Friday, 8 November 2013

An Old Man's warning

Pushing south against the ebb tide from the Point of Stoer wasn't too difficult and I soon reached the Old Man of Stoer.  A 60 metre sea stack formed of Torridonian Sandstone, it's an instantly recognisable landmark.  Climbed in 1966 by the Aberdonian climber Dr Tom Patey, it remains a popular though committing climb.  There are several stacks prefixed with "Old Man" in Scotland - the similarly named Old Man of Storr in Skye and the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney are the best known.  In each case the term "old man" refers to the priapic appearance of the stack - though another well known and priapic stack (on which Tom Patey was killed whilst abseiling) is known as A' Mhaighdean (the maiden) !

I'd looked across to the stack from the cliffs opposite, but not been this close up before.  From seaward the whole edifice seems to be leaning out gently to the west.  It is possible at certain states of the tide to paddle behind the stack, but not today.

A look to the south showed that the sky was dark grey and lowering, a sign of the approaching weather front which would bring strong wind and rain.  Suddenly, I didn't feel comfortable - a powerful and urgent feeling of unease gripped me.

Perhaps it was a combination of the strangely distorted verticals in the stack and the cliffs, coupled with the unusual motion of the swell which lifted the boat but slid it northwards with each surge.  Whatever, the uneasy feeling and the clear warning in the sky to the south decided the issue; I'd not continue south to Stoer Head lighthouse, but get back around the Point of Stoer as quickly as I could.

This inner, instinctive alarm system has served me well in the past on both mountains and on the sea; I've learned to listen.  I took no photographs on the way back around the point and found the paddling more difficult.  A tense half hour got me around, out of the strong tidal stream in the vicinity of the headland itself and into the relative shelter of the eastern side.

To the south east, Quinag lay under a threatening grey sky, the weather clearly beginning to make felt its presence.

In the boat, I was beginning to feel a sense of euphoria and an easing of tension, but this is no place to relax, there was still several kilometres of paddling along a cliff-girt shore and a tricky headland to pass before I could rest.

I did have time to appreciate the cliff scenery more fully on the way back though.  Contorted and weathered sandstone beds have been tilted and exposed to form some grand formations

It's an exceptional piece of coastline to paddle.

A bay of translucent green water backed by a purple-red boulder beach was a tempting place to try to land but the still powerful swell was a bit too big for comfort - one to save for another day.

Around the point of Rubh an Dunain (which was still as tricky as on the way out) and I could finally land next to the small jetty in Bay of Culkein.  Now the euphoria could be indulged - the rush of endorphins drained the strength from my legs and I felt a little shaky as I walked up to find a seat on the rocks and make a cup of tea.

I'd managed to round Point of Stoer twice in a day, achieved more than I'd thought possible in the day and extended myself to deal with something which intimidates me.  I had no sense of "conquering" the headland, I'd merely stepped out of my comfort zone, into the "elastic zone" and had a fantastic experience.  Had I backed off the point I'd have still had a great day - retreat would be no defeat at all and my decision would have been right for the day and the situation.  Solo sea kayaking puts these choices to a paddler in a very fundamental and direct way; it's part of the solo experience.

But I still had a couple of hours paddling to do, daylight was short and it was time to go.....

The rainstorms were sweeping northwards in grand curtains as I crossed towards Eilean Chrona (the dark, low island in this image).  I've often heard the otherwordly singing of Atlantic grey Seals here and today as I approached the song reached out across the water.

Grey Seals pup in November and it's possible that this is a breeding site because there were large numbers of rather portly seals hauled out.  I didn't want to disturb the animals and decided to give the island a good wide berth - but not wide enough.  A truly huge bull seal launched from the rock and swam purposely towards me, his body language and huffing an unmistakeable warning to stay away.  Somewhat less subtle than my inner system, this "old man's" warning was very effective and I put on a spurt to get clear of his patch!

Soon I was threading the Oldany Island channel and picking through the low tide skerries to arrive back at Culkein Drumbeg as the weather closed in and the wind picked up.  I'd been right to heed the signs at the Old Man.  During the night the wind and torrential rain battered Assynt and washed away hopes of a climb of either Suilven or Stac Pollaidh the following day.  No matter.


  1. Well worth the wait of your blog!
    Your are a wise man, Ian!
    Thank's for sharing your thoughts
    when solo kayaking.
    Look forward to next trip!

  2. A very meaningful account of risk assessment that a lot of us can learn from, Ian. Slightly heart-stopping to boot! :) Thank you. Duncan.

  3. Thank you Leif and Duncan, solo paddling needs that slightly different approach sometimes! :o)

    Kind regards