This is Ellen Islay Rainsley, our newest team member.
This is Ellen Islay Rainsley, our newest team member.
The photo above was taken on the last night of our trip to the Western Isles. Heather is looking out from the island of Bernera to a chain of Atlantic rocks and islets which we’d spent the day exploring by kayak. A few more photos of Mrs R enjoying the Western Isles follow below…
PS I honestly did not ‘Photoshop’ the crazy light/ sky in the third photo – we were about to surf at Mangersta, and the combination of sunset and incoming rain did some weird things…
Pretty well the only thing about Shetland that failed to impress us was their Tourist Office. Maybe it was just the particular staff we ran into at their Lerwick office, but they didn’t seem particularly informed or helpful regarding their home. For example, we had to practically beg on knees to view and then get a photocopy of their (very out of date) contact sheet on Camping Bods, and when we asked what events or entertainment were coming up, without irony they recommended that we head up the street to the newsagents and look in a newspaper…
The good news is that they clearly recognise good writing when they see it. They have made use of Heather’s article about Shetland in their latest promotional bulletin! We only heard about this when it was forwarded by a friend. The bulletin seems to link Heather’s article to Sea Kayak Shetland, a commercial coaching operation. We had no dealings with them and know little about them. However, the sea kayaking guidebook is written by someone from this company and is great, highly recommended if you are trying to decide whether to head north. I’ve just dug out the comments I earlier wrote about the Shetland section of this guidebook (it also covers Orkney) and here they are…
- We thought quite highly of the guidebook, it tended to give a pretty readable and recognisable flavour of each island/ region of Shetland. Info was clear and precise.
- Tidal info is a bit limited in some cases, instead the book tends to say ‘tides aren’t really an issue here’ and leave it at that. Truth is, tides really aren’t much of an issue around Shetland, not at least compared to the crazy stuff to be found in Orkney. The Admiralty pilot (and tidal atlas) have more tidal info if required.
- One thing I liked a lot was that although the book can’t cover everywhere in Shetland in 25 routes (there are 900+ miles of coast), what it does do is add a surprisingly large amount of supplementary notes alongside the formally listed routes, along the lines of, ‘If you also check out the coast south of here, you’ll find…’
- If there was a problem with the guidebook, it was one of modesty/ understatement! Time after time we completed some paddle mentioned in the guidebook and were surprised to be absolutely blown away by the quality/ scenery etc – the author doesn’t waste adjectives or hyperbole! I guess that the bar is set pretty high in Shetland, the local paddlers have seen it all before and what might amaze the rest of us is bog-standard to them…
The guidebook is probably more essential for Shetland and Orkney than any other region so far covered by Pesda – the Shetland pilot book printed by Imray is fairly useless for paddlers (just lists anchorages) and the respective Clyde Cruising Club pilots for the two archipelagos are only marginally more useful.
We’ve had two very full summers’ paddling out of our Pesda ‘Northern Isles’ guidebook – great value for £20. Yes, we would have paddled all of it anyway, but it’s entertained and informed us a great deal, made our lives a whole lot easier, and saved us from carrying a large amount of maritime-related paperwork around. Our thanks to the authors.
Magazine article from 2004…
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the Skye
You know how it is, after only one day back at work, the holiday already seems to be a distant fact, something you did years ago. So there I am, at home, on Monday evening. I am pottering around, about to fill the washing machine when a smell drifts towards my nose. Now the laundry pile is usually smelly… but this is different. I pause and sniff… wood smoke, suncream, insect repellent, perhaps a hint of whisky and of course the unmistakable odour of sweaty thermal. I am transported on a wave of odours back to the previous week. A wonderful week, a week of sea-kayaking and exploration and pleasure. I sit there amid the pile of laundry and relive the week.
