Scottish Canoe Routes
Loch Ericht, Loch Rannoch and Schiehallion
This was our second attempt at Loch Ericht. Three years ago we poked our heads around the corner from Dalwhinnie and were faced with such an evil prospect of headwind and whitecaps that we immediately implemented Plan B, which was to approach out target—Ben Alder—from the more sheltered Loch Laggan to the north.
Loch Ericht has the reputation for wind and rapid-onset waves, and looking at the map it is not hard to see why. The loch is long, very narrow, in a deep cleft in the mountains and south-west aligned. It also tapers to the north-east, amplifying yet more the effect of the wind. At over 1100ft, this is one of the highest of the big Scottish lochs—canoeing here in early April would be journeying along the very edge of winter. The various tales of misadventure on the loch that have been reported on the forums gave us a healthy respect for the place.
This year, the weather forecast was quite favourable: lightish winds veering to the north west. This wind direction promised some shelter from mountains, but also the prospect of cross-winds gusting through wherever there was a gap in the hills.
Despite the forecast, the drive up was gloomy owing to heavy rain and spray on the motorways. We parked by the railway bridge behind the petrol station in Dalwhinnie, which gave easy access to the loch. Our first view of the loch was promising if rather dismal: the water was fairly calm. We camped near the dam so that we could get a very early start in the morning. We noted that the water went flat at 7pm and at a pinch we could canoe until about 9pm—this might be useful information if the wind kept us pinned down during the daytime in the days ahead.
It rained all night and we had to fight that “do I really want to do this” feeling. As it happened, we had camped almost on top of the buried hydro inflow pipe and when it went quiet we could hear the rushing water deep underground. I had a restless night filled with vague dreams of currents and whirlpools. I have developed an intense dislike of hydros, which started during our Loch Laggan trip. We had canoed past some mildly unpleasant currents at the mouth of the inflow near the eastern end of the loch, and had camped nearby. We were awoken just after dawn next day by a tremendous series of thumps, and looking from the tent saw a succession of water spouts at least 20ft high. The thought of one of these going off as I canoed over has stayed with me!
Then things took a turn for the better; the rain stopped. We launched from the sand behind the dam which was slightly awkward because it was soft and silty in places. (There was also an inflow either side of us that after my disturbed night I imagined might be turned on at any moment). We decided to follow the eastern shoreline. This would mean that the anticipated crosswinds would blow us onshore in case of a mishap. We didn’t want to take too many chances out here on our own. Had we been wanting to climb Ben Alder, however, we would have taken the other side. Always conscious of the nature of the loch, we decided to take advantage of the fair conditions and keep paddling, forgoing our usual coffee break. The loch has steep sides and there are few benign landing places, and little level ground for a tent. As the shores rolled by we indulged in our favourite activity of “spot the emergency campsite”. We had lunch on a rare gravel beach across from Prince Charlie’s Cave and relaxed to take in the atmosphere of this wild and spectacular place.
As we had predicted, there were quite strong winds funnelling across the loch in places. I was glad that I had chosen my 150sq.in. “Lochmaster” paddle, anticipating such a fight, but it never got desperately bad. As the shoreline started to swing round to the left, the character of the loch changed. Beaches and trees began to appear and we started looking for that elusive perfect wild campsite—the bit of the trip we always enjoy the most. We eventually stopped quite close to the dam next to a sweep of boulder-strewn sand. The loch flattened out to mirror calm. We set up the tarp over a heathery edge which gave a very comfortable place to sit. The coming of the dams clearly flooded out a wooded area here for stumps and driftwood are everywhere—all sculpted into the most beautiful shapes. It seemed a crime to cut or burn any so we stayed with the gas stove. The northwest wind had brought with it dropping temperatures, and cold evenings and frosty mornings were a feature of the rest of the trip.
The following day we exited to the left of the dam and rolled the canoe down the dam road to Loch Rannoch. This road has a good smooth surface and gave a relatively easy three-mile portage. It was here that we got our first view of the beautiful pyramid of Schiehallion, just calling out to be climbed. The two deer gates across the road were both unlocked; if they weren’t, some ingenuity would be called for.
Loch Rannoch seemed like heaven after the sullen waters of Loch Ericht. We immediately came across a level sandy beach, now in sunshine, where we flopped out for lunch. Setting off afterwards across calm waters was one of those occasions when you feel that you really know why you like canoe travel. The feeling didn’t last—this is Scotland after all. Further down the loch a mountain gap channelled in yet another cross wind and in just a few minutes we were faced with large waves in rapid succession. We could make headway whilst they were coming at an angle to us, but then the angle of the shoreline changed and we had the prospect of taking them broadside. Time to get off. The shore here was flat, but fringed with offshore rocks that make landing in the waves so awkward. We nearly made it in, but at the last minute a submerged rock got us and necessitated a rapid exit from the canoe.
We put up the tarp for a windbreak and had a hot drink whilst we waited for a while to see if the water would calm down again, but as we were close to the Kilvrecht campsite deep in the enticingly named Black Wood of Rannoch, we eventually decided to strap on the wheels and continue along the road. There is an unsigned track up to the campsite which is much quicker than the main entrance further on.
Schiehallion is only a short distance away and gave an interesting climb and a welcome change to kneeling. The summit was snowy and exciting, but unfortunately the cloud was down, denying us the hoped-for view back along our route.
You can catch a couple of buses (via Pitlochry) back to Dalwhinnie to pick up your car, but I opted to walk back along the track via Loch Garry and so to the A9 cycle route.
This canoe route gives an exciting trip with a nice contrast of the wild Loch Ericht and the more benign Loch Rannoch. Following the route taking in both Ben Alder on Loch Ericht, and Shiehallion would give an excellent expedition.