Paddling from Loch Morar to Mallaig

Please do not feed the Yeti

I just got back from an epic trip to the highlands of Scotland, open water canoeing with some mates.

We were prepared for the sort of weather that an October in northern Scotland could throw at us (which the weather forecasts were also suggesting would happen) but on this occasion they got it wrong and we really lucked out.

Day 0 was the trip up. This started at 5:30pm near Oswestry in North Shropshire and ended at around 5am the next morning when we arrived at the banks of Loch Morar.

Day 1 started after 2-hours-sitting-in-a-car-seat sleep and a large slug of rum. The wind wasn’t as bad as we had feared but it was still a horrid headwind that meant we had to fight our way over medium-scary waves all day as we crawled east, with the feeling of sometimes going backwards. As we approached the end of the first day things started to brighten up, especially as we’d found a lovely camping spot on a beach full of driftwood. Naturally we had a fire and if we were not so exhausted from the exertions of the day I’m sure we’d have stayed up late into the night. As it was we ate well, drank all the stuff in tins to cut down weight, then crawled off to bed.

Not too shabby

Day 2 we started off by crossing the Loch, this is notable for 3 reasons:

  1. Crossing open water is not for the faint hearted especially when in an open canoe whilst wearing wellies and lots of cold weather gear being on a body of water that has a fair bit of wind – waves being proportionally sized to the amount of wind, waves liking to fill up and/or tip over open boats – and is miles from any civilization;
  2. The Loch was 3/4 mile wide at our crossing point;
  3. Loch Morar is the UK’s deepest body of freshwater at around 300m (1000ft) and we crossed at the deepest point. For context I used to live on a hill in Wales that was 1000ft+ above sea level; that felt high up (especially in winter when it got to -19!). On this crossing we were looking at the hills around us being of a similar height to the depths below;
This is bloody heavy

As a reward for getting to the other side we now got to empty the boats and carry them and the gear around a mile up and over to Loch Nevis; we really enjoyed this bit, (especially having to do it twice).

Loch Nevis is a sea Loch so we now had tides to contend with so we waited until low tide (3pm) and then had a mad dash east to Sourlies Bothy before it got too dark. We only just made it.

After a gastronomic feast of freshly harvested (by us) mussels and a curry we had a quick game of poker and then collapsed into bed again.

Day 3 broke with not a hint of wind so the water was like a mill pond; it was a real sight to behold…

Wes dropping some knowledge – Photo by Giles Atkinson

This not only meant we had an easy ride out – as we timed our departure for high tide – this also meant I could start to learn how to solo in the canoe that I now knew I’d be taking back home with me.

I got some expert tuition from Wes and I spent the rest of the day attempting to perfect the ‘Knife-J’ stroke as we headed towards Inverie.

By 4pm it was most definitely pub o’clock which was fortunate as we arrived at Inverie home of The Old Forge, a pub that markets itself as “Mainland Britain’s Remotest Pub”. Whether it’s the remotest is up for debate but it’s certainly 10 hours drive away from my home in Shropshire, you need a boat to get there and it has views to die for; so I think we’ll let them off.

The pub beckons

We had a few medicinal ales then wobbled around the coast 1/4 of a mile to the Foundation Bunkhouse where we paid to stay that night. Within the hour we were back in the pub as we’d pre-booked the week before to dine there. Naturally we had sea food to start but none of us could resist the venison burger for the main (which was *really* good). The pub had a great atmosphere as it was rammed due to there being a ‘black tie’ end of season get together where all of the estate’s gamekeepers, gillies, deerstalkers etc were all getting well oiled.

Wobble back to bunkhouse, sleep in a bed.

Our own island (Skye in the far distance)

Day 4 was another calm day! This was the big one we had to head out to sea then cross the Loch at the narrow point with options for being pulled out to sea by the current and general capsize-atunities. I started off by soloing but the wind picked up and I struggled so Wes took over solo with Giles and myself in the other boat for the rest of the day.

The crossing ended up being fine as the wind dropped of AND we’d timed the crossing for the slack tide. This didn’t stop us pausing on a little rock island for a bit to sip some celebratory Rum, though.

The final push was to Mallaig a few miles up the coast. We didn’t stop long, opting to grab some beer supplies in the Co-op and head straight back out again (avoiding the car ferry that had just started its engines up).

This was to be a small hop around the coast to pick up the road to Loch Morar. Being on the sea was a whole different dynamic. The sea was relatively calm but we still had decent sized waves as well as breakers over now emerging rock outcrops (the tide was going out). We came to the conclusion that one of us capsizing was an inevitability which would be a shame given we’d had such a smooth trip so we beached ASAP.

Wes headed off the the road to hitch to the car and by the time Giles and I had carried all the stuff to the road – through someone’s garden it turns out (they didn’t mind) – he was back!

Oops, how did that get there?

We got the boats loaded up and camped that night at a not overly cheap and not overly cheerful campsite that as a saving grace had amazing views.

The day 5 trip home was long but uneventful with me getting in around 9pm. I then that the job of explaining to Mrs B why there was a boat on my car…


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