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Kayak adventure: Around the islands of Raasay and Rona

Written by Fiona

June 08 2023

I guess that unless you test your limits, you will never know what they are. However, I confess I was thinking some other much darker thoughts during a challenging kayak trip around the Scottish islands of Raasay and Rona, both off the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Let me tell you more.

Packing the kayaks at Sconser.
Start of adventure.

A 3-day circumnavigation of 2 islands

Hubby G and I were invited to join our friends Stew and Alan for the kayaking adventure. We referred to the Scottish Sea Kayaking guidebook by Doug Cooper (Pesda Press), which revealed the paddle would be about 78km in total. The book is useful for gaining information on high and low water, tidal times etc.

We planned to drive to Sconser on the east coast of Skye, then paddle around a third of the journey on the east side of Raasay and to the north of the island. Night one would be a wild camp on Raasay.

The next day, we hoped to paddle anti-clockwise around Rona and than gain some kilometres heading south along the west coast of Raasay. A second overnight camp on Raasay would be followed by the final stretch of paddling back to Sconser.

Setting off.

My first challenge was agreeing to a three-day wild camping trip by kayak. It was my first overnight trip in a kayak and I was dubious about the weather and the enjoyment of nights with swarms of midges.

I also needed to test my skills of packing for such a trip. As it turns out, you can take loads of kits and instead of my usual “paring down” of items to create a lighter walking or cycling pack, I could add in items to make the trip more comfortable.

My P&H Scorpio sea kayak has tons of space in the watertight hatches and I took advantage of this. We packed tents, inflatable camping mattresses, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food, snacks, water, spare clothing, safety equipment, sunglasses, sun cream – and midge nets.

Another test would be three consecutive days of paddling – and a total distance of almost 80km. This seemed like a long way for me and I would be adventuring with three guys who were very likely to be stronger than me.

I knew I’d be out of my comfort zone at some point as well. On the land, whether running, walking or cycling, I am usually feel quite familiar with the location or the terrain, I know how to navigate and I am also equipped with skills and experience required to be safe. It’s different in a kayak on the open sea and in conditions that might prove to be windy and tidal.

The trip: Day 1 Sconser to the north of Raasay

Leaving vehicles at Sconser, we launched close to where the ferry departs Skye for Raasay. The weather was mild and the sea was stunningly clear and, at first, mirror still. We soon settled into what I felt was a pleasant paddling speed and I focused on trying to remember to be relaxed but positive, rather than trying too hard.

We headed across a narrow stretch of the Sound of Raasay and then between the south end of Raasay and the north end of Scalpay Island to reach the eastern coastline of Raasay.

I felt a light wind at my back and the tide was slightly in our favour, which meant we made fairly quick progress north.

We aimed to hug the shore as much as possible and enjoyed gorgeous shoreline views of rocks, the island terrain and, further on, a beautiful waterfall. The landscape on Raasay reminded me of the northern end of Skye, where I’d previously run the Trotternish Ridge. The bird life was often mesmerising as bird after bird swooped low over the sea or dived into the water right in front of us.

Within five minutes of setting off, we spotted our first seal and this was just the start of the many sightings of these wonderfully curious creatures throughout the trip. It always seemed that just as I was starting to get a bit bored with paddling into a big area of sea, another seal would pop up its head to entertain me.

The total distance o day one was 28km and we enjoyed a few stops, for snacks and lunch.

What I learned on day one is that:

  • I am not too slow at paddling.
  • Time goes by faster if you have someone to paddle companionably next to you.
  • A favourable tide and wind is fabulous.
  • Distances are very hard to judge in a kayak. At times, I was sure we were only 10 minutes from a planned beach stop or a headland, when it actually took an hour and 10 minutes.
  • Laden boats are heavy to carry on land but you do not notice the weight when paddling on the sea.
Our kayaks and the other boats from the guided group.
Wild camp spot.

Night 1: Wild camp on Raasay

I am guessing that many kayakers use the same camp spot on the northern end of Raasay. This is not to say there are many kayakers. We saw only one other group during our three days and we met these five kayakers at the wild camp spot on Raasay.

The group was being guided and they had already set up camp on a beautiful area of flat and short grass just above a small and stony beach when we arrived.

At first I felt disappointed that we would be sharing our wild camping spot but then we got chatting to them and it was enjoyable to meet other people doing a similar activity.

One couple was from Cornwall and it was their first kayaking trip to Scotland. They were impressed by the tranquility, wildlife, remote locations and the lack of other people. They talked about how busy Cornwall is, even when paddling off the coast.

They were less impressed, later, when the midges made an appearance!

Our group set up two tents and then cooked a meal. We enjoyed a couple of beers, too. All this happened before the midges anrrived and then we had to sit with midge nets over our heads and clothes fully covering all skin.

Midges are a pain but if you cover your skin, you are much less likely to be bitten.

We all headed to bed fairly early. Although it was still light – the sun sets late in the north of Scotland in summer – we were tired from the day of paddling.

We had also checked the weather forecast for the next day and conditions looked a bit uncertain so we wanted to be up early to make a decision on the paddling.

Day 2: Paddle around Rona

A circumnavigation of Rona is close to 22km. This was made much harder due to winds and rough sea conditions.

However, at first the sea seemed kind and we began with optimism. The east side of Rona was fairly sheltered and we decided that we would make a decision on whether to continue at the top of the small island.

Rona measures only 3.6 square miles of land and has very few permanent inhabitants. There are a few cottages, three of which are available as holiday homes.

