A planned trip – circumnavigating Skye

This trip was originally developed for Easter 2017 which didn’t attract any participants – it was reworked out for Easter 2019 but didn’t get the weather. 2020 was a non-starter owing to the pandemic, so the current iteration is for 2021. Easter is a bit early, but the trip would also work taking in Mayday bank holiday. However, the trip timings work for a couple of days each two-week tidal cycle. There is more scope for varying the timing during summer with longer daylight. May should be mostly before midge season, but by June midges will be hungry.

I’ve paddled quite a bit of the coast of Skye and Raasay and have had it in mind for ages that I’d like to circumnavigate the island one day. The total distance is under 300 kilometre so on the face of it, ten days ought to be plenty long enough. However, there are some strong tides and exposed headlands, so timing and weather would be critical, and days off for bad weather need to be factored in. I decided to look up all the tidal information and see whether a trip could be worked out to fit in two weeks allowing for contingencies, and using tides to the paddler’s advantage wherever the tidal flows were big enough to make a difference. I had already decided that clockwise would be best, as there would be more chance of avoiding headwinds on the exposed sections in the Minch. It turned out that such a trip was indeed feasible, though not straightforward. At Neist Head on the west coast, the flood coming up the Minch splits north and south, so you have to approach Neist on the ebb timing your arrival for slack tide to pick up the flood going north. But it’s quite a long day to reach Neist, so you can only get this timing on a couple of days each tidal cycle unless you have very long daylight hours. Once you’ve done Neist at that time, the tides only work in your favour round the next three headlands very early or very late each day, and they are far enough apart that you cannot do them all in one day. Either you have to extend an already long day past Neist to get round Dunvegan Head in the evening, then pass both Waternish in the morning and Rubha Hunish in the evening next day, or you have to pass Dunvegan very early the second day, and Waternish in the evening, leaving Rubha Hunish for the third day. The total distance for the critical section is almost 90 km (most of it in scenery where you’d really like time to poke about in the caves and stacks) which is a long way for two days. The three day option is undoubtedly easier, but if you miss the tidal window on the second day you will either lose another day or have the same very long final day as in the two day option – but with less time to find a camping spot at the end of the day (because the tides are now later). So you’ve got to have your good weather window at the right point.

I was planning for April or May (before it gets too midgey) and wanting to be off the water by 7pm (and not getting up stupidly early). I needed to allow margins for things going wrong – a trip where everything has to work out exactly right is a trip which never happens or where things that do go wrong compromise the rest of the trip so that it gets worse and worse. However, if the critical days come right, there turns out to be a lot more leeway for almost all the rest of the trip. Although I figured timings for April 8th to 17th 2017 (or up to the 20th allowing for days off the water), the plan would work for any period with a spring tide in the middle, and you could vary the starting point to fit almost any two weeks you could get free to do the trip (there are from nine to eleven paddling days). However, you don’t want the critical days to be so far into the trip that they are beyond a believable weather forecast, nor so near the start of the trip that you have not had time to get warmed up and shaken down. 55 miles of exposed paddling in two days (or even three days) at the start of the season is a big ask…

With that in mind I sketched out a plan starting somewhere in the SW of the island. The Sound of Sleat, Loch Slapin, Elgol or Glen Brittle would give one to four days of warm up before the big committing days. Because one might need to bale out and get back to one’s car by public transport or hitchiking, I picked a put-in just short of Armadale on the main road into Sleat. That gives you three or four days to get to Wiay in Loch Bracadale, the jumping off point for the first long day, round Neist Point. A group with more transport could place a spare car and a couple of bikes at strategic points in case an escape were needed. For example, Broadford is easy to get to, so a bike left there would ease return to one’s car if you put in at Elgol or Loch Slapin which would mean only two days paddling before hitting the critical section. Because of the day that spring tides arrive, and targetting the plan to Easter 2017, the timings below were based on a start at Loch Slapin. With springs differently offset from your easter weekend, you might want to start somewhere else so you are at the right place on the right day… I’ll have a go at working this out for 2021 again, in the hope that coronavirus will not be so much of an issue.

