The long range forecast was looking pretty good for nearly all the UK for my approaching trip with canoe and camera, reasonably dry, with light winds. With the important exception of the far west of Scotland, in particular the Loch Morar area, which was promised force 5-7 westerlies over the two or three days I had free to paddle.
Not fancying an upwind battle along an 18 kilometre wind tunnel paddling alone in a loaded canoe and without the luxury of time to allow for a bad weather day, I decided that my first idea to traverse Loch Morar with a night at Oban bothy and another on the islands needed to wait for a more favourable forecast.
Instead, my destination was to be the Trossachs, to paddle some of the trips I had not done last autumn when Storm Ophelia forced another change in plans. (see blog here). Basing myself at Strathyre, camping right next to the River Balvaig, I could take a day travelling down Glen Balquhidder, and another to make a round of Loch Lubnaig before joining some friends for a week of more terrestrial photography in the Arisaig area.
Parking along Loch Voil and Loch Doine is extremely limited, and Scottish Canoe Classics recommends starting the trip above Loch Doine on the small River Larig. The closest access to the river is from a large passing place under a sandy bluff inhabited by sand martins. But it best to drop the boat and gear here and move the car another half mile to the Inverlochlarig carpark to avoid disturbing the nest site for any longer than necessary.
The house at Inverlochlarig is near the site of Rob Roy’s house, and his grave is in Balquhidder. Rob Roy was mythologised in his own lifetime by Scottish Romantics as a determined and resourceful rebel against an oppressive regime. Documented history is a little plainer. Son of the chief of the MacGregors, he joined the Jacobite cause and fought in the 1681 uprising at the age of 18. He was involved again at the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1715. The entirety of Clan MacGregor was excluded from the general amnesty following the defeat and flight of Bonny Prince Charles back to France, but a few years later he was given amnesty following intervention of the Duke of Argyll.
Rob Roy went on to be a cattle rancher, only to lose his cattle and a large sum of money to a dishonest employee, default on his loans, forfeit his lands and end up in debtors prison. Eventually free, he lived on the Braes of Balquhidder for the remainder of his life.
The walk back to my boat, sat rather forlornly by the roadside in the light drizzle, took only a few minutes. At first glance it looked a little out of place, but a short drag across boggy tussock grass soon accessed the river bank. A red deer stag and two hinds watched in apparent puzzlement as I pulled my bright yellow hull along, before fading into the mist.
A low bank offered a good launching point, and I was soon afloat on a clear, smooth-flowing river.
Gravel beds gave rise to shallows that in lower levels might require a bit of wading and dragging to surmount, but today there was almost always at least a paddle’s depth of water under the hull, and I was able to float all the way to Loch Doine, the slopes of Ceann na Baintigherna just visible over the trees.
In the flat calm, the horizon was swallowed by the mist and all noise seemed damped down. The trees along the banks were still very much in winter colour, just the smallest of buds showing against the grey of the sky.
Loch Doine is only about 1.5 kilometres long and with a light breeze at my back didn’t take long to cross. The peninsula separating it from Loch Voil would be barely visible from the water if not for the trees that mark it out. In the mist, they stood out starkly in a world without horizons.
As I neared Tuarach Cottage on the south bank, the richly coloured bark of birch trees growing along the water’s edge attracted my eye.
The channel joining the two lochs is unnamed on the map, but was the second of three rivers on this trip. The flow was barely evident, and I grounded the boat on a flooded tussock to make some images of the reflections. The only ripples were of my own making as the boat shifted slightly under my weight.
I sat for a few minutes enjoying the situation and drinking some tea from my flask, before entering Loch Voil. The end of the channel was marked by a small jetty. The drizzle had stopped and the cloud base was lifting slightly now, allowing the slopes of Stob Monachylebeag to creep into view on the north bank.
The distant view down the loch was still shrouded in cloud, while the water remained glassy-calm.
The low-contrast light and damp air brought strength to the winter colours on the banks, and I amused myself making abstract images of the woods reflected in the loch’s surface.
As I travelled east along the loch, I became aware of something unexpected on the south shore. A group of standing stones stood proud on the foreshore, but checking the map, nothing was marked. Intrigued, I landed to have a closer look. A neat circle of eight stones sat on a grassy shelf by the water, but they looked suspiciously clean of lichen. Walking round them, it became apparent that these were newly quarried – sharp-edged, still with fresh soil clinging to some surfaces, and one with an unmistakable drilling mark on one edge. A New Age site for the old religion, or just a novel piece of garden art? I don’t know, but the setting was a very pleasant place to stop for a leg stretch and a snack!
