Week 4: Seil Island to Ardnamurchan
This week is kindly sponsored by Julie & Michael Pyke
Packing my boat in warm dry clothes, it was almost hard to leave the hospitality of Sue Fenton’s home. The golden morning sun however enticed me onward beckoning to return to the sea once more. It was 9am and the day was already warm, not the slightest breath of wind graced the waters of Seil sound. Summer had arrived!
Sue wandered along the slate beach with dog Slioch, I was left to guzzle the last of a rich mug of scalding coffee. Jamming the forward hatch cover over the deck I pushed out into the sound and paddled west toward the open sea.
Paddling toward the bridge I scraped and pushed the hull across shallow shingle banks, a gentle tide ran against me twisting deep brown fronds of kelp in the current at my sides. Looking up I could see Sue waving from the top of the great stone bridge better known as “the bridge over the Atlantic.” Hitting yet another shingle bank I couldn’t help thinking “The Atlantic sure can be shallow.”
The slate grey stone of the bridge was splashed with the vibrant purple of hundreds of fairy foxgloves clinging to its face. Snapping a few photographs I gave Sue one last hug, returned to my boat and started to paddle. I was on my own again.
The tide had turned, seemingly instantly in my favour the narrow channel now seemed to push me slowly out to sea. It helped to drive the heavy craft over the shingle, I was pushing more than I paddled. Gazing downward below the crystal clear azure water I could see starfish, sea urchins, blood red anemones clinging to vibrant green algae and golden brown kelp. Small crabs scuttled between the rocks as I passed, their eyes poking out watching my every move.
I passed through a thick field of weed fronds which clung to my paddle and held the boat fast. It was little more than knee deep so I decided to clamber out of the boat and drag it across the refreshingly cool water the last 100m to the ocean.
Stuck fast in the weed (GoPro)
I had planned to paddle north to Kerrera before crossing straight across the Firth of Lorn to Mull. However the sea was again completely calm and free of wind, tranquil and undisturbed even the smallest splash of diving gannets could be seen from afar. Paddling with the greenland blades I quickly glided across the sea in silence, I aimed for the distant Duart Point where I would turn west and into the sound of Mull.
Movement seemed effortless and time passed quickly, I stopped only to perform a U-turn to retrieve an escaped banana which had slipped from my deck. I quickly ate my rescued lunch under the watch full eyes of a nearby puffin which bobbed in my wake.
Approaching the shore I spotted two dashes of colour against the blue sea. . . fellow paddlers! Altering course to meet them I quickly realised they were bird watchers, ahead on the shore was a large sea eagle.
Joining their company we rafted up and watched the enormous creature eat the remains of a large fish, it seemed completely at ease with its colourful and nosey company.
Leaving the two paddlers and the eagle I paddled off along the shore, ahead I could see a small stone tower which stood as a memorial from the early 1900’s to the famous Scottish Novelist William Black. At its base a fast tide was pushing in favour toward the sound, flowing rapidly I rode at 9km/h directly along its current, I felt like a speedboat as I soared past the shore.
Eddying around a rock as the tide pushed out to sea I was faced with the mighty walls of Duart Castle above me, floating in a vibrant field of bluebells the castle towered proudly as the gatehouse to the sound of Mull.
As a small slipway drifted into view I realised it had been 2 hours since I last stretched my legs, stiff and aching with pressure sores I decided to relieve my knees. From here was only two hours paddle to Salen if all went well.
With Sula tied to a heavy cast iron ring set into a large boulder on the shore I stripped to my base layers and wandered up toward the castle. Expecting to be alone for a quiet lunch I was surprised to be confronted by a bus full of tourists and cafe. Barely mid-day I abandoned hope of a secluded spot and joined the masses to lay in the grass and sip tea in the 20º heat.
Once the wet maps had dried in the sun I slowly tore myself from the comfort of the field to waddle full of toast and tea to the castle itself. Beneath its huge stone walls I looked out toward the mainland, a dark line drawn by the tide cast across the bay drifting off to the horizon. Behind pale outlines of sun baked mountains crept upon the skyline, I found myself lost in thought about standing atop their peaks in the depths of winter. . . it seemed an impossibly long way off.
In the warmth of the sun I had lost all track of time, it was already 2.30pm. I only realised how long I had been lazing around the castle when I glanced at the salt stains now dried into my shirt and arms. “I suppose I should go” I reluctantly admitted.
