The long drive north felt like an escape. Regions all around the North of England were being placed in tier three Covid restrictions, and it looked like South Yorkshire would be soon to follow. In just a few days time, staying overnight away from home would once more be banned, but right now, the going was good even if the forecast was sketchy.
It was to be a wild camping trip, easier to do in these days of local lockdowns than booked accommodation. Torridon, and specifically Loch Maree, brought a promise of space and solitude but without the rigors of a solo trip with portages and self-shuttling such as the Inverpolly circuit.
Travelling across the Pennines and passing the Trossachs, the richness of the autumn landscape constantly tempted me to stop, but I had a deadline to meet, needing enough light to reach the islands and set up camp before nightfall. Sun and light airs gave way to encroaching rain through the Cairngorms. When I reached Slattadale, heavyweight clouds crouched over the head of the loch, remnants of the weather front I had driven through. My plan was to spend a couple of nights on the islands to make the most of a brief band of high pressure over the North-West Highlands, returning to the mainland to ride out a forecast stormy weekend. Wind allowing, I might dip a paddle in other waters before returning south.
I had chosen the cronje for this trip. It’s the best open water boat I’ve paddled and would be the least affected of my boats by strong winds and swell when loaded with camping gear and camera equipment. The boat effortlessly swallowed the large pile of dry bags I assembled on the shore, and it was time to go.
A brisk north-westerly drove ahead of another band of rain. Swells rolling through the gaps in the breakwater of the islands, the hull swaying to their rhythm. The crossing to Eilean Ruairidh Beag is a little short of a kilometre from the launch point, not far at all, but demanding of more concentration in today’s conditions than felt easy after a long drive.
Out from the small shelter by the shore into the run of wind-driven waves, I matched my paddle pitch to waves peaks, boat closed-angled to the wind. Occasional curls of broken water atop the waves slapped the bow as the boat bounced over the chop or slopped inboard if not met quite right. Eyes to windward, no time to watch the view, just counting wave tops passing under the hull. Then I was into the shadow of Eilean Ruairidh Beag. The relaxation was immediate.
The angry grumble of breaking waves outside the islands was easily heard, as white horses chased each other eastwards. By contrast, on the inside I was paddling in almost flat calm. Cats paws ran down wind lanes between the islands, but the hard part, in reality only ten or fifteen minutes of paddling, was done.
Low cloud still covered the view, the flanks of Slioch just visible under the blanket. More rain was on its way, so I was keen to get set up ashore.
Google maps takes a lot of the uncertainty out of finding camp sites, but the loch was quite high, several low isthmuses flooded creating short cuts behind what should have been headlands. While this made it easy to stay in shelter, it meant that a lot of the promised sandy coves were submerged. But my prime spot, at the entrance to the channel between Garbh Eilean and Eilean Subhainn proved ideal. A small cove, beach-backed, made for a gentle landfall with a sheltered stand of scots pine ideally placed for a hammock.
Draining the dregs of failing light, I got the tarp and hammock just ahead of the coming rain. Camp was delightfully peaceful. Just the patter of light rain on the tarp, small ripples on the shore. After a torchlit meal, I was soon wrapped in down, rocked gently by occasional gusts of wind passing through the treetops.
I passed the night disturbed only by the roaring of stags in rut on the Letterewe bank. The hammock was comfortable, the sleeping bag and under-quilt warm, so it was a slow start to the day while I luxuriated in my cocoon. I could see from under the tarp that there was solid cloud cover, so I didn’t miss a great sunrise, but as forecast the water was calm and the wind low. I last paddled here in 2015, and I was looking forward to spending time on the water.
A brief breakfast before I stowed cameras and day provisions and set off. My intent was to explore the islands over two days, rather than tour the loch, so I could leave my camp set up and travel with a lightly loaded boat today. Before setting off though, I wandered a little on foot. Eilean Subhainn has the unique distinction being an island containing a loch with an island in it. I didn’t reach that lochan but enjoyed the reflections around the lochan inland from my base.
