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A kayak through the heart of Argyll

1 to 3 days (although preferably many days)
Argyll is becoming recognised as a world-class sea kayaking destination. It has everything for all standards of kayaker from the ferocious Crorryvreckan whirlpool and distant islands to the many tranquil sea lochs. It has incredible scenery, wonderful places to stay - whether you want a Michelin-starred restaurant or your own idyllic camp spot - and there are friendly, knowledgeable people to help you out along the way. Will Self of Wild Argyll takes us on a kayak journey through the heartlands of Argyll following part of the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail.
Arduaine to Crinan
1. Arduaine to Crinan
We could be anywhere in Argyll. Just us, away from it all, listening, feeling the breeze on our faces. That un-nameable Atlantic smell – millions of years of change and sameness – like a Gaelic song that only grows richer. It is a joy just being here. We are on Eilean nan Coinean, Rabbit Island. This is on both the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail and the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail. To the west is the Dorus Mor, The Great Gate, and the Corryvreckan whirlpool. We can hear their roar clearly. To the East is Loch Crinan, the Crinan Canal on its south shore and Duntrune Castle perched like a cormorant on a crag on its north shore. Surrounding us is the ancient heartland of Argyll with pre-history carved in bedrock and stone circles and Dunadd Fort rising above the River Add. We are heading south down the Sound of Jura.

We put in this morning at Arduaine, Loch Melfort, leaving a car at the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail car park. Timing of the tides was critical as we needed the strong tides to be with us. This is particularly crucial when navigating the Dorus Mor which can run at up to eight knots. Loch Melfort is an easy paddle in calm conditions and the beautiful scenery explodes into the eyes as we pass tiny islands, chaperoned by inquisitive seals and emerge into the Firth of Lorne. The steep and wild Isle of Scarba has caught moisture off the Atlantic and its summit is circled in cloud. Otherwise it is clear and calm and as we are ahead of schedule for the Dorus Mor currents we paddle to the beautiful island of Reisa Mhic Phaidean for lunch and a quick explore of this surprising little jewel close to the Corryvreckan.

Using the last of the tide to help us on our way we paddle through the still turbulent Dorus Mor and head for Crinan, stopping briefly on Rabbit Island to drink it all in. Loch Crinan is shallow but drops steeply into the Sound of Jura. From our vantage on the edge we can clearly see this in the patterns on the water.

Passing the boatyard, the hotel and the entrance to the canal we head deep into the estuary and negotiate the channels surrounded by salt marsh and bird life. We end our day’s paddle on a small drovers’ ferry jetty beside the canal where we leave our kayaks overnight. We have left enough time to explore some of the profoundly evocative Kilmartin Glen.
Crinan to Loch Sween
2. Crinan to Loch Sween
A languid start as we watch seemingly too large vessels glide through the Georgian locks of the canal and listen to the curlews and oystercatchers whirling in the estuary. Today we are diverting from the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail by postponing a paddle through the canal. We head out of Loch Crinan, still on the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail. Seals are close by again, perhaps after the salmon and sea trout heading up the river. Round Ardnoe Point as we meet the currents in the Sound of Jura we are amongst a pod of porpoises. This is a dramatic and steep coastline with hardly any sign of human habitation, just the distant light on Ruadh Sgier and the towering ruin of an Iron Age fort high on the ridge. All morning it is just us and this wide, wild space with the diving gannets, guillemots we can almost touch and a sea eagle, quite unconcerned by us in our small craft.

At lunchtime we paddle into Carsaig. Here we divert from the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail and portage less than a kilometre to Tayvallich where there is a coffee shop and an inn. We are in a different world again exploring the sheltered fingers of Loch Sween with tiny wooded islands, ancient Atlantic oak woods and some shallow tidal rapids full of dazzling life. With these surprises round each corner we spend the rest of the day exploring, choosing to end at a bonny and secluded spot to camp.
Loch Sween to Loch na Cille
3. Loch Sween to Loch na Cille
Leaving only footprints at the camp a short paddle takes us to the first stop for coffee on a sandy beach which has seen many explorers land over the centuries. Towering above is Castle Sween, one of the oldest and largest fortifications on the west coast. We leave our kayaks and wander its vast rooms pondering life and war over the ages.

As we head out of Loch Sween we see the MacCormaig Isles amidst fast flowing tides and over-falls. We are prepared with careful notes of the tides and weather and now we stop on the Isle of Danna to watch the conditions unfold. The sandy bays of Danna merge into wildflowers and birdsong. It is an idyllic place to wait for our window to cross at slack water. We skirt the islands to Eilean Mor, the largest, where we discover the outline of a tiny Columban monastic settlement, the wooden structures long gone but the earth walls still just evident. In the middle is a medieval chapel. We have just time to explore the island, its high cross and most intriguingly a tiny cave, prayer refuge of Saint Cormaig himself. Beside it is a medieval pilgrimage chapel.

We could stay much longer but the tides dictate we must go and we head north six kilometres into the haven of Loch na Cille, the loch of the hermit’s cell or chapel. A car is waiting for us near another ancient chapel on the site of another ancient monastic settlement, a satellite of the great monastery of Iona. Inside are the most beautiful artworks – carvings in stone, the highlight of which is the High Cross of Keills. This delicate looking masterpiece has withstood well over a thousand years of Viking raids, war and weather. The lattice works and symbols bring to mind another masterpiece of Argyll from the same period, the Book of Kells.

What next? To keep going and explore more sandy bays and castles? Columba’s cave is just in the next loch and we can see the enchanting Isle of Gigha... or to come back another time?

Wild Argyll takes bespoke explorations by sea kayak and on foot. You can also read from Will Self in his Explore Like a Local posts.
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