A couple of weeks ago there was a big furore in the outdoor world. Somebody from outside of our bubble proposed a new scheme to pave the way for officially sanctioned wild camping in our national parks. On first glance it looked to be an interesting proposition, but with a small amount of scratching at the surface it was clear that it hadn’t really been fully thought out, despite having received some funding from DEFRA and the backing out two national parks who'd agreed to act as Guinean pigs. It turned out that it was modelled on people booking and paying for wild camping spots in the parks. The thought of paying to wild camp was enough for some. The fact that people were making money from it, and the proceeds weren't all going to the national parks, rubbed salt in the wound. But what set alarm bells ringing for me was their definition of what exactly wild camping is. It was described on their website as ‘enduring a night in the wild’. Enduring? I think not. Wild camping is all about the joys of being in the wild, hot or cold, wet or dry. No, these guys clearly had little idea of what they were doing, and had even less of an idea of the backlash they were about to receive.
Suffice to say they pulled the project and have left the wild to be wild. But it did raise an interesting idea that our national parks, drastically underfunded as they are, may yet re-visit, that people may be willing to pay for the privilege of accessing and sleeping in the wild. But that’s another Blog for another time.
It also raised another question, what is wild? The sites recommended on the website had been largely tarns in the Lake District. But is the Lakes wild? By London standards it surely is, but visit the park on a busy summer weekend and it’s a pretty sorry sight of humanity funnelling itself into the usual honey pots for their share of the wild. Of course it’s possible, by taking the usual couple of steps off the (very well) beaten tracks, to find quieter places that feel wild, but the reality is that you are rarely more than a mile or so from a road, and where there are roads there are people. For a genuinely wild experience in the UK it’s pretty much essential to head north to Scotland. Alistair Humphreys will argue that you can find wild within the M25, but all things are relative. Scotland is king of wild in our neck of the woods, so every May half term we head up to the west coast with some friends in search of adventure.
A few years ago I’d have confidently said that May half term by and large has settled high pressure meaning sunny weather on the west coast. A few duff years have upset the statistics cart and the trips have, truth be told, felt a little more like endurance events than is comfortable. Maybe the start-up copywriters were right? I think it depends on your tolerance for discomfort. Clearly some would be so far out of their zones that there would be genuine tears and tantrums, and I'm talking adults here. But after a childhood growing up on family camping and camper van trips in the UK I think we are born with, and then hone, a unique ability to not only accept the crap weather and the midges, but to take some comfort from the fact that we are so accepting.
Jura this year was born from the idea of spending the first Saturday running the iconic fell race the island is part-famous for, and then sea kayaking around the 150km coast over the following week. As with most trips things didn’t go according to plan. Five of us entered the 28km race, but only 1 was given a place. The rest made it onto the waiting list. In the ensuing months one of those four broke an ankle and two of us picked up other injuries and illness which kept us from training. Then of course, on the Monday prior to the race we got our call up. I deliberated. I wasn’t fit. So I went for a long road run up as many hills as I could on the Tuesday. It’s amazing what the mind can do. Every run I’d done over the previous 4 months had felt like a chore. I’d asked myself why I was persevering. But on the Wednesday my legs felt amazing so I signed up! That made three of the original five. We headed up a day before the rest of the crew, caught the passenger boat from the mainland and pitched a tent at Craighouse, the enigmatic seaside hamlet based around the hotel and whiskey distillery which have propelled what should really be any old fell race to the heady heights of being one of the country’s most famous and over subscribed long mountain routes. The hotel grounds play host to a couple of hundred small brightly coloured tents which lend the place a festival-like atmosphere. That evening there was a light breeze and we watched the sun go down over the Paps contented, but with the frustrating knowledge that the forecast was for a dramatic change.
And so we woke to the sound of drizzle on the tent. The Paps were all but invisible and there was an air of inevitability about the day. We were all committed now. We were in for a struggle. I’d made the choice to run and not race, to literally plod around and take it all in rather than worry about my position or time. There was barely a view, it rained incessantly and the wind on the higher summits numbed the hands with its ferocity. It was not a day to twist and ankle and await a rescue. Prudence was necessary on the slippery, rocky, steep descents. It should have been miserable, but five and a half hours of type one fun was had as we climbed and descended seven summits, 2,400m worth of them. Why is it that we enjoy such conditions and don’t simply stay in our sleeping bags? It’s the same reason we leave the comfort of home in the first place and head north. There’s the joy of simply being in the hills, the sea and the streams, the heather and bogs. Of course it would have been nicer had the sun shone and we’d seen where we were going, but just because it didn’t doesn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable. It was just a different type of enjoyment. Arguably a more intense one that will stay longer in the memory banks. One day I guess I’ll go back and have a proper go at it, hopefully in the sun, but not for one second do I regret choosing this year as the one to do it.