Loch Maree is the fourth largest loch in Scotland, with over sixty islands. Many of the islands are wooded, with remnants of Caledonian forest with an understorey of juniper and birch dominated by a canopy of scots pine. This population, while not a separate sub-species, is genetically distinct from the larger areas of Caledonian forest in the north and east such as Glen Affric. After the ice retreated at the end of the last glaciation, the Atlantic fringe of Europe, including the north west of Scotland, became ice-free some time before the rest of the UK, north east Scotland being affected by the Scandinavian ice sheets. So, the western population of scots pines are closely related to the trees of Southern Europe while those in the north and east are Northern European in origin. Regardless of their antecedents I am endlessly fascinated by their stately forms and striking foliage. It was going to be a treat spending a couple of days exploring here.
Conditions on the water were as still as promised, mercury under a bright overcast sky.
Mist rose from the woods, curling over itself in the lightest of airs.
To the west over Beinn Airigh Charr, the cloud was broken, a forget-me-not blue reflected more darkly in the loch.
I set off through the channel between Garbh Eilean and Eilean Subhainn, my attention wavering between the physical pleasure of paddling in these conditions, and visual enjoyment of my surroundings. I tend when afloat on such mill ponds to go slow and quiet, Indian strokes an instinctive reaction to minimise the disturbance as I pass by. That in turn gives me plenty of time to compose images, so my hands were on the camera just as often as they held the paddle.
Looking behind me, the triple buttresses of Beinn Eighe clung to a mantle of cloud. By the loch shore, I could just make out a couple of canoes preparing to set out from the grounds of the Loch Maree Hotel. I was to bump into them later today, along with sign of several other paddlers, but at the moment I had the whole loch to myself.
A wider view caught more of the reflections.
As I have mentioned in other blogs, I find it hard to ignore scots pines reflected in still waters, and here was an abundance of them. I love the shape and the colour, slender trunks, red bark with bottle green foliage echoed under my hull.
As I worked my way round to the north side of the islands, Slioch became the dominant presence on the horizon, a heavy mass of Torridonian sandstone at the southern end of the loch. Irresistible, it drew both the weather and the eye to itself.
The gentler ridges of Beinn Airigh Charr and Meall Mheinnidh sat under a more benign sky more suited to their mood.
As I toured the inlets and islets of Garbh Eilean I found a small scots pine sapling clinging to a meagre ribbon of earth. They have a long life span and do best in soils too poor for other trees to thrive. So, despite its diminutive size, this specimen might be a decade or more old.
In places, at the margins of the tree cover, other species gave splashes of autumn colour, rowan, bracken and birch showing ochre and gold to break up the green baize covering the islands.
At the back of the bay, I stopped to let my wake settle, enjoying the reflections surrounding me.
Loch Maree has three basins, which often seem to coincide with different weather and wave patterns. The deepest, Grudie Basin, forms the head of the loch, south east of Isle Maree. To the north west of this lies the Slattadale Basin containing most of the islands, then the tail of the loch, the Ardlair Basin. Yesterday there had been a clear division. Even though the crossing was quite rough inside the islands, conditions outside along the length of the loch were far worse. Today though the water was placid, a mirror on which to drift. The sky showed no signs of shifting weather.
I decided to venture across to the Letterewe shore, pausing midway to enjoy the space around me.
Slioch once more grabbed my attention, scarves of cloud wrapped about its shoulders.
It is a Munro of 981m height, guarded by lochs and cliffs on three sides. Because of this it is a long walk in round the head of Loch Maree even to reach the start of the climb. A paddler might shorten this considerably by crossing direct to Camas an Trusdair and the start of the Gleann Biandasdail track, but must be sure the conditions will hold at the downwind end of a four-kilometre long fetch up the loch.
The map showed a small headland, Rubha Chailleach, protruding into the loch on the north shore. I made this my landfall. With the high water levels, it was smaller than the map suggested, a shingle spit shaped by waves into elegant curves
Reaching the Letterewe shore it is immediately obvious how different it is to the opposite bank. Everything from the colour of the stones underfoot to the vegetation and the very form of the land contrasts with the south side. The southern shore and most of the islands are Torridonian sandstone, coarse-grained, red rock overlain by sparse soils. On the north side, Lewisian Gneiss, the original pre-Cambrian rock that first formed a skin on a molten planet, outcrops, overlain by sediments of the Loch Maree group. The Torridonian sandstone reasserts itself to build the buttresses of Slioch, while on the heights of Beinn Eighe opposite, this is topped by younger quartzites which give the mountain its characteristic silver screes. The soil on this northern bank is deeper and richer, supporting an oak woodland that was heavily exploited in the 18thcentury to support charcoal manufacture for a local iron smelting industry, evidence of which can be seen at the head of the loch. There is still a furnace and a sawmill marked on the map at Letterewe. More timber was harvested in the First World War to support the demands of the war effort. Management for deer now inhibits forest regeneration across much of the Highlands, and it remains a shadow of its historic extent.
