Experience Scotland by canoe and a Nordic tipi

  • Adventure
  • Expedition
Ever tried canoe camping? Packing your gear in a canoe takes a lot of weight off your shoulders and gives you a fantastic mobility – not to mention the experience itself of transporting yourself on water. Tim Gent is a outdoor photographer and writer, camping guru, canoe expert and steady member of the Tentipi tribe. Together with his wife and co-adventurer, photographer Susannah Gent, he guides us to their favourite canoe camping places in Scotland.

West coast of Scotland

People often think I’m being flippant when they ask which bits of Scotland’s west coast are worth visiting with a canoe and tent. "Surely it can’t all be good", they’ll say after hearing my answer, a look of doubt clear to see. Oh, but it is.

From the Kyle of Bute at the mouth of the Clyde to the Kyle of Durness right up around the top corner, I’ve yet to find a dull bit. Set out north along the wondrous A82 from Glasgow and the journey is stunning from almost the first turn. And if you think Loch Lomond and the Trossachs are impressive, and they are, wait till you meet the sea. It really does just get better and better.

Only in Norway have I seen the mountains continue to fall, mile after mile, direct into the sea with the same visual impact, the snowy peaks reflected so perfectly in the still water below, and Norway is an awfully long van drive away. And then there is something about the size of it all. Somehow the peaks and lochs of this crinkly edge of Scotland seem to have been built on a human scale. No top is really beyond the reach of a fit person with a full day before them. Few lochs are built on a measure that discourages exploration by canoe. One side is rarely that far from another.

Which is fortunate, for while the scenery up there can be breath taking, so too at times can the weather. The prevailing south-westerly winds that throw themselves in off the Atlantic can be pretty unforgiving, and canoes are never the best of craft in a blow after all. Happily, along with all that unalloyed beauty, the indented and folded west coast offers a surprising amount of confidence to the canoe camper. Perhaps this is why I have a soft spot for those particularly long, deep and narrow lochs.

It is almost impossible then, on approaching the head of Glen Coe, not to veer off left towards Loch Etive. Despite the twelve-mile single lane track that leads amidst the red deer herds to the shore, this diversion always pays off. The loch is almost purpose built for the canoe camper, with numerous fine spots to pitch a tent on either shore. If you should travel right out to the mouth of the loch however, take real care anywhere near the road bridge. The Falls of Lora are a force of nature when a tide is flowing hard, and not a place for the sane canoeist.

The road down to Loch Hourn is even longer, quite a bit longer, but the eventual destination, set below the majesty of Ladhar Bheinn, makes it all worthwhile. Setting out, just keep an eye on the tides here too. You are unlikely to wish to pass through the narrows of Caolas Mor when it’s in full flow. In fact, you won’t be going anywhere here if the current is against you. Susannah and I once sat on the shingle beach by this tight turn, waiting for something close to slack water, before following a pair of porpoises up through the cliff-edged gap.

On a much more intimate scale, but with its own fairly long, narrow access road, Loch Moidart must be one of the prettiest spots in Scotland. Castle Tioram alone, sat crumbling quietly on a little island, makes the journey worth it. For a truly fine trip, start by launching onto the head of Loch Shiel just inland.

After paddling down this long body of freshwater, perhaps pitching your tipi overnight en route, you have the fun of a tight and sometimes challenging outflow that runs down to the sea. In good conditions, after exploring the shores of Eilean Shona, the stunning main island of Loch Moidart, you can even extend the journey, braving the open stretch of sea between here and the often welcome shelter of Loch Ailort. There is some fine camping on the north shore, before you turn the corner into the inner stretch.

Anywhere a little further north along the coast near Arisaig is a joy for the canoe camper. In good calm weather you can explore the countless tiny islands and skerries sprinkled across the sunlit sea. At low tide, many beautiful sand beaches are exposed, few of which see anyone else but paddlers for months on end.

Further north still, quite a bit further north, why not launch from close to the bridge at Kylesku to explore the varied shores of Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul. Well, that seemed to drag a few location commitments from me.

My tip for the area:
When looking for a place to camp, search out the rubble remains of old settlements or houses. ‘Cleared’ brutally of people by landlords in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these houses are surprisingly numerous, and were built by people who really knew the land. You’ll not find a more sheltered spot on your stretch of coast.
I can think of almost nowhere along this shore where at least one beautiful island isn’t visible from the cliffs in clear weather.
Tim Gent
Keep an eye on the weather. When it turns rough, you probably won’t experience anything much more impressive, or scary.
Tim Gent

The Scottish isles

Sat on a shelf to my right, is a well-thumbed book, written by Hamish Haswell-Smith. With the sort of straightforward title you’d expect from a Caledonian author, ‘The Scottish Islands’ describes the 162 surf-ringed landmasses of 100 acres or more, scattered around the Scottish mainland. It lists a single example on the east coast, a further 56 islands as part of the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos to the north, leaving a whopping 105 lying off the loch-indented stretch of coastline to the west. Should the glory and variety of the mainland ever pale, a short ferry crossing, or in one case a lofty bridge, will soon take you out to new wonders.

In fact, if you spend more than about five minutes on Scotland’s west coast, it won’t be any failing of the mainland that results in a journey offshore. You’ll have already have felt the pull. I can think of almost nowhere along this shore where at least one beautiful island isn’t visible from the cliffs in clear weather. Stood on pretty much any beach or point on a fine day and the chances are you’ll be able to count three or four. Sat low and high, smooth or spectacularly rugged, upstanding bumps of rock and sand pepper the horizon, calling a visitor to the mainland to travel on, further west and north.

