Scottish Canoe Routes

This is one of those must-do trips; the Inverpolly Nature Reserve looks like a canoe wonderland on the map, perhaps the closest one can come in the U.K. to the Canadian Shield country — countless lakes and rivers that can be linked by portages, all in a true wilderness setting.

Inverpolly is disconcertingly far up the map of Scotland and Andrew’s journal succinctly sums up the journey: “Left Tadcaster 2pm. Camped at Rogie Falls 2am”. During the drive we finalised our plan to link up a series of lochs in a round trip, but decided to take in an ascent of Suilven and possibly scout out our own portage route between Fionn Loch and Loch Sionascaig. We would explore any additional lochs that time and wind permitted, and try to get to Eilean Mor (Big Island) on Loch Sionascaig which looked particularly tempting for one of our camps. We planned to cache a bicycle next to Loch Lurgainn for getting back to the Landrover.

Day 1. Initiation

Unfortunately, things are not always like the sunny trips pictured in How-To-Go-Canoeing books, especially in the far north of Scotland in mid October. Our arrival at Elphin village was somewhat inauspicious. It was wet and it was windy. But we could not be dispirited, so strong was our excitement that the trip had finally begun (and so intense was our relief at being released after 500 bone-shaking miles in the Landrover).

Loch Veyatie presented us straight away with a headwind; not desperate, but enough to make it hard work, especially for Andrew who was paddling solo. But the landscape captured our imagination from the start. This is a land of almost surreal peaks and endless water. There is little or no tree cover which intensifies the feeling of wildness and of being utterly alone, as did the absence of mobile phone signal. It was to be four days before we saw any signs at all of civilisation. It was showery, but not persistent rain and not really cold. Things could be a lot worse.

Escape from Big Island — an Inverpolly Adventure

As we paddled the length of the loch, the weather began to cheer up. Eventually, Loch Veyatie narrowed to a channel which eventually started to flow, picking up speed all the while. This section is marked as a portage in Scottish Canoe Classics so we approached a hidden bend in the river with caution, scouting it before running what turned out to be a straightforward fast section where a rock split the flow. At lower water levels a longish portage or wading would probably be necessary here.

The water had calmed right down by the time we paddled out onto Fionn Loch. The character of the landscape changed, the wind dropped and we found ourselves spellbound in the most stunning of places, dominated by the bulk of Suilven (The Pillar). It is sobering to think that this place came close to being drowned out by a hydro scheme; even more sobering that it was economics and not public pressure that caused it to be shelved.

We scouted the shores for a camp site, one canoe on each side of the loch, until we found a pleasant stretch of beach and pulled in for the night. There is a striking lack of shelter here; the hills are low and rounded and there are virtually no trees. But above all, there were no midges - the reason we were here at this time of the year. Although the spot we chose was convenient for Suilven, we were not well placed to weather a storm. Our tents were only a little way above the waterline, which was a bit worrying because of the insistent showers — we thought that someone should stay awake on water-level duty, but there were no volunteers. However, it turned out to be brilliant, starry night and Andrew entertained us with a guided tour of the heavens with his laser pointer. He also had this neat trick of aiming the pointer into the loch at the reflection of a mountain, to have it boing off the water and light up the real thing.

We settled down to the sound of the wind, the bellowing of stags that we never saw, and the distant sound of waterfalls — unfamiliar night sounds that were to be with us throughout the trip.

Day 2. Ascent

We were lucky we chose this day for our climb of Suilven. For the rest of the trip, the mountain was periodically enveloped in a cloud which lifted from time to time to reveal a covering of white. Today it was clear, almost sunny. The normal ascent route is from the north, but ours was from the south, rather less frequented with consequently more loose rocks to trap the unwary. As we gained height, the view across our intended route became almost overpoweringly spectacular. It was at this point that Graham claimed to have seen a group of mountain goats, but when the others looked round there was nothing but empty rocky ledges. Strange.  

From the summit, we had the perfect vantage point to scope out a portage route across to Loch Sionascaig. Two possibilities are mentioned in Scottish Canoe Classics: the Easterly Portage and the Westerly Portage. There seemed to us to be a third option (hereby named the Central Portage). It appeared to be relatively more direct and skirted the higher ground taken by the Westerly route. We got quite excited; the challenge of the unknown.

As if on cue, when we got back to the canoes, a rainbow arched over the summit of Suilven, where we had stood a couple of hours previously. Pretty, but it was also an ominous sign that the weather was changing. We crossed over the loch and investigated the first leg of our proposed portage route across the moor to a little lochan with a number of rocks breaking the surface.