That said, I was still able to enjoy a richer variety of trees than on the islands, and a colourful pageant of autumn foliage at the water’s edge.
The map shows a track running high above the loch. This was the postal road from Poolewe to Dingwall, linking with the Coulin Pass drover’s track from Loch Carron at Kinlochewe. Post runners would follow this route on foot. The original route traversed Creag Tharbh, but that is now impassable, and would be broken by an overnight stop at the drover’s inn that is now the Kinlochewe Hotel. The last post runner, Ian Mor am Posda (Big John the Post), ‘only’ had to travel as far as Achnasheen, but that is still a very tough paper round!
Returning to the water after a leg stretch, I was offered the vast panoramas of the view up the loch and across the islands to the Beinn Eighe massif.
I wanted to stop on Isle Maree for lunch, but first passed it by to explore some of the coves on the outside edge of Eilean Subhainn. Approaching the straits between the two islands, Slioch once more dominated the view.
A group of paddleboarders, taking advantage of the flat calm, passed by, the first other people I had seen on the loch. Once their wakes had settled, I could once more enjoy reflections on the loch.
In these sheltered waters, the loch became a mirror. The overcast sky was a vast soft-box, diffusing the light to give a richness to the colours that was almost too strong. It was a place to sit and soak it all in. I could have stayed hours, entranced, but for pangs of hunger making themselves felt. As it was, I tarried long enough to make some images.
Leaving the cove to circumnavigate Isle Maree, the last remains of another scots pine made me reach for the camera once more. There is a legend that Loch Maree has its own water horse, along with Loch Morar and Loch Ness. The shapes of these branches reminded me of illustrations of Chinese water dragons. Had I found the kelpie?
A cool easterly breeze was stirring the loch now as I travelled round Ilse Maree, so I landed on the more sheltered westerly side rather than the curve of shingle on the south side. A birch tree, reaching out over the water caught my eye as I came into shore.
Before anything else, lunch was needed. My wanigan, a repurposed waterproof toolbox came ashore with me, and before long I was sat, fresh tea in hand and soup warming on the stove. Some more paddlers joined me, a couple in an inflatable, picnicking a short distance along the shore before wandering round the island. We kept our distance, not just because of the current covid awareness, but because the island seems to demand respect for its silence.
Maol Rubha, an Irish missionary monk who became a saint of the Celtic Church, established a monastery at Applecross in the late 7th century. He also had a cell on the island that became Isle Maree in his name. The cell is no longer traceable, though it is tempting to imagine that you can see its outline in the jumble of ancient walls around the cemetery.
I went on a short tour of the island, from the western beach to the far point and back. The woods had by far the greatest variety of trees I had seen around the loch – hazel, birch, holly, rowan, oak and hornbeam all in evidence even to my inexpert eye.
In the cemetery, some graves were relatively recent, fine stonework unaffected by erosion, but others were clearly ancient, now unreadable.
Reaching the far end of the island, the view up the loch came as a bit of a shock of the enclosed waters I had been paddling in for most of the day. Even Slioch was dwarfed by the size of the landscape.
Back at the boat, I amused myself with some detail shots along the beach before setting out on my return leg.
Next port of call was Eilean Eachainn. This island looked to have quite a promising beach with flat land behind it on which to camp. Sheltered today from the easterly airstream, it be quite exposed to the more usual westerlies, though it would offer a stepping stone route to the islands in poor weather.
From there, I returned to the shores of Eilean Subhainn, threading the maze of islets off its south-eastern edge. Slioch reasserted itself on the horizon, its summit gullies wreathed in strands of mist.
Passing close in by the shore now, I stopped to investigate a fallen scots pine. Silver with age, the trunk was being colonised by bracken whose bright autumn hues contrasted nicely with the dead wood.
Another scots pine growing from a buttress above the water had first succumbed to then defied gravity.
