Scottish Canoe Routes
A Fionn Loch - Loch Maree circuit
We had been studying the weather forecasts for the far north of Scotland for some time, waiting for the right conditions for our latest project. Suddenly there it was: a window of seven days of showery, windy and cold weather sandwiched between two sunny weeks; it was now or never. We drove up on Saturday in the last of the sunshine as the good weather slipped away. Already the motorway information signs on the M8 warned “Heavy Rain Forecast Sunday”, and the car-top open canoes we saw were all coming the other way.
Over the winter, we had been studying the maps to find a series of lochs that we could link up to lead us out further into the wild, give access to some rarely-canoed water and generally provide an adventure. We wanted to develop our portaging skills and so hopefully unlock some interesting routes that might at the present be beyond us. We eventually agreed on a circuit based on a string of lochs leading in to Fionn Loch with portages over the mountains to Loch Maree, if possible by way of the remote Lochan Fada. We would leave a bike at the bottom of Loch Maree to get us back to the Landrover at the start.
By Sunday morning, the fine weather had well and truly gone and the promised storm was upon us. Making a start was completely out of the question. Instead, we decided to reconnoitre the first portage which was to lead via a spruce plantation to the first loch of our journey. We thought that we might camp in the shelter of the wood and so get an early start the following day should the storm have by then abated. The waterlogged “ridge and ditch” forest floor was a grim prospect indeed for the tents, and coming upon a ramshackle dwelling hidden in the centre of the wood looking uncomfortably like something out of Deliverance put us off the idea completely. The whole scene was miserable, windy and wet. Soaked, we retreated to Beinn Eighe campsite each harbouring unvoiced feelings that the chances of starting—never mind completing—our trip just at that particular moment seemed slim. We disappeared into our flapping tarps and tents to sit out the storm and view the impressive show given by the waterfalls opposite as the water flowed gracefully upward in the wind.
In the morning, amazingly, the tranquil sound of cuckoos calling replaced the roar of thrashing trees and the sky even showed a few streaks of blue. The trip was on. We dropped off Andrew’s bike behind a boulder at Tollie Bay at the bottom of Loch Maree and continued around to the start, a lay-by above the sea north of Poolewe. The initial carry, Banjo Portage, is about 1km. A trolleyable track led to a locked deer gate, then our route crossed untracked moor around the edge of the trees to the loch. We hoped we wouldn’t meet the owners of the house in the wood. Loch a'Bhaid-luachraich was relatively calm and inviting, and it felt good to be skimming along on the water at last. However, the building clouds left us in no doubt that the day was going to be showery, and the wind was rising, but things were on the whole OK. We followed a little finger of the far end of the loch to get as close to the exit track as possible and had lunch before climbing up the awkward little slope to the path. We had hoped that this and the other tracks along our route would be smooth enough for our trolleys, but it was immediately obvious that this was not to be, so we resorted to a traditional portage; Andrew a classic overhead and Mike and Graham a two-person carry with our newly-invented portage straps which proved to be a great help. Our progress was at first rather slow as our muscles struggled to acclimatise to the rigours of the portage. About a kilometre further on, after a couple of false summits, we got our first sight of the shimmering blue level of Loch Mhic'ille Riabhaich, and our spirits got a welcome boost.
Six pm: time to be looking for a camp on the not very promising moor waterlogged by yesterday’s deluge. Mike and Graham checked out areas of higher ground whilst Andrew took a spin down the next loch to check out the island. In the end we decided on a dryish knoll rising up from the expanse of bog with a good view down the Loch, and before long our little encampment had taken shape, with two of the tents spanned by Graham’s large tarp—The Pavilion— where the evening events were to be held. This was a wild spot; all that could be heard was the rushing of the loch outflow stream, the wind through the heather and the calling of the cuckoos, which seemed to have been following us throughout the day. Turning the binoculars on the great wall of mountains to the southeast gave an interesting perspective on the challenge that lay ahead, for Loch Maree lay on the other side.
Next morning we set out lightheartedly across a sparkling Loch Mhic'ille Riabhaich and launched into the next portage. Did it feel just a bit easier? Loch na Moine Buige was about a kilometre away, invisible for the present, and led directly into Fionn Loch. Again, it was a happy moment when we crested a rise and saw the next expanse of water laid out before us. However, the wind was rising and unpredictable, and built uncomfortably whilst we crossed the Loch. It became clear that our exit point was guarded by large boulders onto which we were being blown; not one of our favourite situations. We managed to pull off an uncomfortable emergency exit from the canoes, each trying to get a footing on the boulders and not slipping into the unplumbed crevasses between. Fionn Loch was only a hundred metres away and slightly lower, and the bank by its shore gave us shelter for lunch. Fionn was clearly a major loch, magnificent in its isolation, surrounded by gently rising moorland with rocky outcrops and erratics highlighted against a backdrop of the mountains. Today, the vast sheet of water was set amidst a landscape dotted with the curtains of falling showers and racing cloud shadows.
