Scottish Canoe Routes

Extension Chapters (under construction)

Extra material to complement the book

Explore Scotland's Wilderness Waterways by Canoe

Portages Classified

There is a certain type of person who is not content unless things are neatly arranged and classified. I guess it was inevitable that these people would eventually turn their attention to portages. I am not convinced this was a worthwhile thing to do, but apparently, portages can be pigeonholed as high trails, low trails, canoe drags, and trolleyways.

Low portage trails are those linking lakes across low lying, often boggy ground. High trails are detours to avoid obstacles, or over the height of land to link rivers and lakes of different watersheds. Drags and trolleyways are not strictly canoe portages, but places where soft vegetation is used as a substitute for water (drags), or where you can bring in a little extra technology and make progress with your canoe on wheels or skids (trolleyways).

Low trails

We take to low trails when the water runs out rather than to bypass an obstacle. These trails have a character all their own; on the plus side, gradients are likely to be mild; the downside is that you may lose sight of your feet for hours on end in the mud. Often the lakes that are connected by low portages were once a single sheet of water and have since separated because of silting or falling water level. Docking for a low portage on the boggy fringes of a lake, the no-mans-land between water and earth, can be fun, and dangerous, too, if the bottom is of fathomless mud.

Scotland is notably hilly, so you are not going to find many chains of lochs at similar elevations to give the classic boggy low portages. You can find one between Loch Gower and Loch Fannie on the Galloway Grand Tour, and there is a classic wallow from Loch Clachaig towards Loch nam Breac Buidhe in Knapdale. There are several nicer, drier low portages between Loch Poll and Clashnessie, in the water-wonderland northwest of Loch Assynt.

Flat, waterlogged land is environmentally fragile so it doesn’t take the passage of many feet before it starts to show wear and tear. Compaction of the underlying land may in time extend the area of the bog. Heavily travelled routes frequently become sunken trackways, and are then often usurped by streams, making the passage even wetter. On Fur Trade routes, causeways of logs laid longways were used on the boggiest sections.

Some major low portages in North American canoe country are virtually impassable at certain times of the year because they turn into swamps as a result of the overspill from the lakes in wet weather, for example the Yukon­ Kuskokwim Portage (the Y-K Portage) in Alaska. Some are only passable when frozen.

The ultimate in civilised low portages is the canal towpath around a lock. This is kind of thing you will find when doing the Great Glen Route, or the Crinan Canal. There are usually nice pontoons to dock at, and hard surfaces for trolleying.

High Trails

High portage trails climb away from the water to pass un-runnable sections and to cross from one river system to another. In North America, as elsewhere, major watersheds being great natural boundaries were sometimes adopted as political borders, so portages could become important boundary crossing points. Indeed, John Wesley Powell, of Colorado River fame, who was also Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed a grand system of defining the boundaries of various States within the Union on the basis of watershed boundaries, the rationale being that each State could be in charge of its own supply of water, a precious commodity.

Scotland has more high trails than is strictly healthy, and there is scope for a whole lot more. They may be short and sharp, like Uphill Portage to Lochan Fada, or the type that you may need to overnight on, such as the high level link from Fionn Loch to Loch Maree (The Lost German Portage). Linking lochs at widely different levels, separated by steep hillsides, rocky outcrops and boggy areas is always going to be challenging, but the effort brings added rewards of excitement and variety

Drags and Trolleyways

These are covered in detail in the book.

Docking Points

It is easy to concentrate on the terrain of a portage route itself and scarcely give a thought to something that can be actually rather important — the transition to and from the water. Especially important if you have a wood or wood-canvas canoe. Docking points are more critical when descending rivers, where you might have to make an exit before something unpleasant (from a paddling point of view) for example the Falls of Oykel in Sutherland. On a Scottish loch it is sometimes difficult to spot a good exit point when you reach where you need to portage. You may have to keep a look out for quite a while for a suitable weakness in a steep lochside bank or cliff.

For many of the classic portages, notably those used by large birchbark Fur Trade canoes, the choice of docking point was important and an integral part of the portage, sometimes explaining why the trails started and ended where they did. The relative fragility of birchbark and the unwieldy nature of a 36ft Montreal canoe imposed constraints on landing and embarking points. Docking areas had free from sharp rocks and spacious enough, both to manoeuvre the canoe and to handle the 65 x 90lb pieces that it contained, which needed to be loaded and unloaded without the canoe bottoming out. Alexander Mackenzie in the 1790s on the Voyageur Highway between Grand Portage and Rainy Lake describes a landing stage made by driving logs into the mud and covering with them branches.