I took a moment to take in the view up and down the loch before setting off again. It was quite late in the morning now, and I was keen to get to the end of Loch Voil before stopping again.
A scattering of chalets began to appear along the south bank now, interspersed with woodland. Within a few boat lengths I entered a patch of wind sheer, a sharp chop being raised on the loch’s surface as the wind was funnelled down the hillside. Just as suddenly, it stopped again, and the loch once again became a dark mirror for the birches standing on the water’s edge.
Towards the east end of the loch, I detoured to the north bank to see if there was a pleasant stopping point. The view westward back up the loch was certainly dramatic with low cloud covering the hills on either side.
Stronger Bridge was just visible over the reeds at the end of the loch, but a promising jetty proved to be part of a loch side garden, and so not a good place to stop for another tea break.
Instead, I found a small beach in the woods by the outfall of the loch. Tea and snack, a short walk along the shore to get my legs working again before the final section of the paddling part of the day along the River Balvaig. From the brief glimpses I had gained while driving to the start, it looked like there was a decent flow, but quite a lot of trees in the current. I decided it was time to set up the gopro on the bow, as I may not have much freedom to drop the paddle and fiddle with a DSLR while dodging strainers.
Trees lined the approach to the bridge, and the current quickly accelerated as I passed under the arches.
Shortly after the Calair Burn joins from the right, the River Balvaig turns a sharp righthand bend. The full force of the river hit the outside of the turn, causing a confusion of cushion waves, boils and eddies that needed a bit of close attention and provided a rude awakening from the torpor paddling on flat calm water can induce. Properly in ‘river mode’ now, I continued along with the flow, but with a rather more active paddle now. It looked like there was more water than usual in the river. Overhanging trees dipped their branches into the water along both banks, and some were stood fully in the flow.
Strainers were frequent, and although it was always possible to pick a route through, a bit of route planning and manoeuvring was needed.
A wire for a sheep ferry crosses the river near Stroneslaney. At these levels, it was right by the surface in the middle, and needed a duck to avoid near the bank. The banks were now becoming more open and pastoral as I began the winding approach to Strathyre. One spectator looked on with supreme indifference as I passed by.
Trees continued to reach into the river, but strainers were becoming less frequent now.
In the last kilometre above Strathyre, two fast-flowing side streams joined the river, depositing shingle banks that spread a few riffles across the river.
A succession of bridges mark Strathyre itself, and not long after that the campsite appears on the left bank. Slanting sunlight was beginning to enliven the landscape by now, bringing a gleam to the trees and a sparkle to the river.
Finally my tent pitched into view. It was an ideal site for a paddler – my very own personal slipway was right next door.
A brief pull up the slope saw the canoe safely stowed by the tarp. Time now for a hot lunch by the tent before starting the second phase of the day’s trip. Being by myself, I needed to get back to the car, so had brought my bike along to make one-way journeys possible.
Just a short distance up the main A84 a cycle route takes the old bridge over the river and wanders along a pleasant single track road through the forest. The weather had turned much brighter now, and I could enjoy the ride in sunshine. Where the road travelled by the river, I stopped to make a few images with the phone camera. The landscape opened up towards Loch Earn, under cottonwool clouds.
Before long, I was across Stronvar Bridge and approaching Balquhidder. The view of Loch Voil and the Braes of Balquhidder demanded I stop.
The minor road along Loch Voil runs close by the loch for some distance, but today was virtually free of traffic. On the bike, it was easy to stop to capture the view.
The phone camera didn’t make a bad job of the lighting, just losing a bit of highlight detail in the sky. The mood was completely different now to the morning’s misty mysteries. Blue sky and white clouds lent a chocolate box feel to the landscape.
At the very end of the loch, before the road started to climb away from the water, I stopped again. A very obliging swan swam across my frame to add a bit of foreground interest.
All around, the reflections were perfect.
I vaulted back over the fence and faced the final climb passed the Monacyle Mhor Hotel and along the side of Loch Doine. Before long I was back at my car, bike loaded and ready to make my way back to the tent for tea.
It made for a superb day trip, moody and misty on the water, dry and sunny on the road. I cooked a meal under the tarp accompanied by the regular yaffle of green woodpeckers in the woods, limbs pleasantly aching after eighteen kilometres by paddle and twelve by pedal, then as dusk fell, the hooting of owls soothed me towards sleep.