After four gruelling days of paddling and portaging across the Scottish highlands from Mallaig to Fort William, Matt and I took a day’s rest, recovered the car via a train ride over the Harry Potter viaduct and reflected on our experiences. Despite completing the crossing in good time, some lessons had clearly been learned. Most notably, the weight of our packs had severely affected our travels during the portage phases of the journey. The trip up to the watershed from Loch Nevis had been a tough experience, heightened by the need to cover every kilometre three times. The answer was obvious: carry less kit!
We considered every item of equipment and stripped away all unused and unnecessary items. It was a sobering experience to see the excess material pile up before our eyes, as we lightened our packs for the next planned section of the trip: the classic cross-Scotland route from Kinlochleven to Perth via Rannoch Moor. We were determined to move more freely on this next adventure, especially given the brutal reputation of the high ground across which we would travel.
Weather and time constraints caused us to skip the coastal section from Fort William; we therefore drove to Kinlochleven, from where our journey would begin again. With the canoe balanced on its trolley and our packs inside the boat, we began the steep ascent up the forest track that leads to the Blackwater Reservoir. After an hour of intense effort we had gained almost 300 metres of altitude and were rewarded with a panoramic view over Kinlochleven. The cool cloudy weather was ideal for travel, our progress towards the reservoir now hastened by the smooth concrete surface of the track, over which the canoe trolley sped. The contrast with Loch Nevis was spectacular.
Arriving at the dam wall by late morning, we were reassured to see a good water level in the reservoir. A moderate westerly wind blew over the lake surface and we hustled to complete the transition to paddle power. With the sail hoisted, we flew east towards the head of lake, fifteen kilometres despatched in a couple of relatively effortless hours. The shoreline closed in towards the head of the lake as we slalomed through a maze of islands in search of the tiny river that feeds the Blackwater Reservoir at its upstream end. Finally beaching the canoe, we stepped ashore into a gloriously wild and remote place. At three hundred metres altitude, with the Mamore mountains to the north and the peaks of Glencoe to the south, our escape lay across almost eight kilometres of moorland to Rannoch Station.
It felt that the real challenge was about to begin; Rannoch Moor has a severe reputation among expedition canoeists for its distance, terrain underfoot and exposure. We scouted the first section and concluded that the Blackwater river was deep enough to permit lining-up. We hauled across a few meanders, dragged up the frequent rocky steps and paddled wherever possible. Our portage packs remained in the canoe for much of the time and as the hours passed, we made steady uphill progress towards Lochan a’ Chlaidheimh, where we would cross the watershed and commence the descent to Rannoch Station. The visibility remained clear, with spectacular views across the high, remote moorland. The train track became visible to the north and suddenly we were within sight of the lochan. From the route’s high point, we marvelled at the relative ease with which we had covered the ground. Conditions had been great; enough water in the river, relatively dry underfoot and good visibility. We also felt the benefit of lighter portage packs, which permitted us to to move all our equipment without resorting to multiple journeys.
We continued towards Rannoch Station, benefiting from a small stream that just floated our canoe downhill. As numerous boulder chokes forced us back onto the moor, we set up a husky tow and plodded steadily towards the now-visible collection of buildings that form Britain’s most remote railway station. At last, early evening saw us at our destination, a little less than nine hours after departing Kinlochleven. We were tired, hungry, muddy – and delighted. We had crossed Rannoch Moor in fine style and could now look forward to the long system of lochs and rivers that descend to Perth and the east coast. After a civilised dinner in the empty station visitor centre, we turned in for the night, as the sun disappeared over the silent moor.
By 7am were were en route once more, navigating Loch Laidon, the Garbh Ghaoir river and Loch Eigheach until the dam wall at the head of the Gaur forced us ashore. Tarmac and trolley combined perfectly as we hummed downstream to the more navigable sections of the Gaur, and eventually the head of Loch Rannoch. Under clear blue skies and with a strengthening westerly wind, we hoisted sail once more and began an exciting downwind sail, surfing white horses as we ate up the distance to Kinloch Rannoch. Powering along at almost 10 km/h, we covered 18 km of open water in style. Over a café americano, we plotted our options and concluded that Pitlochry might lie within reach that day. Afloat again, we followed the upper river Tummel down to Dunalastair Loch, the narrow rocky forested hillsides funnelling our helpful breeze ever stronger. Portaging once more, we trolleyed down to Tummel Bridge and our final large loch crossing, 15 kilometres of Loch Tummel. Again, we enjoyed fantastic sailing conditions and by early evening found ourselves ashore once more on the minor road past the white water Tummel below the Clunie dam. A final flat water paddle took us to Pitlochry, where we arrived thirteen hours after our departure from Rannoch Station. With 58km of loch, river and portage under our hull, we were elated with our progress and wasted no time checking into the Pitlochry Backpackers. This excellent establishment was the perfect end to an amazing day of memorable open canoeing.
A late morning departure from Pitlochry the next day saw us swiftly down the lower river Tummel, slaloming between anglers to the river Tay confluence. With a water release from the Clunie dam, our speed through the class I-II rapids was swift and easy. Onto the fast-flowing Tay, we continued to enjoy a series of simple rapids down to our early afternoon lunch break in Dunkeld.
The afternoon bought harder work and a renewed sense of tiredness, as the lower reaches of the Tay eased to a seemingly-endless series of gentle meanders. To our outrage a headwind materialised, forcing us to dig deep yet again. At last the rocky barrier of Campsie Linn appeared, the signal of the start to a few kilometres of class II+ rapids, down through Stanley Weir and on towards Perth. Shipping water in a couple of the larger wave trains, we whooped our way downstream, enjoying the final challenge of this grand cross-Scotland adventure. At last, after several more kilometres of flat water, the town of Perth appeared. Our arrival at the tidal limit marked the end of the journey, 140 kilometres after leaving Kinlochleven. As the early evening rain fell from the sky, we trudged wearily but happily towards our campsite, relieved that soon we would be spared any further paddling or portaging. 250 km after leaving Mallaig eight days earlier, it was time to go home.