The Inverpolly Lochs, located in the western Scottish highlands, are a popular destination for wild camping and canoeing. This is the account of the dos Reis-Escalona expedition to the region in a folding kayak.
Day 1 (4th of June): Veyatie
A 12-hour drive took us from Chinnor (England) to Elphin (Scotland), the start-point of the expedition. We launched the folding kayak from Elphin’s fish hatchery on the shores of Loch Veyatie. Before launching we had a chat with a few friendly fishermen who gave us advice and info on the area. They particularly suggested we visit Loch Sionasgaig. They were very merry, probably due to the two bottles of whisky they were passing around.
Our plan was to paddle up Loch Veyatie and then along the Fionn River and into Loch Fionn, then climb Suilven (an incredibly picturesque mountain), visit the Falls of Kirkaig, portage over the hills into Loch Sionasgaig, camp on a beautifully wooded island (Eilean Mor), portage back to Veyatie and finally paddle back to the car. All this in about five days.
We started paddling at around 7pm with a nice strong tail wind. Loch Veyatie is guarded on its south side by Cùl Mor, a large and steep monolith that looked very moody under the overcast sky. In no time we reached the northwest end of Veyatie and went into a secluded bay (Loch a’ Mhadail) to try and camp away from the wind. An inviting sandy beach attracted our attention, but it turned out to be a bad spot for camping. The sand was too loose and the tent pegs would not stay put for long, so the tent flapped all night long under the strong wind, from which there was no escape. The sand was hard and the night miserable.
Day 2: Fionn and Suilven
We woke up to a glorious cloudless blue sky. Suilven, to the north, with its ragged ridge looked like a dormant dragon guarding the lochs. The wind was still strong, and a short crossing through choppy waters took us to the Fionn River, which flows north into Loch Fionn, through a series of shallow rapids that had to be waded. We reached a splendid meadow on the south end of Loch Fionn were we set up our tent. I must say the Fionn valley was an absolute world of tranquility. The hills were very green and the water very blue. A few fishermen were wading slowly along the shores looking for trout. The shallow river meant powerboats could not get into the Loch.
Summer days here are extremely long, and although the sun does set, it remains hidden just below the horizon so that there is no proper night, just a few hours of twilight around midnight. At around 3pm, after having spent most of the day lazing around, we realised we could climb Suilven that afternoon as we would easily have 7 more hours of daylight. So we set off. The views from the steep slopes of Suilven were absolutely magnificent. There were no people on the mountain. The ridge to the western (highest) summit is narrow and impressive. The south summit (which we did not climb), has a pyramidal shape with a strange resemblance to Machu Picchu. It took us two and a half hours to reach the main summit (731m). Here we finally had mobile reception and had time to text home to pacify the cuaimas.
The view south from Suilven’s summit ridge. Loch Veyatie (the long lake on the left) flows into Loch Fionn (middle right). Loch Sionascaig is the large lake on the top left, with a pristine island in the middle (Eilean Mor) that looks like two camel bumps. We camped on the island for one night. Cùl Mòr is the large mountain on the centre left. The cone-shaped mountain in the middle just behind Cùl Mòr is Cùl Beag. #highlands #suilven #veyatie #fionnloch #sionascaig
On the descent we saw a group of eight does (female deer) grazing on the slopes of the mountain. As soon as they spotted us they sprinted downhill and crossed the meadow below at elegant speed. Deer are very abundant in this area. You see deer tracks everywhere. In fact, the abundance of deer and lack of predators (wolves became extinct from Britain 250 years ago) mean the ancient forests that used to cover this area cannot recover. The only remnants of forests are found in small loch islands, along cliffy slopes, or in fenced-off areas. Most of Scotland used to be covered in forests which disappeared due to human pressure.
The day was warm and then the night was cold, but it was warm and comfortable in the tent, which this time was well pegged to the soft short grass.
Day 3: Fionn and Falls of Kirkaig
We woke up to another glorious sunny day. We went to bed at 9pm the day before and woke up at 10am: 13 hours of solid sleep! After breakfast (hot chocolate and granola) we set off with the kayak along the Fionn to visit the Falls of Kirkaig on the north part of the lake. The falls are on the river that drain the loch northwards into the sea. Paddling the unloaded kayak is nice as it is much faster and responsive. We glided along the water waiving at the fishermen as we went pass. There is a trail from Inverkirkaig (a “scattered crofting township” to the north that can be reached by car) to the falls, and thus there were quite a few people around. The falls are about 15m tall and plunge noisily into an enclosed pool of dark waters surrounded by very steep terrain. In fact, to reach the water you must jump from a boulder at the bottom of the canyon, and then climb back up on a knotted rope left in place for that purpose. The day was hot and the proposition of jumping into the water very tempting. But not being able to see into the water made us decide against this.
On the way back the breeze finally subsided, and The Terror of the Highlands made a brief appearance: The Midge. Midges are tiny flies from the Ceratopogonidae family (Diptera), which may come out en masse to suck the blood out of innocent vertebrates minding their own business. Luckily, the wind picked up again and thus the midges disappeared. This cycle was repeated a few more times during the day, a bad omen for the days ahead.
We were very curious about Sionasgaig Loch and its pristine island, Eilean Mor, which appears to be a classic canoe camping destination. To reach Sionasgaig one must portage the kayak and all the equipment for about 2 Km along rough terrain and lochans (small lochs). We decided to take the portage along Na Tri Lochan, a set of three small lochs on the south side of Fionn. Because it was late in the afternoon, we portaged the kayak to the first lochan and made camp III there. This first part of the portage involved carrying the kayak over 300m of Scottish bog. However, given the preceding May was one of the hottest and driest on record, the bog was pretty dry but still treacherous: the seemingly flat terrain has many soft spots and holes and one must pay attention all the time. The bog here is a combination of grass, wildflowers of many colours (including many orchids), mosses and carnivorous plants (Drosera sp.). After setting up camp the midges made another brief appearance.
