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Summer smiles on sea kayak adventure around the Summer Isles with Explore Highland


By John Davidson

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From the archive: John Davidson recounts a memorable sea kayaking trip to the Summer Isles from a glorious summer weekend in 2012

A spectacular panorama from the deck of the sea kayak.
A spectacular panorama from the deck of the sea kayak.

An island-hopping adventure lay ahead as we made our way to the west coast for a weekend sea kayaking north of Ullapool.

We were in luck. Seven days earlier the temperatures were in single figures and the prospect of a fine weekend on the water looked unlikely.

Now it was about 26 degrees and the sun was beaming across the whole of the Highlands.

For some of our group of seven intrepid explorers, we were new to sea kayaking. I'd spent one evening on the Moray Firth last year and others had never even done that. We were with a number of more experienced paddlers, though, and were keen to make the most of an oh-so-rare opportunity.

The sea was flat calm for all but one afternoon of our trip, and it meant we could experience some lengthy paddling – or it seemed that way to me, at least.

John puts in some paddling around the skerries.
John puts in some paddling around the skerries.

On the minibus we formulated a plan to reach Priest Island, the furthest island from shore in this beautiful archipelago. It would be weather dependant, but this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Our group was led by Inverness-based guide Donald Macpherson, of Explore Highland, with Emma Martin, Jonathan Skinner, Richard Castro, Ali and Stephen Wiseman and myself making up the crew.

We loaded the kayaks at Old Dornie – and I was amazed that all my gear managed to fit in with room to spare! The natural harbour was a fine place to get used to being in the boats and testing our paddling abilities.

Then we were off! We headed around Isle Ristol, past a beautiful sandy beach that we would return to later in the trip, and found ourselves in awe at some of the magnificent sights.

You certainly see things from a different perspective in a kayak.

Donald Macpherson of Explore Highland during the Summer Isles adventure.
Donald Macpherson of Explore Highland during the Summer Isles adventure.

Over the course of the weekend we were followed by seals, watched countless species of sea birds and even did a spot of fishing. The surrounding mountains – always spectacular in these clear blue skies – looked even more impressive with our ocean foreground.

That first night we set up camp on Tanera Mor, the largest of the Summer Isles, and from my tent I had views over to Suilven and Stac Pollaidh to the north, then over the bay to the mainland at Scoraig to the south-east.

We woke to more flat seas and took the opportunity to head out to Priest Island, which I’m told is something of a Mecca to regular kayakers. We island-hopped our way there via the skerries of Sgeir Revan, Sgeir an Aon Iomairt and Stac Mhic Aonghais then round the west of Glas-leac Beag, meeting a number of other kayakers making the most of the fine weather on our way.

Conditions couldn’t have been more perfect and we were struck by how wonderful a journey this was. After enjoying exploring these smaller islands from our boats, we were able to land at Priest Island on a great beach full of massive rounded boulders. Ali was even brave enough to go for a swim in the cold water as the rest of us stretched our legs on dry land, taking in the stunning views around us.

The beach at Priest Island.
The beach at Priest Island.

Stronger winds were forecast for the afternoon, so we had to start heading back quite quickly. The sea was already noticeably bumpier as we got in the boats again but, as we got out onto the open water, one of our number capsized.

The rest of us were told to “raft up” as Stephen got back into his kayak and we could tell this part of the adventure was going to be just that – an adventure.

It was a long way back to Tanera Mor, and we went east initially towards Eilean Dubh, paddling hard through the more testing conditions. Donald decided to change the plan to give us some respite, though, and we tucked in behind Carn Iar, a small island just to the south-east of us now.

Behind its rocky outcrops we welcomed the shelter as we headed between Carn Deas and Sgeirean Glasa then Eilean Dubh. By the time we emerged back into open waters for the final crossing to Tanera Mor, the wind had calmed sufficiently for it to be relaxing again, though we were pleased to be back at camp to share tales of a truly memorable day.

Emma Martin cools off in the beautiful seas.
Emma Martin cools off in the beautiful seas.

The rough spell had been challenging but it certainly added valuable experience we wouldn’t have got from perfect conditions the whole time.

On our final day we “bimbled” around the east of the island, heading through The Anchorage and back across to the mainland. Passing Old Dornie, we ventured onwards to the beach on Isle Ristol, stopping there for lunch before a gentle paddle back to the harbour.

That should have been the end of the story but then, after unloading the boats and packing up, the minibus wouldn’t start! With the help of a local from Polbain, we soon got on our way and rounded the weekend off with ice cream at Ullapool.

It was that sort of weekend – and the sort of weekend that can really get you hooked.

John enjoys flat calm waters as he explores the coastline around the Summer Isles.
John enjoys flat calm waters as he explores the coastline around the Summer Isles.

Route details

Summer Isles

Distance Day one: 8 miles (13km), Day two: 14 miles (22km), Day three: 6 miles (10km)

Terrain Sheltered sea amongst islands nearer Achiltibuie; more exposed for crossings, especially for long trip out to Priest Island

Start/finish Old Dornie, near Achiltibuie, Wester Ross

Map OS Landranger 15

An experience never to be forgotten paddling off the north-west coast

  • During the coronavirus lockdown, please follow government guidelines to stay at home except for essential purposes.
Exploring some of the fascinating rock formations around the archipelago.
Exploring some of the fascinating rock formations around the archipelago.
Donald, Ali Wiseman, Jonathan Skinner and Stephen Wiseman.
Donald, Ali Wiseman, Jonathan Skinner and Stephen Wiseman.


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