The rainbow had indeed been trying to tell us something. The wind began to get up and during the night we had a thunderstorm that lit up our tent walls and gave the loudest thunder imaginable.  Spooked, Graham could be seen a little later out weighting his guy-lines with as many extra rocks as he could find in the dark.

Day 3. The Canadian Shield?

So today it was the serious business of getting ourselves and our gear across the big moor that lies between Fionn Loch and Loch Sionascaig — The Central Portage. This was real canoe country, a scattering of lochs separated by sections of “dry” land. It is indeed the Scottish equivalent of the Canadian Shield, but actually a little different in texture — The Caledonian Sponge.

Even though everywhere was oozing, dripping bog (we nicknamed wettest section the Slough of Despond) it was thoroughly enjoyable, an integral part of the reason we had come; to give our canoes totally free rein in the environment in which they had evolved — in and between lakes.

We resolutely began ferrying out boats and gear to the little col that we had scouted the night before and knew marked the way to Rocky Loch. We were hit by a nasty hail squall here which we sat out in the modest shelter of a little spur. When the loch surface had subsided, we set out across the water to the foot of a steep bank leading up to the next link in the portage, Island Loch. The little island here had some of the few trees in the area and was grooved by some curious deep gullies which would make a reasonable emergency bivouac if one were to be caught out here. After this loch we entered the Barrens. Our route through had a logic because we needed always to head for the lowest point of the skyline. Even so we marked the route with some bright yellow gear bags to make the way easier to follow. In any trip it takes a while to get into one’s stride and for a routine to emerge, but by now we each knew what we had to do and set about getting our stuff across. We had tried to limit our gear so that we could take the boats across in one journey and the gear in a second.

This leg of the portage seemed longer than it looked on the map. Much of the time all you could see were the yellow gear bags and the odd canoe strung out across the moor with no water in sight, but finally cresting a rise we espied a hidden arm of Loch Sionascaig reassuringly close.

It had taken us two hours from Island Loch. It was now 5pm and we had just enough daylight left to make it to Eilean Mor (Big Island) with the promise of a good campsite and plenty of tree cover. But even as we started to paddle the waves were rising to the point of concern. Mike and Graham hugged the little islands near the eastern shore for some shelter before committing to the crossing; Andrew bravely went straight across. In heavy, windy water even though there is a theoretical safety in numbers, you are basically on your own.

The flat, fair-weather camping place at the southern tip of the island was untenable but we found some shelter for our camp in a shallow gully on a spur (Windy Ridge) a short distance away. What a beautiful place; made all the more exquisite because of the difficulty in getting there. This was what we had come for.

Day 4. Trapped

Day four dawned badly and got steadily worse. Even before we got out of our tents we could sense that something nasty was waiting for us outside. Perhaps “sense” is not quite the right term for deciphering the meaning of madly flapping tent walls and the deafening roar of water. We had finally achieved Graham’s lifelong ambition of becoming marooned on an island. Stormbound at last.

Andrew and Graham discovered that Mike had collapsed his tarp during the night to escape the worst of the wind. All that could be seen was a flat tarp on the ground with a Mike-shaped bump in the middle. Fortunately, the bump showed signs of life.

Graham asked the others whether they had heard the angry dogs barking close-by during the night. This caused some concern; there had been no dogs. So these creatures joined the mountain goats in Graham’s growing Pantheon of mythical animals populating the wastes hereabouts.

With escape out of the question, we set about exploring our island for the resources that it had to offer. If the gale persisted, we reckoned it would be Sunday at least before anyone missed us. Today was Tuesday. We had a fair amount of food, and water didn’t appear to be a problem (Andrew’s wife had queried where we would be able to get water - she clearly wasn’t familiar with Caledonian Sponge country!). The first thing to run out would be our stove fuel, so it seemed a good idea to test our ability to create fire under these very wet conditions. Protected from wholesale devastation by deer (although there were apparently some deer here), the island was quite densely wooded with much fallen timber for firewood (that dripped if you wrung it out). Most significantly we found some magic bark trees and a flakey birch — we should have a good chance with these to make a fire. We circled round the twin peaks of our island and bushwhacked to the northernmost tip — Desolation Point.

The wind had by now veered westerly and our camp’s position in the gully was becoming increasingly perilous. Our scouting had revealed a fairly sheltered spot not too far away, so we moved camp to the relative calm of Holly Tree Haven.

Under the somewhat harsh conditions, eating and sleeping assumed a heightened importance. We took great interest in each others menus — swapping recipes as necessary. We all agreed that having something tasty, varied and interesting (and big) to look forward to was essential for maintaining a positive attitude. Rum was also good.