And so on to the meat of the trip. The kayaking. It hadn’t taken many meetings back at home in the winter with maps and the obligatory whisky, to decide that kayaking all the way around the island was too ambitious. Not only would it mean a lot of paddling, but it would require little or no wind for a week, and we’d have to navigate the Corryvechan, one of the most notorious tidal whirlpools in the world. Jura is pinched in the middle with Loch Tarbert almost cutting the whole island into two. We decide to risk driving the vans across the track the mile or so from the east coast to the boat house at the head of the loch. Google Earth is an invaluable tool when it comes to this level of planning, but you never quite know until you get there just how drivable a track it. In actual fact I’d just started using FATMAP, a 3D visualisation mapping tool, to scope out the area too so we were pretty confident. We’d tracked down the estate owners before hand and let the caretaker know our plans. He seemed pretty pleased that we’d checked in in advance.
After rendezvousing with the rest of the group at the post race Caleigh at the hotel we’d then de-camped up to the boat house. The drizzle worsened and we woke to squalls and white horses on the assumed-to-be-calm bay. Hey ho. Scotland struck again. As it turned out, with 27 people and 13 kayaks there was a reasonable amount of faffing to get under our belts before we were anything like approaching seaworthiness! The boat house was the perfect location for last minute fitting of rudders and packing of boats. The kids donned waterproofs and spent the day crabbing, delighted with the new collapsible lobster pot we’d brought along. And between showers we ventured out and basked in the being there. Again it didn’t matter that we weren’t getting magazine cover photos of the Paps. Instead we scrambled to the top of a nearby knoll and used our jackets as flying squirrel wings to try and stay airborne! Tomorrow we’d launch.
Tomorrow we did indeed launch. We woke to calm weather and quickly disappeared the vans back to the main road, before finally - to detail the time, effort, cost, discussion, and general faff that had gone into getting us to this point would require a separate website! - putting to sea.
Sea kayaking feels not dissimilar to cycling, where swimming it more like running. In a kayak you can put in a few paddle strokes and then simply float along, or free-wheel. It feels very much like having a set of gears and it’s quite easy to quickly settle into a granny gear and pootle along at a steady pace. It’s also similar in that you are down at the water level, literally. You don’t miss a thing. Every kelp frond and every jelly fish slips silently by, noticed, but not interfered with. Where it differs from cycling is the ability to choose literally any path you like. An interesting inlet? Turn the kayak into it and explore. The downside to this, coupled with the fact that living in the Centre of the country means little or no practice prior to these trips, and no sooner have we set off than we’ve spread like pollen grains to all corners of the loch. One of my rudder pedals develops a problem. Whilst I’m trying to fix that out on the water a wind picks up and we are blown 180 degrees around and back towards the boat house. I look up to see nobody in sight and the first stab of panic sets in. Dylan, my 10 year old companion sat up front, who’d been seal and otter watching rightly points out the about-turn and I crane over my shoulder to see the others paddling away from us down the loch. Panic over. I set to turning the thing around, but heavily laden and with a now medium to strong wind it takes all of my effort to do so and we eventually rejoin the others with a few choice words about team work and sticking together.
It doesn’t take long to develop something of a group rhythm and we’re soon three or four miles down the loch and stop for some food by a lone bothy on the beach. It’s tempting to stop here, but after losing yesterday there’s a general consensus to push on. I’m glad we do. Dylan and I are now at the front of the flotilla and it fills me with unbelievable joy to see a sleek brown sea otter descend the seaweed band from a cave into the sea and splash under just in front of us. Seals are cool. Otters are way cool.
A few more miles of
paddling in steadily improving weather and we pull the kayaks onto a stone
beach that had been particularly interesting looking on the FATMAP flyover. A
raised beach of multiple terraces, comprised of millions of tonnes of rounded
pebbles and stones, with a lake a few hundred meters back from the shoreline.
Sitting high on the raised beach is a patch of grass, bracken and bluebells perfectly suited to half a dozen tents. There is no discussion necessary, this is our Nirvana, the reason for all the effort. There’s an hour of business as we ferry kit from the boats to the camp, build a stone wall to protect a makeshift kitchen, filter water from the lake, and play temporary-home-building.
Explorers find a 15m waterfall tumbling almost into the sea where we wash away the salt and sweat.
On the way back we disturb a flock of birds from the beach as we comb it for driftwood to burn. We’re embarrassed to realise that we’ve disturbed their nests as we find clutches of eggs camouflaged as stones lying on the beach.
We make a hasty retreat. As the evening develops so does the light. It’s very hard to describe just how beautiful it is, made all the more so by the effort it’s taken to get here. Nobody talks of sending the kids to bed. It’s too special. Hopefully something of it will rub off into their psyches and one day they will seek out such experiences themselves. There’s a fire, marshmallows, whisky and chat.
