Dr Julie Carter



Pictures by Ian Wilson

Ploughing on up the A9, mindful not to miss the junction turning west to Spean Bridge, Kyle of Localsh and Skye; I hardly ever drive this far alone but on this occasion I am very motivated. It's been four years since I've done a sea kayaking trip, and an awful lot has changed in four years. I wonder if I'll manage. Will I have the strength, stamina and paddling skills if the sea conditions turn challenging? The weather forecast wasn't very encouraging at first, but every time I look again it improves.
I used to kayak on the sea regularly and I've tried to do this expedition around the islands of Raasay and Rona twice before but both times been thwarted by strong winds and high seas; both times we circumnavigated Raasay but couldn't get round Rona. She's a fickle one that Rona, 'not easy to get round her', I'd joked and I began to think the idea was a distant dream. Life changes. My group of kayaking friends don't do trips together like we used to. One of us died of a brain tumour and some of us are feeling older and creakier, and some of us have developed other agendas. It's easy to let things slip away. My lovely 'Pilgrim' kayak has been sitting on its shelf in the garage, a symbol of loss. But now it's about to take to the water again, with one old friend, Marie, and two new ones, Ian and Kevin. We convened in the pub, maps spread on tables, noting tidal streams and rechecking the forecast. It feels a bit surreal. I am finding something I thought I'd lost.

Early next-day we packed the kayaks on the Sconser slipway while listening to the Capercaillie tune 'Calum's Road', written in tribute to the Raasay Lighthouse keeper Calum MacLeod, a man who showed the way when it comes to not surrendering one's agendas. The story of his road building in an effort to keep the crofters on the island is legend. It's a tune that makes my skin tingle at any time but battening down my hatch covers, breathing in the briny breeze and zipping up my buoyancy aid I almost want to cry. Just to be here, to be doing this, it means so much to me.


The crossing from Skye to Raasay is silky smooth and we make steady progress up the island's east coast. There are not many landing spots along this stretch so we paddle on, gazing up at the cliffs, playing under a showering waterfall, sometimes chatting and sometimes quiet, as I rediscover the feel of being a little body in a little boat on a big sea. Like riding a bike, my body remembers the feeling, and unconsciously knows how to react to little waves and pushes of current and breeze. The feeling of being on the sea in a kayak is mesmerising, almost trance inducing, as if the water which I am mostly made of has recognised itself. I am not solid but fluid. I move with the motion of the sea and each paddle stroke feels natural and strong. Nice to have this easy weather to get back into the feeling of it. We do land for lunch, but Raasay is a long island and our destination for the night is the north tip, a long way to go.

After a second stop under a ruined castle the geology changes. Sullen imposing cliffs give way to a pale-pink and grey rocky coast with intricate architecture. We explore inlets, discovering the secret colours of hidden zawns. The world which a sea kayak gives access to is like no other. We are almost like the seals who play alongside our boats, except that we stay on the surface. Like the body of a seal a loaded kayak is lumbersome thing to haul about on the shore but once in the water it is sleek and quick. Thankfully at days' end, it isn't far to carry the boats up above the tideline. There's flat green grass for the tents and a flat green sea for a swim and the grey backs of porpoises wheel around in the sound between the two islands. Rona is looking friendly this evening.

rhona 2


And so she proves to be, at least for us, as we spend the whole of the next day getting round Rona. A couple of hours in, we pause for ten minutes, gawping at two young sea eagles devouring a seal pup only a few meters from us. Soon after an otter swims past carrying a fish. As we round Rona's north tip, making detours around a few little skerries, we watch a drama unfolding along the coastline of Skye with thunder and lightning over the Tolkienesque hills of Trotternish. It didn't come our way. We passed some low sinister looking military buildings recalling the time we had made the crossing from Applecross to Raasay, not realising at first that we were in an area of live naval manoeuvres. I shudder at the thought of a submarine breaching under a little kayak. Would they know we were there?

By the time we were travelling down the west coast of Raasay the rain did arrive and tired and cold we struggle to find a camp spot but eventually manage. I am done in and need to pitch my tent and warm up while the other three heroically carry the boats over huge slippery boulders. The wet rock colours are incredible and the way the sea has polished the stones makes me think you could transport them to some posh art gallery and they would probably win the Turner prize.

Next morning the colours are gone as the rocks are dry. Not as beautiful, but an awful lot safer for boat carrying. Then the wind strengthens and rain comes again, but by now I'm finding some confidence and my companions are great paddlers and look out for me all the time. I trust them. We do more exploring of nooks and shag-nested crannies and make it all the way through a long black cave less than a couple of meters wide and out the other end. To be in such a place and ride on the sea's breath, each surge carrying me through between the rocks, into the dark then back out into light. I feel both privileged and totally insignificant. Just to be in such a place, it's more beautiful than anything I could imagine or describe. And then it's back to Skye with a pushing wind scouring the sea and I'm careful to maintain course and not catch my paddle on a gust. The mist is low over the hills, the rain is unrelenting. Back onto the slipway and the CalMac ferry terminal provides a welcome changing room. I am always changed by these journeys. I want more.