It would be perfectly possible to put in at Mallaig (indeed, we’ve done this for a trip to Sleat in the past) but getting back to the car in the event of a trip abandonment would be a major headache – it really is a very, very long way round from Mallaig to the Skye bridge, and the Armadale-Mallaig ferry is often fully booked (though probably no longer as expensive as it was before the Scottish government introduced road fuel equivalent tariff).

The final critical section is under the Skye bridge, and then, six kilometres later, four kilometres of narrows at Kyle Rhea through which the tide rushes at up to 8 knots. Getting the tide in your favour is not the issue here – it is avoiding being propelled at higher and higher speeds into the narrowest part where any south or southwesterly wind will produce spectacular breaking seas. Fortunately, by the time you are here it should be getting near neaps, and you can use either the first half hour or the last hour of the S-going tide, so it is not hard to find a passage in daylight, even if you are not arriving on the planned day.

The map below shows an outline for ten day’s paddling from Loch Slapin (and pop-up photos from previous trips in the Skye area). A first day from Armadale would always need to be three or four days before Full or New Moon, and from Elgol or Loch Slapin two days before. Specifically, pick a start so that the day which paddles past Neist Point has high water Ullapool between 7 and 8 a.m. BST. You’ll need to be on the water about 2½ hours after HW Ullapool, so if you are an early riser (or really good at getting packed up), you could go a day earlier (but this would mean a very early start the next day). In practice it is unlikely that you would get round in nine or ten days straight unless you are very fit and had consistently good weather, but the timings later on do still work if you have some extra and/or shorter days on the east coast, or spend a day or two storm-bound, or even spend more time playing in the caves north and south of Staffin. It’s meant to be a fun trip, not a marathon, so although the long/exposed days are hard to avoid, the rest of the trip can be more relaxed. After a bit of iterative revision in which I managed to work out a three-day option to avoid 55 miles in two days, my original timings were worked out for Easter 2017. I’ve now revised these for 2021, with a put-in at Loch Slapin on March 27th which is a Saturday. This is two weeks earlier than the 2017 timings, and puts the Easter bank holidays at the end. I was thinking that having a day before starting, to place the aforesaid strategic bike and maybe a food cache would be useful. Of course, other spring tides would be on other days, so these specific trying-to-hit-a-weekend ideas would not fit. Starting Loch Slapin March 27th targetted a finish on April 5th (Easter Monday) with the three-day Neist/Dunvegan/Waternish/Hunish option, and worked with contingency allowing to run on until Thursday April 8th. If there had been enough delays that we wouldn’t have made it by the 8th, I’d planned to bale out by Broadford where shuttles would be easiest to set up.

So here are the timings based on Easter 2021 assuming a start in Loch Slapin (for Armadale just start and finish a day earlier). Times are British Summer Time throughout (but beware that BST starts on the morning of the 28th, so the first day’s times may be misleading). Sunset is a little before 8:00 p.m. BST at the start of the trip, 8:10 p.m. towards the end – evening daylight is still something to watch carefully. I’ve picked a Saturday start here as it will be more convenient for most people, and if all goes well, you finish Easter Monday – but tides are about half an hour later (more towards the end) than when this plan was written, and, being earlier, so there is less daylight). Times might be a tad easier (certainly in terms of daylight) starting a day earlier, so if you are tied to the weekend, a start and finish at Glenbrittle would achieve the timings. Alternatively, if you are not tied to using bank holidays, starting on Friday 9th April would also work well in 2021 – but beware you would be at New Moon, not full. The springs are not as big as two weeks earlier. Starting Saturday April 24th is back at full moon, with bigger springs again and an hour’s more daylight in the evenings. This time you get one bank holiday in early May. Timings about half an hour earlier than as listed here (so you get an hour and a half extra safety time before sunset each evening).

