Kayaking on Scotland's west coast

Kayakers from all over the world come to Scotland to paddle on the wild waters of its west coast – even absolute beginners

5 mins
Rain hammered against the window of my room at 7am on the first day of our introductory sea kayaking course. Having sat in a kayak for all of one hour prior to this weekend (six years ago off the coast of Italy on a balmy July afternoon) the weather didn’t give me much hope for a smooth ride.

I looked out and saw trees being whipped around in the wind, their branches flailing in all directions. Then I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is Scotland in October. What kind of weather did you expect?’

I was joining the last tour of the season with Sea Kayak Arisaig, a company based in remote Glenuig on the west coast, just over 30 miles directly west of Fort William. With decades of collective kayak experience, the team – Lizzy, Tristan, and Steve – run a wide range of trips and courses, anything from half-day tours up to coaching awards. It was the firm handshake and wide smile that Lizzy gave me when I met her that restored my faith in the days ahead.

Presumably because very few people would be crazy enough to take a beginner’s kayaking course on the brink of winter, our group was small. Les and Phil, the only other people on my tour, were a duo based in Edinburgh, and I was relieved to hear that their kayak capabilities didn’t hugely surpass mine.

In Glenuig Inn we met with our guide, Chris, who started to go over in detail what was in store for us on the first day: launching locations, our route along the coastline, and information about tides and winds. I felt a flurry of excitement in my stomach as we pieced the coming weekend’s events together.

After getting kitted out in appropriate gear, we were dropped off on a little jetty at Loch Moidart. Fortunately by this time the weather had eased off to just a touch of wind and no rain, so the sight of the calm waters was comforting. Chris gave us a short talk here about the kayaks and then it was time to set off, which is when my nerves kicked in.

I’m not known among friends for having the strongest centre of balance, so visions of capsizing immediately after launching flashed through my mind. I sat down in my kayak on the shore, and held my breath a little as Chris gently pushed me out onto the water. A slight wobble prompted another short, sharp intake of breath, but I was reassured that this initial imbalance is normal for beginners.

It took a few minutes to get used to the almost entirely new sensation of being afloat. I’m so accustomed to stomping my hiking boots on hard ground – the predictable, robust earth – but the feeling of something fluid and volatile underneath me was unfamiliar.

Nevertheless, I felt compelled to get over that uneasy feeling, and did so surprisingly quickly. Our primary task was to paddle to the other side of the loch, around 200m away, and with fresh first-day enthusiasm we all smoothly made our way across.

As I reached the other side, I tested myself a little and used my hips to tilt my kayak ever so slightly to the left and right, experimenting with how far I could push the boundaries. Probably a bit of a risk for someone who, at this point, had cumulatively less than two hours of kayak experience, but doing this boosted my confidence.

After figuring out that it would take quite a lot to capsize, my nerves were eased. I felt invigorated and eager for the day ahead.

As I started to relax in the kayak more, I had time to appreciate the scenery around me. Brown, rugged hills rose up on either side of the tranquil waters, and a faint autumn bite of cold clung to the air. It was profoundly quiet, and the still was interrupted only by the faint rush of a car in the distance every now and then.

We slowly made our way out of this narrow stretch of water and towards the ocean, tucking ourselves into the shoreline as protection from the wind. The water sloshed around us each time we drove our paddles into the loch – the satisfying sound of progress.

Just a few minutes into the paddling, Chris spotted a seal pop its head out of the water only metres away from us. I quickly snapped my attention around to the direction in which Chris was pointing, excited to be so close to these playful creatures. It bobbed around and watched us, cautious but curious, peeking with just its eyes and nose above water.

I hadn’t expected it to be this easy to come across them, but this was the first of many that appeared over the weekend. After seeing that first seal, I imagined all the other things that must be living in the loch below us. To them we were just passers-by; the shadows of four elongated diamonds gliding above them on the water’s surface.

The sun burnt away the clouds over the course of the morning, something that surprised even Chris, who had diligently checked forecasts in the days and hours leading up to the tour. By midday, the colours on the hills emerged – brilliant greens and golds – and we squinted looking up at them.

Intrigued to test the temperatures, I dipped a hand in the water to find it not as freezing as I’d imagined. Chris cleverly pointed out that October is when the lochs are actually at their warmest, having been heated up all summer long. A consoling thought for this shaky beginner.

While Les and Phil paddled far in front of us, I continued talking to Chris. I halted mid-sentence when I noticed him stop paddling and point to the water on the other side of me. I turned my head and saw the tail-end of a sea otter plunging into the water about six metres away.

Swimming otter, Scotland (Shutterstock)
Swimming otter, Scotland (Shutterstock)

Shyer than seals, otters are much more elusive and harder to spot, although not entirely uncommon in this area. This one must not have seen us, as it popped up again moments later. I held my paddle deadly still so as not to disturb it. The otter looked around the loch, aimlessly, until it darted its gaze in our direction. In a flash it was gone, back to the safety of the underwater world.

As we continued, the loch opened up to a much wider passage with a large, tall island in the centre. Every few minutes a heron would soar through the air above us, recognisable by its bulbous, curved neck. We paddled across the water to the left of the island, and were met with views of Castle Tioram.