The sky was now filling with darker shower clouds each bringing with it squally winds. We tried not to set out until there was a good run of clear sky upwind. Tiring of waiting, we pushed out into Fionn Loch, but it wasn’t long before the wind again got up and we ran for shelter in the first bay on the right. It was now clear that we would be windbound for some considerable time and the showers had cooled and hardened into hail. Andrew had brought a four-person storm shelter which at around 750gm certainly justified its place on the trip. Sitting out the wind and hail storms in the open we were gradually getting colder and colder, but once inside the shelter, we were instantly warm and snug. As an added bonus, the shelter was orange which gave a cheery illusion of sunshine.
Quite used to being windbound, Graham had a programme of activities to pass the time. First up in the storm shelter was instruction in tying a range of weird and wonderful knots. He had also hoped to demonstrate a traditional Inuit cats-cradle in which, when you pulled on the strings, two little figures came out of an igloo—but he had forgotten how to do it! The most useful pastime by far, however, was texting various spouses for the latest wind forecast.
Another diversion was a visit to the nearby and irresistibly-named Bad Bog. Meandering through the bog was a stream about three metres wide spanned by a mat of submerged vegetation that sank alarmingly when you weighted it. Mike and Andrew manfully stepped onto the mat and got across, but Graham found a weed-free stretch of stream and discovered that he could not touch the bottom even with his paddle pushed right down. He had visions of breaking through the submerged grass mat and disappearing, probably never to be seen again. He was eventually coaxed across but not before gaining the accolade (not actually articulated whilst he was listening) of Bog Fairy.
Our lost storm day, ongoing delays and the nature of the portage track made us realise that we would probably not have time for the entire circuit we had optimistically planned, so looked for an alternative. The portage up to Lochan Fada (which we could now see in the distance) took the mountain uplift full on, but also apparent was a pronounced gap in the hills to the south that would provide a shorter route to Loch Maree with considerably less ascent.
The wind continued. Every half-hour or so one of the team ascended the knoll above our refuge to assess the water in The Narrows, a constriction of the loch which was funnelling the wind and creating unappealing rough whitecaps. Graham reckoned it would begin to calm at 6pm. Six came and went, then seven. We began to look, without much enthusiasm, at the bog to try to find a place level and dry enough for the tents. Andrew even began removing tussocks with his knife in a effort to create a flat spot. But after one last trip up the knoll, the water was pronounced to be definitely calming. Keen to leave our wet and somewhat dreary prison we didn’t need telling twice and launched within minutes and were off through The Narrows.
For the next hour or so we were treated to magical paddling in the low evening sunshine past fairytale wooded islands in a situation of harsh isolation. It would be good to have more time and settled conditions to explore here. Fionn Loch (the White Loch) is famed in fishing circles for its dangerously large wild brown trout (eighteen pounds and above), and for boat-eating submerged boulders, neither of which we encountered. The wind built again as we surfed onto a small shingle beach in Boathouse Bay, at a river mouth which marked the beginning of our revised portage route through to Loch Maree. An examination of a superficially unpromising spur as a campsite revealed a small area of slightly raised heathery ground that was much drier and receiving a little shelter from the wind. The heather provided a springy bed and one of the most comfortable nights of the trip.
And so began our first Big Portage Day and our methodical relay of boats and gear up the long valley, following the routine that was becoming second nature, and physically easier with practise and technique. We were finding that long portages were as much a mental challenge as a physical one; dwelling on thoughts of the end of the portage five miles away was bad; thinking about the next rest in fifteen minutes was good. The portage started by fording the river behind the tents and following a rough track up to Lochan Beannach Beag. Here and there we met added excitement, for instance where one of the bridges was out. Mike, we now discovered, was a natural at wading, and needed worryingly little encouragement to jump into any deep body of water we happened to pass. Andrew and Graham secretly agreed to keep an eye on him in case this was the onset of “portage fever”. High on the uphill section of the portage we had one of those strange experiences that happen from time to time. We came upon a lone German hiker with whom we struck up a friendly conversation. Being German, we thought he might appreciate the well-oiled precision we imagined our portage routine was now exhibiting. Instead, after an initial greeting, he suddenly became agitated when we showed him our present position on his map. He had been trying to follow a lochside path past Letterewe and realised now that he was nowhere near where he thought he was. Now, our map-reading skills might not be world-class, but even we could see that this was not a lochside location, in fact there was no water to be seen in any direction and we were clearly up near the snow line. How he came to get so lost was a topic of lively speculation for us for the rest of the trip.