Mark and I escaped from work in Dorset on Friday afternoon and hurtled North. The Isle of Skye was calling. By Saturday morning we had reached Fort William where we raided the supermarket and stocked up on a range of camping friendly foods. I really love the fact that you can carry so much food in a sea-kayak. I get so bored with the kind of tasteless rations you have to carry if you are back-packing. We wandered round the supermarket, buying everything on our shopping list and more. Pasta figured highly, as did chocolate. Lots of fuel, lots of rewards.
Then onwards to the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge. As we drove across the bridge the sky improbably cleared and the sun appeared. Weather forecast be blowed, it was sunny and settled and all signs of driving fatigue vanished as we took in the glorious Skye scenery. I had been anxious about paddling in Skye; the unknown coupled with a vague idea about unpleasant Atlantic storms and the knowledge that the coast we were planning to explore was rather remote. Somehow, as we stood in the car-park at Elgol, all those worries evaporated in the hot sunshine. Looking across a glassy sea towards the serrated ridge of the Cuillin mountains, I couldn’t wait to get the boats loaded and set off.
Loading boats is an amazing piece of magic. You start out with a vast pile of kit and food and water and somehow it all disappears into the kayaks. With the boat loading done, I said goodbye to the car and set off in an altogether quieter vehicle. I couldn’t quite believe it, just over 24 hours earlier, we were still at work and now we were paddling on glossy black water towards a grand and awe-inspiring wilderness. There are no roads into the heart of the Cuillin. The only routes are by foot or by water but you are richly rewarded for your efforts as we were to discover.
I was paddling a brand new boat, never paddled before. What a christening! It sliced through the water and I soon got used to its trim and settled into a rhythm. Looking down, I suddenly realised that we were not alone. The sea was full of jellyfish! Layer upon layer of them, looking like ranks of space invaders in some eighties computer game. We spent the next ten minutes looking for the biggest one and trying not to pick one up with the paddles. Then it was heads down and pushing on to our campsite, a tiny beach tucked in below the mountains.
As we drew towards the campsite, the mountains closed around us. What a special place. Near vertical rock walls with trees and bushes clinging impossibly to tiny crevices. The silence! The solitude! “Cuckoo!” We couldn’t believe our ears. But there it was again, echoing around the rocks, “cuckoo, cuckoo.” Who’d have thought it, cuckoos in the Cuillin. But now it was time to unload the boats again, put up the tent and have some dinner.
In the morning, Mark made tea and we took it up to Loch Coruisk; a remote Loch that is only just above sea level and whose stillness and seclusion are guarded by the walls of the Cuillin Ridge itself. Of all the places I have had my Sunday morning cup of tea; this will be top of the list for a long time. Sitting on a rock at the feet of great black mountains and staring at their reflections in the water, it felt entirely unreal. We were so small and so out of place in this stillness. We lingered as long as possible over the tea but we had things to do that day. We had breakfast and loaded the boats up… with walking boots! We spent the day on Bla Bheinn; a mountain that has views across to the main Cuillin ridge, Loch Coruisk and out to sea. Well, in the kind of weather we were blessed with anyway. A walk up a mountain is always enjoyable but paddling to the start of it made it feel almost like a grand expedition. I must say however that I don’t recommend putting dry trousers on over hot ankles at the end of such a walk. Trust me, it’s not pretty.
We had company at dinner that night. A seal came and had a look at us and then went and got a friend. They spent the next hour courting together in the inlet by our campsite. A perfect end to an amazing day.
Our luck with the weather held again on the Monday, the weather forecasts we’d read had all been pretty gloomy but it was sunny and settled again. We took down the tent and headed out. It was Scotland, it was May and I had just put sun-cream on. The weather was amazing! We looked out for seals on a nearby skerry before we left Coruisk but they were all off fishing apart from one youngster who was decidedly miffed at having his sunbathing interrupted. We left him to it and started to cross to the small Island of Soay. We paddled into an inlet on Soay as the tide was running out. Seabirds were fishing all round us and one sleek white chap was so intent on catching the fish he’d seen that he arrowed into the water just to the right of my paddle.
