Loch Sween and the MacCormaig Isles

It was becoming apparent as the week went on that certain of the key elements contributing towards an ideal paddling outing were aligning into a perfect – not so much storm – as lull. First, a high pressure system was approaching and the forecast was therefore for clear skies, low winds and – get this – no rain. A proverbial Indian Summer, no less! Second, it was neap tides. And so we embarked on a frenzy of planning and decision making as to how to take full advantage of these freak conditions.

We’ve fancied a visit to Loch Sween for a while, having seen enticing photos and heard that it was a good sea kayaking spot in terms of scenery and wildlife. So it won out and we were on the road to Tayvallich first thing on Saturday morning. Upon arrival, another couple were putting in at the other side of the jetty from us and I tried not to make too obvious my glances over in their direction to compare gear (all in the interests of research, of course).

Leaving picturesque Tayvallich

Leaving picturesque Tayvallich

Strangely, Alan and I hadn’t even entered into the Great Wet Suit vs Drysuit Debate, before setting out. We’ve been doing so much immersion work lately that, combined with all the recent inclement weather, we’d become auto- programmed to pack our drysuits. As we set off from Tayvallich, I found myself longing not so much for my wetsuit as a swimsuit. I thought about rolling to cool off, but reckoned that trying to roll a fully laden kayak for the first time ever might result in some delay to our progress. I tried to ignore the fact that my neck seal appeared to be melting.

As we paddled south-west down Loch Sween, we were soon distracted by the beautiful scenery and mirror-like calm of the water. It was so calm, in fact, that we could easily see the many black starfish on the loch’s seabed. I still haven’t determined what they are all about, but have since been informed that they are only to be found in Loch Sween. We also saw several seals, including some of this year’s young.

Juvenile Common Seal, Loch Sween

Juvenile Common Seal, Loch Sween

It didn’t seem to take long to reach the Island of Danna, at which point we debated upon our course. As it was still fairly early in the afternoon, we thought about rounding Danna and heading up towards Carsaig Bay, but we felt that this might narrow our options for the following day. By continuing south-west instead, we would have the opportunity to explore the MacCormaig Isles, and to generally chill out. Rather than focusing on getting somewhere, it seemed like a nice idea to simply enjoy being somewhere instead.

And so we crossed the Sound of Jura to Eilean Ghamna. I say “crossed the Sound of Jura” because that reads better than “crossed a very small portion of the Sound of Jura”. Regardless, it felt like an achievement to be out on our own in the Sound, known for its powerful tides. The sea state even in such benign conditions made us realise just how challenging a location it must be in a bit more of a breeze. As we approached the islands, we encountered more seals and lots of Canada Geese who noisily flitted about – perhaps more of this year’s young practising flying.

St Cormac's Chapel, Eilean Mor

St Cormac's Chapel, Eilean Mor

We paddled west from Corr Eilean to Eilean Mor where we decided to set up camp. As we drew nearer, we could see the impact of wind against tide to the west of the island and decided to avoid that particular locale, paddling towards the anchorage bay instead. Eilean Mor is a popular spot for day visitors, being that it plays host to St Cormac’s 13th Century chapel, an early standing Celtic cross, a more recent Celtic cross, and St Cormac’s cave. St Cormac was a 7th Century Irish monk who apparently used the island as a retreat. It’s certainly away from it all, and perhaps its remoteness was the very reason that, showing no respect for heritage, the chapel was later used as an alehouse and for an illicit still (which goes to show that the conversion of former churches to nightclubs is not a modern phenomenon). There is even a little turf-roofed visitor’s bothy at the bay which anyone can enter and peruse the displays therein. As we erected our tent, 4 vessels stopping by for a quick visit. Only one group of passengers disembarked to explore further.

After that, we had the island to ourselves. Well, ourselves and the many, many little brown birds who squeaked about in colossal flocks. Their small size, generic brown-ness and complete inability to stay put made my attempts at identification a frustrating and unsuccessful exercise. Upon perusal of my bird books on returning home, however, I’ve determined that they may be twites. Then again, they may not.

Naturally, I was keen to get out of my dry suit, a process facilitated by the rending in two of my neck seal. It really had been melting! I’ve since learned that the probable culprit is sun tan lotion. Alan noticed that his neck seal was showing signs of perishing as well, as he gingerly removed his suit lest it should follow a similar fate. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about ventilation the following day.