Our target for the next camp was the height of land. Right at the top of the pass we found a level spot for the tents, in the remotest spot imaginable, but even in this wild and treeless place we were not alone because the cuckoos were still out there, calling. It hailed in the night and in the morning the peaks around us were noticeably whiter.
The way was downward now, which would have given an added spring to our step if the canoes hadn’t been so heavy; but at last there it was, far below: the shining sheet of Loch Maree. Andrew, head in his canoe as ever, approached the loch looking scarcely less energetic than he had when he hoisted his boat onto his shoulders at Fionn Loch two days previously. He moved relentlessly forward like a machine. Graham and Mike toyed with the idea of not telling him (for he could not see) that the loch was fast approaching to see what would happen, but decided against it.
Although the Loch was accessible less than a hundred yards away behind the house, we had to continue another kilometre eastwards until the “public” track led to the water. Graham went on ahead to scout and returned with news of a wonderful sheltered shingle beach haven, which we quickly developed as our own.
Friday. It was another breezy morning with the water again being whipped up to an unappetising level, so we had a walk along the path to explore the beaches reputed to exist another kilometre up the loch. Along the way, we found a deer rack which Andrew adopted for his canoe’s figurehead.
The wind eased after lunch allowing us to set off towards Isle Maree, only to be blown off again right in front of Letterewe House. Time for another game whilst we sat out the wind. We spent a fun half-hour playing “Inuksuk”, or throwing pebbles at a stack of balanced stones as a target. It was at this point that Andrew revealed his prowess as a marksman by knocking out one of the middle stones whereupon the pile settled again as if nothing had happened. For his next shot, he casually rebounded a pebble off the ground to remove the top stone cleanly from the pile. It turned out that at the age of seventeen he had discouraged a bear in the Algonquin, intent on stealing his week’s supply of food, with a single, well-aimed stone to the nose at a distance of 20 metres (apparently not the recommended procedure).
Tiring of waiting, we waded the canoes along the shoreline for a while past the many obstacles provided by Letterewe estate—a deer fence stretching out into the loch, a jetty, an electric fence, and as a final flourish, a deep wade across a river. Almost before the sight of the deep channel had registered, Mike had all-but disappeared into the water to ferry the gear across. Seizing a lull in the wind we paddle another short section down to Isle Maree Point where we again waited on a sheltered beach. During another lull, Andrew wind-ferried across to Isle Maree, but the others thought better of it and waited another hour or so for the wind to drop further. Andrew used his time on the calm water amidst the islands to find a beautiful sandy beach for our camp on Eilean Subhainn (St. Swithins’s Island). Reunited again, we pulled the canoes ashore and cleared a flat area of stones for the tents and Pavilion. Finally, we were treated to a dry evening—in fact the sky was clearly changing, and to celebrate we made a fire of the driftwood we had brought over from the ample supplies at our last campsite and toasted pitta breads to have with Andrew’s famed Chocolate Nut Delight. The cuckoos now seemed to go into overdrive and kept up their singing all night. Andrew was clearly close to breaking point and pronounced that he could stand midges, but Scottish cuckoos were unbearable, and muttered something about an equivalent of DEET to keep them off.
The changing sky had signified the end of our damp and dull weather window, for Saturday dawned fine and sunny; time to be heading for home. Before leaving, we mounted a little hiking expedition into the loch in the middle of our island, a beautiful spot with a profound “back of beyond” atmosphere. Then we visited Isle Maree and spent an hour or so exploring the maze of other islands and channels. The water level was sufficiently high that we could paddle or walk the canoes through little channels which at most other times would be dry. We avoided those places mentioned by Scottish Natural Heritage when we contacted them before the trip.
The final paddle down to Tollie bay was scenic but uneventful, suffused with a growing feeling of relief that the wind had not been able to trap us irretrievably. Andrew set off on his bike to get the Landrover, which we hoped had not disappeared from its rather blatant lay-by location. Whilst Andrew was gone, Graham and Mike were checked out by a local in a posh Audi who pretended he had just driven down for the view, but probably wanted to check that our interpretation of the Scottish Access Law was not as a licence to cut limbs off the birches for firewood and leave disposable barbecues scattered around as previous visitors to the bay had apparently believed. For the first time on the trip were troubled by midges, which became quite bad. So now we can finally answer the longstanding question of when midges come out in Scotland: it is at 6.53pm on May 19th.
After a final night and celebratory fondue in the candlelit Pavilion, we drove home eyeing up all those scattered lochs and rivers which now seemed more feasible for us to explore. In fact, during our long portage we had glimpsed for a brief moment the ultimate Platonic core of canoeing in which water is, in the final analysis, not necessary at all.
Lochan Beannach Beag