Soay was the site of a shark fishing station at one time in its history. That day, it was eerily quiet in the harbour, the deserted building had half a roof and there was a rusted steam engine outside. We felt like trespassers as we sat and ate our lunch looking across at these ruins. After exploring further on the island, we set out for Skye again. We were aiming for a headland called Rubh an Dunain which the map showed was peppered with cairns and ruins despite its remoteness.
As we neared the headland, the wind began to pick up for the first time since we arrived on Skye. I had to push hard to maintain my pace. Mark paddles an impossibly skinny, tippy and fast boat. Nothing seems to slow him down. I was feeling quite tired as we neared what I thought was our landing spot. Mark carried on past it. I argued but he said that it would be easier to land on the other, more gently shelving side of the headland which meant another few hundred metres of paddling. He was right about the landing but I knew that the sea was lumpier round the corner. Suddenly I remembered that this was still a strange boat and I started to feel a bit panicky. We turned out into the chop and I turned into a novice. I am sure we’ve all been there, that time when we stiffen up with nerves and forget to put our paddles in the water. Of course, when this happens, the boat starts to be tippy and you stop going anywhere. At times like this, Mark used to try to give me advice which, when I’m stressed I have to say I am not good at listening to. He’s learned now, poor chap, he stayed quiet and gave me space to get my head together and start paddling again. I put my head down and ploughed on and round to the bay where we landed. I shouted a lot when my feet were finally on dry land. The waves hadn’t been that big but I was tired and it had to be someone’s fault. Poor Mark! By the time we had put up the tent, I had warmed up and calmed down. We went off to explore the ruins we were camped among. This remote and empty headland had once been very crowded indeed. There were ruined crofts everywhere and the remains of some pretty intensively farmed land. Now there were just sheep… and us, oh and the cuckoos. A romantic spot now but with a sad history common to so many parts of Scotland that were cleared by land-owners who were looking to make some money from sheep. We ate dinner watching the sun go down over the sea.
I woke up to the flapping of the tent the next morning. It was windy, the sea was lumpy and we weren’t going anywhere soon. Our radio had failed to pick up any weather forecasts but things had clearly changed. The Cuillin ridge had cloud over it for the first time since we had arrived and we watched as the peaks played hide and seek in the rapidly moving billows. By early afternoon, the wind had dropped and the sea flattened. It was a few miles up the coast to Loch Eynort but this was a committing few miles. No landings on the way if the wind got up again. I wanted to go on but wasn’t confident. Then the sun came out. I don’t understand why this tipped the balance but it always does for me. Everything seems possible in the sun.
So off we went. I found it hard work, we were paddling into the wind but were making sensible headway so we carried on. Off to the West, we could see the Western Isles and we started to see sea stacks in front of us. Eventually we were at the foot of the nearest: shaped like a bottle (three storeys high) with a hole in the middle. We stopped and rafted up to look and eat ginger cake. As we ate, I realised that we were being blown towards the cliffs. I stuffed my half of the cake into my mouth at one go and abandoned Mark. I tried to explain myself but the cake stopped me, I tried to chew but there was just too much cake. Mark thought I had gone mad. He started to paddle on through the gap between the cliff and the stack, I saw him pause as he felt the wind coming through the gap and then a cormorant dive-bombed into the water right beside him. I am sure I saw him jump out of his seat, I just couldn’t stop laughing. Not good when your mouth is full of cake and you’re trying not to be blown onto a cliff. I followed Mark through the gap, tears of laughter streaming down my face. The wind was whistling through the gap and the waves were quite lumpy on the other side. I was relaxed in the boat and I unexpectedly found just how well it handled the swell when I was loose and paddled calmly.