Entering Ob na h-Innse Moire in the heart of the islands, I found a small inlet leading to the heart of Eilean Subhainn, and along its shores several camps in situ. Tipis and tarps peeped shyly over bracken and from amongst stands of trees. No boats were in evidence though. A windblown pine at the head of the inlet attracted my attention before I doubled back.
A tree colourful with the changing seasons gave a topiary appearance at the mouth.
Rounding one final headland before reaching my temporary haven, I found the canoes I had seen setting off from the Loch Maree hotel this morning. A two-toned traditional tandem and a more modern green hull, accompanied a party making a film of canoeing on the loch. We had a brief conversation, they were in one of the encampments I had just passed, but I didn’t linger as the light was failing now and they were still shooting.
Back in my bay, I pulled the canoe up into the heather and made it secure against unexpected weather, then to ease my legs after a day kneeling in the canoe, took a final walk round the lochan behind camp.
With a little daylight left, I cooked an evening meal and read for a while in glorious solitude. As dusk fell, the stags started to issue their challenges again across the water counterpointing the patter of light drizzle on the tarp.
Friday dawned with steady rain hitting the tarp. The forecast had been for bands of wind and rain overnight continuing through the day. Winds were due to rise with each rain band, becoming gale force by night fall, but there was some disagreement between forecasts as to how quickly the storm system would arrive from the Atlantic.
I didn’t much fancy fighting a westerly gale in a fully loaded canoe, so had made plans to leave the islands and get ashore by lunchtime, then reassess the situation.
First though, I had to break camp while keeping my essential gear dry. I had another two days to spend in the area and didn’t want soaked bedding. So, sheltering under the tarp, everything was repacked in dry bags before I readied the boat. The tarp, unavoidably wet, was kept separate in its own dry bag.
By the time I was ready to go the rain band had cleared the loch, leaving blue skies behind. Keen to make the most of th8ings, I checked the camp was as I had found it and launched.
With forecast west to south-west winds I decided to return to Slattadale via the outside of the islands, jumping across from Eilean Ruairidh Beag to shorten the exposure to rough conditions. Heading once more through the channel between the two main islands, morning sidelight brought out the colour of the scots pines.
It wasn’t long before another band of cloud blew in however, bringing with it just a smattering of drizzle and the first of many rainbows.
Despite appearances from the water, there were breaks in the cloud blanket. Pools of light ebbed and flowed across the landscape as the wind pushed the weather onward.
Slioch had its head in the clouds and looked destined to be at least partially shrouded all day.
Sun preceded rain, chased by rainbows in rapid succession, no one state of the weather lasting long as I rounded Eilean Loisgte.
The sky gave false promise with another patch of blue and a splash of sunlight. A double rainbow over Beinn Airigh Charr seemed to seal the deal.
But within minutes, as I headed west passed Garbh Eilean all changed again. The loch had been quiet so far, not even much wind noise disturbing the air, but now the hiss of rain hitting the water approached rapidly from astern. Turning, I saw a torrent, raindrops hitting the water to hard it looked like they bounced back.
In seconds I was overtaken, the western horizon engulfed, and Slioch behind me almost obscured.
At least it remained flat calm. I found an overhanging tree under which to shelter and bail the inch of rainwater that had accumulated in the last few minutes.
The view from here was far from promising, but at least the boat wasn’t getting filled up anymore. With nothing else to do for now, it was time for elevenses while I waited out the weather.
It rained. Then it rained some more. Then most unexpectedly, it stopped, as suddenly as it had started. Maybe that rainbow promise was to be kept after all! A scots pine, backlit and glowing with moisture, caught my eye as I set off once more.
Slioch still clung to shreds of cloud and the eastern horizon was dark, but the loch was regaining its glassy surface.
Before long even the very peak was clear, and sunlight silvered the mountains’ flanks.
The Letterewe forest began to show autumn colours once more as light angled across the loch.
A silver birch caught the sun as I looked between the islands towards Slioch, gold-topped amongst the pines
Conditions were once more looking promising but mindful of the forecast, I decided to press on to the archipelago of small islets flanking Eilean Ruairidh Mor. I hadn’t visited these yet on this trip and took advantage of the break in the weather to dawdle there a little with the camera.
With the water levels still high, inlets became sheltered straits between temporary islands. In these secluded waters, I could relax and enjoy the reflections.
Over the flooded isthmus, grass stems stood to mark the shallows, barely a paddle blade deep.
