Friday, September 23, 2011

Wilderness lost and found in Arisaig.

We journeyed west along the north coast of the Sound of Arisaig towards...

...Eilean a' Ghaill, from which we had set off on our crossing of the Sound, just the previous day. However, as is often the case on trips with such intense experiences as this one, it felt more like a week ago! We had intended camping at Port nam Murrach further up the coast but when we got there my heart sank when I saw a large party of kayaks in the bay complete with tents and a tipi on the machair.

Some were still afloat and I had a very pleasant chat with Mike, their experienced kayak tour guide from Wilderness Scotland. However, it no longer looked like the wilderness and I didn't fancy adding our tents to this burgeoning tented village. Wilderness Scotland are very responsible and leave the wild camp sites spotless but they do use the Sound of Arisaig wild campsites very heavily during the summer. The Land Reform Act Scotland allows wild camping but I can't help thinking that regular, commercial trips of this size (which target the same small number of honey pot sites) are not in the spirit of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which states: "Wild camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place".

This is a photo from one of Wilderness Scotland's partner companies, Rockhopper. It is the wild camp site in Moidart, which we had used the night before. It shows 10 small tents and a large group tent. Wilderness Scotland say in their downloadable brochure "In order to minimise our impact, you will be asked to share a tent with another expedition member of the same sex".  That's very laudable but it makes a lot of people on a fragile spot. There will be even more next year. This year, Wilderness Scotland offered 3 five night wild camping kayak trips in the Sound of Arisaig area. In 2012 they are increasing this to 4 trips. One of the problems is that the experience level of their clients means that they only paddle about 12km per day so that means their trip is condensed into a small area and they use all of the decent camp sites in the area during the trip. Most camping sea kayakers will move about 30km between camp sites and on this day I covered about 50km.

If you want a wilderness experience in the Sound of Arisaig, the dates to avoid are: 2nd Jun - 7th Jun 2012,   30th Jun - 5th Jul 2012,   28th Jul - 2nd Aug 2012 and 1st Sep - 6th Sep 2012. Rockhopper are not advertising their 2012 overnight trips in the area yet but have one overnight trip left this year, 8th Oct - 9th Oct 2011. Of course they are not the only companies offering commercial trips in the area...

 We had a choice, either return to Eilean a' Ghaill or carry on back to Arisaig. The Arisaig option had some attractions. Although it was still over 10km away (round the skerries) it was nearly high tide and I could shave about 3km off that. I could paddle straight through the skerries and the tidal channel inside Eilean Ighe at the mouth of Loch Nan Ceall.  Another advantage was we would arrive about high water at 8:30pm, which would make recovery of the boats very easy as our cars, and Donald's static tent, were only about 25 meters from the HW mark. Decision made, Donald produced some snack bars to fuel the remainder of my 12.5 hour paddling day, then we were off, with the setting sun warming the clouds behind the Sgurr of Eigg.

We entered the South Channel of Loch nan Ceall together and marvelled at the back drop of the Skye Cuillin mountains beyond. Donald then kept to the main channel while I...

...slid through the skerries. The putter of his outboard soon died away and I was left in peace in this amazing place. The boats and the people gathering "spoot" shells had all gone. The sea birds were roosting for the night and even the seals had all slid off the rocks and were out of sight. Apart from the drip from my paddle blades and an occasional pip from an oyster catcher the world of the skerries was silent. I was now glad we had not set up camp on Port nan Murrach. I love paddling on my own in the evening.

As our journey neared its end, the evening mists curled round the jagged peaks of the Cuillin and I felt I had found the Wilderness again.


  1. Thanks for the amazing journey Douglas :-D

    and for reliving it again through the blogs

    Until our next adventure together journeying and keep well

  2. Hi Douglas, wonderful trip report again! Stuck in the dusty M.E. and dreaming of trips just like this! Pity about the commercial companies moving in to spots like this one; when I blogged about it I was most careful to avoid mentioning where that particular spot is - for just that reason

    Kind Regards

  3. Hello Donald it was a truly great trip, it was great to share it together. We will need to get out again soon. it's just a pity I can't manage the hillwalking.

    Thanks Ian, looking forward to another trip together. At the site Donald and I camped Simon also had an experience with a big commercial trip. He had already had his tent up when they arrived. As the weather was good he asked them to move on and not spoil his wilderness experience. Good for him!