Mark looked relieved when I came through the gap laughing. He wasn’t sure how I would react to the larger swell but I was enjoying the way the boat was slicing through it. Besides, my mouth was still full of cake. The swell for this last mile was quite intense but I now knew that the boat and I were more than equal to it. Mark was probably having a bumpier ride in his boat than I was. Before very long, we surfed into the shelter of Loch Eynort and found a camping spot. I spent ages collecting drift wood and building a fire. We didn’t get a chance to enjoy it, because then the midges arrived. We had seen the odd one or two before but that evening, as the wind dropped, the midges descended in their millions and we hid in the tent.
We had planned to carry on up the coast past more sea stacks and high cliffs the next day, but the wind stopped us. It was in our faces and just too strong for us to commit to at least ten kilometres of exposed paddling with no landfall. We were disappointed but because our radio had let us down, we just didn’t know what the weather was going to do. We decided to head up Loch Eynort to the road and hitch back to the car. Seven hitches later, we closed the circle and picked up the car. For the rest of the week, the wind stayed too strong to head out in the boats again. We explored the island on foot but felt so blessed with the days we had spent out along the coast that we didn’t feel cheated. We didn’t go that far really in those few days, but the remoteness and the beauty of where we did go made it worth it. And the sea stacks we missed… well there’s always next year.
(Click here for more pictures)
OS Landrangers 23 & 32
Imray C66, Mallaig to Rubha Reidh and Outer Hebrides
Scotland; The Rough Guide.
The Scottish Islands, Hamish Haswell-Smith
The Isle of Skye: A Walkers Guide, Terry Marsh.
Heather Rainsley – 2004
This article is about a trip to the rather lovely coast of south Brittany, back in 2004. Heather wrote this one…
Sea Kayaking Brittany
Have you ever found yourself doing something amazing? Something new and special, that you’ll always remember. The exceptional thing for me about sea-kayaking is that this seems to happen almost every time I load up my boat and head out. On the water, the memories are there for the taking. The little things…like the smell of the ocean, how the light shines on the water when the sun’s going down. The big things…long journeys, exploring new places, meeting new challenges. This summer was no exception.
Mark and I were in France with our sea kayaks, lots of food and even more camping gear. We had driven from the UK with a variety of maps and charts and a vague idea of spending the next two weeks exploring islands. Now we had arrived randomly on the shores of Brittany’s Gulf of Morbihan. If you are familiar with Dorset’s Poole Harbour, then you should find it easy to imagine this much larger natural harbour with its numerous sandy, tree covered islands. In addition, this boating paradise is well equipped with many of the fantastic bakeries and cafés that are such a staple of French holidays. We eagerly set about exploring the astonishing number of islands that are crammed into the Gulf. Every island was different; secluded beaches, ancient monuments, beauty spots and tourist honey pots. The waters were bustling with all manner of craft making their way between the islands. Locals were fishing and collecting oysters and generally enjoying life on the water. In the afternoons, the tide livened things up by making some fun waves and eddies between islands as it ran out.
Eventually, we started to feel crowded by all the other boats and longed for seclusion and the open sea. Peeking out of the entrance of the Gulf, we could just make out three islands on the horizon. Our chart told us they were Ile d’Houat, Ile d’Hoedic and Belle Isle. At thirteen miles, the shortest crossing from our camp site was to Ile d’Houat. We really wanted to go. But there were problems; we needed a falling tide to drag us out of the Gulf and propel us on our way across the ten miles of open sea. However the falling tide was in the afternoon when it tended to get windy and choppy.
“That’s OK,” said Mark “We’ll do it tomorrow night.”
Now perhaps I had a touch of sunstroke but at the time, it made perfect sense. Spend tomorrow packing the boats and then go to bed early, get up at two thirty am and set off. I think the sun must have really affected my normally timid spirit because part of me was pretty excited about making such a big (for me) open crossing in the dark.
