A Sea Kayaking Trip to the Summer Isles

What an exotic sounding location, somewhere hot maybe, the south coast perhaps if not actually in the Mediterranean. Instead the Summer Isles are an archipelago lying in the mouth of Loch Broom in the far north west of Scotland just above Ullapool in an area known as Westerross. The islands are part of the Assynt-Coigach National Scenic Area one of 40 in Scotland. The only inhabited island Tanera More is also the largest with its own Post Office/Cafe which has operated its own local Post and printed its own stamps since 1970.

Our trip as luck would have it lived up to its summery name enjoying the best weather in the whole of the UK. Indeed our piece of coast was the only one without a weather warning that week, starting as always with a long 13 hour drive arriving in Ullapool in the early hours of Saturday morning and the inevitable pacing around whilst Ullapool came to life and the lady in the cafe cranked up the tea urn and slung some bacon in the pan. After breakfast it was off to the camp site at Ardmair which would be home for the cars for the week and the site of our first pack, a tricky affair with a week’s supply of food, camping kit and all the little extras you deem necessary that will fit in a small boat and still allow it to float. All this passed without a hitch and with our team now assembled (Pete, Carl, Ian, Debbie, Graeme, Michal, Keith, and myself Paul) we were off with a 15k paddle and a stiff northerly breeze to break us in across Annat Bay to a small pebble beach just before Cailleach Head called Camas na Ruthaig, a lovely spot with many a pleasant hour spent watching young Seals playing in the bay.

The next day (Sunday) we headed north leaving as Keith would discover later his pots on the beach for a 4k crossing to Carn nan Sgeir which is actually two islands joined by a pebble beach for some lunch before heading west to a group of islands including Bottle Island, Carn Deas, and Carn Lar. This time the north wind now gusting up to a 4 or 5 forced us about 1k out to turn back for the safety of Carn nan Sgeir which would become our camp for the night. A beautiful spot, if you ever find yourself in the Summer Isles I would highly recommend a nights camp here.

In the morning (Monday) we headed north once again in the hope of finding some shelter from the predicted northerly which would be with us for most of the week. Lunch was had on Horse Island at the boulder beach between Horse Island and Meall nan Gabhar, the water here is crystal clear with many large sea urchins clinging to the rocks. I watched a Herring Gull carry an urchin measuring 8 or 9cm across up into the air and drop it repeatedly onto a flat rock to smash it and eat the contents, a meal you would pay a hefty sum for in a top restaurant. In the afternoon we headed West to the bottom end of Tanera More and up the west side eventually landing on a beach on the eastern side of Isle Ristol, sand at low tide, pebbles at high with a commanding view over the Summer Isles to the South. 17k was covered that day.

The next day (Tuesday) we rounded the bottom of Isle Ristol heading West to Eilean Mullagrach enjoying the caves and the bouncy sea on the west side as we paddled round before heading North once more to Reiff Bay for lunch. This beach had a curious smell at the water’s edge which I think was rotting seaweed a most foul smell, fortunately the top of the beach smelt a lot better. After lunch we continued north for 2k to Camas Eilean Ghlais now feeling the full force of the northerly and the bounce that goes with it before returning South to a sandy beach on the top of the Isle Ristol for the night’s camp with 15k paddled that day.

The next morning (Wednesday) we headed through the gap between the island and the mainland and down to Tanera More before exploring the group of islands out to the West including Tanera Beg. Landing on a beach for want of a better word of boulders for lunch on the west side of Tanera Beg and the tricky job of landing and launching loaded sea kayaks on boulders some of them 50 to 60cm across covered in seaweed .There is no doubt the Summer Isles is a stunning place especially given the weather we had but some of the beaches are a challenge, a gentle reminder of the wild place we have come to. In the afternoon we headed back to Tanera More and the Post Office in the Anchorage where Keith secured us a nice camp spot outside the Post Office with a sit-down loo just up the hill.

In the morning (Thursday) we were up and packed early as agreed before the first of the trip boats arrived with just enough time to sample the delights of the Tea Room/Post Office which was little more than a hut with a sunny disposition and a cheerful welcome, clearly timed to open for the trip boats. It was a beautiful morning next to no wind a flat sea with a grim forecast for the wind to increase 5 or 6 occasionally 7 from the East. With a forecast like that we had to play it safe heading South East around Horse Island and across Horse Sound to the Mainland for lunch. With the sea so calm the temptation to head out to the islands we had missed earlier in the trip was almost unbearable but the forecast was there, it could not be ignored and true enough as soon as we were back on the water the weather changed in the space of 10 mins from flat calm to white horses, blue skies to dark clouds, and the shore was rocky with little chance of a landing, should we go back or press on. Just at that point an opportunity presented itself, not a landing I would normally choose but we were running out of options. Sometime in the dim and distant past someone had moved the larger boulders to create a crude slipway, not lavish you understand just slightly smaller boulders instead, this meant it was possible to land with some work and with wind increasing it was the only option. So this would be our new home for the night. Between the pebble beach and the bracken lay a small strip of what could be loosely described as grass peppered with round stones 10-15cm across (this could make an interesting night sleep) with a little bit of clearing and an amount of tent jostling we all fitted on with the wind increasing all the time. We were situated just behind a rock shelf no higher than our tents though just high enough to send the lion share of wind over our heads affording us some protection. Not long after the tents were up we became aware of a gas cylinder  near to our tent, it looked for all the world like an acetylene bottle to me, Pete said not but I wasn’t convinced sitting there nicely corroded having washed up of a fishing boat I suppose. This beach turned out to be our home for 2 nights as the wind had not let up the following morning (Friday) and would not do so until sometime in the afternoon by which time the tide had left some particularly large boulders exposed making a launch not practical. Instead we turned our attention to beach combing coming up with 3 mooring buoys that would come home as souvenirs and assorted other bits most of which went on the fire. It never ceases to amaze me how much rubbish is on some Scottish beaches, fishing nets, buoys, rope, boxes, shoes, toothbrushes and everything else in between. It just goes to show plastic is both a miracle and a curse.

We finally left our lumpy site on Saturday morning the last day of our trip and headed along the coast towards Aedmair our finish under the gaze of Ben More the largest mountain on this shore. The weather was fine, slightly overcast but calm and the cliffs and caves amazing. All too soon we reached the camp site at Ardmair and the end of our trip, a chance for a hot shower, pack the car and the long drive home for most. Carl, Pete, and myself stayed an extra night and ate out in Ullapool to round the week off, we then drove home on Sunday.

Every time I go on one of these trips it reminds me how much I like Scotland, the wild and remoteness, the beauty, the wild flowers and clear air, the wild animals in and out of the sea. It is a world apart and yet right on our door step. There is nothing finer than camping on a remote Scottish beach of white coral sand and clear blue water in the sunshine with no one to tell you “you can’t camp there”. Ok the water is a little cold and they do have midges, the most ferocious predator known to man but that just keeps it remote. I would like to thank everyone who came on this trip for making it a memorable one.

And so what do we do next.


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