It’s hard to leave this little corner of the world. Even despite being quite rudely interrupted by a passing drone - I kid you not, we assume it came from the house further along the coast just checking out the Neighbour hood (even wild Scotland is becoming less so). We linger over pancakes and another dose of waterfall before setting sail at lunch time! We would stop another night, but the forecast is for 24 more hours of good weather before more rain and wind. There’s a bothy at the head of the loch which we want to reach before the weather does.
Although the sun is shining, the wind is gusting and it’s genuinely hard work paddling against it. The group naturally splits into sub groups, but each has safety in numbers so we head on at our natural paces. Some stop to explore caves whilst we push on to the bothy, hopeful that it's empty. We arrive at the same time as three gents who have walked in. Poor them. The terrain is reportedly desperately hard to cover on foot, tussocky, boggy, and rife with ticks. The bothy is a long, low building of stone. It comprises three rooms, two of which are locked and reserved for use by the estate owners and their friends. The third room is delightfully simple. A log fire, an old metal bed frame with a reclaimed fishing net instead of a mattress, a single table for stoves, a window to the elements and an array of deer antlers. We rightly offer it to the three guys and pitch our tents outside. We don’t see them again until the following day when they pack up and leave, having spent eighteen hours inside the room. Given what’s to come later that evening it’s hard to respect their reasoning for making the trip. They must have been very tired.
Once again it’s a group effort to build camp, this time with the intention of staying for at least a couple of nights, maybe more if the weather dictates. We’ve brought along a large tent to escape weather and midges so it goes up alongside out pods, the ever-reliable Decathlon specials that serve a family of four so well with their combination of room and light weight. Dinner is risotto, made and dehydrated in bulk back in the Peak District, brought back to life with a little hot water and some grated Parmesan far from civilisation.
It’s a second evening to store in the memory banks. The sun sets late, and slowly over Colonsay as we explore the playground that it the coast at low tide. Caves and natural arches are accessible for a few hours and the light plays its magic upon them. Three youths arrive by speedboat, friends of the estate, and occupy one of the private rooms. They join us for a game of werewolves, clearly a little bemused at such a large group such a long way from anywhere, but hopefully reassured that we only metaphorically bite.
The rain returns overnight. The youths depart and we have the place to ourselves. Us and the rain and the wind. We use the tent in the daytime, the bothy at night. The drying lines for wet waterproofs slowly suffocate the room, the fire needs tending to get things dry, and we’ve packed in more whisky than you can shake a stick at so it’s no hardship. With a different attitude the next few days might pass with tempers fraying and an air of depression or even desperation, but it’s testament to the collective ability of the group that there’s always somebody willing to make a water run to the lake, or to dig a new poo hole or get the crab lines out and entertain the kids. Cards are played and paintings are painted. The weather half-breaks so we explore the coast at a toddlers pace finding fun in every nook and cranny, lighting driftwood fires and cursing at the volume of plastic we find washed up. When it rains this doesn’t stop runs and even forays in the kayaks. Everybody has accepted the weather for what it is and they get on with it, revel in it even. After one run Jane and Soph arrive back at camp soaked to the skin with talk of a newly formed waterfall in a nearby cave created by flood water flowing out of a heather bush on the lip of the cave. We take whisky and towels and venture forth to find it. Rejuvenated by the clean water, and warmed by the alcohol, on the way back to the camp the weather turns again and we see blue in the sky. Moods are mixed as we pack up the following morning, taking advantage of a twelve four hour window in the weather to make the kayak back to the boat house.
By usual standards we should have returned home grumbling about the weather but instead it’s been a blast. Even the kids are quick to point out that if there’s wind then there’s no midges. Scotland has delivered another 27 weeks of lasting memories. Pretty much nobody was there, and that’s really what makes it all worth the effort. Get off the beaten track and nobody is there. And that feels wild.
A few notes on our impact and approach.
We are well aware that we are a large group and some will see the photos in this article and disapprove. We are seven families from the same village. We get along very well and all have very similar outlooks and goals. We strive on these trips, to leave as little impact as we can. We took out ALL of our own rubbish. We dug deep pits in the peat for our human waste. We burned only drift wood. We dismantled any walls, shelters or sculptures that we made. We gathered a dozen bin bags of rubbish from the beach by the bothy, and arranged with a local gamekeeper to collect them in a boat. When we did cross paths with others we communicated to them what our plans were and gave them first choice on sleeping arrangements. We sincerely hope that we're doing this as well as we can, but will always welcome feedback.
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All the images taken in this article were done using waterproof Olympus TG4. Check out my TG2 review here.
Here are a few more articles on similar trips we have made in the past.