One such cove offered a promising site for a future camp. I paused for a while to soak up the unique atmosphere of the place.
Time to finish my transit to Slattadale. Contrary to the forecast, conditions had settled. Cotton wool clouds now dotted a clear sky, Slioch sharp on the horizon.
I made landfall just a few yards from the truck and dumped the bulk of my cargo. Lunch and a cup of tea were in order. If conditions held, I would make one more lap of the islands.
Slattadale is a lovely spot, sheltered by wooded slopes and with great views across the islands and up the loch to Slioch at the head of the loch. I spent a very pleasant hour by the beach. Lunch and a fresh brew sat drinking in the situation. The updated forecast suggested the next weather system would arrive after dark, but it would be very stormy when it got here. In the meantime, winds were set to rise slowly and swing from south to west-southwest through the afternoon. All was looking good, so that last loop was on. It didn’t look likely I would get on the water again tomorrow.
A direct downwind transit to Garbh Eilean didn’t take long. Though the waves did build a bit as I neared the islands, close in amongst them it became calm once more.
Another brief shower blew over, treating me to more rainbows before I scooted through the narrows to the north side of the archipelago.
I hadn’t spent much time exploring the north side of Eilean Subhainn as yet, so I decided to amble along its coast as far as Isle Maree, then return to Slattadale following the curve of the mainland passed the Loch Maree Hotel. A dead pine, still standing caught my eye as I exited the strait.
These trees live for around three hundred years, some double that, and may take another hundred years to decay after death. Their long presence is vital to the structure of the Caledonian forest.
Entering the maze of channels and small islands, I was treated to calm waters and quiet breezes. Sun and cloud-shadow chased across the landscape, evidence of high winds in the upper atmosphere speeding the storm eastward but giving wonderful light for photography.
A waterfall streaming down the flanks of Beinn Airidh Charr gave a background murmur that emphasised the lack of anything other than natural sound.
In the sunshine it felt like paradise. If the trees on the islands had been palm trees they wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
It was hard to tear myself away from siren song of serene beauty, but I wanted to complete my planned circuit. Turning south then east to run parallel to the shore, Isle Maree came into view, Slioch squatting behind it.
I didn’t make landfall there this time but paused long enough to enjoy the autumn colours of the island’s woods and the Letterewe forest on the far bank. Quite a contrast to the dark greens of the Caledonian forest on the other islands.
I had now reached the final turning point before starting the four-kilometre upwind return leg. Eilean Eachainn sat dark in shadow as I rounded the headland, Slioch still a weighty presence on the horizon.
Entering the bay, I found I had misjudged the wind. There was a steady southerly blowing straight down Talladale, which forced me to sit and switch for a while to make progress upwind. Between paddle strokes I debated my best course – either turn south-east to the shelter of Camas a’Chonnaidh and a longer journey skirting the water’s edge hoping for respite close by the shore, or take a close-hauled course to the west into the wind shadow of Meallan na Sealga where it sloped steeply into the loch. The waves were quite manageable, so I chose the latter, shorter but more exposed.
After such a relaxed spell in the archipelago it felt curiously satisfying to work hard against the wind, settling down to a steady paddle rhythm. Soon close by the shore, and back in shelter, I stopped for a stretch by the Abhainn Garbhaig which makes a small wooded delta. I was once more sat in mirror-calm, so I spent a few minutes picking out details around me.
Looking north then south along the loch islands, peaks and clouds were perfectly reflected.
I was nearly back. A short hop of a kilometre or so cut the last corner and I landed once more on the shingle a few yards from the truck.
Late afternoon light bathed the landscape as I packed up.
As planned, I had finished with about an hour to go before sunset. Plenty of time to load the boat on the roof and set up the tripod for a final shoot.
Sunset itself was a subdued affair but it suited the peace of the place. Limbs heavy with the relaxation that comes after a day of activity, I packed up and settled into the back of the truck.
The storm did indeed arrive in the night, strong enough to make the truck sway on its suspension. I was quite glad I wasn’t being rocked in my cradle under the trees! The weather stayed pretty wet and windy the following day, so after quite a damp day ashore, I happily took the long road south to Yorkshire.
The trip was just what I had needed, snatched just in time to avoid the tightening noose of covid restrictions and a pending second lockdown. Loch Maree and its rainbows will live long in the memory.