Having spent a couple of days in the Trossachs, I had a small window, both in terms of time and weather, before starting a photography course on the Saturday evening. So an early start from Strathyre saw me driving passed a mirror-calm Loch Eil and a similarly still Loch Eilt on my way to Loch Morar with the aim of at least getting my paddle wet and hopefully exploring the islands at the west end of the loch.
As forecast, the wind was stronger on Loch Morar than further south and east, but still only force 2-3, blowing across the loch from the south shore. Parking by a small shingle beach at the east end of Bun an Loin, fishing dinghies still drawn up on the shore, I quickly unloaded, keen to get on the water. A sign by the water sternly warned all venturing out on the loch to make sure they knew the forecast and how to self-rescue – sound advice, if not entirely reassuring. Reading it, I felt like they should be handing out black spots to all mariners daring to launch…
The bay I launched into is only slightly sheltered from southerlies by the headland of Torr na Cuinneige, but the swell was easily manageable, and before long the view up the loch opened up as I cleared the point.
The first island, Eilean Ban, is only about 500m further out, so even heading straight upwind, it wasn’t long before I made my first landfall in a sheltered bay sporting a wooden jetty. A scattering of primroses gave a Springtime feel notably absent from the landscape as a whole so far. Winter had been late and still lingered still on the tops. A boardwalk lead into the woods from here, but keen to get round the whole island group I didn’t explore.
I left the inlet, and headed south and east at an angle to the waves and wind to pass by the cluster of small unnamed islands west of An t-Eilean Meadhoin (literally and physically ‘the island in the middle’). As is common on islands in these west Highland lochs, the Scots pines grew dense and tall here, but the woodland was mixed, with stands of hazel and birch along the shores too. The intense greens of the Scots pines always catch my eye, and I spent a while making images of these iconic trees.
Having driven for two hours and paddled for another, I felt ready to have a rest and break out the tea flask, so I found a small beach on another unnamed island at the south edge of the group. The exposed rock formations along the waters edge looked almost organic, seeming to echo some of the shapes of the pines they supported.
Sheltered by the trees higher on the island, a hazel showed its catkins as it grew in the shallows of the beach.
The canoe was lightly loaded today – cameras in their belt bags hung on the gunnels, and provisions and a stove in the tool box. The shingle strand offered a lovely view north through the straits to Camas na Sgeirr Rhuaidh, and east up the loch to the distant peaks of Meal Behind and Meall an Tarmachain, Brinacory Island just visible as a low mound huddled under the hills.
Refreshed, I planned to round Eilean nam Breac and head outside Eilean a’Phidhir before stopping for lunch on the island in the middle. As I set off a fallen Scots pine on another island caught my eye. It looked like its roots had been washed out of the fragile soil leading to its collapse, but it was still clinging on gamely, parts of the tree still vibrant with green, the red bark of the younger boughs showing strongly against the white-weathered dead timber.
Rounding the south-eastern tip of the islands, I found a narrow inlet, a corridor through the forest on the inside of Eilean Ghibbi. The wind was blowing quite strongly over the open water, but within a few yards, I was back to stillness and calm.
As I toured around the islands, I had seen several pairs of red-breasted mergansers , but it wasn’t until I passed down the east side of Eilean a’Phidhir that I was able to catch one on camera. Catching an image of a bird in flight from a canoe does demand good balance as you track the bird with both hands and one eye on the camera and no visual references to help you manage the boat. Fortunately, modern motion-tracking autofocus and metering systems mean you don’t have to worry too much about the technicalities of the shot at the same time!
Coming at last to the east side of An t-Eilean Meadhoin I found the sandy bay that I had been told about before I left for Scotland. What a delightful spot – an inlet sheltered from all directions, backed by golden sand and a small grassy flat, graceful Scots pines on both sides. It is clearly a popular place, but without being trashed – a tire swing in a tree on the slope gave testament to enjoyable family picnics, as did a tidy fire ring at the back of the beach. All in all an ideal lunch stop. The stove and the camping chair came out, and I relaxed into the peace of the place.
It would be hard to imagine a better craft in which to explore these waters than a canoe, and as I sat enjoying my lunch I made a mental note to come back here on another trip and complete the traverse of the loch to Oban bothy and back.
Time was beginning to be against me though, as I had to be in Arisaig before too long to meet my friends and start the landscape photography course I was booked on for the rest of the week. So I made sure all was as I found it, and jumped back in the boat to return to my car. Returning along the north shore of the loch, I noticed just how close the islands are to the mainland – less than 50m separate the rocks off Eilean a’Phidhir from the headland of Torr na Ba – offering a sheltered crossing in bad weather.
The wind had picked up a bit more while I sat sheltered having lunch, and the now quite brisk southerly pushed me towards the rocks of Torr na Cuinneige and a confusion of reflected waves off the point. Keeping a safe distance offshore, I was soon into the relative shelter of Bun an Loin, with the car and my landing site now in sight.
I had only scratched the surface with this visit, but my appetite had been whetted. I’ll definitely be back to explore more.