Scotland is quite simply great for Kayaking. The Highlands, Lowlands and the Borders are three distinct areas offering a diversity of rivers. However, most of the best rivers are North of the Highland boundary fault – a line running north-west from Loch Lomond past Stirling, Perth and up to Aberdeen. The Scottish Whitewater Guidebook covers some 200 rivers, and most of these are located here. There are Motorway and Dual Carriageway links to all these places, with high quality single carriageway trunk routes thereafter. The A82 up to Fort William passes the famous mountain rivers of Glen Orchy, Glencoe, Glen Etive and Glen Nevis, while the A9 at Stirling gives access to the rivers of the Trossachs. Onwards on the A9 at Perth brings you to Scotland’s largest river – the Tay at the International slalom course at Grandtully and onward to towards the ski-ing and outdoor centre at Aviemore and the Spey and the Findhorn. Past Inverness and
you are near e! nough at the arctic.
There are very few access problems unlike England and Wales. The Scottish Parliament is currently working to enshrine the principle of responsible access in law.
The weather is a bit more extreme than in Ireland. The wettest place (must surely be the home of the rain gods) is around the Fort Willliam/Spean Bridge area at the foot of Ben Nevis. Here rivers generally rise and fall quickly after the plentiful supply of rain (the Spean is the exception – I’ll explain later), while the Central and Eastern rivers have different hydrology patterns and keep their water longer. The spring snowmelt from the Grampian Mountains assures Kayakers of good water on the Findhorn, Roy and Spey.
If you are there in winter, it can get bitterly cold, so ski-ing/snowboarding might be an option, or the less hardy could retire to the bar.
Travelling from Ireland by fast ferry from Belfast or Larne takes just over two hours, with plenty of sailings.
||1 hr 45m
||3 hr 30m
If people can go for a week, they would have a brilliant time. Realistically a long weekend is the best option (for instance, a Friday – Monday). Take a late ferry on the Thursday night and stay somewhere like Ayr (about 45 mins from Glasgow). If you were going to be based in Fort William, you could pick a river on the way up like the Etive, Awe, Orchy etc on the Friday. You would then have your pick of many local short runs, or day trips on the Saturday and Sunday (many of these are 10 minutes from Fort William!) and travel home on the Monday. Similarly if you wish to be based in Inverness or Aviemore, The Trossachs or the Tay is on the way up on the Friday. Like Ireland, there are plenty of Hostels,
Cottages for rent and B&B’s.
Trip Diary – February 2004: Day 1
It all began in a bar in Dublin with some non-kayaking friends over from Scotland. The conversation got round to our wish to kayak in Scotland, but having no idea where to start. This led to our friends mumbling something about knowing someone who “goes canoeing”. Several e-mails later and we are booked up to be guided down Scotland’s rivers by BCU Level 5 Instructor and Scottish Canoe Association River Adviser for the Spean River System – Chris Dickinson (a really cool guy and great Kayaker -check out the car registration).
We went over with our boats and gear on-board for a Saturday – Tuesday trip and met up with Chris on the Saturday morning. He suggested a day on the River Leny in the Trossachs, which was a nice grade 3 river to have a look at our ability before deciding where to take us for the rest of the weekend.
The road runs along the side of this river (near Callander in the Trossachs), which allowed us to get out at the Falls of Leny car park and go and have a look at the falls. A viewing pathway runs up river left to the falls, which is split in the middle by an island. The left chute is usually run, while the right chute offers the chance of a vertical pin and a closed stopper at the bottom. Chris asked us our views on it’s grading and a line. Mmmm I think we were reasonably close on the Grade, (Grade 5) but got the line wrong. Here’s a shot of Chris running the falls. I was secured to a tree on rescue and Áine took this marvellous photo.
We arrived at the put-in and the river started off nice and easy with some fast jets and Chris got us to practice catching some eddies and surfing. We progressed down a Grade 3 slalom section (Aine, desperate to prove she’s not a beginner decided to run it first in front of Chris, while I was getting out to inspect!).
We then eddie-hopped down to “last-gasp-eddie” above the falls on river right to portage.
We rejoined Chris at the bottom and proceeded downstream. Over the next quarter mile of grade 3 there were a couple of small ledge drops and a fast s-bend rapid – marvellous fun. All too soon, we were at the take-out – No swims between us and couple of rolls (very happy). Onto the pub for a pint and a de-brief.
