Canoeing the Wilds of Scotland’s Lochs

6-minute read

Ian Finch and Jamie Barnes, both UK natives, partnered with two others for a winter canoe trip in the wilds of Scotland’s lochs. As often happens, their trip didn’t go quite as planned, but the changes brought them to a magical “hidden glen” they wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

two men canoeing in a red canoe on a Scottish loch with mountains in the background

Ian Finch and Jamie Barnes canoe a Scottish loch

Ian tells us about their canoe trip:

The Initial Plan for Canoeing Scotland

Our initial plan was a huge canoe circuit, connecting two-thirds of the wild and remote Scottish lochs with immense portages in-between. We had chosen this location for its authenticity in the realm of wildness. It's an 11-hour drive from London and at least a 4-day expedition. Tiny villages with only a shop and community centre pepper the huge landscape in this location.

After a lot of research, we timed the expedition to coincide with snowfall in Scotland, and some of the harshest weather we could muster. Low winds were essential for the paddle, but we wanted the snow specifically so when it came down to our lengthy portages, we would use the canoes as snow sledges. We would pull them like arctic polkas on chest braces with all our equipment inside. We'd need snow shoes, ice axes, crampons and full winter equipment.

As the time approached for the expedition, we shifted the date back one week to coincide with an emerging weather front from the Atlantic. It seemed to be bringing the weather we wanted, and would drop either just before or during the trip. Little did we know what lay in store—not just for us, but for the UK as a whole.

snow-covered mountains

Heavy snow in Scotland’s highlands

As the time approached the news stations began to beat the drum of back-to-back storms forming in the western Atlantic. The first, Storm Dudley, would bring rain and winds of over 70 mph. After a day’s grace, warnings of the second, the 100-year storm, began to surface. Storm Eunice would follow Dudley sharply, with winds of over 120 mph.  

We knew it would be suicide to attempt anything with weather of this ferocity. But the five days before were predicted to be calm, with snow. Perfect. It’s a cliche, but it was without doubt “the calm before the storm.” We shifted our plan, headed up early, and attempted to start the expedition in the weather window with the original location deep in the Scottish Highlands.

Weather Forces a Change of Plans

When we arrived, the weather was starting to bubble and turn. What was calm now was starting to shift and change as the major weather front formed over the Atlantic, ready to penetrate the UK.

After much deliberation, with multiple cups of coffee and heated discussions, we decided to shift locations to a glen (valley) and loch system an hour south. We'd heard it was tipped as Scotland’s most beautiful glen, flanked by endless mountains, forested hillsides and a magical dead end with only footpaths out to the coast. It was effectively one-way in and one-way out, unless cars were shifted up and down a track near a location frequented by the British royals.

calm lake surrounded by forest and mountains

“Some of the most stunning scenery and conditions we'd ever experienced in a canoe.”

The expedition was now all about time. Getting to the new location, getting the canoes in the water, and making our way to the end of the loch was now on the clock. We estimated three full days but the weather was now arriving in two. Everything was in motion, changing, shifting—not only the weather, but our plans, mindset and expectations.

We knew that whatever would happen we would be tested. Our risks would never be foolish, but mitigated and well thought-out. The outcome was always in flux as the minutes and hours passed.

What we encountered was some of the most stunning scenery and conditions we'd ever experienced in a canoe.

Canoeing with Purpose

Our purpose, as always, is wildness, immersion, connection and challenge. Time spent in nature, when we do what we do, always falls into one or all of these categories.

What we had in mind initially was to slightly push the concept of winter canoeing. To pull the canoes like sledges from loch to loch, to be completely off grid and to endure whatever the weather would decided to throw at us was the initial aim.

The real draw was the cold, the snow and moving the canoes through the mountains as if on an arctic plateau.

Even with the change of plans our purpose remained the same, though—to immerse ourselves in nature and challenge our abilities.

Impressions of the "Hidden Glen"

This hidden glen is just an hour’s drive from any major Scottish city, which actually is surprising for a place of this magnitude, remoteness and beauty.

The drive-in feels very Scottish. Flowing dark rivers down and below the level of the car, moss-covered trees reach over the river that exits the loch on its journey to the sea. The visible terrain looks like it never ends. The sense of anticipation is electric.

two men with their red canoe, ready to portage overland, surrounding by tall pine trees

Ready to portage

As you arrive at the mouth of the glen you feel as if you're going back in time. The surrounding lowland mountains are blanketed in old-growth forest. From above, the loch is peppered with prehistoric islands that connect and reconnect the loch shores based on rainfall and water levels. In some locations, swamps and tree stumps litter the landscape, giving a feel of a place hidden by time.

Imagine that every time conditions are right, you get an insight into the distant past and what trees inhabited this terrain thousands of years before. It's secluded and narrow in comparison to the immense loch and lake systems I'd paddled in the past around the world.

At its centre is a pinch point where two lochs converge. Here are a small number of quaint cottages and a stunning lodge. It was only after researching the location post-trip that we discovered this is a quiet and secluded natural pinch point frequented by members of the royal family to escape the crowds on a stunning and remote estate.

At the lower end of the glen, mountains tower out of the earth like a fortress creating a dead end. A small cottage sits at the far end. It's truly magical.

man portaging his red canoe overland through the underbrush and trees

Portaging overland between lochs

Notes on Gear

The gear we used has been tried and tested over numerous canoe expeditions from Alaska to the Mississippi. Anything water-based from a clothing perspective we used the formidable NRS gear. Fjallraven was for our land-based technical clothing and tents. We use the beautiful Bending Branches wooden canoe paddles for nearly all of our expeditions.

We only use what we trust and gear that has been with us over time. Also, we only like to work with brands that have strong ethical and environmental stances. This is hugely important for us.

A big thank you to Ian Finch for his trip thoughts and beautiful photos. To see more of Ian’s photography, check out his website and follow him on Instagram.

What paddle questions can we help you with today? Get in touch with our Wisconsin-based Customer Service Team: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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