It’s a far flung island that I doubt I would have visited if I wasn’t kayaking. The views from the sea to the land were of a rocky coast with many natural caves. One large cave is called Church Cave, which is so called thanks to what looks like a stone altar and stone benches.

We also spotted a sea eagle while kayaking, as well as myriad other much smaller birds.

Towards the northern tip of Rona is a lighthouse. It was built in 1857 and automated in 1975. The closer we paddled to the lighthouse, the more I understood the reason for an alert signal at this point.

The sea became much rougher and there were many rocks that could have been the potential downfall of a misguided boat.

This was when the trip started to push my limits. We entered a stretch of rough sea that made me wonder, very suddenly, if my kayak really was as solid and stable as I’d previously presumed.

The sea seemed angry. White tops crashed all around at times and when I looked across at G, Stew and Alan, half their kayaks seemed to disappear under the sea.

It was hard to hear anything being said and the sounds of the sea raged around me. Close to the coast, larger and angrier waves crashed on to jagged rocks.

I worried about what would happen if the sea suddenly reared up higher and capsized me. I had completed many safety sessions and I knew how to get myself back in my boat but what would be the chances of managing this in these conditions?

In a calmer bay between a couple of headlands, our group came together for a chat. We looked at the map and decided that the tougher conditions would be fairly limited and only between the calmer stretches of bay. The bays were more sheltered from the winds and they made lovely havens of flat, clear waters and delightful paddling.

It was just the feisty, windy, scary sections as we rounded rocky pointy bits and jutting headlands that I really didn’t like. But, as I said earlier, until you test your limits, you never know what those limits are and it’s then that you learn how you will cope.

How did I cope? I screamed a bit, swore a lot, gritted my teeth, tried to stay calm, swore a lot again and then just got on with it. The more we paddled in the rough waters, the more I learned that our Scorpios – we all have P&H Scorpio sea kayaks – are brilliantly stable boats.

I also paddled with conviction and I was alert to the need to adjust and balance when the seas threw up wobbles and waves that I wasn’t expecting.

We also took a few breaks for food, water and a rest in the calmer bays and coves.

Calmer bays.
Checking the map.

Overall, it was a very testing day and, in the end, we did not paddle along the west coast of Raasay but instead we had another wild camp night. This time, we had the flat area of grass to ourselves.

As we rested in warm sunshine (and a breeze, which kept the midges away), I felt my body relax again. I was sore in so many muscles, from legs, to butt, core, shoulders and neck. I hadn’t realised how much of my body I’d relied on in the challenging conditions and as I sat in my camp chair to rest, I felt aches and pains everywhere.

I reflected mentally, too. The guys said I had coped really well in my first really rough seas. I wasn’t sure, at that point, how I felt about this. Yes, I’d survived and I’d got through it, but I think I prefer fairweather paddling.

It’s the same as running or walking in the wet, wind, snow and ice. I can do it but it’s more Type 2 fun than something I really enjoy.

Credit: Alan Dow
Credit: Alan Dow
Credit: Alan Dow

Night 2: Raasay wild camp

With the top of the island to ourselves, we cooked, shared beers, laughed and chatted loudly. I think that a day of challenging outdoors conditions always make you laugh and chat louder after the event.

We turned in even earlier than the night before. We were all tired – and we planned a 4.30am rise the next day.

Calmer bays.

Day 3: West coast of Raasay to Sconser

To catch the high tide and a couple of gaps between Raasay and the smaller out-lining islands, we need a high tide. This meant we needed to be on the water by 5.30am latest.

We just about managed this but even then we had a couple of short portages over stretches of causeway between the islands. These were actually quite fun although the boats were heavy and I struggled a bit to carry my boat over rocks and wet sand with Hubby G at one end and me at the other.

The water in these narrow passages was wonderfully still and beautifully clear. It felt like a treat to be paddling in the early morning calm and seemingly the only people in our watery world.

In fact, we saw no one until we arrived back at Sconser!

A short portage.

At around 8am, I demanded that we stop for breakfast. I’d had a coffee and a quick snack before we had left at 5am and I was very hungry. We found a lovely cove with a curve of stoney beach where we stopped for a while.

The sun was starting to tease us through the cloud. The weather had been cloudier and colder than we had hoped for the entire trip, but, at last, it seemed we might be treated to some sunshine.

We enjoyed views across to Skye again, including the strange shapes of the Quiraing hills, and further distant to the outline of mountains. There were more caves to peer into as well.

The day of paddling totalled a distance of 25.5km. The sea and wind were much calmer than the day before and, at times, I felt like my paddling was strong. At other times, I thought my muscles would explode with tiredness.

Three days of sitting in a paddle and using the same muscles for hours and hours was taking its toll. These are not muscles that I usually use, too, because kayaking is an activity I do less frequently than land-based sports.

Although I’d been working hard to engage my core and use my legs as well, my shoulders were sore. I also had blisters on my hands where my short fingered gloves didn’t reach.

But there was a sense of satisfaction. I was close to completing my first multi-day wild camping kayaking trip.

We stopped for lunch and as we did we realised we had only about 6km left to paddle to return to our vehicles. The guys said they wished they had several more days of paddling left – and they started chatting about a longer trip next time.

Me? I felt three days was enough for now. I am sure I would enjoy another multi-day trip, although I would prefer days of full sunshine and light winds!

As we paddled back to Sconser and crossed the Sound of Raasay once more, several seals came out to greet us home.

This is a fantastic trip, especially if you get the right weather, but it’s also fairly committing.

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