March 27th, HW Ullapool 06:56, 19:22, four days before springs
Put in from the little road below Kilmarie at NG553167. There is limited parking here (maybe four vehicles) and the estate do use it, so try to keep your car tucked in neatly. It may well be worth telling them that the car will be there for a while, so you don’t get the local police trying to track you down… or you could tell the local police (just don’t leave a note saying “this car is available for breaking and entering until date X” in the windscreen). Paddle down the coast, and round the point. You can cross directly towards Soay, visit Elgol (snacks, ice creams?) or Coruisk (scenery) and generally vary the route as you please. Once at Soay, the tide always flow westwards, so you become somewhat more committed (although further offshore you could come back). Camp on Soay or perhaps tucked in behind the point at Rubha an Dunain. For an extra 5 km of paddling you could use the campsite in Glenbrittle (crowded and noisy during holiday periods, and potentially much midgier).
March 28th, HW Ullapool 07:34, 19:59, three days before springs
Up the west coast to Loch Bracadale, aiming to camp on Wiay, landing on a beach on its NW side (there are few other landings on Wiay, but several other places you could camp in the Loch). Talisker Bay is one of the easier places to fill up with water on the way. Tidal currents are not significant along this coast, but the southwards flood will be against you from 07:00 to 13:00

March 29th, HW Ullapool 08:12, 20:36, two days before springs
You don’t need to be on the water early to paddle to Idrigill point, but it is a long way to Neist and if you wait for the tide to help, you may find time a little tight with no chance to play. With the last of the flood tide against you, keep close inshore and enjoy Macleod’s Maidens, various arches, geos and caves. The tide will turn in your favour at about 1:45 p.m. so don’t go past Lorgill Bay (the only good landing on this section) until then. It’s another long stretch from here, so it is well worth having a good stop and some lunch (one reason for starting in good time). With the tide now helping, paddle on past the huge cliffs of the Hoe and into Moonen Bay. There’s a big eddy in Moonen Bay so you may need to adjust your line to stay in the flow. The idea is to get to Neist Point at slack water, which should be at 16:25. Tide predictions are never exact, so there’s no harm in being a little early and waiting. Once round the point, you will be in the flood tide again, but now it goes north, so you will be carried along nicely again to the entrance to Loch Pooltiel.
You now have the choice, depending on conditions and tiredness, of whether to head on or camp (and get an early start the next day). Heading on, the tide will pick up and whisk you round Dunvegan head somewhere near peak flow, so if there is any east in the wind, it will be rough. You could wait until after peak flow, and head north on the end of the flood, but if you try this in March, it will get dark too soon.
March 30th, HW Ullapool 08:50, 21:14, the day before springs: three-day option
Assuming you elected to camp in Loch Pooltiel. The N-going tide to pass Dunvegan head sets at 04:15 before HW Ullapool, so that’s 04:35. To be at the headland towards the end of the flood, near slack, set off not long after 8:50 a.m., and aim to be at the most exposed part soon after ten forty. The tide turns at 11:30, and you don’t want to find the tide setting against you if it turns early due to whatever weather conditions might be doing. Once past Dunvegan Head, you have six hours of the tide doing nothing to help, so duck into Loch Dunvegan where the tidal flows are minimal. There’s a pub and a tiny shop in Stein, or you could visit the abandoned village on Iosaigh. There can be lots of seals in the Loch, too.
Our aim now is to get round Waternish Head as early as the tide will allow us, and head for a camp somewhere in Loch Snizort. The tide will turn somewhere around 16:55, but if you leave it until then to start from Ardmore Point, it will be going quite fast past Waternish 8km further on and daylight will be limited in March. In good weather, this will be just what you want. If there’s any easterly wind, it would be best to be early, keeping close inshore and aiming to pass Waternish at slack. It’s probably another hour or so if you choose to camp on one of the Ascrib Islands, or 2½ hours to visit Uig (pub, restaurant, etc. and a commercial campsite) which is definitely going to be getting darkish in March. Alternatively, depending on your weather forecast and headtorch batteries, you might prefer to stay out in the tide and push on to somewhere nearer Rubha Hunish hoping to get round that on the morning tide. Most of the beaches close to Duntulm are a bit rocky although there are one or two beaches that look like sand or shingle between Bornesketaig and Duntulm. The map shows another commercial campsite at Bornesketaig, but it is not clear from aerial photos whether this does, in fact, exist.