At this stage of the game in Scotland, apart from a few popular trails, portage routes are still evolving. You still have to choose rather than recognise docking points. You have to navigate the route rather than follow a trail. For those with an adventurous nature, this is a good thing. Do we really want to be guided every step of the way with portage signs nailed to trees like in the popular canoeing areas of North America?

In your dreams, portage routes begin and end from shallows where the loch bed doesn't drop too steeply and is firm but not harsh (beaches are nice), and the surrounding land isn’t too boggy. This is a lot to ask. It is true that sometimes you do have a wide expanse of uncluttered lochside to go at, or a natural harbour at the mouth of a stream (e.g. at the east end of Loch nan Rac, or the portage from Loch Poll to Garb Loch Mor), but things can also sometimes things go horribly wrong and you find yourself having to grab at overhanging willows as you whizz downstream, or being blown on to horror boulder fields (Loch na Moine Buige), or scrabbling at desperate muddy banks. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Some docking manoeuvres are just plain interesting, like landing at an accommodating tree and hauling the canoes up a bank on a line between Loch Scionascaig to Loch Uidh Tarraigean, if there is too much water going over the adjacent sluice.

Chapter 10. Portaging - Where the Water Ends

The History of Portages

Portages are not new

In the 5th century BC (and possibly much earlier), boats seem to have been transported routinely the 6.4 kilometres (4.0 miles) across the Corinthian Istmus on the Greek mainland on rollers or trolleys running on a specially constructed stone trackway (the Diolkos). This overland trade link between the Ionian and Aegean seas involved a lot of effort, but was considered worthwhile because it avoided a 700-kilometre alternative on exposed open water. Similar short-cuts on ancient trade routes are found all over the world, including Scotland.

If you had to predict one place where a portage would be particularly desirable it would be around Niagara Falls. Remains carbon-dating back 1000 years testify to people having taken a bypass route; we find charcoal from their campfires, and jewellery they wore made from sharks teeth and conch shells. The more recent, upper layers at the same archaeological dig yielded Iroquois, French, and English artefacts. In the 1750s the French improved the original rough portage route by cutting a wagon track and later a series of capstans and ropes were installed to aid the passage of wagons up and down the steep slope.

Although outside of recreational canoeing areas, most ancient portage routes have long since disappeared back into the undergrowth, some still have a presence, written faintly as names on the land. We can see such placename elements as -eid or -drageid (Nordic lands), -bor (Sweden), volok (Russia) and tarbet (Scotland),. These names tell a story:

eid; ‘place where you have to get out and walk’. E.g Eidsvoll, Norway.

drageid; ‘hauling place’. E.g Drageidet, Norway.

bor; ‘carry’. E.g. Lamborn, Sundborn and many others on the Dalalven-Voxnan river system.

volok; ‘boat portage site’. E.g Volok Slavensky.

tarbet (various spellings);  from the Irish Gaelic tairbeirt, meaning istmus, a narrow neck of land between two bodies of water; the logical site of a portage. E.g Tarbet in Kintyre.

Portages were historically rather dangerous places because one’s movements became predictable to an enemy. Travellers were focussed and slowed down at portage sites, and consequently vulnerable. The aggressive Iroquois were a particular hazard at portages in the St.Lawrence region in the early fur trade days. On open water, the Iroquois were rarely a threat because they had rather slow, elm bark canoes—the bark had to be crimped rather than smoothly formed making the hulls less hydrodynamic—and could be outdistanced by the  sleek birchbark canoes of the Algonquin and their allies. Consequently, the Iroquois laid in wait at portages, especially where the trail was enclosed, as is often the case in ravines where impassible falls lurk.

Ancient portage routes in Britain

The idea of a network of canoe routes linked by overland portages brings to mind the forests, granite domes and muskegs of the Canadian North. As appealing as the concept of a network of canoe routes is, it seems a rather artificial and fanciful idea when imagined onto the English and Scottish countryside. Actually, it isn’t. England has a network of rivers that were undoubtedly used in conjunction with sea routes to move goods throughout the country back in the Bronze Age world. We have a canoe heritage, and we once did have a network of canoe routes, complete with portages

One of the most interesting ideas for an ancient canoe route in England was the brainchild of the Oxford archaeologist, Andrew Sherratt, who died in 2006. He was one of those academics, beloved by students (but less so by conservative colleagues) who do serious work whilst maintaining a bemused detachment from the dour machine of academia. He was renowned for his personal style of day-long tutorials, starting in the classroom, incorporating coffee and lunch, and ending up in the evening in the pub.

