From the mountains to the sea

Is history repeating itself? Duncan Winning recently told me how, in the early days, canoe-ists came from a mountaineering and hill walking background. 

No-one knows for sure, but in my personal experience the rise in popularity of sea kayaking seems, once again, to be with people with a mountaineering rather than paddling pedigree. 

This reminded me of an article I wrote shortly after getting into kayaking for The Herald newspaper and was published on 12th Feb 2005.  Continues


There was a light Southerly breeze blowing across the islands of Eigg and Rum, as six of us eased out of Elgol and into one of the southern most jaws of the Isle of Skye, the one with the most vicious looking teeth. The jagged, broken rock of the Black Cuillin draws mountaineers from all over the world but, for the first time, I was heading into its heart with no rucksack on my back and no boots on my feet. Instead, I was wearing what looked like a sixteen foot long, bright yellow, plastic banana - a sea kayak.

The paddle from Elgol into the Cuillin is one of the best in Europe. The last time I'd walked to Coruisk I'd carried unappetising, dehydrated food and the bare minimum of equipment, just to cut the weight of my rucksack. Now as we glided across the water of Loch Scavaig, I had a roomy tent, an inflatable mattress and a selection of tasty meals all packed into the water-tight hatches of the sea kayak. Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures, who guided our trip, estimated that they could hold the entire contents of a giant expedition rucksack and the sea, not my shoulders, would take the strain.

Listen to Gordon describe this and two other routes on skye in a Podcast

People like Gordon, who've been paddling for years, struggle to explain why, all of a sudden, so many people want to start this sport. Instructors at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's National Training Centre, reckon demand for sea kayak instruction has increased every year for five years and a trade association estimate puts participation up 25% over the same period. Visit Scotland recently studied which adventure sports held the most potential for overseas visitors, and sea kayaking was in the top three. No-one really knows why, but its popularity growing fast.

"More women over the age of fifty are taking up sea kayaking than knitting", explained Ian Miller of the Scottish Canoe Association, "and what's more, they're usually good at it!" Now, I don't know where he found that statistic, and the seas certainly aren't full of frantically paddling mothers, but he makes an important point. Beginners love sea kayaking because it's so easy to get started. Provided you're not too fat to fit into a kayak, just about anyone can pick up a paddle and make progress. Trust me, it really is that easy. Of course, you quickly need to learn how to turn, stay upright and, when that fails, how to get back in your boat. But a good instructor can start you on a learning journey that will take a lifetime to complete. And the places you'll visit along the way are simply stunning.

Places like Coruisk, the “water corrie” of Skye. Man would struggle to design a more perfect harbour than this natural shelter. Fins of rock curve and intersect, shielding the bay from the worst of the southerly weather while leaving two cannels through which small boats can slip. We dragged our kayaks onto the gently sloping rock, set up camp and cooked as the sun dropped behind the Cuillin.

Being among these massive mountains is inspiring and, at the same time, a little intimidating.

Perhaps this helps to explain why sea kayaking is the new sport of choice for people who love Scotland’s wild open spaces. It feels like hill-walking as it used to be, before Munro bagging reached epidemic proportions. There's that long-lost sensation of humility in the face of powerful natural forces. Overnight camps return to being special times in isolated places. Best of all, you never follow a well-worn trail. No one ever left a footprint on a wave.

Grey domed heads rose slowly from the dark waters, the following morning, the black eyes of the seals swivelling to watch us leave their harbour home, heading for the island of Soay. Gavin Maxwell bought this island in 1945 to set up a shark fishing business. We ate lunch beside the rusting remains of a huge steam engine he’d used to render down the shark livers into a valuable oil, then picked our way around his crumbling factory and sheds, all of which are gradually being reclaimed by nature. It’s a sad place in a spectacular setting, and I was pleased to leave and paddle back to Elgol.

The west of Scotland is a "world class" destination for sea kayaking. Just think about that. Few people realise that a sporting resource of international calibre, one of the very best places in the world in which to practice this fast growing pastime, is right here on our doorstep. Adventure sports magazine in the United States regularly carry articles, written by Americans who've "discovered" the joys of sea kayaking in the Outer Hebrides, Skye or the Summer Isles. Ian Miller of the Scottish Canoe Association explained what made Scotland so special. "You can kayak in Alaska or the Milford Sound and the scenery will be breathtaking, but the water will probably be flat” he told me. “Scotland's combination of islands, sea conditions and weather gives it a uniquely adventurous edge." Perhaps that's why more of us are starting to discover it too.

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