Hebrides Camping Trip, September 2017

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Wild Camping In Scotland: September 2017

By Andy Garbett


Isle of Raasay

“How do you fancy a wild camping trip to Scotland?” This question, posed on a Tuesday evening paddle towards Westminster, was easy to answer in the affirmative given the expectation that such an event would never materialise. That it would be discussed enthusiastically in The Prospect of Whitby and then disappear down a black hole of busy lives. But I had not counted on the persistence of my fellow Andys and a few months later I, a man with a visceral aversion to life in the wild, was held to my word and was travelling northwards to Glencoe. Help!


The Three Andys - Who’s the good looking guy in the middle? (*1)


(*1) Andy Nutter’s catalogue of photos for our trip can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/andynutter/albums/72157687120100844


We stayed at The Red Squirrel Campsite before driving the next morning, one of us still feeling the effects of overindulgence at the Clachaig Public House, to Sconcer on the Isle of Skye.


The ferry slipway at Sconcer with Raasay in the distance.

By early afternoon we had packed our boats with camping gear plus food and water for a week and set off from the slipway at Sconcer with the initial aim of circumnavigating the Islands of Raasay and Rona. We decided not to take advantage of the tidal flow towards the east but to go north through the Narrows of Raasay and paddle along the west coast of the island. Landing and camping opportunities are limited in this area and we had identified a good spot that we could reach before nightfall. However, the expected south-westerly wind had turned from light to moderate and now blew perversely into our faces from the north. An easy paddle to our first base had become more difficult and, with the prospect of fading light, we curtailed our journey at Holoman Bay where we were fortunately able to set up camp.

Drift wood was found, a fire established and before very long a Malaysian chicken curry was being washed down with a couple of glasses (*2) of shiraz from the wine bag that seemed to have been perfectly designed to fit into the far extremity of my front hatch. And as the fading embers flickered and the Milky Way lit up in the firmament so I began to warm to this wild camping lark.


Sunrise in Holoman Bay.
Inquisitive seals in Holoman Bay.

(*2) Andy Nutter is a man for all seasons. He was able to produce both wine and whisky glasses from seemingly bottomless hatches which also carried an array of cooking equipment. His experience in wild camping and the outdoor life proved a godsend.


Sheep exploiting tidal information from Ullapool.

We set off the next morning on a calm sea and with a determination to enjoy the paddle to our next overnight stop that lay towards the northern tip of Raasay and within sight of Rona. We took time to explore the coastline and were often accompanied by common and, later, grey seals. Andy Nutter provided fishing lines but we were in competition with an extraordinary number of cormorants and had to wait a couple more days before enjoying freshly caught mackerel lightly cooked over a wood fire.

Cormorants at work.
Camping in North Raasay.

The next day, our fourth out of London, we crossed Caol Rona in benign conditions and began to paddle along the western coastline of the smaller island of Rona. Again the emphasis was upon enjoying the environment, the sea and the topography, rather than racing towards a finishing line. So we took our time over a six mile journey to Loch a bhraige where Charlie Skrine had stayed the previous year with friends. But Charlie’s beach was now occupied by grey seals and their pups and so we sought refuge further along the sea loch where camping conditions proved more difficult.


Room for three only!

Loch a' Bhraige is best described as a large, sheltered bay and it provides a natural harbour for a NATO station which is overlooked in the middle distance by the beautiful Rona lighthouse. The proximity of a secretive military establishment slightly unnerved me and I became worryingly susceptible to tricks played by the rising tide and the fading light. A good night’s sleep, or therapy, was required but for me, as a camping novitiate, it was usually difficult to achieve.


High tide on Rona.
Lone deer with lighthouse on Rona.

The morning of the fifth day was probably the highlight of our trip. The northern tip of Rona is a collection of skerries and inlets that provide the perfect habitat for the seals that constantly appeared: as curious to see us as we were them. The sea and weather conditions were perfect and we took advantage to explore, to fish or simply absorb and enjoy our surroundings. Kayaking perfection!

Man as hunter-gatherer.
A view between Raasay and Rona.

We had planned to paddle to the site of the ruined Brochel castle that lies almost halfway along the eastern coast of Raasay but, after completing the circumnavigation of Rona, we decided quite spontaneously to head for the Scottish mainland. The six mile journey was achieved in quick time but we arrived in Applecross Bay at low tide and faced the arduous task of carrying our boats some distance over a rocky beach and then hauling them up a long and steep incline to the security of a designated campsite. This episode, compounded by the onset of heavy rain, might have disheartened us but a hot shower, a bite to eat and a couple of pints at the local pub did wonders for both body and soul. Roll on tomorrow!

Low tide in Applecross Bay.
OK you win!(*3)
(*3) Andy Geen not only brought the trolley shown in the photograph but also provided navigational expertise. As someone who loses his way in airports I would literally have been lost without him.

The limpid coastal waters south of Applecross revealed an abundance of marine life including sea urchins and star fish. We were also surprised to see, at a distance, a pod of dolphins/porpoises: closely followed by a submarine!


Kelp!
Are they following us?

We reached the uninhabited Crowlin Islands (*4) and then spent time in finding a suitable camping spot. Faced with an inhospitable landscape it was not an easy task but we eventually cleared away rocks and stones and managed to pitch three tents beside a small stream. This was the last night on our voyage and the next morning we kayaked towards Skye.

Des Res on the Crowlin Islands?
Sunrise from the Crowlin Islands?


(*4) Ref: the map above. The Crowlin Islands lie south of Applecross.


The plan was to head for the island of Longay (*5) before hugging the north-western coast of Scalpay and then paddling through Caol Mor (*6) to reach Sconcer. But the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the wind had noticeably picked up. We decided that the first stage of the proposed course was within our capabilities but that we would have to reassess our strategy if the sea conditions had deteriorated by the time that we reached Longay.

Mercifully we met much calmer water on the leeward side of the island and the rest of our passage was uneventful.

We arrived at Sconcer in tandem with the Skye-Raasay ferry from which a handful of cars and a single foot passenger emerged. Do you think they had as much fun as us?

I hope to go wild camping in Scotland again next year!


(*5) Ref: the map above. Longay lies between the Crowlin Islands and Scalpay.
(*6) Caol Mor is the body of water that lies between Scalpay, Raasay and Skye.