A group effort got a fire going with a few flicks of the fire steel, some of Graham’s special sawdust and the bark we had collected. As ever, the fire had a truly remarkable effect on our spirits, and gave us some confidence that we could survive here in comfort. We increasingly craved that moment when you could get horizontal, pull the warm sleeping bag around you and tune in to the wilderness sounds all around.

Day 5. Deliverance

Well before it got light, our ears were already straining to detect the wind and water conditions. The Loch was pronounced calm enough to allow escape, so rapid de-camping ensued, forgoing breakfast to get on the water in case the wind, rising even as we packed up, became terminal again. We were only just in time and the paddle across was quite tough, but amidst the most amazing land and skyscapes.

We landed in a sheltered bay for our postponed breakfast, then continued up the western shore against the wind and leftwards past Boat Bay. As the loch narrowed, the roar of water signified another portage and the start of the Polly Lochs. Our way was distinctly downhill now, following the beautiful little lochs, portaging little cascades and waterfalls and lining the river — the all-in canoe travel we had been seeking.

Towards the end of the day, we were presented with a most surprising sight that it took a moment or two to make sense of — a white van moving slowly across the distant hillside — the first sign of civilisation we had seen since Elphin. Our camp for the night was on an elevated terrace above the last of the three Polly Lochs that we had seen in the distance a couple of hours before. The conditions had now improved giving us a chance to sort through our wet gear. Andrew appeared at one point with fistfuls of fivers, waving them in the breeze to dry them out. The entire trip was quite a good test of wet weather technique.

Day 6. Taking to the road

In the morning, Andrew pushed off in his canoe for a little fishing for breakfast, whilst Mike and Graham waited expectantly, knife and fork in hand. (They’re still waiting).

From here we strapped on our canoe wheels and took the road for a tough couple of miles to the next Loch in the circuit. Our first glimpse of Loch Bad a Ghaill was favourable: flattish water and a fringe of trees along the far side which promised sheltered camping.

The chain of three lochs that were our route back were separated by picturesque cascades, bypassed by short, easy portages.

At the start of the third loch (Loch Lurgainn), we happened across a fantasy campsite on a flat wooded area behind a clean arc of beach, even sporting its own harbour behind a sand bar.

Graham’s tarp had become the social focal point of the trip and became known as The Pavilion. It was customary to wander down to The Pavilion after tea for a chat, or to be treated to a delicacy such as Andrew’s Chocolate Nut Delight, and for a tot of rum. It must have been a cheery sight from a distance, bedecked with candle lanterns, a little oasis of light in a vast, empty expanse of dark wilderness.

Day 7. The Spanish Connection

The loch looked calmish now, although it had been windy in the night and one of the canoes had blown over. We packed up in a rather leisurely fashion, quite sad that our trip was nearing its end. The plan for the day was to paddle the few remaining miles to where Andrew had hidden his bicycle for the trip back to retrieve the Landrover.

We had a discussion about which side of the loch to take; the south side was more sheltered from the freshening breeze and led to a couple of islands where we could cross over to the north shore and the road; the north shore took us on the road side of the loch so that if a wind got up we could escape easily. After a bit of debate we decided on the north side. Good decision.

We hadn’t paddled more than a quarter of a mile before a strong wind came out of nowhere and we found ourselves fighting once again to keep the canoes from going broadside. It got rapidly worse until there was only one option: head for a slight break in the rocks on the nearest bit of shore. We waited a while for the wind to die down, but it never did so we set about a final long portage. At least were weren't stranded on the far side of the water, but we had landed rather a long way from the road.

Andrew took a load on ahead to try to hitch-hike back, whilst Mike and Graham brought the canoes across the final portage. Andrew, with paddle and PFD, clearly wanting a lift, was ignored by several locals, but eventually got picked up by Juan from Madrid, who went out of his way to take him all the way back to the Landrover. Muchos gratzias amigo.

It was surely a welcome sight for Mike and Graham to see the Landrover pull in to the layby up ahead and Andrew come down to help with the final leg of the carry.

All three members contributed their own special skills to this team effort. Mike had an uncanny knack for finding faint deer trails that took us exactly where we wanted to go; Andrew was seemingly impervious to cold and fatigue, and so was the natural choice for any wet and strenuous tasks; Graham added a touch of sophistication to the team by insisting on dressing for Dinner (he also took pyjamas, but never let on).

For Mike, who had done only a little canoeing previously (although he had done a beautiful job building the Peterborough on Graham’s building course), this trip was very much the Deep End. We had not canoed together before but hit it off from the start. Most importantly on a trip like this, we all wanted the same thing from the experience; being on a canoe journey rather than a paddle, pitting our wits against whatever unknowns lay beyond the next rise or round the next point, and above all to spend time in one of the wildest places in the country.