Now, I’m far from being a seasoned sea kayaker, in fact, I’m actually a whitewater kayaker, but when the opportunity came up for a few days of exploring in Scotland with good pals, I wasn’t going to turn it down!
For anyone here that’s also a whitewater kayaker, you may know that I’ve been fortunate enough to work all over the world with TV wildlife presenter, Steve Backshall. It was a big birthday for Stevo this year, and we wanted to make it a memorable one.
This would be unlike any trip I’d done before, mainly because a beautiful 102ft sailing boat known as Lady of Avenel would be our home for the next couple of days. Not only was this an amazing treat, but it would also allow us to paddle and explore to our heart’s content. Stefan Fritz owned the Lady and would be our fantastic skipper, accompanied by friend of the ship, Patrick Winterton (of Scot Ocean Sports), who had kindly offered to join us, sharing his local knowledge and expertise, as well as excellent company!
Unlike our usual missions, the aim was not to conquer anything big and gnarly, discover unknown territories, or document grizzly bear behaviour, it was simply to have fun with friends, paddling somewhere new -and that’s exactly what we did!
Our adventure started from Dunstaffnage marina, near the town of Oban, and as always, began with a healthy chunk of kit faff. It appeared that the vital bag of PFDs and breakdown paddles was sitting on Steve’s driveway almost 500 miles away. Steve 1 blamed Steve 2 (Backshall) and Steve 2 blamed Steve 1. Thankfully we managed to beg, borrow, and steal enough gear for everyone and were finally sailing out of the marina, accompanied by some playful porpoise!
We were heading towards the Isle of Lismore, or Lios Mòr, which is thought to mean ‘Great Garden’ in Gaelic and relates to the green and fertile lowlands on this small, Inner Hebrides island. About 180 people live on the 10-mile long by 1-mile wide island, as well as a rich population of seals, otters, peregrine falcons, and razorbills.
With the Lady’s anchor down, we set off in our sea kayaks past the tall, white Musdile lighthouse in calm waters and glorious sunshine, surrounded by black guillemots and squawking seagulls. Continuing west, we passed a small skerry known as ‘Lady’s Rock’, before reaching Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull. It was here that Patrick told us the gruesome, but slightly comical story behind these landmarks and how this seemingly indistinct skerry got its name…
Way back in 1527, a rather unpleasant chap called Lachlan Maclean of Duart rowed his wife, Lady Catherine Campbell to this tiny chunk of rock in the sea, leaving her there to drown once high tide came around. Looking out from his castle window the next morning and seeing no life, he announced Catherine’s death. The plan backfired somewhat when his conversation with
Catherine’s family about the ‘terrible illness’ that took her life was abruptly interrupted by the Lady herself walking into the room and joining them at the dining table!
After a quick stop in the bay at Duart Point, we crossed northeast through the Bernera gap and along Lismore’s west coast -where lots of seals were either sunbathing on the beach or bobbing up beside our kayaks! We then rejoined the ship and crossed from Lismore to Port Appin on the mainland.
We pulled in at Airds Bay, where we were met by seals enjoying the evening sun and a bagpiper playing happy birthday for Stevo -a surprise we’d set up with the help of skipper, Stefan! The anchor went down and a night of celebrations followed, including two very large cakes.
The Lady sailed us from Airds Bay to Kerrera Island, which at 7km long and 2km wide is home to approximately 70 people. Two communities exist on the island- north and south, and a road connecting the two was only developed a couple of years ago!
Life on Kerrera is not for everyone, especially as residents have to travel to mainland Scotland for everyday basics such as schools, shops, post offices, banks, and health services; however, it boasts some of the best highland island views, which we got to enjoy until we reached just north of the Slate Island of Siel. Here we launched the sea kayaks and paddled the relatively narrow sea channel between the island and the mainland (only 12km between the two) and under the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ (Clachan Bridge).
It had been relatively calm and sheltered as we paddled through the Sound of Siel, but as we etched further south the wind really started to ramp up. Rounding the southern tip of Siel, the increasing wind put an abrupt end to our noisy chatter and banter, instead adopting the ‘head down and paddle’ approach! This was amplified even more so when we met the boiley currents of the Sound of Cuan and even stronger winds.
After the gruelling gales and confusing currents, Patrick waved us over to a small harbour in a tiny village called Easdale. Earlier that day, we’d all thought that he’d been joking when he talked about World Rock Skimming Championships. However, it turns out that this is actually a thing and
this is where it’s hosted each year. Patrick announced that we weren’t allowed to leave Easdale until we had at least one round of competition.
Obviously, Patrick was a regular here, as his rock skims pretty much covered the entire length of the natural pool. After some embarrassingly bad attempts on my behalf, we got into our kayaks and back into the wind, spotting several Oyster Catchers with their long, orange bills and loud ‘peeping’ call, along the way. By the time we rejoined the Lady, everyone was ready for a cup of tea and of course, more cake.
By the evening, the winds had died down and the Lady made her way back up to Kerrera. Here we enjoyed one last night all together (with more cake), before getting up early for a day of sea swimming and journeying back to Oban.
There are over 40 islands making up the Inner Hebrides islands and we’d only scraped the surface, leaving plenty to come back and explore another time. We’d been limited to just a couple of short days here in Scotland, but we all shared the feeling that we’d had so much during that time. Everything from glorious sunshine to storms and strong winds; calm seas to confused currents and spinning whirlpools; porpoises, seals and lots of sea birds; kayaking, swimming and sailing; laughs, banter, long overdue catch-ups; and of course, a lot of cake.
Thank you, Scotland and we’ll be back soon!
Huge ‘thank you’s go to Steve and the crew for a very fun and memorable trip; S1 for driving and putting up with me for two very long car journeys; Stefan, Jules, and Samantha for looking after us so well on the Lady of Avenel; Patrick of Scots Ocean Sports for the local knowledge, guidance, and excellent company for our sea kayaking explorations.
Images: Steve Backshall, Rosie Gloyns, Keith Partridge, James Brickell, Sal Montgomery