To date, and despite many trips to Scotland, we’ve still only visited a handful; nine by ferry, one using that bridge, one at low tide by foot, and four with the help of our canoe. What’s so extraordinary is how different each island can be, with a unique character formed by its own particular geology, flora, fauna and history.

We first visited Bute under our own steam. The night before we’d camped on the shore of Loch Striven. The next morning, the air still, the sun high, we made the short crossing from the mainland, landing not far from the ferry slipway, sliding about on the damp bladderwrack at low tide. We camped that night out on the west coast, with views out to Inchmarnock.

Quite a bit further out into the Atlantic, we once worked our way in slightly choppy conditions from Benbecula, to claim Wiay as our own for a while. Many of those 162 islands are uninhabited, and there are simply thousands of other islands and skerries that don’t quite meet Haswell-Smith’s 100-acre criteria. In the Scottish isles, with a canoe and fair weather, it is still possible to be a King or Queen for anything from between ten minutes to a day or two. I suspect that in Scotland’s less tranquil and not so distant past, many true island reigns lasted little longer.

And I suspect many canoe travellers in the area will agree that good things come in small packages. It is often the modest islands, sometimes the very modest ones, that provide the most fun for the paddler, however brief or long the visit. Working our way from islet to islet in Skye’s Loch Dunvegan, pinching mackerel from under the noses of the local seals, before cooking them on our own private beach, or just lazing on flat a sun-drenched dome of gneiss off Lewis. Those are the days that stick in the mind.

And you can’t go wrong with Loch Dunvegan. Even if the opportunities to camp ashore are a little limited, many of the islands provide fine camping spots. Watch out though, when the wind picks up, and it will, it seems to fly across this loch as if it has collected friends all the way across the Atlantic just for this moment.

Almost anywhere on the Outer Hebrides is worth visiting, with perhaps the best opportunities to the east of Benbecula and the Uists.

My tips for the area:
Don’t stint on the ferry tickets. The cost of some might seem a little steep, but we’ve never regretted the outlay. If you think you may indulge in a fair bit of island hopping, Calmac (or Caledonian Macbrayne to give the ferry company its full name) has always offered some sort of season ticket. And keep an eye on the weather. As canoe campers this should come as second nature of course, but things can change really quickly out there, and when it turns rough, you probably won’t experience anything much more impressive, or scary.
While completely natural, these look as if someone has spent an awful lot of money to create the prettiest little isles they could.
Tim Gent

Inland Scotland

Perhaps after reading about the splendour on offer along the shore, and out amongst the Hebrides, it might not come as that much of a surprise to find that our canoe trips inland are relatively few. This isn’t to say that we don’t launch onto freshwater in Scotland, it’s just that we both buckle rather easily when subjected to the draw of the tide.

Another thing that I’ve found seems to set us slightly apart from many canoe campers is that we have no great experience of Scotland’s main rivers. Apart from the lure of the salty stuff, this probably has quite a bit to do with the land through which these rivers run. There are a couple of exceptions, but on the whole those big rivers, rightly loved by many canoeists, flow through the flatter land to the east, and that land, due to its less hostile demeanour tends to be farmed and settled. These landscapes have an undisputed splendour all of their own. It’s just not quite what we are usually looking for. Mind you, what travels we have made on freshwater in Scotland have been very fine indeed.

So where have we visited that I can recommend? Well, almost everywhere we’ve launched. Admittedly, there have been the odd few lakes in the south that presented us with unexpected problems, but only because the local landowners chose to flout the law and erect signs trying to warn us off. These unfriendly occasions were exceptions though. Check the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, 2003 – outdooraccess-scotland.com – for yourself. There are few places you can’t paddle and put up a tent, and these lakes should be available.

We do have a soft spot for Loch Morar, even if a few more of those illegal signs were still evident near the village when we last paid a visit. This is a very generous loch, in size and character, dotted with stunning islands at the seaward side, and plenty of campsites along the shore. We’ve never tried it, but a few sturdy souls even portage over the high ground to the north to launch into salty Loch Nevis. And mentioning Morar, please take care with the weather here too. The generous size of the loch, combined with a close proximity to the sea, can soon turn it from a sunlit idyll to a scene of spray and white-capped waves, and certainly not a comfortable home for a canoe paddled far from shore.

If the islands of Morar are good, wait till you see the Loch Maree collection. While completely natural, these look as if someone has spent an awful lot of money to create the prettiest little isles they could. Before launching though, it might be worth checking with the local conservation groups, as some of these pine-studded beauties are important nesting sites for birds. When we were last there, a pair of young sea eagles were involved in some rather unimpressive attempts to fly. Mind you, their incompetence was to our benefit. So fixed were they on the job in hand, the two youngsters seemed to be unaware we were floating by watching from below. We left them in peace and camped on the loch shore.

My tip for the area:
If you are travelling in the warmer months, buy a head net. What’s more, make sure it is one designed not to just to keep out mossies, but with a mesh fine enough to hold back the dreaded wee midge. Scotland has only one detriment, and you will meet it as soon as the breeze drops in summer. The good news is that the midge doesn’t care much for a frost. This often makes visits in April and late September insect free (this goes for both the west coast and the islands too).

About the author

Tim Gent is a British outdoor writer and photographer, writing about fishing, hillwalking, canoeing and camping. He had the first of many magazine articles published in 1990 and he is a regular contributor to Canoe and Kayak UK and Bushcraft and Survival Skills, and often writes for The Great Outdoors. His photography can also be seen on Tentipi catalogues, website and social medias. When not camping, Tim and his wife, photographer Susannah live in Devon, England, midway between Dartmoor and the Atlantic coast.
  • Adventure
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