  4. Hello Douglas good post. Back in the summer 2009, we arrived at the Moidart site you used to find about 12 kayaks and tents plus a group tent, it was a Welsh commercial trip. We decided to press on, it was about 6pm. We crossed the Sound of Arisaig and the first sandy beach had about 14 kayaks and tents so we didn't land but moved on to the one where you met Wilderness Scotland. By coincidence they were there then too, with about 9 kayaks and tents. We also decided to move on back to our cars at Arisaig and finished our holiday two days early. We were a party of three which I think is much more sustainable than these large commercial trips. I don't want to sound elitist but by taking that number of people who have not spent the time becoming independent explorers into the wilderness these companies are spoiling it for everyone else and trampling all over the Scottish Outdoor Access Code to boot. What about wild camping involving small numbers? ---I don't think so when there is money to be made.
    Yours Rab
    PS will you be talking at the Perth show again this year? I don't see your name on the speakers list.

  5. Hi Douglas, I can add a similar experience to Rabs. In summer 2010 we met big commercial trips on 3 different camp sites in the Sound of Arisaig on three successive nights! We didn't get to camp anywhere decent and had to drag the kayaks over the rocks. There are only a limited number of landing/camping sites in the Sound of Arisaig area and there is no doubt that this commercialisation of the wilderness is spoiling it for everyone else. I dont think Rab is being elitist at all, the wilderness is wilderness because it is not easy to get to. these companies are nursemaiding too many people who think they can just buy their way into the wilderness rather than earn their place in it. There got it off my chest. Thanks for a great blog and I do hope your knee gets better soon. Stuart

  6. Hi Douglas, your blog is one of the reasons I took up sea kayaking :) Thank you. Like you, years in the hills have damaged my knees.

    I would just like to add a different perspective to those comments by Rab and Stuart. Several years ago I went on a commercial trip to the Sound of Arisaig (not Wilderness Scotland). My first comment is that I enjoyed the experience greatly. The one downside for me was the size of the party. There were twelve of us with two guides. We arrived at the Moidart campsite (you used) early afternoon. We erected twelve tents plus a large group tent which the guides shared. While we were there, several couples walked in from Glenuig and took a quick look round and left, clearly disappointed. Next morning we didn't leave until nearly 11am and again several walkers arrived then quickly left. As a keen outdoors person, I felt uncomfortable that we had monopolised that beautiful spot for nearly 21 hours. However, I can assure you that our two guides were highly professional and ensured the site was left spotless.

    Its a difficult one to judge commercialisation like this, in our party none of us were competent to go on such a trip on our own. I and several others were novices with only a few days in a sea kayak but about half the clients had previously been on several of the companies trips. Despite this some had difficulty paddling more than about 8km before the guides had to encourage them and even tow a couple.

    At the time it was a great experience for a novice but now I am not so sure it is good for the remote places. Friends of ours have used Wilderness Scotland for a multiday trip but stayed at the Glenuig inn in the evenings. I think this is much more environmentally friendly and also supports a local business. The company I was with brought everything in, including all food so we contributed nothing.

    Thanks again for a great blog.

  7. Hello Rab, Stuart and Graeme, thank you very much for your comments.

  8. Douglas;

    Your blog/ comments popped up when I Googled Rockhopper Sea Kayaking and Scottish Outdoor Access Code as a consequence of running into a huge party of theirs on that same Moidart location this past weekend. We were camped there and returned from a day trip to find their group of 21 (yes; twenty one!!) paddlers had set up camp around us.
    The clients were a very pleasant bunch having a wonderful experience but, as a stag group from London, couldn't be expected to know our Access Code.
    So it is the leaders/ company we are really annoyed by. When I queried if they were really operating within the spirit of the Access Code, they said yes as they "were being responsible", and almost boasted that they came here with clients 2 or 3 times a month over the summer! What's more, the 2 leader tents were pitched insensitively close to our own - in fact squeezed between us and our daughters .... despite the large areas available elsewhere.
    Seems like the company has moved on from merely poor practice to the ridiculous - and definitely not what the Right of Responsible Access was established for 10 years ago.
    - Rory D

    1. Rory I am horrified to hear this, how selfish and unthinking Rockhopper are. Simon Willis had a similar experience on the same beach with (I think) the Loch Eil centre at least they had the decency to move on when Simon said their staying would spoil his wilderness experience.

      Have you thought of contacting the Lochaber access officer:

      Alastair Stewart
      Access Officer
      Fulton House
      Gordon Square
      Fort William
      PH33 6XY

      Tel: (01397) 707050
      Fax: (01397) 707022

      After my last summer experience, I only visit the Sound of Arisaig in the winter.

      Thank you for your comment, Douglas