Boating on the Beauly
On a previous trip to the area I had paddled upstream from the Aigas Dam through the unique Aigas Gorge – an amazing place to visit by canoe. That day I travelled quite some distance west, but the current eventually got the better of me and I turned back near the hamlet of Knock-na-Shalavaig. Today I wanted to cover some new ground. Scottish Canoe Classics recommended a trip from Struy Bridge to the dam, starting a little way up the River Farrar.
Being by myself, there were some logistics that needed organising for a one-way trip. I was staying at the campsite at Cannich, and so needed to get the boat to Struy and the car to Aigas. The shuttle is fortunately very straightforward, the road running parallel to the river all the way from Cannich to Aigas, so I left early, and found a secluded place under a dry arch of Struy Bridge to stash the boat and paddling gear before heading down to the Aigas Dam.
Parking here used to be in the Scottish Hydro carpark, but this is now gated and locked. There is however a small lay-by a little further east, so I left the car here and cycled the 9.5km back to Struy. The bike secured to a handy tree, it wasn’t long before I was ready to go.
The stone bridge, an attractive five-arched affair, was designed and built by Thomas Telford in 1817. I knew of him as a canal engineer, for example on the Shropshire and Llangollen canals, so was surprised to find out he was also responsible for many bridges in Scotland, and what became the old A74 trunk road to Glasgow.
An easy get in just above the bridge, with good roadside parking for a couple of cars, allowed me to paddle into mid-stream before going through the deepest, middle arch of the bridge. Immediately below, a small riffle provided a choice of lines, only one of which carried enough water today.
In the pool below, I turned to look back at the span. By my bow a salmon leapt – as brief an appearance as it was unexpected, but wonderful to see from close by on the water, and a first for me.
The Farrar was running fast, and the kilometre or so down to the confluence with the River Glass passed rapidly in an enjoyable string of small features. None were difficult, but all needed a choice of line and a little manoeuvring, which just added to the wide grin left on my face from seeing the salmon.
After the confluence, the river Glass becomes the River Beauly. Levels were far higher than on my previous visit, and a strong current carried me quickly passed empty fishing beats. Seasonal colour, made stronger by the overcast light, decorated the banks below hills cloaked with old bracken.
The side channels were all carrying water too, but I kept to the main stream as I headed down, there being quite a strong current even in these smaller cuts, and quite a high chance of trees obstructing the flow. I took some time to explore from below though, slipping the canoe into eddies and slack water where these braided streams re-joined the river. Michaelmas daisies flowered still amongst dead grasses, and peat-dark waters reflected glorious Autumn.
The sky was stating to clear now, as brisk westerlies pushed the clouds ahead of me. Looking back, cloud rested on the ridges of Beinn a’Bhathaich Ard but the grey blanket that greeted me that morning was gone. Sunlight added a sparkle to the scene.
Another side stream left and re-joined as I passed by the Erchless Forest, the whole landscape green and gold in the warm light of an October afternoon.
Nosing into its delta I was enclosed in colour, the canopy overhead reflected under my hull.
The river started to meander as it came by Easter Main, but it hadn’t yet lost its forward momentum, the play of wind and current visible on the surface as I paused to look west again.
Low-angled light cut across the scene, backlit grass singing against wooded shadows as I rounded another bend to reach my previous high-point.
From here it was known territory, but every trip on a river is different. Strathglass opened out to the west, while ahead of me the valley sides began to restrict the flood plain as the river approached the Crask of Aigas and its eponymous gorge.
Woods flanked both banks as I paddled by Eskdale. A single birch glowed in the sidelight as its fronds blew in the wind.
At the head of the gorge sits Eilean Aigas, once home of John and Charles Allen, the self-styled Sobieski Stuarts. These English brothers claimed royal Stuart descent, and held court from the hunting lodge on the island in suitable style. The island is still private, which is a shame as the woods at its upstream end look very inviting for hammocking. A choice of channels now faced me. River right was wooded and pastural, pleasant and gentle. River left was another matter. The river narrowed and picked up pace as the banks rapidly climbed in height to form sheer conglomerate cliffs.
The current here seemed stronger than I remembered, having come upstream this way two years previously. Rocks in the flow made eddies to in which to pause, where I stopped to enjoy this unique place.
The cliffs tightly enclosed the river, tree-studded with just a ribbon of sky overhead, then just as suddenly as I entered the gorge, I was passed the island.
The channel widened, and while the banks were still steep and wooded, the feeling of constriction had gone.
Trees came right down to the water’s edge, and I revelled in their hues, caught in the directional light of an autumn afternoon. Tucking into the bank, I enjoyed the reflected colour of the canopy below me.
The landscape gripped the river once more in the final kilometre to the dam, the ancient fort of Dun Fionn sitting above the crags of Creag a’Pheannsuil on the right bank. Knowing my journey was nearly done, I slowed down to enjoy the riot of colour cascading down the banks.
Through the last narrowing, I looked back to the dramatic sentinel spruce growing above the river, before gliding the last quarter-mile to the exit.
After the magnificent day I experienced on my first visit, I hadn’t expected to find such conditions again, but this trip truly is a classic that doesn’t disappoint. I know I’ll be back again.