sound of Harris as one of the finest views in Scotland. The Sound separates Harris and North Uist and is made up of a myriad of islands and islets; I once lost a week guiding clients, camping on the islands and exploring:
Boats packed, we set off from An t-Ob from the ferry slip and headed out to the island of Easaigh camping on the machair (the fertile land between the beach and the moor) overlooking a white sand bay. From here over the next few days we paddled across to North Uist and headed into Loch Mhic Phail.
When crossing the Sound the tides shouldn’t be under-estimated to quote the Admiralty Pilot: ‘Tidal streams in the Sound of Harris appear to be very much affected by diurnal inequality and to be almost diurnal during neap tides’ So in some days instead of running for approximately six hours in one direction and then six hours in the other it goes for half the day one way then the other half the day for the other, local fishermen tell me it is more predictable in the winter.
At the head of Loch Mhic Phail there is a short portage into Loch nam Madadh, I ensured we got there at the top of the tide so we wouldn’t have a long wade through the mud. The paddle through Loch nam Madadh is a maze where a weather eye on the map prevents wrong turnings and we were treated to an otter (Lutra lutra) feeding on a kelp covered rock.
The next leg of our journey was past Rubha an Faigheadair (Weavers Point) where tide leaving the loch causes a turbulent stretch of water just to enough to get the blood racing. This behind us we turned north below the imposing cliffs heading for the south eastern end of the Sound is reached. There we explored the islands at the eastern end and discovered more beautiful camp spots as we gradually wended our way to Rodel on the north eastern corner. Here there is the medieval church, hotel and camp spot.
The final stretch back to An t-Ob took us through the islands on the northern coast with birds diving, seals and otters swimming.
In the Sound we saw both the beauty and the horror of nature; an inquisitive young seal coming up round the boats trying and work out what we were and a greater black back gull (Larus marinus) mobbing, drowning and then eating a greylag gosling (anser anser). It is a place I keep returning to for the rawness of the environment.
As we dragged our boats onto the rock beach we felt like conquering heroes who had just summitted a huge mountain and found the rest of the club were sitting round the fire with a beer saying they had had a fabulous flat crossing.
Tim Pickering is an outdoorsman who lives in the Outer Hebrides; teaching outdoor education and first aid. As a seasoned adventure racer he represented the UK in the Landrover G4 Challenge Global Adventure race in 2003; winning the Team Spirit Award and he recently completed his first ultra marathon.
He has been paddling rather longer than he cares to remember but still loves nothing more than surf kayaking on the reef break two minutes from the house and has recently rediscovered the joys of falling off a mountain bike.
As we pushed away from the slipway at Leumrabhagh in South Lochs on a late summer evening to cross to the Shiant Islands there didn’t seem to be any rush as it doesn’t get dark until after ten in the evening. We expected a cruise out to meet the other members of Stornoway Canoe Club who had already left for the basalt islands of the Shaints. These outliers are rich in bird life including puffins (fratercula arctica) in their smart coloured jackets and also a colony of black rats (rattus rattus).
There is a legend in Harris that the Caolas na Eilean (The Sound of Shaint) which separates Harris from the islands is home to Na Fir Ghorma (The Blue Men). These fairy folk live in caves under the sea and are similar to mermen but with blue skin. They would swim out to passing ships and call up storms to capsize them, enticing the sailors into the water. The legend has it the chief of the Blue Men would challenge the sailors with riddles and a shrewd captain could survive by responding in rhyme and having the last word.
It was with this tale ringing in our ears we set out across the Sound; there is 3-4 knots of tide running through the gap and if you look on the chart you can see a sudden change in depth so with a little wind over tide the sea can become a maelstrom and even with no wind on a spring tide here can be standing waves. We had picked our tides wrong and we were heading for a meeting with the Blue Men.
When you are in a seventeen foot sea kayak it feels comfortable except when the waves feel bigger than the boat and although the crossing only about two nautical miles that forty minutes can feel like a life time. The islands finally began to draw closer and it wasn’t the physical tiredness but the emotional drain which made us weary. As we dragged our boats onto the rock beach we felt like conquering heroes who had just summitted a huge mountain and found the rest of the club were sitting round the fire with a beer saying they had had a fabulous flat crossing.
Wind: west or northwest 7 to severe gale 9, Sea State: Very rough or high, Weather: Rain or squally showers, wintry for a time.
As I read the inshore shipping forecast, I knew the phone would soon be ringing, the question ‘Are you coming for a paddle?’ would be the first words uttered. The decision then: ‘Where do we go?’
With this wind direction it would have to be Carlabhagh to Calanais, a downwind run with a following Atlantic swell. After the boats were loaded on to the car and the grappling with straps ends done, the coppery taste of the adrenaline begans to arrive; it is howling with the car being rocked in the gusts.
At Carlabhagh we launched the boats warming up in the escape from the bay before the full force of the gale grips us, as it tears at the entrance of Loch Roag. As we turned downwind the swell and the wind made the paddling a roller coaster ride of waves and spray. There are moments in the troughs where there is almost a serene quiet and then you crest the next wave and the wind rips at you trying to tear you apart. We passed Breascleit and maked for the gap between the islands and almost a suddenly as it started we are in snug on the shale beach laughing and reliving the excitement.
There is still one piece of the jigsaw to slot into place; it is up the west coast of Lewis from Carlaway to Europie, it is one of the most inhospitable stretches with few escapes and open to the full force of the west. Luckily, there is no rush and it will still be there after the winter gales have blown themselves out.
Oh and of course there are still a couple of the Outlying islands I need to visit.
1. I have used the Gaelic spellings of the names as they are the ones which appear on the Ordnance Survey maps
2. With the Access Legislation in Scotland (https://www.ahume.co.uk/blog/index.php/countryside-etiquette-the-essential-guide/#1) you can wild camp on any of the islands: Access rights extend to wild camping. This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place. There is little better than watching the sunset from the entrance of your tent, cup of tea in hand on your own ‘island’.
3. More information on paddling in the Outer Hebrides is in The Outer Hebrides, Sea Kayaking around the isles and St Kilda published by Pesda Press
4. WH Murray Moutaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland
5. Where are the photographs of Storm Paddling; we were a little busy but here is a short video of some of my partners in crime paddling in similar conditions in Loch Eiresort.
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