March 31st, HW Ullapool 09:30, 21:54, springs: three-day option
If taking three days round the exposed headlands, you are now somewhere poised to take on Rubha Hunish at springs. The morning flood runs in your favour until 11:40 (11:55 at Rubha na h-Aiseig, which is your feasibility-determining tidal window). From Bornesketaig, you have maybe an hour and a half’s paddle to Rubha Hunish and with the tide, another half hour to get round to the east of the Island. You would want to be on the water by 9:50 at the very latest. If you make this on the morning tide, paddle down to Kilmaluag Bay for brunch. The tide here doesn’t pick up in your favour until well after midday (though it is only 1 knot at springs, so it is not an insuperable difficulty). This version of the three-day option puts you half a day ahead, so it’s really a 2½ day option.
If you chose the camp on the Ascribs or at Uig, you will want to take the afternoon tide round Rubha Hunish. The tide sets in your favour at 17:20 and the later after that you leave it, the faster you will go and the less daylight you will have, just don’t wait too long if there is any easterly wind. You should easily reach Kilmaluag Bay which is the first camping spot. There is probably enough daylight to head on down to Staffin, but you will be against the tide until after 8:30 p.m.. This section is full of interesting cliffs and caves so close inshore the tide will probably not bother you (indeed, in the channel between Eilean Flodigarry and Sgurr nan Eireann we found it going the opposite way from what we expected, so there may be an eddy here that the pilots see no need to mention.) In March, lights are definitely going to be a good plan here.
March 30th, HW Ullapool 08:50, 21:14, the day before springs: two-day option
If you made it past Dunvegan Head the same day as Neist, you can put on from Iosaigh or other camping spot in Loch Dunvegan aiming to catch the morning tide round Waternish. This tide runs your way until about eleven thirty and you have about six miles during which the tide stream will be weak during the first half within the Loch and losing power towards slack in the second half, so although it will help, don’t expect to be whisked along. Soon after 8:30 would be a good time to be on the water (this will be a very long day, so earlier is better). Once past Waternish you cannot pass Rubha Hunish until the evening tide, so there is time to cruise across Loch Snizort and perhaps visit Uig. Don’t dawdle in the path of the ferries to Lochmaddy and Tarbert and watch out for the wake ! The plan for Rubha Hunish is as for the three day option, but half an hour earlier, so the tide starts in your favour at 16:25. By the time you reach Kilmaluag Bay, you will have covered at least 44km, so any idea of continuing south is unlikely to appeal.
April 1st, HW Ullapool 10::11, 22:37, the day after springs
I’ll describe the rest of the trip as if the three day option had been taken. If you got round in two, it is much the same but each paddle is a day earlier and timings are half an hour or so earlier each day. We’re now on the more sheltered side of Skye with weaker tides and less critical timings. But do note that any deep depressions heading north of the UK (as is usual for the summer) may lead to a swell coming down the Minch from the north, which will reach Inner Sound.
From Kilmaluag Bay, there is a stretch of coast which is full of interest with many stacks and caves, and without the time pressure and tiredness that may have kept you out of the same sort of scenery at Rubha Hunish. However, After Staffin (10km down the coast from Kilmaluag) there are only few and small landings. Off Staffin, the tide runs weakly against us until after lunch, and the S-going tide sets progressively later the further south you go, so by the south end of Raasay, it sets in our favour a little over five hours after HW Ullapool. With so few places to land and camp on the main Skye east coast, I have planned to make the crossing to Rona, but there is a choice to be made. A slightly longer crossing starting soon after a tiny beach below Culnacnoc saves distance overall. But a few kilometres south of here is another stretch of caves and natural arches. Staying on the Skye coast for another six km saves a kilometre of crossing and misses four km of the Rona west coast so is hardly any longer. Which you choose may well depend more on wind and swell than preference for exploring caves. If you want to visit shops to restock in Portree, then not visiting Raasay and sticking to the Skye coast makes sense (but camping is scarce). My plan was to cross to Rona, and go through the Caol with the tide which runs our way until after 8:30 pm, then make camp on the NE tip of Raasay. That’s about 35km from Kilmaluag, which may be more than you’d want if you took the two day option round Rubha Hunish, so the three-day opters will be catching up !
