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Exploring Scotland’s west coast on a guided sea kayaking tour

Written by Fiona

August 08 2021

This article was published in The Scots Magazine and focuses on a guided sea kayaking tour of the west coast of Scotland.

Sea kayaking on Scotland’s west coast. Credit: Stuart Wagstaff
Island camps. Credit: Stuart Wagstaff

Scottish sea kayaking adventure

Paddling a sea kayak on a calm waters on Scotland’s west coast, I find my everyday thoughts ebbing away as I concentrate on the rhythmic, side-to-side strokes.

My pace is deliberately laid-back, allowing me to look around and enjoy the beautiful surroundings of a narrow sea channel between the mainland town of Oban and the small island of Kerrera.

As if travelling into a freshly painted oil canvas, the scene is of a slowly setting sun – its brush strokes of pink gently building on the water – and a dramatic backdrop of the dark mountains on Mull.

So, it is no wonder I leap out of my seat and jar my paddle with a noisy splash when a sleek, dark head suddenly pops out of the sea just a few metres to my left.

Regaining my balance, I realise it is a playful seal that is clearly hoping for company and some fun.  With a boldness I’ve rarely witnessed in the wild, the seal accompanies me, dipping down into the water then swimming up again in front, to the side and behind my kayak.

He does similar with the other kayakers in our small group, including my partner Gordon, as we continue the journey to the north-west side of Kerrera.

New to sea kayaking, my first day on a guided mid-week adventure has been long and tiring, but also very up-lifting. 

Day one: Guided sea kayak trip

Today, our instructor has taught a range of skills for propelling the narrow and lightweight craft through the water, including paddling forwards, backwards and through a 180-degree turn, as well as how to stop. 

Another important lesson was how to arrest a “wobble”, which proved very useful as our group ventured away from the shore of Loch Feochan and into less settled waters.

The four-mile sea loch is located south of Oban and west of the historic settlement of Kilmore. While generally sheltered from the worst of Scotland’s winds and rain, the water can be choppy and there are sometimes faster currents and waves to negotiate. 

Fortunately, the more familiar I become with the feel of the water, the more I relax, which makes for an easier and faster passage through the water.

We paddle generally west throughout the day in companionable pairs or threes, chatting and getting to know those we have only just met. The age range is 15 to 60 and there is an even male-female split.

Every so often, someone points to an interesting attraction, such as a castle or island ruin, or wildlife on the land, sea or in the sky.

It’s a tranquil experience and we take a leisurely picnic lunch after landing on a tiny and remote beach.

Our aim for the day’s paddle is Kerrera, where we will wild camp, and as the mouth of Loch Feochan opens into the wider sea, we change direction to paddle north into the Sound of Kerrera. This section is part of the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail, a 95-mile west coast route from Ganavan in the north to Helensburgh.

After a short time on the rougher open sea, I am relieved to find the Sound is calmer and I am even more delighted when the nosey seal pops up near my kayak.

After so many hours of paddling, using many muscles that haven’t been engaged for a long time, the process of landing on rock and beach, then setting up our two-person tent, is tiring.

As Gordon and I eat a simple meal cooked over our stove, the sun sets fully and stars come out in the darkening sky. 

Exploring Scotland’s west coast. Credit: Stuart Wagstaff
Many sights to see on a kayaking trip. Credit: Stuart Wagstaff

Day two: More paddling skills on kayak trip

We sleep well and awaken only because we hear other people preparing their breakfasts. Returning camping equipment to our kayaks, where it is stowed in purpose-made waterproof storage areas, I am heartened by continuing clear and bright weather.

Today, we use our kayaks to visit two Inner Hebridean islands in Loch Linnhe. The sea loch uniquely follows the geological line of the Great Glen Fault.

First, we land at sparsely populated Lismore, or Lios Mòr, which means the “great garden” in Gaelic. The island grass is lush and very green.

Lismore is 10 miles long and situated at the southern end of the Great Glen. Because of its location, it has played an important part in the history of the west Highlands and has an ancient and unbroken tradition of Gaelic culture, as well as a variety of historical monuments, including the Iron Age Broch of Tirefour Castle, the cathedral church of and the 13th century ruins of Castle Coeffin.

We paddle next to tiny, privately owned Shuna, which although close to the mainland area of Appin has a wonderfully remote and wild atmosphere. The island’s highest point is at 233ft in the north, while to the southern end there is a table-topped hill and a small loch.

A small ruined tower house, once Castle Shuna, sits on the island and opposite another island fortress of Castle Stalker, which we later paddle past.

As the day comes to an end, a tailwind picks up and we find our kayaks are propelled forwards at a faster pace. As a final lesson, we are introduced to the excitement of “kayak surfing” and our instructor shows us how to catch the top of a small wave, before being carried along at fantastic speeds on the crests of the waves.

In seemingly no time at all, we are closing in on our landing spot on the east bank of the sea loch at the end of the two-day trip. Climbing out of the kayaks, we stretch aching limbs. I am surprised by a sense of being a little unbalanced after so long on the water.

Seeing satisfied grins from everyone, it’s clear most of the kayakers will return for another coastal adventure in the future. Soon afterwards, Gordon and I book a more advanced tides and navigation kayaking course with the same school.

Our eventual goal is to buy our own sea kayaks and be equipped with enough knowledge to safely head off for self-guided tops along Scotland’s long and varied coastline.

More info: www.seakayakoban.com

Kit list for sea kayaking in Scotland

  • Sea kayak (hire from numerous outlets or join a guided trip with hire included)
  • Spray deck
  • Paddle
  • Buoyancy aid or PFD (Personal Floatation Device)
  • Helmet
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun lotion
  • Swimming costume
  • Shorts or running leggings
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Shortie wetsuit (if you prefer)
  • Gloves, such as cycle gloves, to prevent blisters
  • Neoprene gloves (if conditions are cold)
  • Footwear (that you don’t mind getting wet)
  • Neoprene socks or boots  (if you get cold feet)
  • Extra side bar

Inspiration: Water trails

There are a number of kayak and canoe trails to follow in Scotland, including:

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