The alarm went off; I was sleeping so deeply that its loudness seemed to hurt me physically as well as assaulting my eardrums. I like my ‘eight hours’ in a night and rousing at half two in the morning is very painful. Before we could change our minds, we packed our sleeping bags and tent. At the water’s edge we shoved them into the already packed boats; which were waiting where we left them, an agonisingly short time earlier. The tide was just starting to fall and there was a soft warm breeze blowing off the land. There is something a bit special about being up and about when everyone else is asleep; although I have to say I wouldn’t do it often. Time to set off. We startled lots of fish as we paddled out over the dark water…and one or two of them startled us too, as they bumped against the bottom of the boat or jumped up right beside us.
As we approached the mouth of the Gulf, the tide picked up and we were zipping along. Before we knew it, we had been squirted out of the Gulf and were on the open sea. The wind was behind us, a little brisker now but helpful. The journey had begun in earnest. The only sounds were those we made as we twisted and paddled and as the boats sliced through the water. We could see little outside the circle of our head-torches other than the distant lights we were aimed towards. I fell into a steady rhythm, probably pretty close to sleep and on we went. I can’t remember why we decided to turn off our torches but we did and then there was more magic on this strange dreamy night. The water lit up around us as we moved through it. This bioluminescence, as scientists call it, is made by tiny living things in the water. I wondered what people made of it before scientists put a name to it. I was awed and strangely comforted by these stripes and patches of light that we made as we went along in the dark. Fish that crossed our path made glowing green tunnels in the water and I didn’t tire of looking at it. Whenever we turned on our lights to check our charts or because we’d heard an engine, I was always keen to turn them off again as soon as possible so I could see the glowing water.
The lights that we were heading towards gradually brightened and we were beginning to be able to pick out individual points in what had seemed one faint haze. Off to the East, the sky was starting to lighten and sadly the phosphorescence faded from view as the sea changed from black to grey. The offshore wind that had been helping us along was stiffer now and at times we were surfing along on small waves. Part of my mind felt I should be anxious about this, but I was comfortable and relaxed and my Capella was running smoothly so I just plodded on. Eventually, the horizon was filled with our island and the sky was light. The sun wasn’t up yet and we were nearly there. We paused to check the chart and Mark spotted a beach where we could camp. The feeling of arrival after a journey like this is almost indescribable. In the soft light of dawn we approached the island, the first fishing boats were setting off and an old chap in a smock was out checking his lobster pots. He asked us where we had come from and there was a real pleasure in pointing back to the distant smudge and telling him. The sun came up as we landed and Mark whipped out the camera to record this crossing that we both felt so pleased with. At the time, I felt elated and thought I was grinning from ear to ear. Later, looking at the photos, I realised I just looked really weary. No surprises there.
We pitched the tent in some dunes on a long empty beach of pure white sand, ate breakfast and fell asleep. When we woke again, the beach had been transformed. There were yachts out on the water and people sunbathing and promenading along the strand. We wandered along the shore, enjoying the holiday mood and still feeling smug about our special arrival. The rest of the day, we explored Ile d’Houat; its sandy beaches seeming endless. When the evening came, most of the other visitors went home on the ferry, leaving the beaches to us again.
Another day, another island. A much shorter crossing this time took us to Ile d’Hoedic, a rockier and wilder feeling island whose granite bays made me think of Cornwall. We had lots of time to explore the few streets and the path round the island before finding a bar and enjoying café life French style. We were planning to cross to the largest island in the group next – Belle Isle – but it had been a while since we had seen a weather forecast and the weather seemed to be getting colder and windier which was a bit of a worry. Now, our French is not good. Neither of us studied it at school and what we do know has been picked up from one travel cassette and various menus. This is not the kind of vocabulary one should bring to a French weather forecast. Picture the scene; two strangely dressed tourists standing outside the town hall on an isolated island. They are
huddled around a piece of paper pinned to the notice-board.
“There’s a depression over the island.”
“No, hang about; there’s a depression over Iceland.”
Luckily for us, we eventually found a weather report – specially designed for stupid tourists – that supplied us with symbols and numbers. Fortunately, the forecast showed the outlook improving; the conditions would be comfortable to cross to Belle Isle if we launched that afternoon. Another open crossing… piece of cake.
