The Great Glen
A Scottish Canoe Adventure
Osprey’s Visual Content Producer and avid explorer, Markus Brown, took on the Scottish Highlands for a 3 day canoeing adventure.
In the winter of 2019, shortly before the globe was plunged into the depths of the pandemic, I was lucky enough to join a ragtag group of adventurers on a 3 day trip canoeing across the Scottish Highlands. Little did we know at the time, we were destined to experience, arguably, one of the best and most accessible multi-day adventures the UK has to offer.
Canoeing is regularly overlooked as a route to adventure in Europe. As such, 50% of our crew of 8 had zero experience canoeing prior to planning for the Glen. Fortunately, though, it proved to only take a few hours on the water to get used to the basics of controlling the boat.
Waking early, I bounced from my tent on the first morning of our venture to find 7 other gents all displaying the same energy and excitement for the journey ahead. It’s been a little while coming and we’re all champing at the bit to finally get started. Team leader Cal is especially efficient at prepping his boat and is soon on the water before half the team is fully dressed.
“Hmm. Gonna have to refine my morning routine” I tell myself as I pull my life vest over my head, drop heavily into the boat and my rudder for the morning, Nathan, pushes us from the dock.
We’re in Inverness, far to the East of Scotland and about to depart through lochs and canals all the way to Banavie, in the West. Gently nudging our way along the canal, the scenes on our first morning are simply incredible. A thin layer of fog rests above the water and a light mist coats the air. It’s cold but refreshing. We wanted it to be cold, it was deliberately a Winter adventure, after all. Before long, we made it to our first checkpoint.
We’ve all heard stories of strong wind chop causing swell on the larger lochs and the nerves are a little heightened knowing we’re about to arrive at the first and most renowned of the trip. Our concerns are quickly lulled though, as the canal opens out on to a perfect and seemingly endless expanse of glass; a shimmering oasis of calm, Loch Ness.
Loch Ness is our largest loch on route and will be a mission to complete in a single day. As we make our way into the deep, Cal informs us all that the Ness is 230 metres deep, giving it a volume almost double that of all the lakes in England and Wales combined. Looking down in to the dark blue shadow below, you can’t help but picture it… the great Nessie, lurking.
Fortunately, we were lucky enough not to be eaten by Nessie but we did have other issues to contend with. The plan had been to clear the Ness in a single, albeit long, day. It was becoming abundantly clear that wouldn’t happen and we were going to have to find somewhere on the Loch Ness banks to kip. The idea of continuing in the dark wasn’t particularly inviting to start with but the weather was turning and we were very soon being battered by wind and rain. No choice. Time to find a spot for the night.
In good spirits but battling the newly rough conditions, it was here that I would discover how effective canoeing is at keeping you warm. The constant trunk rotation, as it turns out, is incredibly effective. Stopping, on the other hand? Not so much. Within seconds of stepping out of the boat my entire body is shaking and not just me – we all are.
Spurred in to action everyone scrambles to unload the boats and lug the packs up the hill to a small stretch of flat ground. The hill helps with the cold, but not much.
Eventually, with everyone fed (and perhaps a little bewildered from the sudden change of pace) we crawl back into our beloved bags and finally, for the first time in about 4 hours, I can feel my feet again. “Ahhhh”.
The following morning feeling pleasantly, perhaps surprisingly, refreshed we lug the kit back down from the hillside and clamber back into the boats. The wind is still high this morning and it’s clear from the off that closing out Loch Ness wasn’t going to be a repeat of the peaceful experience the morning prior.
The wind is creating a cross swell that’s sloshing up the side of the canoes, pushing us off course. I’m at the stern today (the back of the canoe), making me responsible for keeping the boat straight. It also means I can see the water splashing up into the canoe every time a larger wave rolls through. A little concerning but all there is to do is keep paddling and get off the loch as quickly as we can.
It’s more like constant bodily tension at this point – rarely getting the chance to fit a paddle in, I’m constantly having to push against the current to keep us in line, just holding position between the occasional paddle when you get the chance. Realistically, the chances of a capsize aren’t too high but the consequences would be miserable. 2 team members and their kit in the drink would mean disaster for the trip. Probably endgame.
It’s the perfect bit of excitement to start the morning. Arriving at the mouth of the canal wet, cold and hearts pumping, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Nobody went in. The gear is all secure. “Phew!”
No time to waste. We’ve plenty more ground to cover.
Pulling the boats up onto the dock, the end of the Loch Ness slog is punctuated by a gear haul that required passing 5 lock gates back-to-back. In a way, it proves a satisfying burn of a different kind, to keep things fresh.
“We’ve had it all so far” I think to myself. “Pristine beauty, some tough conditions, a hint of danger. Just what I hoped for”.
Now that we’re off the loch, it’s pretty easy going again and spirits are as high as they’ve been. It seems the hard work is over, at least for now.
Over the course of the day plenty of distance is covered, making up for falling short the day before. We pass through a series of canals and the small but spectacular Loch Oich. The landscape has a strange feeling up here, like nature is reclaiming it, slowly but unforgivingly; boat husks strewn along the banks, boathouses rotting into the ground.
Eventually, we reach the next big mission. “Loch Lochy”. “Lake Lakey”.
The conditions continue to be kind for the rest of the day but at this point, after many hours on the water, we’re all tired and quite ready for some dinner.
I hear a murmur from the front of the group. Excitement. Have we made it?
It comes again, this time more clearly “land ahoy” from the very front of the troop, spotting the beach at which we intend to spend the night.
The evening here is delightful. We stay up late chatting endlessly about the adventure so far, knowing the morning would be a far shorter blast to the finish. We even find a small, somewhat busted up toilet cabin in the woods nearby to our camp spot – luxurious!
A strange phenomena occurs in the night, though. As I lay in bed, I wake to hear the water splashing all around me! “What!?” My sleeping mind is desperately trying to make sense of it. “How!?” “Lakes don’t ‘do’ tides… do they? Am I crazy? Could it have surged somehow?”
Poking my headlamp out the front of the tent I realise the water is just where I left it. It’s a confusing experience. I still struggle to get my head around it now but it seems that sleeping so close to lapping water can have this effect on people. Annoyed at myself, I return to my sleeping mat, hoping I won’t be awoken again. I am. Several times.
When the morning arrives, I sleepily find myself still not to be drowning and all of our kit dry. We’re up early. A rich blue glow is gradually giving way to the dawn as we relish our watery porridge.
Our final morning launch offers up one last injection of excitement. The wind is high again and we need to launch from the beach directly side-on to the chop. The team works together to send each boat and their watermen one-by-one out onto the water and within minutes, Nathan and I are pushing our canoe as fast as we can off the beach and diving inside. The end of our journey is nigh.
The excitement is perfectly complemented shortly after by a break in the cloud. The most significant one we’ve seen the whole trip. The sun pours through from our right, coating everything in golden light.
I close out the trip with the very same shot I started it with. Nathan at the stern, adventure in his eyes but this time a new found appreciation for both canoeing and the Scottish Highlands, along with just a few more stories to tell.