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Roll With It – Hebrides 2023…

The isles of Harris and Lewis are famous for ancient stones, deep peat and tweed.  They also have stunning coastlines which can be explored only one way – from the seat of a Kayak.

I flew north to meet my Norwegian friends Laila, Christian and Ketil along with their friends Marius, Catherine and Solveig to join them for a week’s paddling in June.

The Hebrides are famed for their windy and wet weather, but lady luck was with us, and the entire trip was bathed in warm sun with light winds.  Arriving in Stornoway, we enjoyed a truly stunning sunset at the Calanais Stones, before camping beside a peaceful lake.  The evening air was still, so a few midges came out, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected.  However, nature had its way and as I awoke the next morning, I noticed a large Tick burying itself into my belly button.  Try as I might, I couldn’t get the little devil fully out, but cleared what I could and kept an eye on the wound over the next couple of weeks.  Ticks are becoming more prevalent, and Lyme’s disease is always a fear, as is Tick Borne Encephalitis.  Thankfully all has been well, but the bite has taken weeks to heal.

We visited the Weaving Shed (where I ordered a new Flat Hat) and the Harris Distillery (bottle of Gin), before we bumped into a chap cutting Peat.  He explained the history of this traditional fuel and insisted we took a bag for the evening’s campfire.  He noted that it was drying very fast this year – the summer really was that hot and dry.

We headed down to the stunning beach at Luskentyre for an evening swim and relax, before all the paddling began.  The sea was crystal clear and the sand white – if you didn’t know any better, you could have been in the Caribbean.  Barely a soul trod the sand and I walked down to the water’s edge and dived in – not Caribbean..!  It was, however, pleasant enough and I swam until the smell of camp cooked food brought me landward.  The peat was burning to fine ash and Laila’s legendary cooking was delicious.  We toasted the evening with a few drams of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society ‘Exotic Cargo’, before I fell into a deep and restful sleep.

Words fail to describe the peace and beauty here.  The wind whistles through the dunes and the grass flickers long shadows across the grass.  We strolled around the Rubha an Teampaill ruins the next morning before heading north to finally get some paddling done.  Will Copestake had sailed over from Ullapool with a trailer laden with craft and we were on for a sunset ride.  Will is a quiet man, unassuming with a big smile and a battered cap.  Im sure we’d met before at the Kendal Mountain Festival…?

We launched from Bostadh and soon rounded Little Bernea.  A lone Golden Eagle soared above us, enjoying the evening thermals and light.  It seemed a perfect evening, which couldn’t get more perfect – surely…?  Well, it did.  We paddled north to the island of Campaigh and entered the arch which runs right through.  The tides were good, the swell not too bad, but the light – oh the light.  How many movies have we watched where special effects and lighting have created a scene…?  Just before we crossed through, a shaft of light beamed across the archway in a display you could only dream about.  We played around it its beams and took pictures galore, and the spectacle mesmerised us.

We had to leave as it was a fair way back to shore, but the sunset silhouetted us as we sped back to Bostadh.  What an evening…!  We spent the night in a Blackhouse at Gearrannan.  We revelled into the wee small hours, still full of energy from the evening out.

With the weather being so settled, we decided to round the Butt of Lewis the next day.  This was to be a once in a lifetime paddle as conditions are often to dangerous?.  The wind and tide were in our favour as we launched over a huge cloud of elvers and entered the open sea.

For all the miles I’ve paddled, I still fear the swell of the sea.  It rolled up and down as we rounded the cliffs towards the lighthouse, but soon settled as we entered the caves on the Northern shore.  Here I paddled with joy and rounded Lith Sgeir – the most northerly island in the Hebrides.  I paddled back to the mainland and entered the caves, when suddenly a swell caught my boat, and I was rolled round a rock and turned upside down.  It’s easy to panic in such situations.  The noise of the swell, bubbles and general chaos can take over, but I relaxed, pulled my spray deck clear and bobbed to the surface.  Christian was already on the case and within minutes we were clear, and I was back in my kayak.  I’ve been in some quite unusual situations before in the mountains, on the water and in the air.  Panic gets you nowhere.  Relaxing and making yourself safe might.

We laughed and paddled to Eoropie for a session kayak surfing.  What can I say…?  I rolled over a lot…!

We made a final move to camp at Cliff where we surfed some more, I swam a lot more and sadly Will had to leave us.  However, there was more kayaking to come.

Our final days were spend rounding the stunning island of Pabaigh Mor and crossing the tide at Traigh na Beitigh.  Huge open harbours, rock arches and blue skies greeted us, as did many sheep.  They’re transported to the islands on landing craft for summer grazing and are always inquisitive.

A lot had been packed into a week and my arms were tired.  Holding a paddle with what’s left of my hands is a challenge, but one I relish, but then I need to rest.  Greenland beckoned and I was ready…

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