We arrived on Belle Isle after sunset and once we’d camped and eaten it was too dark to see our surroundings. The following morning was foggy. Only after an hour on the water were we able to actually see the coast we were paddling along! Now there could have been no more perfect illustration of the meaning of the two words making up the name ‘Belle Isle’. It simply was…a very beautiful island. We were paddling along the Cote Sauvage – the wild coast – another perfect vocabulary lesson. The tall cliffs were sculpted and twisted into amazing shapes.
Over two leisurely days we explored the inlets, caves and spires along the Cote Sauvage. This exploration began calm and settled and we were bemused to find that we were rarely alone on this exposed coast. Fishermen had scrambled down near vertical cliffs to fish from dauntingly exposed ledges. Snorkellers in wetsuits were fishing with harpoons in vast numbers…Frog-men! Families in fancy yachts and battered launches were gliding and puttering up and down the coast. We were met with nods and smiles and felt very much a part of this life on the water. As the coast curved northwards, it became more exposed to the Atlantic. A large swell was humping in. Paddling a mile off from the shore, we felt honoured to be there on the ocean. Feeling its rise and fall beneath us and hearing it crash on the cliffs to our right made us nervous and awed at the same time. An exhilarating day! As we rounded the Northern tip of the island – Pointe des Poulains – we noticed a lighthouse on the point. It seemed familiar. It is the subject of one of those ubiquitous ‘exploding wave’ lighthouse posters. And we have paddled round it!
Days of Island exploration followed and suddenly it was time to think about making tracks to the mainland. We started our final four hour crossing in bright sunlight, early one morning. It was with sadness that we left Belle Isle behind. Glancing over our shoulders from time to time, we saw it shrink; at first filling the horizon and then getting smaller and fainter until eventually it disappeared altogether into haze. Finally we landed in the busy port of Quiberon and set foot on the mainland. At that very instant; fog descended and the wind got up. It was as though someone had been waiting for us to arrive and could now slam the door firmly behind us. Within minutes of our return to shore, it was as if we had only imagined our isles.
Heather Rainsley – 2004.
Click here for more pictures.
The following article is written by Heather and was previously published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
…Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK
There! I’ve said it. I’ll even repeat it: Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK. Now, before you spit in horror and say something like, “Well she obviously hasn’t been to (insert your favourite spot here)” and flick past these pages in disgust, please just pause. What is it you like about sea kayaking? What makes you keep on loading that boat onto the car and going down to the sea? Make a quick list…let’s see how many of your boxes are ticked, as I give you some flavours of the five weeks I spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Shetland’s 900 mile coastline, earlier this year.
Arriving at the ferry port in Shetland’s capital Lerwick, we drove north-west to Braewick campsite through damp grey weather and bleak countryside. As we reached the western shores, the barren-ness was replaced by dramatic views of precipitous cliffs and steep cobbled beaches. Pitching our tent looking out to sea, our first paddle was obvious. We looked out to a cluster of tall sea stacks and spires called Da Drongs, battered by a westerly swell.
Parking the car beside Hillswick Seal and Otter Sanctuary, we watched a baby seal follow his yellow dungaree clad ‘mum’ around, begging for fish. On the water, we paddled past increasingly steep cliffs pocked with caves that invited further exploration, and then around the headland of Hillswick Ness into the Atlantic swell. A large lazy rolling swell, of the kind that on a windless day glides sleepily and glassily beneath you, its peaceful heaving only interrupted by reefs and cliffs…awakening waves of turquoise and white foam whose roars drone through your body before they collapse in a froth of fizzing bubbles.
We struck out to The Drongs themselves, sitting like spires from a Wild West canyon. Sea birds wheeled around; fulmars gliding stiff winged across wave tops and gannets plunging with sudden splashes. This was just day one.
