The Pirates go wild in Assynt
Updated: May 2, 2018
Every Easter, a bunch of friends and I, including a handful of kids, head out on an adventure in the Scottish Highlands by canoe. These are our Pirate adventures. This year, after spending three wonderful nights at Glencoul Bothy near Kylesku, followed by a bit of civilisation at Achmelvich's lovely Shore Campsite, we planned to head out onto the string of stunning lochs that lie at the feet of some of Assynt's most spectacular mountains. Loch Lurgainn is the biggest, towered over by the Coigach hills, Cul Beag and magnificently jagged Stac Pollaidh, and it was to the shores of this beautiful loch that we were headed.
There's a lovely little bay close to the walkers' car park for Stac Pollaidh, with a sandy beach that makes the perfect launch point. Whilst the kids played, we lugged silly quantities of gear, food, wine and wood down to the shore, and somehow squeezed it into our three canoes.
The loch was fairly calm but inevitably as soon as we launched there was a bit of a headwind. No matter, the feeling of paddling along, overlooked by such spectacular peaks, more than made up for it, and it was a fairly short journey to our chosen spot.
With the hard work over, we were excited to see that this was as good a place to wild camp as you could hope for. A curve of soft sand invited us to land, and soon our bows slid up onto the beach. Behind, a lovely woodland of birch and oak, with plenty of flat space for our tents. The best feature of this wonderful little spot was, of course, the view of the hills in front of us, a panorama of some of my favourite peaks.
Now we'd arrived, we had little planned other than to enjoy our time here. We'd stay a night or two, then head down through an intermediate loch, to the next large one, Loch Bad a' Ghaill. For now, then, making ourselves a luxurious home in the wilderness was our priority.
The Pirates, Tobey, Alex and Ben, had other priorities. Harbours needed to be dug, a river diverted, dammed or bridged, and there were dinosaurs to be hunted. There was also a rumour of some Treasure that would need to be searched for. As playgrounds go, this one had quite good views.
Once all the dinosaurs were dispatched, the older two kids had their own camp to sort out, tent to pitch and tea to boil on Tobey's new little wood stove. Later, young Ben went out for a paddle on his own in dad's canoe, under controlled conditions of course.
The adults were just as content, and though there were plenty of tasks to keep us busy, rigging tarps, splitting the wood we'd brought in, setting up fireboxes and lightening the boxes of Red Ballast that we'd brought with us. That evening, the skies were clear, and the stars wheeled above us in incredible numbers, reflected also in the still, dark waters of the loch. The temperature was flipping freezing, though, and we were glad of our winter-weight sleeping bags. I lay with my tent open for a while, looking out at the dark outline of the hills, before drifting off, perfectly content.
The following day was just wonderful. After morning mists brought drama to the mountains, we were blessed with brighter weather. With no plans, we just pottered about, enjoying living in the wild and beautiful place. Each of us would wander off to explore, though none of us bothered going far.
A successful Treasure Hunt lasted a suspiciously short time, almost as though the Pirates already knew where their bags of ancient chocolate and coins had been hidden. Its always a remarkable coincidence that there is exactly the right amount of treasure for the number of Pirates on each trip. Later, Pirate Alex helped us dig and line a no-trace firepit, carefully removing and retaining the turf, so that we could have a bit more warmth that evening.
There was food and drink for the adults on hand too, and though the wind was cold in the morning, by the afternoon the sun was out and the wind dropped, so we moved to the beach where my guitar came out. Some folky songs hopefully matched the moment, as the sun dipped towards the line of the hills to the west, and the loch became calm and mirror-like, tempting some us out onto the still waters in the canoes, just to sit and stare. A magical day, in a magical place.
Half-past Midnight. Suddenly I'm awake, not sure what had broken my sound sleep. A flapping noise. In fact, that sounds like quite a lot of wind. From nowhere, the gentle wind had changed direction 180 degrees, and risen to a Force 6 or 7 coming straight down the loch into camp. Rising quickly, we had to battle to re-peg or move some of the tarps to strengthen it, before returning to bed. Some of the others were up several times, but my tent is more than capable of shrugging off such winds, and the rain which came with it at times, and I slept soundly.
I awakened to a different scene, most of the tarps taken down, and the loch a seething mass of white-capped waves. Clearly we'd be going nowhere by canoe today! First, we needed to storm-proof camp. Its funny how a good team works, without really discussing it, each fell to a task and just got on with it. Canoes were dragged as wind breaks, brews were made, kindling split, firebox lit, bacon cooked, and tarps constantly fiddled with and adjusted. Not long later, we were all full of food and hot drinks, under a lowered shelter, chatting and laughing.
Today was also Ben's seventh birthday, so the tarp had, of course, been decorated with bunting. Later, I cooked a chocolate-chip bannock, and that evening Liz baked an excellent light and fluffy chocolate cake for him, which he ate quickly, enjoyed and then complained that it should have been dinosaur shaped...
During the day, our thoughts had turned to escape. By now we'd not seen a weather forecast for days, and there wasn't a sniff of a phone signal. If the weather didn't relent the next day, we'd need to make our way off the loch by land, rather than by water. Three of us headed up the hills behind camp, both to try, and fail, to get a signal, and to view from above the likely route to the road. It looked doable, about a mile across boggy and heathery terrain via a couple of small lochs. We've done worse, carrying canoes for hours across Assynt or bits of Scandinavia, so we knew we'd get out if we had to.
Strangely, this day sheltering from the weather was just as enjoyable as the previous one. We'd seen every mood of the hills and lochs of Assynt in just 48 hours, every one adding something to the magic of this special place.
Our final morning came round and, thankfully, there was no noise of wind blowing through the trees as I lay in my tent. The escape was on. After much bag packing, and, of course, bacon, we were ready for the off. First, we lugged bags and dragged boats a few hundred metres over to the small intermediate loch, Loch Bad na h_Achlaise, before launching for a short paddle across to the next portage. Once again, paddling beneath the hills was still a special experience.
The portage out from this loch onto Loch Bad a' Ghaill was short and easy. With a little more water, the connecting stream might "go" but not today. Paddling from a lovely rocky launch spot, we headed across the loch to one final lunch spot on a beach, before returning back across the loch to reach the twisting single-track road that would take the drivers back to fetch the cars via a couple of miles walk.
As we headed off after squeezing all our gear in the cars, the hills cleared and gave us a fitting final memory of this most special place. I truly think Assynt is one of the most beautiful places anywhere, not just in Scotland, and I long to return.