The forecast was both varied and variable in the week leading up to my Hebridean trip. High pressure was going to be in the North Atlantic, then over Scandinavia. Snow and strong winds were on then off then on again. The only constant was that it would be cold and the winds northerly.
I took the canoe anyway. It had been nearly twenty years since I was last on Lewis, and while most of this trip would be a photographic holiday with friends, I had a few days I could tack on at the front to fulfil a desire long in the making, to paddle in the very heart of the island, on Loch Langabhat.
The name is Norse, though spelled in Gaedhlig, roughly translating as the Long Water. And it is long, twelve kilometres or more along its crooked course to its head cradled by the mountains of Harris. Linked with the string of lochs and rivers of the Grimersta system, it makes a varied expedition with a remote atmosphere.
The weather in Ullapool was amazing and after an easy crossing of the Minch, blue skies greeted me on Lewis. Failte gu math! The drive to the west side was beautiful, the view south from Achmore made all the more special by snow capping the distant Harris hills.
A gravel track left the Uig road to run along Loch Faoghail an Tuim to the put in by the outfall of the next loch in the chain, Loch Faoghail Charrasan. A couple of jetties here held fishing boats, and an ample trying circle meant I could leave the truck without obstructing anything.
It didn’t take long to load the boat and set off. And it didn’t take much longer for the weather to change. First hail, beating a brisk tattoo on the surface of the loch, then silent goose feathers of snow drifted down to vanish as if by magic in the inky water. After the impact of the hail it seemed odd that they should disappear so quickly and quietly.
I could see the trailing edge of the weather though, and by the time I had traversed the loch it was back to blue skies again.
The limited information I had been able to find about the trip suggested the upstream link to the third of the Faoghail lochs, Faoghail Chiorabhal, was a portage. I had a quick look up the river to see what looked like a fairly steep, rocky ascent with several drops to climb. The track however looked like I could trolley it after an initial steep bank. So I carried the heavy bags the 400m to the next loch, then hauled the boat, the big wheels on the Eckla trolley coping well with the rocky footpath.
Even that short portage took some time, having prospected it on foot, then retracing my steps first with the portage sacks and finally the canoe. 400m translated to two kilometres on foot. But it added enormously to the feeling of separation from the outside world that grew with each step and paddle stroke.
A neat cairn marked the jetty at the end of the track and the meagre fishing shelter that stood by it.
It was still dry, but a brisk wind blew bands of cloud overhead, pushing them and me southward into the interior of the island. Loch Faoghail Chiorabhal is barely a kilometre long so with a steady tailwind it was a short crossing to the next upstream link, an unnamed river to Loch Airigh na h-Airde. My research had suggested this was also a portage, and as I approached I could see a good track leading south passed a fishing hut set on a brow over the outflow. But to my pleasant surprise there was enough depth to paddle, and while I had to work against the flow, it was quite manageable. Certainly easier than portaging!
Arriving on my third loch of the day, a figure in the cloud welcomed me, outspread arms holding snow in its embrace.
Ahead I could hear whooper swans. Their calls were to be part of the soundtrack of my trip, but I only actually saw them on this one loch. I was some distance away when they took to the air, but they treated me to a close fly-by before heading off over the moor.
I still had some way to go to reach Loch Langabhat and the next upstream link looked on the map and satellite imagery to be the hardest. I had a choice of two channels to attempt, and chose Faoghail Bheag over its bigger sister. It was broken by a small lochan, would give some rest, and was further west, reducing the upwind paddle into the northwesterlies on Loch Langabhat.
The first rise was immediate, a short shallow rapid that I tracked the boat up. The river stayed shallow and rocky, so I waded, tracked and dragged the canoe up to the lochan.
Sweet respite to sit and dip a paddle, but short-lived! The second leg started shallow and got shallower. Before long I ran out of water and unloaded the portage bags and wannigan, finding the faintest trod along the bank to the top. The river was still too rocky to float the empty boat though, so I resorted to dragging it through the heather to bypass the worst. Above this rocky band there was enough depth to float and I punted and paddled upstream to a final rock barrier. A few heaves and the boat slid into Loch Langabhat. Hot, sweaty and tired after an hour of sustained effort wrangling my canoe up a kilometre of shallows, I just rested, not yet able to appreciate the place I had reached. Tea from the flask and a snack bar were never more welcome.
Refreshed now, I could start to enjoy this remote loch. The map was littered with the names of shielings and settlements but the only sign of human habitation was a small boat house more than a kilometre away on the eastern shore.
Having set off well into the afternoon because of the ferry arrival time in Stornoway, I now only had a couple of hours before sunset to find a suitable camp for a couple of nights and get set up. Evening light lit the landscape south and west towards Harris, snow-capped hills marking the divide between one ‘island’ and the other.
Behind me Roinebhal and Heastabhal caught another sharp winter squall but I seemed to be in the wind shadow of Beinn Mothal now.