Location, Location, Location
Maps of Britain very rarely show Shetland in its true position north of Orkney. Instead, it is generally stuck in a box somewhere east of Inverness. Shetland is actually 130 miles north of John O’Groats, the most northern extremity of the British Isles. It takes an overnight ferry journey from Aberdeen to get here, and the journey to Aberdeen is an undertaking in itself from most places south of the border.
Getting to Shetland certainly requires an investment of time, but once you’ve arrived, the entire multitude of paddling possibilities are within easy striking distance. It’s only an 80 mile drive (including two short ferry crossings) from Sumburgh Head in the south, to Hermaness at the north tip of Shetland. The location puts the islands right out there. Atlantic Ocean to the west. North Sea to the east and south. Head north and there is only some pack ice to stop you paddling across the North Pole and all the way to Siberia. Norway is closer than Edinburgh.
Swell can come from any or every direction. Tides, although not huge in range, in some places create substantial races and flows. Despite the very real exposure that this location implies, the fact that the Shetlands are a chain of islands means that there is generally a sheltered option to be found. A number of long inlets – ‘Voes’- also offer sheltered paddling.
The culture of the islands is one of a life lived intimately with the sea. For a Shetlander, commuting to work by ferry is often a way of life. As a kayaker, you will find yourself having endless conversations with people whose life has for generations revolved around the sea and who are genuinely interested in the antics of sea kayakers. The rich waters are full of life and have sustained 5000 years of continuous human occupation. We might think of these islands as being on the extremity of things, yet archaeological sites on a dramatic scale suggest otherwise! Mousa Broch is a perfectly preserved 2000 year old tower, one of at least 120 around the islands. These stand out as landmarks along the coast; navigational aids and great picnic spots.
Shetland belonged to Norway until 1469. The Nordic influence is still clearly felt in place names, family names and the local dialect. In recent times, North Sea oil has brought communal wealth via the Sullom Voe oil terminal; this has funded eight sports centres for a population of 22,000! There are numerous museums and interpretive centres where, we were welcomed by friendly and knowledgeable Shetlanders who were proud to share their heritage with us.
Let’s Rock and Roll
Shetland’s geology is of international importance and has European Geopark status. Some of the oldest rocks in Britain can be seen, 2500 million year old Lewisian Gneisses. The major faults which created mainland Scotland’s landscape continue here. This complex geology is reflected in the complex coastline. Erosion wears away softer rocks, slices up through fault lines and undermines even the hardest of rocks. The result is, steep cliffs riddled with caves, geos, inlets, hidden channels and mazes, guarded by stacks and arches.
The most dramatically eroded coastline is that of the isle of Papa Stour; every few hundred metres of paddling brings another cave into view! Some are tiny crevices studded with sea anemones. Others snake back endlessly to open into vast caverns and amphitheatres, dramatically booming with swell and ringing with the calls of seabirds. To the north-west of Papa Stour, Fogla Skerry and Lyra Skerry sit exposed to tide and swell, riddled with tunnels. Lyra Skerry has two passages intersecting at right angles. Sitting underneath an island at a crossroads between two streams of flowing water is an experience which will stay with me. These are phenomenal places to explore, yet there is always a tension between the wish to linger and the anxiety about building tide and wind…
Walk on the Wild Side
Shetland has the highest concentration of otters in the UK, and we met them regularly. The squeaky baby otters who swam around our boats were a standout moment! Seals, common and grey, are ubiquitous, although they tend to be shyer than those in other areas. Perhaps they are wary because they are the main prey of the local pods of killer whales. Twenty-one of the twenty-four species of British seabirds breed there; we met our favourite, puffins, on most of our paddling trips. They nest in burrows and whirr in and out with beaks full of small sand eels, or stroll pompously along the ledges, cawing for all the world as if they had just heard a particularly juicy and shocking piece of gossip. The sea cliffs at Noss and Hermaness are home to vast gannet colonies. These birds, with two metre wing spans, glided en masse in dizzying circles over our kayaks. Combined with neck-achingly high cliffs, deafening croaks and the stench of fish, this spectacle made me feel quite queasy.
