Monday, 20 February 2017

Eleven Atlantic Isles: a Winter Kayak from Skye to Kintyre

The weeks since the last post have been the most challenging period of this kayak journey so far. With time running out for the Scottish legs that started in Shetland in July, I needed to cover a much bigger distance than in previous months: from Shieldaig across the Inner Sound, down the west of Skye, the Small Isles, the west of Mull, through the Sound of Luing  & down towards Kintyre. That meant kayaking in weathers where I might normally choose to stay indoors: through day after day of miserable rain, fog & gloom round Skye…

…and riding fierce easterlies past the Treshnish Isles & Staffa:

This also meant allowing the journey to be a little less continuous than in previous months - delaying some challenging tidal or exposed sections, to return to later in the month when tides & weather came closer to alignment.  

But much of this journey was exceptionally atmospheric & unusual - feeling at least as immersive & dissociated from day-to-day life as anything that had come before. Weird atmospheric conditions, seen in the pictures below, were one aspect of this. But I also met some wonderful people, including some connected by careers (such as lighthouse boatmen) to recent coastal lives that share little with our usual assumptions about what it means to live in modern Britain. I’d never thought before, for instance, about the children brought up on tiny Atlantic lighthouse skerries, separated from the nearest school by rushing tides & storm-prone seas:

I’d wrongly imagined lighthouse keeping as a trade that was usually stocked by single men. But the documents & pictures I was shown this month were exceptionally family focused. They were full of children whose early worlds must have seemed bounded by the few acres of rock around the sole reason for their being: the whitewashed pillar where gas or whale oil burned to save the lives of seamen. Indeed, right on the first page of the Northern Lighthouse Board's guidance for lighthouse keepers were the instructions for sending the visual signal to shore: 'Midwife required'. During February I made certain to visit each of these rocks I passed, exploring the walled gardens (often with rich soil brought as ballast on ships from far away) and the staggering feats of engineering that allowed structures built with little more than horse, oar & sail power to withstand the ocean’s force. By the time I spent a night, joined by a friend, in the garden of the lighthouse at the Mull of Kintyre, the night sky was a trippy light-scape of pulsing & sweeping rhythms – Irish, Hebridean & mainland Scottish beams. Through hours of night, snipe performed strange acrobatic flights through the beams of the Kintrye light, squeaking like pipits.
The long nights were particularly glorious this month, with aurora glowing above the north of Skye, and with rich sunsets…

…a huge hunger moon rising over Morvern & Mull… 

…and wonderful animal encounters. On the very first morning I woke to find barnacle geese around my sleeping bag, grazing on the sparsest sea-edge grass. One night, seals occupied rocks around me shortly before dusk - I dozed to the strangely human sound of their breathing…

…next morning, I was still dozing when a heron approached, spearing fish feet away from where I slept by the kayak:

On another morning, an otter found me between itself & the sea. With an almighty splash it decided to brave the rush right past me – I had time to pick up the camera but not enough to change it from the settings I’d been using for low-light landscapes:

When I landed in the evenings, waders often gazed suspiciously down at my intrusion, for all the world looking like historic peoples perturbed by some strange ship landing on their shoreline: 

Great northern divers & black guillemots were present on most sections of coast...

...while sea eagles often soared above...

...and cormorants & shags investigated the boat:

Perhaps the most atmospheric mornings & evenings of all, though, came when I reached the south of Skye. After three drenched, cloud-bound days I was looking forward to leaving my kayak in Glen Brittle to climb. But when I got up in the morning the fog was as thick as ever: I almost decided to seek a day indoors. The reason I wanted to gain height was to see the Small Isles from above – to get an eagle-eye perspective on these coasts - and there’d be no such views today. But occasional glimmers of light persuaded me to start up the giant shifting scree slopes & immense broken ridges of the Cuillin. The result was two extraordinary days that felt like total escape from reality. Below the cloud was January – cold, wet & windy – above the cloud (on the first day at least) was the warm, glowing stillness of a June evening:

The ridges glowed through the shadows or glowered from the bright clouds...

...and tore as well as piercing their blanket:

Elegant peaks stood in torrential cloudfalls: 

Visibility was staggering – northern mountains such as An Teallach & southern ones like Ben Nevis all perfectly clear above their own cloud carpets.

As the evening went on, lower tops, including the Stoer, began to emerge...

...and the cloud was suddenly ignited:

Overnight, the temperature fell & the wind rose. The peaks I scrambled across were swept by billows of freezing cloud:

Over & over again, my shadow, wreathed in inverse-rainbows, loomed up from below... 

...and I recalled the historian & outdoorsman G.M. Trevelyan's description of navigating hills in fog as 'one of the great primeval games'. There are old shielings surprisingly high in these mountains, meaning that the first ascents listed for these peaks (mostly mid/late nineteenth century) were probably not first ascents at all. It seems unlikely that the goatherds who built small walls here, to keep their livestock from falling over cliffs, never followed strayed mountain goats into the rockiest reaches of the hills. 

