AnalogueLife / September 30, 2021
Sometime in 2016/17 I came across a link to Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy, North Uist, Scotland. Hanging in the rafters of the on-site Café at the visitor Centre/Museum was a ‘canoe.’ What was it’s origin, I wondered..? A few years earlier Andrew Mackinnon, the Taigh Chearsabhagh Curator and Film Maker had embarked on a linear journey across North Uist by canoe with artist Chris Drury More Info. Their journey explored the links to the Land and Water through the language of the journey, woven into the landscape and on the ever present wind that blows.
My first visit was purely exploratory in nature. Viewed from the perspective of a Guide, Uist is well known in the outdoor world as a premier destination for Sea Kayaking. The many skerries and challenging tidal flows around them attract paddlers from across the globe. But, as a destination for the Open Canoe it is almost unknown. Certainly there must have been others before myself, but I couldn’t find any reports. That first visit barely scratched the surface, but it did provide the ‘umph’ to make a return at some point.
Over the next couple of years I continued to look at the map of the island, always the best way of creating motivation through imagining the possible routes and many variations, in this case on an island that is almost more water than land in surface area...! The inland lochs are all quite accessible, but linking them with various tidal sea lochs with at some place difficult overfalls and currents, and potentially exposed coastal paddling would require a group who were comfortable in the marginal conditions that might prevail. The planning would require more than just a line on a map.
With a two trips to Canada postponed in 2020 due to Covid19 and then a trip to Uist postponed due to the regional lockdown here in Scotland, ongoing travel restrictions in 2021 again stopped us going to Canada, so we once again set plans for a trip to Uist. By now, for myself, I had not left Knoydart for this outside world in almost two years - it would be a period of mixed feelings in the lead up to our expedition. The plan would involve meeting up in Kyle of Lochalsh for an early supper before finding a roadside camp spot somewhere on Skye. The next day saw us, via breakfast in Portree, drive the short distance to Uig in NW Skye to catch the ferry over to Uist later in the afternoon. We left vehicles in Uig, as our canoe route would start and finish in Lochmaddy, Uist.
The previous few weeks had been glorious weather up north. As the expedition drew closer I had visions of it been laid to rest by bad weather and the Plan B of a(nother) trip to Assynt been the case. Although not as good as previous weeks the weather held in the main. Some wind and rain, mostly in the evenings and overnight, one stormy day early on in the trip - not enough to stop us at any point really, and the last morning an early one to avoid the forecasted 66mph winds - which meant a day spent continually eating in the Taigh Chearsabhagh café until early afternoon while waiting for the return ferry to Skye.
The route we took through and around (some of) North Uist was very much open to interpretation on the day. Prior to the trip I had made up a map using UMAP with some if not all the logical possibilities for the guys to view. By this point I have usually committed to memory the routes and each of their requirements in terms of hardship.... I am not averse to taking a canoe for a walk, others have different ideas on the length of those walks and the terrain they cover... But I also want to paddle the more exposed sections, the more challenging sections as that is where the ‘fun’ can be found.
One look at the map will open up more than just the paddle part of the trip to one’s imagination. Wrecks, cleared communities, peat diggings long disused (apart from one we crossed), chambered cairns, stone circles, Dun’s, causeways, fish-traps - all the indications of a once inhabited interior, but generally now with that habitation limited to strip villages/communities around the coastline areas of the sea-lochs.
Also on show at close quarters occasionally were Golden Eagles, Sea-Eagles, Otters, Seals, Ticks, a few midges, lots of small bird-life including the Hebridean Wren.
We experienced, probably, the largest Harvest Moon I have ever seen. Just like the ones people photograph on these occasions and you think ‘it was never that big....’ - two nights running, but not quite at its fullest. We had a day early on where some ‘strategic’ paddling was required to make headway in winds of around F5 - 6. The longest portage was approx. 1.2km, this only possible by avoiding paddling two mini-lochs less than a hundred metres across - easy to just keep walking. Later on we would walk past similar lochs but float the boats across empty.
We had a brilliant play on some tidal overfalls at one point. I think my ‘bow’ paddler was not too amused, but he didn’t have a choice as we made High Cross’s and S-turns in an 18.5ft loaded boat, entirely unsuited to the occasion, but with solid commitment - Great Fun....! I would have stayed and played for hours given the chance.
A short mid-trip sojourn at a Hebridean establishment, with dinner for two and later drinks for four...
I try not to use those trolly things for moving canoes, but this trip needed them for getting on/off the ferries at each end of the trip and potentially, depending on our route could be useful for the odd bit of road along the way to link up sections of water. We used them twice for very short (less than 50m and 250m) portages at two points. We could have done it without, but it made life simple on the day.
As we re-entered the water of Upper Loch Nam Madah the wind was howling just like a Uist wind howls, the tidal flows were at their fullest. The upper loch tends to hold onto a massive amount of water until the bottom of the tide (some of the biggest Springs of the year in this case) then it shoots out between islands and skerries at a tremendous rate, some channels left very high & dry and the main channels looking like a ‘shield’ river flowing to the ‘Bay. Not a place to be if at all unsure. With some wise words by a local whose house track we used to access the water again - he gave some indicators on where the main channel was and an optional route if it was open, we traversed the shoreline, the wind behind us the currents with us on the last leg back to our starting point. We managed to avoid the Class V looking main drop and shot through a simple CII rapid and were soon rounding the point looking out for the Camera Obscura.
A short visit to this installation, for myself really as a photographer using film and alt-process methods it held interest. We pulled up on the seaweed covered rocks after sneaking up to with a few metres of an otter having an afternoon snack of starfish.
We concluded the day with a ‘short’ visit to the Lochmaddy Hotel for a snack, brew and Fish n Chips or the like. Then back on the water to cross the bay to our original first night campsite, hoping the wind would now keep the midges at bay. It did. The ferry was due in the early afternoon on the next day, but the forecast was for winds up to 66mph to be blowing by mid morning. So a reasonably early start saw us make a wind blown ferry to the ferry...
With around 6 hours to wait until our return to Uig, we spent all of it bar an hour eating our way through the menu in the Taigh Chearsabhagh café..! Plus a bonus for myself was spending some time talking about our journey and route with Andy Mackinnon - only to add to my list of other bits I need to now go visit, by canoe obviously on the Isle of North Uist.
All images. Camera/Lens: Nikon F801 + Nikkor 28-80 G Film: Fuji Superia Extra 400 (box speed) Development: CineStill CS41 Two-Bath kit. Scan/Post: Canoscan 9000F / GIMP 2.10 - Levels, minor cropping.