Celtic Cross at Eilean Mor

Celtic Cross on summit of Eilean Mor

Just as we were preparing to climb up the hill to watch the splendid sunset, we noticed a large yacht at full sail on a course headed straight for us. I will confess here that my heart sank a little. For some reason, visions of gin-soaked deck parties into the wee hours filled my head. I do realise that this is yachtist and discriminatory, and the ongoing silence emanating from this sizeable vessel upon anchoring made me ashamed of my presumptions.

The laws of camping dictate that it is necessary for me to make the acquaintance of nature several times during the night. This had the advantage of affording me a view of the most spectacular, unpolluted night sky that I have seen in many years. Wow. I mean, just wow. As I wrestled with the tent zipper, I started thinking on how very tiny we are in the Grand Scheme of Things … and other deep thoughts.

Early morning, Sound of Jura

Early morning, Sound of Jura

We were up at dawn on Sunday morning and, after a quick breakfast, we packed up and were back on the water. We waved to the lone crewperson sitting out on the deck of the yacht and made our way back out on to the Sound. We were pleased to note that conditions hadn’t changed much at all from the day before. Regardless, we decided to head back to Loch Sween, even although travelling up the Sound to Carsaig would have been entirely do-able. It was simply the case that we wanted to explore scenic Loch Sween a bit more, including the Faery Isles at the northern end. Plus the car was parked in Tayvallich and a mile’s a long walk.

Breakfast time for otters

Breakfast time for otters

Against a magnificent backdrop of the Paps of Jura, we reached Corr Eilean and toyed with the idea of heading over to Eilean nan Leac. Instead we proceeded north-east back to Danna. This turned out to be a fortuitous choice as, upon cutting through the gap at Sgeir Dhonncha, up ahead we saw a small head in the water followed by a tail – an otter! We held back as he busily wrestled with his breakfast before hauling it ashore to devour. He seemed untroubled by our presence, although we were careful not to get too close. We were able to watch him for a good 10 minutes or so before he moved on to fishing grounds new.

Looking out to Jura from Loch Sween

Looking out to Jura from Loch Sween

As we paddled towards the eastern shore of Loch Sween, it occurred to me that early Sunday morning out on the water truly is the perfect time. It’s the time when it seems humanity is not quite awake yet and we have all of nature to ourselves. For that short period, nature is in charge and all is as it should be.

After a brief stop at Bagh na Doide, we continued northwards past the ruins of Castle Sween. As is usually the case, the return journey seemed longer than the outbound journey and, by the time we reached Eilean Loain, my injured shoulder was starting to hurt. It was nothing that a couple of ibuprofen couldn’t sort out and we were able to continue on to the Faery Isles whose beauty really was quite magical. It was very shallow in places which made me once again appreciate the benefits of being in a sea kayak with little draught.

Britney the coo

Britney the coo

After we’d finished our explorations, we turned south-west towards Tayvallich. One final treat awaited us as we entered the bay. On the north-western shore was a small herd of Highland cattle, several of whom were having a foot bath in the cool waters of the loch. We paddled over to them, fairly certain that they were not officially classified as “wildlife” and that it was therefore acceptable to get up a little closer for a photo opportunity. Indeed, they were unfazed by our approach and obligingly posed for our camera. It was at this time that I noticed that one “coo”, most fetchingly, had her hair in bunches! I kid you not. We could only surmise that she (for it must surely have been a female) had had some sort of vision problem which had been alleviated by the farmer, if not the local hairdresser.

I could scarcely believe that it was only approaching 3 pm when we stepped ashore and, as we headed back down the road to Cowal, I marvelled that it was only the previous day we’d left. Time is merely a vague concept when you are absorbed in each moment, and it’s only then that you are truly living.

2 Comments

  1. Nick says:

    Hi Pam – great blog! I met you and Alan in Tayvallich before we set off on our kayaking trip (We were the other kayakers). So it is lovely to read your account here. We wondered how you had got on and whether you stayed on the island. We had a wonderful trip too – camping on the Point of Knap and then for the 2nd night on Eilean Dubh by Carsaig Bay. What fantastic weather and perfect paddling conditions! I hope we meet again – Nick

  2. pamf says:

    Hi Nick – Good to hear from you! This is the second time I’ve had a fellow kayaker find my blog after meeting them on the water – the Internet is a wonderful thing!

    We wondered about you too, and are glad to learn you also had a good trip. It really was a lovely weekend.

    Hope you didn’t mind my scoping out your gear then 🙂

    Take care. May well see you out there again one day.

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