The Summer Isles and Coigach Peninsula Trip Report 19 - 26 May

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The Summer Isles, lying in the mouth of Loch Broom, is a group of about 20 islands, rocks and skerries within the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area that sit off the Coigach peninsula. You can walk to the closest, Isle Ristol, with its long white sandy beach, on the lower tides; the furthest, Eilean a Chleirich (Priest Island), lies some 6 miles from shore. The island is a RSPB reserve and is home to seals, otters and seabirds, including over 2000 breeding pairs of storm petrels. Many of the islands also offer fresh grazing for local crofters to winter their sheep.

A map showing The Summer Isles and Coigach Peninsula
The Summer Isles and Coigach Peninsula

Andy N, Chris W, Kay, Andy G and Jo travelled respectively from Stafford, Manchester and London to meet at the Port Bhaigh campsite near Altandhu on the Coigach Peninsula in Sutherland. The plan was to paddle the coastline and then, a few days later, rendezvous with three kayakers from Haverford West before exploring the Summer Isles.

On Sunday, after a welcome breakfast of poached egg baps courtesy of Jo, we loaded our boats with provisions and camping gear and set-out to paddle around the Coigach peninsula with the intention of landing at the wonderful Achnahaird Bay. The conditions were choppy from the offset but well within our capabilities until we reached Reiff Bay where the outlook began to look problematic. We landed on the beach and then walked to a lookout position where we could see large breaking waves in the distance.

Three tents in grassy field under a clear sky with a sea bay in the background
A Room with a View: Camping at Port Bhaigh

It was decided that discretion is the better part of valour and, after lunch, we returned to our kayaks with the aim of paddling to Isle Ristol where we had previously spotted an enticing sandy beach. Landing, we set up camp and enjoyed the first of our cooked meals viz. Andy G’s signature dish of frankfurters, mashed potato and an enormous quantity of baked beans (MasterChef awaits but a cookbook seems premature. Or is it? See later!)

A sea kayaker pulls her boat out of the water on to a rocky shore, other kayakers approach in the background
Landing at Isle Ristol: Tick Island

On Monday morning we were greeted with the news that, during the night, Jo had been bitten by ticks and this immediately set-off a spate of simian grooming that resulted in the discovery of more of the little pests embedded, without invitation, in the skins of some of our intrepid paddlers. The island was renamed tick island and no doubt the Gaelic for Isle Ristol is exactly that!

Conditions that Monday morning seemed relatively benign so we attempted the Coigach peninsula paddle again but this time without Chris who had found the previous day’s paddle more challenging than he had anticipated. By calling, Chris is a canoeist and not a kayaker and, at the outset of our expedition, had clearly stated his restricted terms of reference for paddling. Once more at Reiff Bay the prospect of further progress again looked doubtful. We decided to return to our base camp at Port Bhaigh but found that the sea conditions had deteriorated with strong swells, generated by prevailing winds from the south west, making for a bouncy ride. Again, this was within our skill set and provided an invigorating and enjoyable paddle but, overall, we were disappointed not to have made it around Rubha Na Coigeach at the crest of the peninsula and then down along its east coast to Achnahaird Bay.

Having returned to Port Bhaigh we packed everything into the cars and headed for Achnahaird Bay in order to wild camp. If we couldn’t kayak there then we would jolly well drive there! The beach is spectacular in both aspect and proportion and provided an idyllic backdrop to Kay’s culinary extravaganza: vegetarian stir fry with noodles. Yummy! Perhaps a Club wild camping cookbook might be a possibility!

A bay with kayakers and camping equipment in the foreground and mountains in the distance
Kay’s Kitchen

Conditions had worsened overnight to the extent that Tuesday was a non-paddling day. However, it was not wasted as we found a renovated bothy in Achiltibuie which provided a warm interlude with coffee and cake provided and paid for by voluntary contribution. [Thanks Chris!] The bothy displayed information regarding the development of Tenera More, the largest of the Summer Isles, by the business man and philanthropist Ian Wace. The project is five years into a seven-year development which will see, amongst other things, the restoration of the derelict herring station that in days gone by had been the core activity on the island.

Two armchairs and a fireplace on a stone floored bothy
Reimagining a Bothy: A template for restoration on Tanera More

On Tuesday evening we met up with the three paddlers from Wales and luckily found that we all got on well (which isn’t particularly surprising as kayakers are generally an accommodating lot) Although they were very competent paddlers, they admitted to a lack of confidence in bigger waters so it was decided to paddle on Wednesday in Loch a Ghaille.

Five sea kayakers on the water holding their boats together in a close group
Rafting-up on Loch Bad a Ghail

Andy N had decided on a route that presented varied wind conditions so that the group could practise and hone relevant skills. Lunch was taken on the rocks that formed a divide of sorts between Loch Bad a Ghaill and Loch Lurrgainn. The waters had broken through from one loch to the other and this formed a picturesque backdrop and interesting interlude.

A small rapid on a river with trees on the bank and a large mountain rising in the background
Loch Lurrgainn becomes Loch Bad a Ghaill

On Thursday, for a variety of reasons, we left the beach at the campsite at Port Bhaigh somewhat later than we had wanted. The plan was to paddle to the Summer Isles, explore at our leisure and wild camp. Conditions were taxing at the outset and Chris decided to return to shore and the comfort of his rather luxurious van. He drove to Manchester the next day but insisted he’d had an enjoyable time. We certainly enjoyed his company and his cooking (corned beef hash: another one for the cookbook?).

Reaching the calm waters between Isle Ristol and the mainland we could then relax. It wasn’t long before we saw a number of seals who were as inquisitive of us as we were of them. Finding a landing spot and place to camp proved difficult especially as we had started off so far behind schedule and time had become a limiting factor. However, we finally found an area of flattish land of sorts atop Sgeir nam Feurgan, a tiny island to the west of Tanera More, although establishing camp involved many laborious trips from the boats with our gear. Jo conjured up a meal of chorizo and rice plus the usual accompaniment of plonk and whisky. The idea of a cookbook is gaining momentum: order your advanced copy now to avoid later disappointment!

A group of kayakers close to the shore preparing to enter their boats
Launching for the Summer Isles: It’s hard work having fun!

Friday began with the standby breakfast of porridge, garnished with an assortment of dried fruits, before we were tasked with, once again, loading everything into our boats. We explored the island of Eilean Fada Mor before paddling along the northern coast of Tanera More and entering The Anchorage: the old herring station and currently the harbour for vessels servicing the redevelopment of the island. Energy levels began to drop, a reflection of six tiring days of kayaking and camping, as we crossed Badentarbat Bay but we were revitalised when two dolphins were spotted.

Two kayakers in their boats watch a dolphin with a mountain in the background

Having crossed the Bay, we hugged the coast and landed an hour later at Altandhu and the Port Bhaigh campsite.

As this was to be our last evening in Scotland, we ate and drank at the local pub with a demob enthusiasm and gave thanks to our trip organiser and leader: Andy Nutter, a man of boundless energy.

Written by Andy Garbett