Marhofn 171.09 - May 2007

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Old canoe, new islands

Hamish Brown

It was inevitable. I had a canoe, Charles needed Scalpay. I'd bought the wood and canvas canoe off a broke fellow-teacher forty years ago for £5. And it ran all the major rivers in Scotland, traversed the Great Glen and explored lochs and seas in the west. Quite a few Munros were reached by the old canoe. I am more into Dawson's list these body-decaying days but longing to canoe again. My baby camper van couldn't carry the old monster, so there had been a moratorium in place for years. However, a new (old) camper could carry a canoe - inside with a clearance of one inch - so with Charles practically commuting to the Outer Hebrides (about all he had left) I suggested his gap tick Scalpay could be picked up en passant. For once a plan went perfectly. We met up at Broadford in early August.

I'd been in Skye over midsummer with some atrocious weather but did grab the odd hill between storms. Still possessing the wee van then, it was nearly blown to a stop on the big brae up under Glamaig and it's the first time I've seen white horses on a road. August could be mobs, midges and monsoon. Was it a sane time for island ticks? And might there be ticks of the blood-sucking kind too?

We parked and started at NG598266: parking for several vehicles and a gate into a field leading down to the sea without any barring fences. Charles had the morning, I had the afternoon. We managed to avoid any launch at lowest ebb. The hill was 11/2 hours up, one hour down, the canoeing a few minutes. A good scalp, eh?

Charles then drove off for Uig and the 6.30pm ferry, I went for the 5.30pm crossing to Raasay. Dun Caan I had done one Hogmanay meet when the turf was so hard and frozen the summit slope needed crampons! I'd been back and also had taken school parties on Raasay, but never been to the north end. What a fantastic road: a feel of utter remoteness through granite-spotted hillsides, a young peregrine flitting from post to post. My fifth night in the new van was on the breezy heights above Brochel Castle. No mobs, no midges, no monsoon.

The last section is Calum's road, named after Calum MacLeod who, when the council refused to extend the road to his house at Arnish, did so himself, single-handed. Took him almost a decade and wore out more boots than all the Munro rounds of Stewart Logan. The council then graciously tarmacked the road. For effect, the road rivals the Bealach na Ba or Mam Ratagan. Memorable. A decent path goes on to Torran then the route climbs up and below a bluff. From its highest point the summit of Beinn na h-Iolaire is soon reached. No iolaire though. That Raasay visit was not scheduled and was, of course, sans canoe. A few hours later we made up for it, arriving at the sea-front facing Castle Tioram.

Tide was on early ebb, a launch within 50 metres possible, and canoeists who had come down the river from Acharacle helped carry my canoe to the edge of the tide. Choppy seas, so a dogleg to pass the big house, heading for South Channel, intending to follow Audrey Litterick's Marhofn notes. She landed on North Channel bay and followed the track along to the lochan to start up thereafter. I landed at an inlet just past a white house so reached the track quickly and turned off up the fork before the loch (a walled pond full of white water lilies). 'Not bad mature conifers' the lady said. Nothing about the wind-blow, a surface of boulders covered in moss, and rhodies. I've known worse but reached the open hillside drenched in sweat. Blessed wind. So Eilean Shona was bagged. On the way back I paddled into Loch Moidart and through by Riska Island to the strand out to the castle, collected wheels from the camper and trundled the canoe back. QED. Eilean Shona can be reached afoot, for North Channel dries out along Shona Beag, but judging the low tide is vital. Charles only escaped by wading, clothes held above his head, like a jungle explorer on the Amazon.

Charles Knowles goes bagging (photo: Hamish Brown)

Charles Knowles goes bagging (photo: Hamish Brown)

That night it rained and dawn came still and midgy, the detestable combination that flaws our paradise. But tide dominates canoeist and I eventually drove on round to Glenborrodale on Loch Sunart. Nothing like midges to make for a fast launching, and no wind for dull canoeing. Carna lay not far off, with an island Risga only in the way (last night it was an island Riska). Temptation to land on the steep west flank was dismissed. Landing could be tricky so it was round to the NE corner and a flight for life up the 169m Cruachan Charna, a ragged rocky summit, which lay just below cloud level.

Well, that was the ticking by canoe. Once loaded I fled to the roomy, midge-free cafe at Ariundle, north of Strontian. Always good nosh. One ear and one eye had been stung but I watched a carload of crazed Germans examining their multiple midge bites and expanding my vocabulary thereby. Time to go till the open season on humans is over.

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