But even the time below & within the cloud could be wonderfully atmospheric. I'd begun the journey by kayaking across the Inner Sound (from the north of the Applecross peninsula via Rona to Skye). Navigating carefully, through fog & stillness, felt like a tie to deep histories. This region seems to have been unusually heavily populated by pre-agricultural Mesolithic wanderers. Sites around its edges point to a population that moved from shore to shore around the Sound following seasonal foodstuffs – in winter, shellfish from low rocky shores & sandy beaches; in summer birds & eggs from cliffs, but also deep-sea species of fish caught from boats of similar size to mine. Norman MacCaig’s poem about the historicity of the small boat should perhaps read ‘millennia’ for ‘centuries’:

The boat need carry no more than a live man
And there’s a meaning, a cargo of centuries…

Watch this one, ancient Calum. He crabs his boat
Sideways across the tide, every stroke a groan –
Ancient Calum no more, but legends afloat.
No boat ever sailed with a crew of one alone.
Time is mixed up here. The island cliffscapes even contain fossilised footprints of dinosaurs almost three times as old as the local mountain ranges (the cuillin is 60 million years old, the footprints at Staffin to its north are 170 million). Many of the rockforms are staggeringly strange:  

The silhouettes of skerries were just as enticing:

And the ships that passed were as terrifying for a kayaker as anything else that could happen at sea. This colossus thankfully appeared when I'd landed for the evening:

During the whole month, the sea felt especially immense & unknowable. I often found myself travelling through still days after storms, when only the surface of the sea & detritus on the shoreline carried memories of violence. Storm salads lined the coves of Ardnamurchan:

Passing beneath the mountains of Rum, echoes of the storms appeared as entirely unexpected breakers. My nerves frayed & frayed further as I made my way among them – the air was calm, but this twitching & explosive sea was still among the scariest sections of the journey so far:

Rounding the infamous Ardnamurchan Head was (thankfully) a gentle anti-climax:

Later, I had two particularly wonderful days when otherwise-difficult conditions became allies. One was a mad windblown paddle down Mull. This was a day when I’d hoped to get out to the Treshnish Isles, but on which I had to travel in whichever direction the wind took me:

Fortunately, it was driving me straight towards Iona: in arctic wind I eventually landed on a tropical beach to explore the famous abbey:

The wind had dropped, but was set to rise again; as I sat down to eat by the deserted buildings (I was surprised to see no one here at all) a tame windblown robin acted as my weathervane. 

The other day of particularly friendly conditions was after I’d left Mull & kayaked out from Ellenabeich down the Sound of Luing. Here, powerful tides swept me south, meaning that, apart from a few brief frenzied battles, I did little work but steering myself towards the wonderful rock of Fladda, where my favourite lighthouse of all stood:

I visited several rocky islands in the sound, each with historic ties to international trade in slate...

...then used the accelerating tides to speed my departure down towards the gulf of Corryvreckan where Britain’s biggest whirlpool rages, with standing waves that can sometimes be six metres high. But I reached the seas above Jura as the tide began to turn & the whirlpool slept, so was able to step from the conveyor belt to land on the east coast of the beautiful Isle of Luing. Like many community-spirited small islands, Luing has a History Society whose archive is housed in a wonderful, recently-built community centre. Here I met Jane Maclachlan whose husband had been boatman to the Fladda lighthouse as had his father & grandfather. Jane had been one of those who every year had whitewashed the lighthouse & its immense garden (even the garden walls are thirty feet high & fifteen thick). She showed me pictures of the Maclachlan boatmen and the Macauley keepers dating back to the start of the twentieth century, as well as all kinds of lighthouse stories of heroic rescues (such as the time a child fell off the lighthouse rock & was saved by a Machlachlan boatman) and tragic deaths (such as the Machlachlan lighthouse keeper, posted to the Flannans, who had survived all kinds of trial by ocean but fell when showing tourists puffins in 1904).
It felt like there was far more wind, rain & darkness throughout this trip than on any previous leg. I was therefore especially grateful to those people who helped me out with transport or gave me a place to sleep. It was wonderful to stay with the kayaking icon Nick Ray (who visited every Scottish lifeboat station by kayak in 2015, on one stunning continuous journey of 2,000 miles) and with Jill de Fresnes, who through a life in Morar & years of research knows the west coast heritage better than anyone. I also need to thank the exceptionally kind owners of Loch Seil cottages (if anyone ever needs to book accommodation in the Loch Seil area, Mike & Anne Grabham must be the most wonderful hosts). Through extreme stupidity, I'd managed to get my van stuck in the shoreline late on February 14th. At the cost of much of their own evening, Mike, Anne & their friend Colin (with his tractor) went far beyond what could be expected of anyone, especially on Valentine's Day. I can only imagine how much worse the experience would've been had there not been people as good as them nearby.

Amidst the unpredictable weather I didn’t manage to get everywhere I’d hoped to: missing Canna was my biggest regret of this section. So if I decide to seek completeness I’ll need to return to these regions soon. Whether I do or not depends largely on how the weather shapes the kayak down the west coast of Ireland over the next couple of months...