As I passed a shieling site on the north bank, a stag broke the skyline to watch me pass. At this time of year its anglers were far from impressive, mere twigs between its ears, but it had the pose right. In a few months time it might make more of an impact.
I had hoped to reach some beaches where the loch narrows before turning south, but that would mean another four or five kilometres of paddling upwind before making camp, so I started to look for alternatives. And before long an perfect site presented itself – a wide shelving beach facing south with a high peat bank at its back to shelter the tent from the forecast northerlies. Too good to ignore, I thought, and happily put my prow into the sand.
Having seen several red-throated divers on the water, my first task was to make sure I wasn’t on their turf. But the only signs of use were deer tracks in the sand, so I chose a flat area of fine gravel at the top of the beach for my tent and settled in. Before too long I was sat, hot tea in hand and sausage casserole, home-cooked and vacuum-packed for the trip, warming on the stove.
The wind had dropped and the sky was clearing, idllic conditions in a stunning landscape.
Sunset was subdued and peaceful. As the sky darkened, more cloud built in the north, promising some more wintery showers, so I retired to my down cocoon early.
After a night disturbed only by the occasional rattle of hail on the flysheet, I awoke to absolute solitude. Not a sign of other humans, no unnatural noise. Whooper swans called from a loch north of camp, and over Loch Langabhat a red-throated diver flew, its flight call sounding like a cartoon duck. In the heather behind my tent, a wren hunted for insects.
My plan was to explore towards the head of the loch. Sat in a cradle between the high hills of North Harris it presented a very different character to the open moor around me. Surrounded by mountains, snow-capped Stulabhal, Teileasbhal, Mullach an Langa with An Cliseam at its back, wild-sounding names carried echoes of the islands’ Norse past.
The forecast was for brisk northerlies all day. An outbound tail wind would become a headwind on my return so I didn’t want to overreach myself travelling too far downwind. But first I traversed the waste of the loch, scattered with islands as it narrowed towards Cahabrock where a track from Loch Seaforth crosses the hills. Redshank piped along the shore and greylag geese flew overhead, but my attention was all on the divers. There were three or four pairs in sight, so I dawdled along watching them as they fished.
With all the birdwatching I hadn’t covered a great deal of ground, only reaching the small headland of Rubha Caol before the wind began to pick up and a band of cloud sweep up the loch. Happily, it was around elevenses, so I beached the boat and sat in shelter under a peat bank soaking in the view.
The colours of the winter moor were rich and varied, pale grasses, moss, heather and peat combining to catch my eye.
The weather cleared, blown through to give another spell of higher cloud and brightness, leaving a fresh layer of snow on the high ground.
I wanted to reach further into that wild place and decided that I would go through the narrows at Mhiasaid and round the headland below Cleiteichean Mhiabhaig. From there it would be three kilometres to the head of the loch, and I could reassess conditions and timings.
As I came through the straits, a pair of sea eagles circled in synchrony high above the steep crags of Griosamul, even their massive wings dwarfed by the scale of the landscape. On the map these peaks seem relatively low, but the contours tell a different story, and seen from the water their flanks climbed precipitously to wintery summits.
I rounded the headland to see straight up the loch to its head. Dark, heavy cloud was pouring over the mountains, the water steel grey. Travelling further into that fastness would be a gamble with uncertain conditions and getting out again a fight I didn’t want to have. I turned the boat northwards to begin my return journey.
My presence must have tweaked the beard of some local spirit, a memory of Njord, god of the winds perhaps. Within yards, and without warning, the wind changed from a force 3 northerly to a vicious westerly, easily a full gale, that swept curtains of hail down the valley sides to hurl them across the loch.
The wind was going to push me away or push me under and was utterly indifferent to which. I opted for the former though there was a tense, and intense, minute or two where the outcome hung in the balance. Unable to bring the bow upwind and reluctant to turn onto the lee shore for fear of swamping all I could do was dig deep and drive for the far edge of the wind lane. Abeam to the waves the boat felt more stable travelling at pace, but I couldn’t dip the leeward gunnel as I normally would to reduce the leeway and keep the waves out. Every time I tried, the wind grabbed at it, lifting it further as I slid into the next wave trough. So I accepted the waves slopping in to windward, kept the boat level with knees braced wide, and taking care not to get driven onto the paddle, I sprinted for shelter. Hail battered, spray spattered, I burst into the lee of a small headland and could rest. I swore at the wind god in his lair and laughed with the release of tension.
It must have been a local interaction of the terrain and the weather that caused the intense wind, because although bands of cloud with increased wind blew over several times more on my upwind leg, there was nothing to approach that ferocity. The shelter afforded by the headland allowed me to take a more windward line, and after a break to get my breath back and let the worst pass by, I cleared the squall in a much more controlled fashion.
