Why Kayaking is the Best Way to See Scotland this Summer

Eilean Kayaking
Photo: Will Copestake

This article was written by Mathew Wilkinson of P&H Sea Kayaks and originally published in Wired For Adventure Volume 22.

My attempt to assemble a group for an adventure on the northwest coast of Scotland with Kayak Summer Isles in 2022 was like herding cats on a rollercoaster, so when I realised 2023 was slipping away, I threw caution to the wind, said “alone it is!”, and left the door open for friends to tag along if they fancied. I mean, if it worked for Sam Helliwell’s Nepal Whitewater Kayaking escapade (featured in WFA Volume 13), it’s gotta’ work for me, right?

My plans for this jaunt up north were initially much larger, but with a relaxation of the essence, I opted for the simple life: driving up and diving into the sea kayaking adventure I’d booked, and dumping all logistical worries on to Kayak Summer Isles co-owner Will Copestake (not that he ever seems worried – even when facing a 30km, mountainous, 3-day portage with a fully-loaded sea kayak in the wilds of Patagonia.)

Will suggested a campsite near our starting point, so on a Sunday, Patsy (my trusty VW Passat Estate) and I hit the road for a nine-hour drive to Port a Bhaigh Campsite. After a quick pub grub pit stop, I set up camp in the car. The journey had its only breaks for a waterfall detour (Black Water Falls at Silverbridge) and a snack and fuel restock, so sleep swept over me faster than a gust of wind.

Eilean Scotland
Photo: Will Copestake

Ready For Action

The next day, I parked up at Old Dorney Harbour, waiting for the others. A lady parked beside me and let’s just say she wasn’t who I pictured when Will mentioned who else was booked onto the trip. Sally turned out to be one cool cat, though. She’d done her time in the Peace Corps, travelling a little on a shoestring budget, and was now armed with a larger budget and ready to see the world beyond Michigan.

Mid-clothing change, I discovered an unexpected hitchhiker in my dry pants: a retainer. Cue the confused, pantless pondering sat on the edge of my car’s boot. Turns out, I’d lent the dry pants to my housemate Tom, and he’d obviously been up to something that required both them and a retainer… let’s not dwell on it. To top things off, my kayaking shoes were MIA. Thankfully, Sally came to the rescue with a spare pair of NRS neoprene shoes. Crisis averted.

Fully dressed and ready for action, I joined Will in unloading his Cetus and the Scorpio sea-kayaks he’d brought for Sally and I from his car’s roof rack, and the rest of the gear from the boot. Amongst the loot, there was a box that practically screamed “luxury” with four bottles of wine nestled inside. As we prepped, Will regaled us with tales of a hedge-fund manager who’d bought the island of Tanera Mòr, splurging a million pounds a month on renovations. I shuddered at the thought of modern monstrosities ruining the unspoiled beauty of the Isles.

Tent on Eilean ChoinardPhoto: Will Copestake

A Scottish Dream

The morning dawned perfectly, with sun rays caressing the water and harbor seals basking nearby. A passing chap sought shelter from the rain in a fishing boat as he let his curiosity about our trip show.

With rain gear on, we paddled into the bay, greeted by a remarkably clean guillemot seabird sporting winter plumage. Will’s bio on the Kayak Summer Isles website promised insightful knowledge and meaningful adventures, and boy, did he deliver. Lunch on the little island, Eilean Choinaid, was a feast fit for kings – quiche, cheese, crackers, and hot chocolate with all the fixings, all sourced from a local deli. Bellies full, we set out to explore, knowing we could retreat to the island for dinner and straight to bed.

The afternoon was a geology lover’s dream, with Tanera Beag arch, guano-stained cliffs, and Cathedral Cave making up the itinerary. We even stumbled upon a cracked section of headland that Will predicted would crumble in the next 25,000 years. Back on Eilean Choinaid, we dined on spaghetti bolognese and wine, followed by spotted dick for dessert. Talk about living the high life!

Under a blanket of stars, I experienced what might’ve been the most scenic wee of my life, with Stac Pollaidh looming on the misty horizon. The next morning, fuelled by a hearty breakfast, we set out for another day on the water. Will’s wildlife knowledge was on full display as he pointed out sea gooseberries, lion’s mane jellyfish, and aequorea Victoria (a rare crystal jellyfish).

The day unfolded under the warm sun, with visits to the ‘proposal cave’ and rock hopping adventures. Sally shared tales of her Irish kayaking exploits the week before, and we pondered the possibility of future adventures. Our routine remained the same: land around midday, set up camp, and explore. Our chosen spot, Cárn Beag, offered an infinity pool and the perfect setting for a relaxing nap before dinner.

Dinner was a gourmet affair – creamy, lemony salmon pasta served with wine chilled in a rock pool. As we dined, Will pointed out dolphins frolicking in the distant bay, revealing the secret behind his keen eyes: ‘fin flash’. We ended the day with a sunset paddle, taking in crashing waves and exploring bendy caves. Back on Cárn Beag, surprise awaited – and a welcome surprise it was.

We were treated to a light show, aurora borealis, before bed, and I wondered how this trip could get any better – the answer came during an open water crossing the next day – the dolphins came to say hello. A pod of them leapt and splashed nearby as we headed to Tanera Mòr. It was there that we saw the reality of the millionaire’s works – faithfully re- stored houses of the 18th century, most new buildings well hidden, and all in keeping with the style of the originals.

The last lunch of the trip was a smorgasbord of leftovers, and we reflected on the adventure before paddling back to where it all began. There, I bid farewell to my fellow adventurers, and set my sights on the next one.

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