Here Be Monsters
Paddling back over glassy seas from the Out Skerries to Whalsay one morning, we were surrounded by hundreds of porpoises. This area is well known for sightings of cetaceans, congregating to feed on fish funnelled up through the strait by the tide. Porpoises are known as neesiks (meaning sneezies) in Shetland, due to the snuffle sound they make as they break the water’s surface. After half an hour we became quite blasé about their numbers and presence. Suddenly, a much larger ‘porpoise’ emerged…but kept on surfacing. We were looking at a minke whale! I cannot describe the awe that I felt being within touching distance of this, one of the smaller members of the whale family but nevertheless at least seven metres long and rearing significantly higher than us.
So, have I worn you down and convinced you? Perhaps your favourite paddling spot can supply you with some of the experiences I’ve described. But can it provide all of the above? If so, let me know, I want to go there too.
The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland Sea Kayaking by Tom Smith and Chris Jex. Yet another winner from Pesda Press, this indispensible guidebook includes masses of tidal flow data alongside knowledge from local experts to help you get the best out of your trip.
Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas – Orkney and Shetland Islands. Your best bet for visualising what the tide flows are doing.
Clyde Cruising Club Sailing Directions and Anchorages: Shetland Islands by Arthur Houston/ Shetland Islands Pilot by Gordon Buchanan. These are the two options if you are looking for a nautical pilot book. In truth, neither book is of much use to paddlers; they simply list sheltered anchorages. If you have to buy one (to look the part), the CCC one looks prettier.
Shetland: Island Guide by Jill Slee Blackadder and Iain Sarjeant – published by photographer Colin Baxter, the pictures in this guidebook will inspire you before you even start on the text.
www.shetlopedia.com – as usual, the internet knows everything. This website is an amazing source of information about everything Shetland.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk – useful information and advice.
Early Saturday morning … Heather realised that something was up when she drove past a friend whom she hadn’t seen for two years, close to our house. At breakfast he and many more friends turned up to join us, and as the day went on, numbers increased until we had a crowd of dozens joining us for a BBQ and camp at a disused quarry on the local coast.
It was great to surprise Heather for her birthday, but great also to introduce the scenery, flora and fauna of our amazing local shores to many friends who hadn’t experienced it before.
A guest blog post from Mrs R …
Sea-kayaking a bit further south-west, and creating a sea kayaker!
This summer, Alice needed a cheap holiday somewhere nice. I had a spare week in my summer schedule and suggested a trip to Brittany as an option. Lisa was able to come too. A sea kayaking trip seemed like a good idea, except for the minor difficulty of Lisa not having a sea kayak. Luckily for us, we were able to borrow a demo boat from P&H; one of their composite Capellas, which is part of a line being made in Poland as an ‘off the shelf’ option.
The scene was set for the indoctrination of another WW paddler into the fine art of the Sea Kayak. The obligatory facial hair was provided by seaweed …
Venues: Port Blanc, Ile De Brehat, Trebeurden and Ile Grande; all on the Granite Rose Coast of Brittany.
Tidal range: Big!
Conditions: overcast with moderate winds and some ground swell.
Scenery: amazing natural granite sculptures and pink sandy beaches.
Company: top notch.
A contribution from Mrs Rainsley …
Weeks and weeks ago I promised Mark that I would do some guest posts. I have failed miserably at getting round to it. But it is Friday night, the sun has gone down and it is good to look back on the summer.
Long anticipated and finally viewed for real from the deck of a pitching boat, the cliffs of Boreray, Stac an Armin and Stac Lee seemed unreal and ghostly. Or, perhaps I was simply drowsy from the travel tablets. Watching the gannets wheel and plummet, I stood –or rather rolled from foot to foot- as the boat came around and headed into the bay of St Kilda.