Having arrived at Arisaig in good time yesterday afternoon, we elected to use our reserve day to visit Loch Morar. We are spoilt for choice in terms of exploration possibilities, but the opportunity to row on the deepest fresh water in the United Kingdom with the possibility of seeing Morag the monster swung the vote in its favour.
The loch is certainly a place of extremes – the River Morar which flows to the sea at its western extremity is just a few hundred metres long, the shortest river in the U.K. Unfortunately, the adventurous spirits among us discovered that it was not possible to row the river as there are too many shallows.
A brief online reconnaissance had told us that the scenery would vary from low-lying partly- forested ground in the west (with a few handy picnic spots) to steep mountainous shores in the east.
We had expectations of some grand vistas, pristine wilderness, some wildlife spotting – perhaps we might see our first golden eagle of the trip?
As there were more than enough of us to both row and support Wendy and Sharon decided to have a day out of the boat and elected to climb Sgurr Bhuidhe just north of our launch point.
The rain eased up as we made our preparations and the wind was gentle in the west which hopefully would not strengthen during the day. The loch lies on an east-west axis and we would be rowing with the wind for the morning and against the wind on our return.
We had become used to combining our crews Portsoy/Bristol without too much discussion, this was so that we would be equally balanced in terms of strength and endurance thereby ensuring that the boats rowed in company. It has been one of the great features of our trip to mix with folk from the other end of the country, to learn about their lives, to make new friends and to savour our shared passion.
Dissonance had obviously reared its ugly head from time to time but it had been mainly topics such as the eternal conundrums of porridge or full Scottish, blend or single malt rather than any rowing related topic. There was however clear partisan divergence on one matter, both Roxanne and Soy Loon are differing shades of lime green, unusual in the skiff fleet – but in our eyes objects of great beauty.
Our trip today would follow the northern shore of the loch as our shore-worriers would be able to follow us on foot for much of the way and could swap in or out at one or two of the various sandy beaches scattered along this stretch of shoreline. This was new territory for all of us and we had no specific end of day objective but to take it steady and give ourselves the best possible chance of having a thoroughly amenable time together.
It would be a return trip of approximately 20 miles, or five hours, allowing time for breaks from our launch point at Bracora to the alluring white sandy beach at the head of the loch, even taking it steady it would be no mean feat to accomplish this in a day – especially with a head wind on the return leg. With the option of being able to bring in replacement rowers from our shore contingent at various points along the way we thought that we’d give it a go. A key element of this plan was to ensure that we took sufficient nutrition with us so that rumbling stomachs did not lead to grumbling rowers. A couple of primuses were at hand too, there’s nothing quite as reassuring as the sound of the primus and a kettle coming to the boil when you’re a bit damp and weary.
The shore worriers took off in advance of the boats so that there would be no needless hanging around at our rendezvous. There is a group of islands at the western end of the loch that looked interesting but with a mind to the long day ahead we progressed easterly, happy and relaxed, working out our rhythm for the day with both coxes encouraging their crews to keep the stroke long and steady and to avoid any form of rushing. The world stops, rhythm takes over, problems disappear. Rowing instils a peculiar hybrid of seclusion and conviviality. After three days on this trip of some of us are entering a new personal space, maybe we are all wondering if those aching muscles and chafing hands are up to the task? But as minutes pass by the concerns dissipate and the confidence grows.
Birdsong was all around and as we proceeded along the length of the loch the hills either side grew imposingly in stature. The coxes had prime views on the way out and fortunately the cloud cover was high enough to allow unrestricted views of the tops. After an hour we arrived at the curiously named Swordland Lodge, formerly a training base for the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE). There is a small beach here, so we put a brew on and some distanced themselves to the woods to avail themselves of the secluded natural facilities there rather than face the indignity of the toilet bucket. Whilst here our shore worriers arrived and we decided to swap two into each boat, the plan being for the four who were to continue on foot to explore the hills and to rendezvous with us in a couple of hours back at Swordland.
This is pristine wilderness, the geography is complex, beautiful and inspiring and very much a new experience for most of us. To be able to enjoy it in the way that we were felt a real privilege.
Suitably refreshed we pressed on eastward in reasonable confidence that we would make it to the head of the loch – no sign of Morag the monster, Nessie’s lesser known cousin, but plenty of speculation that given the depth of the loch at just over (or is it under?) 1,000ft strange creatures could exist, our fanciful conversations fuelled by the remoteness of the location.
Once at the head of the loh we found our sandy beach which is somewhere that is only accessible by water, and again we took the opportunity for some brief refreshment. The steepness of the terrain obscured the tops of the several Corbetts and Munros that lay in an arc to the east. Knowing that it might be a tiring push home, especially if the wind were to freshen we did not linger.
Now the rowers had the benefit of the full mountain vista. Thankfully the wind stayed gentle and after just over an hour we arrived back at Swordland where we met with our intrepid hill walkers who swapped back into the boat to give us some fresh (?) muscles. The four who swapped out were grateful to be doing so after their three hour stint of rowing.
The closer we got to home, the easier it all felt, the banter picked up and an appreciation of our fine day out was at the forefront of our conversation.
It is extraordinary that there is such a different freshwater environment that sits so close to the sea. Back at our campsite in Arisaig, just a few minutes’ drive away the water was blue and tidal, a maritime landscape.
We savoured the day, a big effort, great teamwork, special place, special people.
Sands of Morar from the Air
Copyright dropro aerial imagery