By the time I had left the wind had started to pick up, a sea breeze driven by the heat it blew directly into my face and was getting stronger. Ahead two kayakers were paddling.
Motivated with the prospect of company I gritted my teeth and paddled as hard as I could against the wind. With the sea crashing over my bow and paddles creaking with strain I was struggling to make ground between us, I was sure in empty boats they would move faster. A ferry passed alarming close to their position, paddling across the bow toward the shore a little closer than I would have found comfortable they slowed, I was getting close. But as the ferry passed by they rounded a point and disappeared, I did not see them again.
I found myself suddenly lost for motivation, the effort of trying to catch up suddenly swam across me. A gust of wind cast across my bow with a cold bite, despite the sun I was getting cold. Salen was still 15km away and the fetch was becoming hard to fight, in a calm eddy I debated the pro’s and cons of landing for the night. On one side I would be able to rest for my first mountain in the morning, on the other it added a potential 15km to my days hike.
I chose to land.
Paddling into the mouth of a small stream I landed at the foot of the rustling branches of a birch wood. With a sheep mown lawn it was a perfect spot to camp. With a high tide it took little time to roll the boat to the head of the beach and set camp, at least here I was out of town and I felt safer leaving my tent alone the next day.
Now a blessing the sea breeze kept the midges away, the dark rocky shore reflected the heat which soon dried out my clothes and kit. Lighting a fire I lay on the beach and sipping a Scalding cup of tea enjoyed listening to radio 2 through a crackled radio signal. Studying a now tea stained map I planned my route up my first munro before setting off in the morning.
BEN MORE Circuit via Beinn a’ Ghraig: 12.9km +1458m
Recommended Naismith 5h 0m, Actual time: 6h 35m
My alarm broke the morning silence, the sea breeze had died and the sun was high in the sky. Fashioning a rudimentary rucksack from my overboard deck bag, string and hiking socks for padding I crammed in the basic necessities for a day in the hills and set off toward the road. The gentle orange glow of the early morning sun cast a delicate glow into the early haze. It seemed unlikely that I would need waterproofs, but then again T.I.S (This is Scotland), I packed them just in case.
It took two hours to hitch from camp to the base of the mountain, dropped in the wrong car park which full of cars I had wrongly assumed was the route to the summit. Instead I found myself lost in a flock of bird watchers all gawping upward intently looking for a golden eagle nest.
Rather than hike the extra 3km to the real start of the “Official” route I decided to add an extra summit which would give a further hour and a half of hill fun in the glorious weather. Legs already straining on the ascent to Beinn Ghraig (Film Screenshot)
Three weeks had past where I had sat with my legs relatively inactive, they now burned screaming for me to stop, I had hiked 100m up. Panting and struggling the day was already stiflingly hot. 10am and it was already 20 degrees! The rock seemed to reflect the sun into my face exaggerating the heats force.
From experience I can say I am able to cope with cold days, but struggle when it gets too hot. I dipped my cap into a puddle and slowed pace, the heat was already getting to me. Barely a half hour into the walk I had already drunk 1 litre of water, the thought of a cool breeze at the summit helped push me forward.
Slow and steady I clambered upwards, the terrain slowly changed from grassland to heather and then alpine rocks. Sheep bleating and hopping dashed past precariously scrambling along the crags above, to my delight the golden eagle past below me barely meters from my path. . . I waved down smugly toward the bird watchers who were surely staring from below.
In good spirits and a little cooler in a refreshing breeze I reached the first summit.
The view was spectacular, to my north the Cullin ridge, Eigg and Rum dominated the coastal horizon, Knoydart pointed upward from inland and the sound of mull glistened in the sun. Looking south the ridge line curled upward to the summit of Ben More far in the distance, from where I stood it seemed an awful long way off.
The coastline with stepped rolling hills suddenly cut into towering cliffs was remarkably familiar with the north west coast of Iceland. Between panting from the heat and effort of the ascent, my last breaths were stolen by the grandeur of the view before me.
Descending to the coll I refilled my water bottle with crisp clear spring water was spouting from a rock, it was refreshingly cold. Skirting to the east around the summit of Beinn nan Gabhar I scrambled up the steep ridge to the summit of Beinn Fhada. In between rock and grassy plains it was only sheep, the skylarks and I which shared the slopes.
