canoe across scotland part 1: mallaig to fort william

Struggling under my portage pack’s tiresome weight, I climbed the final twenty metres to the top of the dam wall at the west end of Loch Quoich, deep in Scotland’s northwest highland wilderness. After two days of lining, dragging and carrying, we could finally look forward to covering the next fifteen kilometres by sail and paddle power. I reached the crest, excited to see the landscape unfold – and gazed in horror at the sight that greeted me. The view to the east revealed no expanse of water upon which to float; rather, a hellish valley of sand and mud that stretched for kilometres, an appalling portage and a serious blow to our prospects. I looked back at Matt, whose position did not yet afford him the advantage of my perspective.

‘How’s the view?’ he shouted. ‘Is the loch still there?’
I said nothing and waited him for to make his own discovery.

Several months earlier we had planned an adventurous canoe journey in Scotland. Our ideas grew and developed, finally settling on a grand traverse of the Scottish highlands from Mallaig in the west to Perth in the east, via some of the wild north’s most dramatic and remote landscapes. Our planned route covered 250 kilometres of sea lochs, freshwater lochs, river systems – and portages. We took our inspiration from Andy Hall’s and Ray Goodwin’s 1991 crossing via this route, hoping to complete the distance in similar style.

On the first of July we paddled out of Mallaig harbour, at the end of ‘the road to the isles’ on Scotland’s northwest coast. With Skye’s dramatic mountain skyline behind us, we entered the huge expanse of Loch Nevis and paddled the flooding tide towards Camusrory. To the north the mountains of Knoydart were shrouded in mist and, as the west wind strengthened, a steady rain began to fall. It felt a suitably committing start to our adventure.

We arrived at the head of Loch Nevis at local high water, to maximise the paddleable distance up the river Carnach and to delay the moment when we would step from our canoe. From here, we began to transport ourselves and our equipment across the watershed into the river Garry system to the east. We knew this would involve a portage of ten kilometres and a height gain of 250 metres; we were uncertain, however, of the demands that the terrain ahead would place upon us. We were soon to find out.

Two kilometres of lining upstream ended with an increased river gradient, its rocky bed forcing us onto the marshy valley floor. It was quickly apparent that the terrain and our equipment weight would prevent uphill travel in one push; we were forced to carry portage packs to a suitable cache, before retracing our steps to rejoin the canoe and reunite it with our equipment. The whole process could then begin again. The wind and rain intensified, as a frontal system laid its soggy isobars across the bleak Knoydart mountains. Drenched to our base layers, the only way to remain warm was to maintain a constant physical activity. This at least was no problem, notwithstanding our protesting bodies.

By early evening we arrived at a distinct bend in the river Carnach, next to the swollen stream beneath a towering rocky crag. As the wind whipped through the narrow valley, we hustled to prepare food and set up camp, racing the onset of hypothermia. Our spirits had been lifted by a chance late afternoon encounter with a couple of Knoydart locals, whose enthusiasm at our crazy adventure had given us a much-needed boost as our energy levels had threatened to flag. But right now, we needed sleep. Shivering in my sleeping bag after nine hours of constant effort, I hoped for good progress the next day.

We woke to an improvement in conditions; the rain had eased, leaving low grey clouds clinging to the streaming hillsides. Squelching up the faint track above our campsite, we soon reached a boggy plateau enclosed by surrounding mountains. Ditching our packs at the next sharp bend in the river, we returned for the canoe, buoyed by the prospect of a new day ahead and the excitement of moving through unfamiliar terrain. Since leaving Loch Nevis we had encountered few walkers, the remoteness of our situation more evident as we climbed towards the watershed.

The route became more challenging as we climbed towards the tiny Lochan nam Breac, hidden beneath Sgurr na Ciche’s towering northern flanks. Lining the canoe was more difficult as the steepening stream bed became choked with boulders; the portage trail, slick with mud and running water, hid treacherous holes beneath its long grass. We dragged and carried the boat onwards.

Finally we crested the high point of our crossing and began the descent to Loch Quoich, still hidden behind its final grassy barrier. As the sun made a brief appearance, we ate a much-needed lunch and felt our sprits rise as we contemplated an evening arrival in the river Garry system. Only one more hour and we could look forward to paddling and sailing in relatively effortless comfort…

…and so, as Matt arrived at the viewpoint and gazed across the waterless desert where Loch Quoich had once existed, a horrified silence descended on us.

Absorbing our new reality, we dejectedly deployed the canoe trolley and trundled slowly along the rough track that parallels the loch on its north side. After a couple of kilometres of painfully slow progress, a ribbon of water appeared to offer escape onto the main loch. We lowered the boat down a steep grassy slope to within ten metres of the water’s edge. At last, we could continue our journey in less grim circumstances; our flagging spirits rose once more.

Scouting the put-in, I stepped closer to the water’s edge, leaving the shingle shoreline and walking out onto a sand bank. After three steps, I plunged through the thin surface layer and found myself thigh-deep in oozing, clinging mud. Matt raced across and dragged me free, as Loch Quioch threatened to claim my wellies. Attempts to skim the canoe across the treacherous surface failed; only twenty feet from the water, we were entirely unable to transport ourselves over this final hurdle. A sense of despondency now gripped us; the prospect of hauling our kit up and out of this mess was too appalling to consider. We scouted further along the shoreline and found a potential put-in where the steeper rocky shoreline permitted a more secure launch.

A new concern, however, now raised its head; we were uncertain that there was sufficient water in the connecting channel to allow to an escape from this trap. Envisioning benightment on an ocean of mud, and after yet another hour of exhausted portaging, we anxiously launched and finally dragged, shoved and waded our way into open water. Feeling like arctic explorers finally escaping the grip of enveloping sea ice, we at last felt deep water under the hull. We set sail and paddled the remaining fifteen kilometres to the end the loch. Camped against the dam wall two hours later, we celebrated our escape from Loch Quioch.

Day three, in comparison, was a breeze – despite the headwind that kept us honest all the way to the Great Glen. With little water in the upper river Garry, we lined, hauled and waded downstream. Progress with our loaded canoe was quicker than overland portages and we appreciated the absorbing tasks of choosing lines, leapfrogging and rope management. After a couple of hours the river volume increased, with a series of rapids down to Loch Garry. Some we ran, a couple we lined – and one, despite my confidence, we should have walked. Swamped and sinking, we wallowed to the river bank as our trolley wheels threatened to float free from the boat. Emptying out, we continued on our way, revelling in the the river’s speed as we finally enjoyed a free ride downstream. An upwind paddle the length of Loch Garry preceded a trolley portage down to the Great Glen, where the inviting welcome of the Invergarry Hotel proved irresistible. A couple of pints and a gourmet burger later, we wobbled down to the Loch Oich shoreline, from where we sailed the NE breeze down to Laggan Locks at the entrance to Loch Lochy. This campsite on the banks of the Caledonian Canal felt a far cry from the wild grandeur of Knoydart. But with a Fort William finish line now in our sights, we enjoyed the relaxed surroundings – confident that success was now in our grasp.

Waking on day four to calm sunny conditions, we launched into the mirror-like waters of Loch Lochy and paddled purposefully down the centre of this dramatic cleft in the Scottish highlands, as a light breeze gradually filled in behind us. Six hours after our launch we tethered our canoe to the egress pontoon at Neptune’s Staircase, lay down on the dock and fell asleep. Our crossing of the Knoydart mountains, our grand canoe adventure from Mallaig to Fort William, was complete.