Day 4: Sionascaig
The morning went by on a cycle of paddling the kayak along a lochan, unloading it, carrying all the gear to the next lochan, walking back to the kayak, carrying the kayak over the dry bog to the next lochan, and so on. After the third lochan we reached a long downhill valley (about 800m) that led directly to Sionasgaig. Carrying the kayak over the long valley was heavy work (the kayak weights about 40 Kg). The 800m valley translated into a 2.4 Km trek given that we had to do the valley three times.
We reached Eilean Mor in the middle of Sionasgaig Loch in the early afternoon. The island is hilly and it is covered by a green forest of small trees. In between the trees a pretty natural garden flourishes: ferns, mosses, lichens, mushrooms, bluebells and other wildflowers abound. An enchanted place. The small waves crashed on the steep rocky shore making a gurgling sound that is probably as ancient as the surrounding mountains: Stac Pollaidh (612m), Cùl Beag (769m), Cùl Mor (849m), and Suilven (731m) enclose the loch in a ring of towering rock that makes Sionasgaig a beautiful place to set up camp. The lake has a remote feeling and we didn’t see anyone that day, not even afar. In fact, it would only be late on the following day that we would see people again.
Unfortunately the sheltered forest of the island hid a macabre secret: The Midge. Without wind midges were kings, and we were forced onto a tiny rocky outcrop on the shore of the island. Here the sporadic wind gave us some respite and a good place to cook a meal. Our only hope was a drop in temperature during the night, which would make the midges dormant. Midges rest under the leaves of moist vegetation. If it is too hot and dry, they die, and this is why they are uncommon in Southern England. On the other hand, if it is too cold, they cannot fly. Thus Scotland offers them that ideal narrow window of humidity and mild temperatures that allows them to prosper.
To escape the midge menace and wait for temperatures to drop we went on a long paddle along the southern and eastern shores of Sionasgaig. We decided to check out the valley above Lochan na Claise, on the east shore, which would be our portage back to Veyatie. Here we saw an iridescent blue dragonfly that had been captured by a Drosera plant and was in the process of being digested. This species of damselfly is very thin and about 5cm (2 inches) long. I once read on a thread on the net that Drosera would not be able to catch big flies, and thus would not be suitable to control flies indoors. It appears to me that the Scottish Drosera will take anything that comes their way!
Back on the island the midges were still out in full swing. After dinner on the rocky outcrop we retreated to the tent, which we had placed onto a soft cushion of mosses. Inside the tent we could see a swarm of midges gathering in between the tent fly and the inner mesh. We were finally safe from the midge menace. The land was soft and the sleep was excellent. At midnight I woke up for a wee break and was greeted by the golden-fire sun hiding on the north horizon.
Day 5: The Long Portage
The final day. This time we had to paddle hard upwind across choppy waters to reach the eastern shore and Lochan na Claise. The valley above the lochan goes uphill for about 1.5 Km. This was going to be a long portage, and long it was. It took us a total of three hours to ferry all the gear and the kayak over the valley. Two Fitzcarraldos carrying a boat over a mountain. The day was very sunny and very hot. At moments refreshingly breezy, at moments still and sweaty, with midges and horse flies feasting on us. After the three hours we reached Loch a’ Mhadail, the bay we had camped at on the first night. Here the breeze finally picked up again and midges were never to be seen again. We washed ourselves in the lake and discovered a few ticks (a gift from the deer) perching on the skin behind our knees.
It was mid afternoon and we suddenly realised we had the real prospect of reaching the car in Elphin by about 7pm, with plenty of time to drive down to Ullapool for a well-deserved hot meal to be washed down with some good old pints. That realisation gave us an energetic impetus to tackle Veyatie and its headwind as if it were some sort of tiny lake with still waters. We paddled like kings across the waters, always guarded by the big Cùl Mor on the south. The sky was now overcast and the wind strong, but the feeling of glory overwhelmed us. And to Elphin we made it on time!
At Ullapool we ended up dining at the Seaforth. A pot of Scottish mussels accompanied by Fish and Chips and Scampi and Chips in a Basket, all downed with lager and cider, the waitresses mesmerised by the two dirty men that finished their meal in a mere few minutes.
Day 6: The Return
A well-deserved rest was had at Broomfield Campsite in Ullapool. The Talisker from Tesco warmed our spirits up during the night while we admired the sunset across Loch Broom. In the morning we undertook the long drive back to Chinnor, this time with much less traffic. We had a big hot breakfast at the Atholl Arms in Dunkeld, on the shores of the River Tay. A memorable expedition.
Our vessel was a two-man, 18-foot long, Klepper Aerius II folding kayak. It has a wood frame with a canvas and rubber skin. The empty kayak weights close to 40 Kg including paddles, seats, and the sprayskirt. The kayak has a payload of 380 Kg and it is very stable even in rough weather (in 1958 Hannes Lindemann crossed the Atlantic Ocean solo in a 17-foot AEII). We carried 8 Kg of food calculated for seven days, of which we ate about 2/3. Our tent was a two-man MSR FreeLite II weighting only 910g. I was very impressed with this tent. The total distance travelled was 50 Km including the two portages (1.6 Km x 3 and 1,6 Km x 3), the climb to Suilven (3.3 Km x 2) and the visit to Kirkaig Falls (800m x 2), giving a paddling distance of ca. 27 Km.
Map of the expedition