Stopping to rest at a small lochan to the south of the summit I realized to some amusement that it had become hot enough to turn my block of cheese into a molten orange soup. With no extra packaging to store it in I had no choice but to consume the entire 150g block in a single sitting, smearing it on oatcakes like butter it made a superb but all be it greasy lunch.
The final push to the summit rose before above my waterside perch. A steep and exiting looking scramble up a sharp ridge promised an interesting ascent, I have always found it seems easier to scramble than walk for the mind becomes occupied with clinging on and not with the effort of moving.
Hot to the touch the rock was stable and grippy underfoot. The scramble was brilliant and looking over the edge of steep crags I watched ravens soaring around cliffs below. Sculpted scree slopes spread out below before gentle curving downward to the inviting shores of a deep blue sea.
I felt as if I was clinging to the edge of the world. Each step up the ridge was filled with a new and exiting path to follow or explore, some were exposed and vertigo inducing, others were coated in the peaceful colours of lichen and alpine flowers. I could see the summit, I was nearly there…
Poking my head over the final rise a spectacular panorama rose from the horizon. I could see Arran and the paps of Jura, even Ireland! The Cullins seemed close enough to touch and I could see where I would paddle for the next three weeks ahead. Scotland all of a sudden seemed a lot smaller.
Sat beside the cairn was a sight which took me aback, something I have never ever seen on a hill.
Two young parents with a six month year old baby! First impressions were “THIS IS PARENTING DONE RIGHT!!” The couple seemed on top of the world, and for the young smiling baby this surely was as high in the world as she had ever been.
I too felt on top of the world, if every munro was like this one I would be a very happy man. One down, 282 to go I thought with a smile as I placed a stone on the summit cairn, the enormity of the task ahead suddenly a little more real.
I sat and soaked in the view for over an hour, the warmth and calmness of the summit begged me to stay there forever. I knew however I had to get a hitch hike back to the tent lest I face a 20km walk home over the mountains. After what seemed only a few minutes but must have been an age I hauled the painful straps of my makeshift bag onto sore shoulders and set off toward the sea.
Back on the trail most trodden I passed several hikers wandering up to the summit in search of a spectacular sunset, I assured them they surely wouldn’t be disappointed. The scree slopes quickly turned to grasslands once more, sheep replaced ravens amongst the rocks and springs became pristine gurgling rivers.
Stopping at the last stream before the road I dipped my bottle into a crystal blue pool, the third litre of water of the day I was still dehydrated. As I wandered to the roadside I sat and sipped at the water, almost immediately a jaguar appeared. I had barely sat down and I had successfully scored a lift almost all the way home.
** Map taken from Walkhighlands**
For the third morning running there was barely a breath of wind on the sea, the sun was high and the tent boiled in the morning heat. The scent of woodsmoke drifted from the dying embers of last nights fire.
Smiling and happy I pushed the boat out into the sea.
With the gentle breeze I made quick progress toward Tobermory. However after an hour I begun to loose feeling in my left arm. Slowly pins and needles crept from my elbow to my hand. Shaking out my fingers the sensation disappeared, fingers crossed it isn’t the start of a recurring problem.
I beached on a small shingle bay and wandered to the top. Discovered a small grassy bend beside a trickling brook I settled down for lunch. Pink sea campian and yellow birds-foot trefoil splashed color across the glade, it was a pleasure to enjoy cheese in an unmelted form this time. Looking at the map I realized with delight that Tobermory was only a few kilometers along the coast.
Paddling along the sound I hugged tightly to the shore to avoid a stiff headwind. To my delight there was a passage between the kelp beds which provided a smooth channel with less fetch and wind to slow me down. Above gnarled birch trees hung over steep cliffs which were covered in vibrant green mosses and ferns, I gazed around in awe and smiling profusely. From far above a sea eagle leapt from its perch and flew away across the headland.
After about an hour I arrived at Calve Island, desperate to stretch my legs I landed next to the one and only house. There was barely a cloud in the sky and sheltered from the wind it was a wonderfully pleasant temperature. I looked out across the bay, Tobermory teetered over steep wooded slopes against the waters edge. An enormous cruise liner was all which stood between I and the rainbow colored houses.
I had hoped that from Calve Island I would be able to spot a good place to land and camp, somewhere close to town but far enough away to feel secluded. There was no sign of anywhere suitable what so ever.