April 2nd, HW Ullapool 10:58, 23:26, two days after springs
Again, the tide runs weakly northwards until lunchtime, so there’s no great need for an early start. 13km will see you to Brochel Castle which is well worth a look round to stretch your legs. Then there’s a very scenic section of coast below limestone cliffs. There are many boulders in the shallow water, which provides interesting rock-hopping, but beware that the solution-eroded rocks have some very sharp corners. This seems to be quite a good stretch for otters, too. After lunch it’s 21km to Caolas Scalpay where there is a small campsite (the Skye Boat Centre). The mainland shore offers few other places to land or camp (its rocky and/or muddy) but there are spots on Raasay or Scalpay if you want a shorter day. My original idea was to get close to Broadford, which makes timings easier for the Kyles, but there are no obvious good spots and desperately searching for a place to camp in fading daylight after a long day is no-one’s idea of fun.
April 3rd, HW Ullapool 11:56, 00:33 (next day), three days after springs
From Broadford, its 10km to the Skye bridge. From Raasay (either side of Scalpay) it’s about 20km. Caolas Scalpay is not the ideal morning route, as the tide runs eastwards from a while before twelve until getting on six in the early evening. The tide times at Skye bridge are notoriously difficult to predict as they depend on the difference in level between Inner Sound and Loch Alsh. The influence is not only from the sun and moon (which are predictable) but also atmospheric pressure (which can raise the level in Inner Sound in a depression or lower it in an anticyclone), the wind (which can push water through Kylerhea, raising the level of Loch Alsh in a southwesterly) and the rain (extra run off will also raise the level in Loch Alsh). All being calm, we’d expect the tide to run our way from before eleven am to five pm, so getting through should not be an issue wherever our morning put-in. Six kilometres later, we have the four kilometre narrows of Kyle Rhea, which is more of an issue. The south-going stream sets about 11:50 am, and the flow is strongest at the narrowest point at the southern end (which can’t be seen from Loch Alsh). Any southerly wind will raise a breaking sea, so it is not a good idea to commit to the flow when it’s going well (peak rate is 8 knots at springs, so you are not going to be able to retreat!) The best plan is going to be to hang around until the rate drops off and head through in the last hour. The N-going stream will set at 17:35 or 17:50 depending on which pilot you read, and it will not be a good plan to leave it too late and find the tide has already turned. So setting off around 4:45 pm would seem sensible. A bit earlier if there’s no wind (or a northerly !). There should be no problem getting here from as far away as Raasay (about 26km) at a pinch, as the tide will have been helping most of the way. If by this stage we’ve lost a day or two through weather, or whatever, passage can be later. If you are as much as three days late, depending on where you started the day, it should be possible to catch the start (rather than waiting for the end) of the S-going stream.
Through Kylerhea, and tides are no longer much of an issue. The plan is to paddle on another 7 km to the Sandaig Islands, though if we started at Raasay, we might want to stop sooner.
April 4th (Easter Sunday), HW Ullapool 13:26, four days after springs
If you started at Armadale, its now a leisurely short day down the Sound of Sleat. To Loch Slapin or Elgol is probably further than you want to go in one day unless you are feeling fit and have a threatening weather forecast for tomorrow. Cross from the Sandaig islands or soon after, to the Skye coast near Isle Ornsay, and head west. A camping spot on the isthmus joining the Point of Sleat lighthouse to the rest of the peninsula has been good in the past, but there are quite a few nice beaches along this stretch.
April 5th, HW Ullapool 02:11, 15:13, three days before neaps
Round Point of Sleat and 7 km to a nice beach at Inverdalavil. For Elgol, you’d cross from about here, but for Kilmarie, another six kilometres before turning left would provide somewhat more sheltered water. Another 7km will see you at that put-in.