Taking stock, I decided to cross to the north bank when I reached the narrows, so if push came to shove, I could walk back to the tent and retrieve the canoe tomorrow. Facing the weather now, I could see another cloud front approaching. I didn’t feel quite ready for another battle, so made landfall and tucked under a bank for shelter.
It was still some way away though, so I took the chance to stretch my legs on dry land. The view south now looked quite benign, but I wasn’t going to have another go.
I contented myself with making some images ashore, enjoying the colours and twisted shapes of winter grasses and heather stems before returning to the boat and shelter just before the weather hit again.
But this time, I was ashore, tucked under a heather bank with the jetboil on for a fresh cuppa.
The headwind was my friend this time, blowing the sleet and hail through quickly, bringing blue skies behind. In the distance I could see the beach where I was camped.
But it did make me work hard to gain ground, and I paused several times behind headlands to take a break without losing what upwind distance I’d worked achieved. A small tree gave testament to the prevailing winds, growing exactly in the lee of the heather bank it was rooted in.
South and east big skies dominated the landscape, while the Harris hills had received another dusting of white.
It was with a feeling of pleasant tiredness that I approached my camp, having been on the water for the best part of seven hours. The tent was where I had left it, a relief after some of the winds I had experienced today.
There was still plenty of daylight left, so I wandered inland a little way to take in the view from a small hill above camp.
The wind had swung round to the northwest now, and between showers I was treated to some stunning light.
The sky cleared towards sunset, and the temperature steadily dropped despite the brisk wind. It took some time for my evening meal to approach anything more than lukewarm.
But eventually I was fed, watered and ready for bed. Tomorrow’s forecast was the best of my trip, but I had to return to civilisation.
The night was silent and clear. Attending to the call of nature in the small hours, I was stunned by the multitude of stars strewn across the heavens, the Milky Way clearly visible. But it was bitingly cold, so I quickly retired into my pit.
I was woken by the red-throated divers, their fluting calls drifting over the water. It was thirty minutes before sunrise, but there was no wind and no cloud. Everything was frozen, my water bottles, my shoes, the tent, even the sand was rigid with frost. Fortunately, I had filled my thermal mug with water to heat for a morning cup of tea last night, so I could get a brew on. That essential task completed, I grabbed my cameras, eager to make the most of the amazing conditions.
With perfect atmospherics, I put the drone up for the first time this trip, capturing the distant light of dawn beyond my terrestrial horizons.
It was too cold to stand still for long, certainly to sit and eat, so I wandered the foreshore searching out small details.
The big view south demanded my attention, perfect reflections and a wisp of mist over the water temporarily halting me in my tracks.
And all the while the haunting calls of the divers rolled across the loch. It was one of the very few times I have wished I was a sound recordist!
I had to wait for the tent to thaw enough to fold up before I could clear camp, but it was no hardship in these conditions. Eventually the canoe was loaded, and it was time, somewhat reluctantly, to leave. The solitude and peace, the sheer beauty of the place, were such that it was hard in that moment to imagine being stood anywhere else on the planet.
Heading east to the tail of the loch, I retraced my paddle strokes of two days previously. The reflections, and the divers, stayed with me, making forward progress a stop-start affair as I juggled between camera and paddle. This was beyond anything I had hoped for, being in this wild landscape, so close to a bird that for me epitomises the wilderness.
But all good things end, and I paid my farewells as I reached the Faoghail Bheag again.
This time I was wise to its tricks. I followed a deer trod down the left bank with the bags and was delighted to see ahead of me a small herd of red deer trotting through the shallows of the lochan. My sudden appearance over the skyline must have startled them though because they quickly disappeared into the moor. Coming back for the boat, I managed to paddle, pole, line and wade it downstream, helped by an extra inch or so of water in the river.
I was reunited with my bags by the nameless lochan that breaks up the river. Such an insignificant place, just a puddle in the peat, but made beautiful today. Again I dawdled, too entranced to do much more than drift.
Reaching the river at the end of the lochan, I managed to line and wade it without unloading.
Back on Loch Airigh na h-Airde, I was once again given a fly-passed by the whooper swans, flying in close formation down the loch.
The wind was stiffening again now, and I resorted to poling with the paddle for a while to make easy headway in the shallows. There is a sense of momentum in any journey, and I could feel that I was nearing the end of mine. The river into Loch Faoghail Chiorabhal was quickly dispatched and before very long I was back at the first portage.
I was reluctant to trolley the boat this time and having carried the bags to the next loch decided to try running it in the empty boat. That little increase in depth from the precipitation of the last two days made all the difference. It was a bit scrapey in places, but it went with satisfying ease.
All that was left now was a final traverse of Loch Faoghail Charrasan, now flat calm under brilliant blue skies.
How to sum up such a trip? It was physically tough, strenuous, sometimes scary. Exhilarating, remote, deep in solitude and beauty, it enriched my soul.