After landing at the marina and asking around in Tobermory itself I still had no luck in finding somewhere for the night. With a quick swig of water and wander along the promenade I returned to my boat and set off west out of town and toward the open sea. With luck I would find somewhere soon and be able to return on foot later that evening.
A kilometer past, I had seen nothing but large boulders and near vertical slopes which were dominated with thick woodland and brambles. Perhaps I would have a long paddle ahead. My only hope was a small lighthouse marked on the map, experience had shown me that where there is a lighthouse there is normally a slipway.
I was in luck!
Rounding a wooded headland a small white lighthouse swam into view. At its base a gently sloping rocky outcrop and a large perfectly flat lawn. Perfect!
It took little time to haul the boat gingerly over the rock on the fender, unpack and after a quick check to see I was alone strip out of my wet gear. Standing naked in the sun I stretched out my arms and looked out to sea just as the cruise liner from Tobermory chugged past the headland. . . No more than 50m from the lighthouse there was no hiding what so ever. . . oops.
Clothed and dry I discovered a track which was signposted “Tobermory Trail” next to an empty house at the top of the bay. I was a kilometer and a half from town so decided to have a wander along in the evening light. The trail wound upward over the steep bluffs and through thick birch and oak woodland. Suddenly breaking out of the forest I found myself crossing a golf course and then wandering down steep narrow roads behind the town itself. It was still in the mid 20’s, only a breath of wind drifted across my face which was just enough to keep the midges away. As I approached the shore on the last bend of the road a sudden gust caught my towel from my shoulders and threw it 10m down a cliff into someones back garden. I Sheepishly walked down to the front of the house and knocked on the front door to explain, the bemused owner let me retrieve it with a giggle.
In town I showered at the local marina, stocked up on tins and fresh food and last but not least bought a huge fish and chips to eat over the harbor. In the dying sun there were only a few spots where I could sit in the warmth of the light, I sat down next to two young backpackers who were enjoying their own fish supper.
Lewis and his girlfriend Becky had hiked across Mull, by complete co-incidence they had camped only a few 100m from where I had been the night before. It was great to finally meet someone my own age bracket to enjoy some company with. To my delight they decided to avoid the local campsite and instead join me at the lighthouse for the evening.
Comfortably full we parted way, “see you at the lighthouse” they waved as I popped into the infamous Mishnish pub to charge some camera batteries.
The Mishnish pub lived up to its name! Every possible corner and angle was filled with interesting trinkets and memorabilia. The dark wooden walls donned photographs, RNLI flags, fishing nets and bhoys, each table had lanterns and candles and in the corners huge oak casks acted as spare places to lean a pint. With an ale in hand I settled into a corner and spent over an hour chatting with one of the barmaids.
Somewhat loosing track of time I barely noticed the sun setting, only when I looked out of one of the small dusty windows to the harbour did I realize I should be on my way home.
Having drunk barely any water all day I was a little tipsy off just one pint, it made walking through the woods back to camp seem a lot faster than on the way in. I stopped only to watch an otter fishing peacefully in the orange evening glow.
Arriving back at camp I quietly tip-toed past my new neighbours, Lewis and Becky had long since gone to bed. I opened the tent and within minutes was fast asleep.
Yet again I woke sweating and hot in a sun baked tent, barely a breath of wind rippled the fabric. The day already promised perfect weather. Through the vent I caught the faint scent of a BBQ, I suddenly remembered I had company.
Dressing into my kayaking gear I wandered over to Lewis and Becky. They had lit a small BBQ on the shore and were enjoying lying in the warm morning sun as they looked out toward the ocean. They welcomed me over and before I knew it was had bacon, black pudding and a sausage served on a rock for breakfast. . . what a luxury!!
The weather was perfect for paddling, what little wind there was blew entirely in my favor. Until 10am the tides were against me, so I decided to just relax and enjoy the company of the two backpackers for a little while longer.
It wasn’t until 11am before I finally set off to sea.
Leaving just after the Barra ferry motored past I felt comfortable that I would reach the far shore of the sound before meeting another. In the calm conditions with wind and tide at my back I rapidly crossed the few kilometers of open water incident and break free.
The only boats to pass me were an incredibly fast RNLI lifeboat followed by two tug boats, turning on my VHF inquisitively I discovered they were rescuing a large pleasure yacht which had experienced engine failure just out to sea, I expect given the conditions their only worry would be “Will the beer last until we are rescued.”
