Julian Penney: Sea kayaking in the Firth of Lorne

approaching holy isle

The Firth of Lorne is one of the most spectacular sea kayaking areas of the UK, if not the world.

With an archipelago of around 20 islands to visit and more wildlife than you can poke a paddle at, it’s not hard to see why the region is attracting paddlers in greater numbers every year.

The historic village of Ellenabeich is situated 16 miles south of Oban and is an ideal location to launch. There is ample free parking here, changing facilities, albeit a small public toilet and a friendly pub – The Oyster Bar – for that well earned pint at the end of the day.

view west across firth of lorne from Luing

Once on the water you immediately get the feeling of being in a wilderness environment because, as you paddle out of Easdale Sound, you’re met with the dramatic backdrop of the east coast of Mull [below] and the first glimpse of the isles of Scarba and the Garvellachs.

mull from firth of lorne

A day on the water in this area has to start with great attention to what the tides and weather are doing. Get it wrong and you can end up in serious trouble.

The tidal movements between the islands of Fladda, Belnahua and the northern end of Rua Fiola need particular local knowledge as its very difficult to draw the info from navigational charts.

I’ve known some very experienced sea kayaks become very fazed by what happens on the flood tide around these islands.

approaching the garvellachs

The crossing from Easdale island to the Garvellachs [the approach is above] is 8km and takes around an hour and a quarter at a comfortable pace. It’s well worth heading down the west side of these islands as you are then sitting right under the sheer cliffs towering above you.

From May onwards you can normally expect to see both golden and sea eagles flying around here. I’ve never managed to get a good photo of one though, a long range lens on a heavy camera doesn’t sit well on the deck of a sea kayak.

The most southerly of the Garvellachs is Eileach an Naoimh, also known as Holy Isle. It boasts the remains of a 9th century monastic settlement with beehive cells [visible below] and is well worth landing for your elevenses and a good look  around. Don’t forget the camera, as you can see from my photography the landscape is  breath-taking – the top photo is the approach to Holy Isle.

beehive cells on the garvellachs

And before you all start emailing me to ask, yes someone from Historic Scotland does venture out here to mow the lawn….bizzare. I thought that’s what the sheep were for.

Wikipedia has a very useful account of the island’s history and the local waters and, of course, Hamish Haswell-Smith’s detail on Eileach an Naoimh [2.12] in his unparalled Scottish Islands is the place to go.

From this point the choice of routes depends on your level of experience and paddle fitness. The two most exciting journeys would be either through infamous Corryvreckan with the worlds third largest whirlpool – lying between the islands of Jura and Scarba; or across to ‘The Corry’s’ little sister, the Grey Dogs, at the northern end of Scarba.

calm waters near corryveckan

Both pieces of water have a fearsome reputation and rightly so but, that said, on many occasions I’ve led groups through both stretches of sea only to be asked what all the fuss is about [as seen in calm mode above]. With neap tides and a day or so of light winds they can both be quite innocuous. Again local knowledge is very useful when venturing in to either the Grey Dogs or the Corryvreckan.

Whatever route you decide on, your return journey to Ellenabeich will take you close to  the islands of Fladda and Belnahua. Each island is worth a visit in its own right. Fladda has a picturesque lighthouse and a lovely walled garden – overgrown now but in years gone by the lighthouse keepers would have grown some of their food on this plot.

Belnahua, along with Easdale, were the main slate mining islands, there’s just the remains of a community now on Belnahua – and a rather nice solar heated outdoor swimming pool which many a brave sea kayaker frequents on a long hot summer day.

The last 5km back to the little harbour of Ellenabeich should only be attempted with the flood tide, unless of course you enjoy paddling against a 5 knot current.

It’s approximately 40km – 25miles to paddle this entire route, if you take in the Corryvreckan. And you may find bottlenose dolphins keeping you company, [as we have done, below].

Bottlenose dolphins in Firth of Lorne

On a long summer’s day, with maximum daylight and good use of the strong tides, a reasonably fit  sea kayaker should be quite comfortable with the distance, plus this will be a paddling day you’ll never forget.

Alternatively, why not make a weekend of it?

If you’re happy camping wild, there are numerous locations all over these islands to find that awesome camp spot with breathtaking views.

There is another permutation of this paddle.

When you come out of the Corryvreckan head straight across to the southern end of the isle of Luing and then up the sound of Shuna. After 6km cut into Ardinamir bay and through the gap between Torsa island and Luing. Note that this is not possible at low water on spring tides. Then you’ll have to go around the northern end of Torsa,  then another 1km and you’ll be at Cuan sound. Get the tide right and you’ll have a good ride all the way to Easdale.

Happy paddling.

Julian Penney

All photographs accompanying this article are © Sea Kayaking Scotland

Both the day and weekend paddles described above in this article are available as guided expeditions by  Sea Kayaking Scotland, with which Julian Penney is associated.

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