As you drive from Broadford, you are aware that you are entering a slightly different world. Everyone waves to you. Cars slow down. People stop and photograph sheep. Eeverything seems gentle until you start descending towards Elgol. The first thing that most people see is the view, Rum to the left, Skye Cuillin to the right and in the middle, Soay. Much further west are the Outer Hebridean islands of Barra and Mingulay.
Soay (Sheep Island) is a great destination for a day trip as there is so much to see, from the Torridonian sandstone cliffs with sills of intrusive basalt to the otters and seals that play around the coast. Crossing from the slipway at Elgol is relatively straightforward and the best option is to head for the line of cliffs that are visible from the setting off point. On the way across, keep a look out for Manx Shearwater as these aeronautical wave skimmers nest on Rum just a few kilometres to the south.
It is best to go along the north coast of the island first due to the tide flowing in a westerly direction for most of the time. On the way around this coastline, it is well worth paddling close to the shore and being as quiet as possible because of the numbers of otter that frequent this small island. After about three kilometers, the entrance to Soay Harbour opens up to your left and a visit ashore here is worthwhile. As the tide drops, a small rapid forms over the bar at the entrance. Gavin Maxwell (of Ring of Bright Water fame) bought the island in 1946 and set up a shark fishery in this sheltered inlet. There are many remains of the industry including the main house (two storey building on the left), outhouses, steam boiler and winch together with many broken pieces of mincing equipment. Maxwell’s book, Harpoon At A Venture, tells the story of the industry. A look about will also reveal an abundance of dreadlocks or Soay sheep’s wool, this is unbelievably soft and the sheep are not shorn but the wool is plucked from their backs.
Never much higher than ten metres, the sandstone cliffs are always above you, in places the sills and dykes become so angled as to make a perfect rock saltire. All of the southerly facing coast is interesting as the rock is fairly soft and has been eroded by the sea when it had been at various levels in the past. A visit to the world’s first solar powered telephone exchange is an option if you intend stopping in Camas nan Gall, the large bay on the south east side of Soay, although this can also be easily done from Soay Harbour.
The last few kilometres of Soay are interesting enough but the views that tend to dominate are those of the Cuillin ridge and the surrounding hills. Heading back to Skye, crossing Soay Sound at the narrowest place allows you to land on the boulder beach where wood can be gathered for a fire if you intend to camp later.
By keeping fairly close inshore there is a reasonable chance that you will see either of our two largest eagles. Golden Eagles are fairly common around there as the terrain is fairly steep, Sea Eagles are less common but still make a great spectacle when overhead. Re-introduced on Rum in 1975, these magnificent raptors are huge, bigger than Golden Eagles, with a white tail and very wide wings. They look almost like a flying piece of scaffold plank.
The common seal population at Eilean Reamhar is steadily increasing and it is almost impossible to pass within two hundred metres and for them not to follow. The young are more inquisitive than the adults but all come to within three metres of the kayaks. Heading towards the outflow of the Scavaig River the seals still follow and entertain you even when the water is more fresh than salt.
A landing is best made below the white hut and, depending on the height of the tide, this is either easy (straight onto glacier scoured rock), or slippery (glacier scoured rock covered with weed). Camping here is an atmospheric must, the Cuillins surround, the sea shimmers and the roar of the waterfall is always heard. A tour boat from Elgol, the Bella Jane, operates a frequent service for foot passengers wishing to experience the solitude of the place. However it is when the boat finally departs for the night that the true feeling of this wilderness comes alive.
Loch Coruisk (cauldron of water) is simply a stunning place and a visit here by kayak would not be complete without carrying your boat up the river and then launching onto the inky water. To paddle the length of this mountain encircled pool is an experience that most people never manage, but for the sea kayaker, it is an opportunity not to be missed. From the launching spot about halfway up the loch is the Dubh ridge, which is the longest scramble in the United Kingdom at just over two kilometres in length with a climb to nine hundred and forty four metres. This, starting from just ten metres above sea level, makes for a sustained scramble of grade 3 standard. There is abundant bird life on the loch including Merganser, Goosander and on the islands in the loch there are about one hundred and twenty pairs of Arctic Tern, fitting for the finest glacially scoured basin in Britain. The loch itself is around one hundred and ten metres deeper than the sea level on the other side of the outflow sill. Above, around the corrie walls, you might catch a glimpse of Golden Eagles as they carry out their search for their evening meal.
Sitting by the waterfall it is not difficult to be seduced by the calmness and colours of the sunset as the sun dips behind the Cuillins. You may, as I have, hear a lone piper on a yacht anchored in the shelter of Loch na Cuilce, playing a few slow airs, which makes sure that the last hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Perhaps by sitting still for half an hour or so you will be rewarded with a close view of a female otter and her cubs playing and hunting in the fast fading light. As night finally takes over from day, you head back to your tent – perhaps a wee dram to celebrate another magical day on the water? “Slainte Mhath”.
Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides and is accessible by bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland of Scotland. As one of the best world-class paddling destinations around it is a “must visit” destination. The article above describes one of the trips. Gordon is BCU Level Five coach (sea and inland) and Skyak offer the full range of BCU courses.
More information, guiding, instruction and travel consultancy available from
Gordon or Morag Brown
Isle of Skye
Scotland IV43 3QS