The cliff faced coast of Ardnamurchan point reared up ahead of the boat, a steady tide was drifting calmly around the headland in favourable direction. For several days Ardnamurchan had plagued my thoughts, it was the next serious headland where I was at risk to exposure from the west.
I could not have asked for better conditions, my paddles cast the only ripples for miles around as I passed along the shore. It was so calm I could enjoy poking the nose of my boat in and out of caves to peer up at bird nests or down to starfish below the clear water.
The prominent white lighthouse appeared in the distance, I had almost passed Ardnamurchan!
Out to sea a large black fin suddenly broke the tranquil sea. About 2km away I could barely make it out but it caught my eye, surfacing a second time there was no mistake. . . A Minke whale!
Even from a distance it was a spectacular sight to sea the huge and majestic beast surface and gently dip into the depths below, gannets dived in swarms around it and seagulls flocked, clearly it was feeding.
A small speedboat who had also seen it surface instantly sped off to get closer, the whale dived and did not return. I continued onward the last kilometre and landed on the rocks at the far side of the lighthouse.
Wandering up to the lighthouse I passed a group who were delightedly pointing and waving out to sea, the whale had appeared once more. I discovered that Ardnamurchan is renowned as one of Scotland’s best whale watching areas, many had traveled just to try and see one.
It was so hot I decided to explore the peninsula for a few hours before paddling to camp later in the evening when it had cooled down. Barely half an hour on shore was enough to dry out my clothes.
Stopping at a small cafe I bought a student price ticket from a smiling shop assistant and set off to climb to the top of the lighthouse itself.
Step after step after step seemed to spiral into an endless ascent. I wondered if I ever would reach the top. Finally dizzy and tired I emerged into a boiling hot glass walled bubble, I was at the top!
An elderly man who clearly had served his due to the ocean in his time took my ticket and I walked out onto the platform surrounding the top of the structure.
It was relatively vertigo inducing 36 meters below me cars and people seemed tiny, the whale in the distance a small blob in an endless ocean broken only by Eigg, Muck and Rum.
To the north the golden sands of Sanna bay were deceptively inviting, despite the sun the azure blue waters were surely still freezing cold.
It wasn’t until 4pm before I set off from Ardnamurchan point to head north. The day had finally grown cooler and if possible was even calmer. A golden hue cast over the coastline as I paddled on. For two hours the miles seemed to just peacefully drift past. I found myself loudly singing into the silence making up lyrics to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo child.
“….Well i’m sitting down on the sea. . . and ill chop it down with the edge of my blade.
“And i’ll paddle on a few more miles…so see you round the headland so don’t be late….”
I was exited, when I was fifteen I paddled in a father and son journey along loch Shiel, down the river and along the coast to Airisaig. For the first time during my journey I would be paddling along familiar terrain.
Seven years later the coast still hinted familiarity, I could see the castle we had camped beneath in the distance, the coast we had explored and admired seemed just as beautiful now. I aimed for a small beach we had vowed would one day make a great campsite.
Small and white in the distance the sandy bay hidden on the map promised by memory a perfect machair refuge for the night.
Arriving at 8pm it was exactly as I had remembered. A small isthmus of sand between rocky islands with perfectly smooth machair caps, the tropical blue water over white bays and deep greens of the grass seemed like paradise.
With no midges I set camp in the most exposed little island I could find, it only just fit the tent on top.
It was late and I was hungry but a spectacular sunset seemed to be arriving, I decided to go hungry and instead grabbed the camera and rushed toward a nearby hill some 150m up a steep heather coated slope.
Sweating, hungry and tired I scrambled as hard as I could. Barely able to steady the camera on the tripod between pants I shot photo after photo into the progressing golden light. The sun set with spectacular purples and oranges directly between the Cullin ridge and the Isle of Eigg.
Despite the veracious midges which had appeared en mass I sat at the summit and watched as the the sun set into the most vibrant sky I have yet seen during the trip. A rainbow of delicate oranges and purples faded into the night as the giant red orb sunk slowly over the sea.
Eigg under the last rays of Sun
The light died and my hunger returned, I had to rest! Sliding down the heather slope on my bottom I reached the tent which now had a few sheep confusedly stood around it. With a sprig of heather I lit the kelly kettle and finally wolfed down a much needed meal. Soon I would reach skye and for the first time I felt absolutely at home.