Chris seemed happy enough. He had spotted our strokework needs assistance earlier in the day, and got us looking at obstacle avoidance which was to come in handy in later rivers.
As we would be heading up to Spean Bridge today, Chris gave us some river options to consider:
1. Head to the Tay at Grandtully (huge volume 3+ slalom section)
2. Run some waterfalls in Glen Etive on our way north
3. Spean Gorge
4. Orchy (portaging the Grade 5 sections)
After some debate, we were off for the waterfalls and the Spean Gorge.
On the way up the A82, we passed up through the new Loch Lomond National Park and up to Bridge of Orchy to have a look at the gauge and the river for a future trip. Incidentally, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) provides updates of all the major rivers every 15 minutes on-line. This combined with a conversion chart being prepared by the SCA provides an up-to-date view of river levels before you even leave the house!
Triple Falls on the Etive
Glen Etive lies about 1200ft above sea level, is surrounded by Munros (Mountains over 3000ft), and in winter when we were there is a lot colder than the lower valley rivers.
We arrived to see the only other canoeists we encountered on the water all weekend running the falls. The first one was backlooped in a stopper which gave me great encouragement. We watched Chris running them first, and then I went for it. Áine went on camera duty and captured these amazing images (I am in the red boat). Managed to avoid being backlooped, but the water was ice-cold. The immersion meant my hands seized and couldn’t take my gear off!
The drive through Glencoe and beyond is simply stunning. It’s worth stopping for a while if you’ve time. We arrived at our lodgings at Spean Bridge which Chris cheerily informs us is the take-out for four runs (definitely saves on the shuttle! which Chris’s wife Sally kindly performed all weekend).
We head down to the Gorge which is a dark and intimidating place with sheer rock walls with the river twisting through a narrow and winding channel, so you can rarely see 50 yards ahead of you. Apologies for no pictures of the Gorge, but check out the ukriversguidebook website (link at the end).
Chris explained that the Spean Gorge disappears at high water. A feature called the constriction – which is circular, slightly longer than your boat, has one entrance and one exit at right angles. Both of these are the width of your boat and the fast water creates a whirlpool that if you miss the exit door, you struggle to get out (first hand experience here!). Anyway, this feature creates a dam in high water that floods the gorge and reduces it from technical Grade 3+ (4)(5) to bouncy Grade 2! The Gorge provided great fun – from rock climbing portages, seal launching from the sides, amazing geology and tight twisting rapids. Chris tells us it’s one of the classic sections in Scotland. We all portaged a nasty Grade 5 called Headbanger (which also disappears in high water) and ran the Grade 4 Witches Cauldron successfully and had a great day!
It was a dark, forbidding and scary place, but once we were out we wanted to go back! A Great River.
Again that night a de-brief in a hostelry in Fort William, some more options for the following day:
1. The Upper Roy & Roy Gorge
2. Upper Findhorn
The Findhorn would have been an hour and a half’s drive, and the Roy was 10 minutes away, so off to the Roy. Glen Roy has a unique geological feature. The Parallel Roads on both sides of the valley are the remains of a huge lake formed at the end of the last ice age. It is believed that the Spean Gorge was carved when the dams broke.
A gentle Grade 2 start with a couple of nice grade 3 drops called “Wish You Were Here” and “Rooster’s Tail”. Here’s Áine going over the lip on Rooster’s Tail.
Once over Rooster’s tail you are into the Gorge. Not as intimidating as the Spean Gorge, it nevertheless was a fantastic paddle. After continuous Grade 3 for the first section, the Grade 5 (another headbanger) comes up without warning. This is followed by four Grade 4+ drops in the space of about 300 yards. Áine and I portage while Chris runs them. This time Áine is on rescue. An overhang comes all the way across the river. It’s not wise to get the wrong line here.
We carry on down. More Grade 3 excitement followed by Áine here on a Grade 4 ledge drop. A solid roll after the stopper had kicked her into the rock wall saw her through.
The Gorge ended as suddenly as it had begun. Through the Gates of Hercules (a 1 metre wide gap in the rock) and you are back into a wide valley and the end of the trip (well almost) a 300ft climb awaits with your boat on your back up the hillside to the road……..
Would thoroughly recommend it.