Perched on a mound of rock known as Eilean Tioram (‘Dry Island’) – a craggy islet that protrudes out from the rest of the shore – Castle Tioram was a seat for local clans in the Middle Ages. Long since abandoned, it now stands in ruin, crumbling away brick-by-brick.

After a quick lunch stop at the foot of Castle Tioram, we paddled across the width of the loch. This was the longest stretch we’d kayaked so far, and as the wind had picked up I really had to power my paddle into the water to gain speed. Chris was giving us tips about using the skeg, a triangular stop on the rear underside of a kayak. This device can be set at various degrees of up or down to control balance and steering depending on the direction of the wind.

I played around with different skeg positions to try and master it, zigzagging across the loch, slowly but surely understanding the technique. Although this section through open water was hard work, my arms and muscles felt energised and activated with each stroke. By the afternoon and under the watchful eye of Chris, I noticeably felt my skill improving.

We started to come back the way we came, heading around the other side of the tall island. We paddled closer to its edges this time, which were rocky and rose up into bluffs just a couple of metres from the water. It was here that we saw our second otter of the day. Camouflaged by the dark scenery, one could just be made out on the shore. As we continued around the island, we watched as two more otters jumped up on a boulder.

I held my breath, stopped paddling, and was transfixed. We all were. The sun shone behind the otters, giving them golden outlines, and one of them shook to rid itself of water. We were so close that we could see the individual dazzling, jewel-like droplets being flung from its body.

Silently, with jaws dropped, we drifted by. I felt like my eyes were the camera of a wildlife programme, panning across the scene. So beautiful was that moment, I half expected David Attenborough to interject and narrate it.

Day two brought with it more unexpected sunshine, but the wind was our main obstacle. This time we launched directly from the shores next to Glenuig Inn, and followed the coastline northwards into Loch Ailort. For the first hour or two the wind was manageable, and I needed nothing more than careful placement of the skeg to work with it.

We moved steadily as a group, spending longer stretches of time just paddling than the day before. This was a valuable building up of skills and experience, and gave us a glimpse into what it would be like to be out on a Sunday paddle with friends.

When we did reconvene to chat, it was for Chris to explain our direction. Loch Ailort is dotted with a handful of little islands, and as the wind and swell started to pick up, careful navigation through the scenery was key. Chris paddled between us and the craggy shore at all times, keeping us away from the choppy, foamy water that slapped up against the rocks.

By late morning the wind was strong, and I had to use a lot more force to push on, with arms a little cramped from the previous day. Maintaining direction was difficult: one minute I felt like I was exactly on my intended path, the next I realised I was 50m left of where I was aiming for. We all did our best to stay on track, but the wind and ocean were calling the shots.
The blue skies held out, and during the brief moments we found shelter I managed to take a look around. Loch Ailort opened up to our left, and the landscape on our right was lined with tall trees and tufts of bushes. The setting inland was hilly, made up of gently undulating mounds overseen by two peaks that towered above the rest.

I let the current take me for a while, resting my paddle in my lap and angling my head upwards to absorb my surroundings. For one brief moment all was calm as we happened upon a still patch of water. We glided through it – the bows of our kayaks slicing across the glassy surface – and savoured the moment of respite.

A shore covered in a thick layer of slippery seaweed was our port of call for a lunch break. We carefully moored the kayaks on the jelly-like cushioning, and while clambering inland I noticed how clear the shallows were. They were so transparent that you could pick out grains of sand on the floor of the loch, and see every detail on the belts of seaweed suspended underwater.

Chris was concerned about going back the way we came to return to Glenuig Inn. The winds seemed to grow stronger by the minute, so it was a risk to retrace our steps and battle the same route again. Instead, we paddled just a few hundred metres away from our lunch spot, to a protected area of water at the foot of a large hill.

Here we spent the afternoon practising new skills: strokes, edging turns, and a rescue, which involved Chris playing the victim. Despite not having the opportunity to continue paddling onwards to explore the area further, this turned out to be one of the most useful parts of the weekend, equipping us for future trips.

Tristen picked us up from the loch in the late afternoon, and as we began to hoist the kayaks onto his trailer I felt a pang of sadness that it was over. I went into this experience apprehensive about my lack of ability, worried that I wouldn’t have the skills to keep up with others. I came out of it confident and wanting more. In the days that followed the trip, I found myself racking my brains to work out the next available time I could get out on the water.

I thought about what it would be like to explore this region on foot, my usual mode of transport, and realised how much of a different perspective kayaking provided. Over the course of the weekend, I recognised the disparate feelings of standing on top of a mountain and drifting along at the base of it. From low down on the waters everything looked more imposing, and I felt humbled by that viewpoint.

We were just these tiny, floating specks. Guests and observers. Anomalies in the raw scenery. The lochs were our playground, the seals and otters our companions, and the wild, untamed landscape our awe-inspiring backdrop.

Emma Higgins is a British travel writer who spends an entire year in one region of the world at a time before moving onto the next. Emma publishes the stories she finds along the way on her website, Gotta Keep Movin', and in an annual print journal. This kayaking feature is taken from her most recent publication, A Year in the UK & Ireland, which is out now.

All images by Emma Higgins, unless otherwise credited

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