Professor Sherratt came up with an exciting idea about a river/portage route from the English south coast, over to Bristol and northeastwards into the midlands. Goods arriving at the Channel coast thus had wide distribution possibilities. This region has three river Avons in close proximity. The name avon comes from the Celtic abona (Welsh afon) meaning simply ‘river’. Although there are many other Avons scattered across the country, these three are close enough together to cause confusion. Sherratt argued that these might not originally have been seen as separate entities but as a single concept—a canoe/portage route from the south coast into the interior of the country. The name Avon might have been applied to this combinations of rivers in the sense of ‘the water route’, in the same way that combinations of individual tracks made up Icknield Street and Watling Street. This shortcut across the southwest ‘istmus’ would have avoided the need for the lengthy and dangerous voyage around Land’s End. The Avon route also passes close to the headwaters of the Thames, thus linking with another important waterway. Professor Sherratt daringly published a route map of potential canoe/portage routes in the south of England in the style of a London Underground map. I imagine that stuffy colleagues were not particularly amused.

Ancient portage routes in Scotland are reviewed in the book.

A drawing made in 1732 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus whilst travelling in Lapland. At the Tuggen rapids, his Saami boatman carried the boat on his head, using his bailer as a cushion, with such ease that “not the devil could have kept pace with him”.

Recognition of the historic value of portages

If you are lucky enough to be able to venture out with your canoe along one of the ancient voyageur portage routes you will probably be as close as you can get to the history of our sport. You can feel the effort and adventure across the centuries, all but see the sweating, muscular figures of the voyageurs strung out along the trail. As a university professor might say, portage routes are important geohistorical documents.

In 1987, the US National Parks Service formally recognising this importance and initiated a survey of historic portage sites in Minnesota with a view to inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, with the increased level of protection which this designation affords..

Elsewhere in North America groups of local enthusiasts are re-opening old portages, not only as canoe routes but also hiking trails. One notable example is the Ancient Portage Trails of New Brunswick Project. The Friends of the La Vase Portages (from Mattawa river to Lake Nipissing) are buying the land along the portage and plan to re-establish it as a trail. These are encouraging signs of a new awareness and respect for our heritage, but the land crossed by many if not most historic portage routes still has little protection. The land traversed by the Velandrye Portage quite recently on the market for land speculators to do with what they please.

The historic portage routes of Scotland could do with more recognition. The low neck of land cutting across the top of Kintyre where Magnus Barelegs was dragged through in is boat languishes as waste land amidst the encroaching  factory units.

When a portage becomes a trail

Even a single passage across very sensitive terrain, for example tundra, can initiate a trail. A feint line on the ground will attract others to take the same route and before you know it a definite track is etched into the earth that may persist for centuries. The tough heather and moorgrass of Scotland is far more resistant than tundra, but tracks still form relatively quickly, especially where the terrain forces you to uses a particular corridor.

Distinct portage trails are both a good and bad thing. Even though there can be an exquisite sense of history when you follow a centuries-old portage, it is equally exciting to work out a portage route of your own. This is denied you when a route becomes so popular that the way ahead is laid out for all to see. We are at a happy state in Scotland today that the joy of self-discovery of portage routes is still possible; many portages receive so little traffic that trails have yet to form so each passage is a discovery anew, and there are many routes still to be pioneered, where you have no option but to discover portages for yourself. In most places, the open hillsides don’t constrain you to any particular line, so tracks are less likely to form.

In Explore Scotland's Wilderness Waterways, the extensive chapter on portaging covers the history of portages, equipment, logistics and the physical and mental preparation for the long carries between mountain lochs that provide the key to spectacular long-distance canoe expeditions

Taking things further

If you really get the portaging bug, to the point that arduous crossings of watersheds in Scotland no longer satisfy your cravings, how can you take things further? There is a way.

The voyageurs sowed the seeds of competition. At their get-togethers on the shores of Rendezvous Lake on the Methye, or around the shore of Lake Superior at the start of the Grand Portage, the staging of impromptu portaging competitions seems almost certain. Competitive canoe portaging is an essential part of canoe races such as the Devizes to Westminster and equivalent marathons all over the world, with varying ratios of paddling to portaging. The Portage Race near Cook Strait in New Zealand is held over a course that comprises 27km kayaking and 5km portaging. Paddlers in Ely, Minnesota (the spiritual home of the recreational portage) have even started running the city marathon carrying their canoes.

A group of Cree people in Northern Quebec have gone the whole way and hold specific portage races with sandbags as part of their summer festival which celebrates many other tradition-orientated games such as canoe racing and archery. This is significant because this group have finally recognised portaging as an activity in its own right, without any reference to canoeing or water.

So portaging can be elevated from a necessary evil, through a worthy partner to paddling, right up to an elite sport. Once portaging has been liberated from the need to have any water around whatsoever, or even a canoe, the sky is the limit.