Active holidays: Brave the waves of the wild Western Isles

Sea kayaking opens routes to deserted beaches and legends. Felicity Martin takes to the Scottish waters
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nowhere in Britain is there such a jumble of water and land as in the Western Isles. The archipelago, also known as the Outer Hebrides, stretches 120 miles along Scotland's Atlantic seaboard, dotted with dozens of inhabited and uninhabited islands, a haven for watersports and wildlife watching. In fact, many people combine the two – there is no better way to approach an otter eating a fish in a tangle of seaweed than by gliding up silently in a sea kayak.

The unpolluted watersare excellent for sailing, surfing, diving and fishing. But the greatest growth activity is sea kayaking. Several centres will train novices or organise multi-day trips for more adventurous, experienced paddlers, with guide or without. Although all the 13 inhabited islands are linked by ferry or causeway, it's immensely satisfying to meet the challenge of paddling between them by kayak. On one of the longer crossings, like the six miles of open sea between Barra and South Uist, the land recedes to a small strip on the horizon, and with no protection from the Atlantic swell, the waves crash over your bows even on the fairest of days. In spite of the Atlantic, a group of experienced kayakers could circumnavigate one of the smaller islands such as Barra in a day – a trip of about 25 miles. But beware: dramatic changes in conditions are normal. There are plenty of adventures for beginners and children in more protected waters, though. A popular five-mile circuit of sea and inland lochs at Lochmaddy on North Uist involves paddling under a bridge and through a tunnel, then carrying the kayak over a short neck of land.

My introduction to kayaking in the Western Isles was with Chris and Katy Denehy, who run Clearwater Paddling in Castlebay, Barra. Admittedly it was at the easy end of the scale – a cruise at dusk over the glassy waters surrounding the 12th century Kisimul Castle which gives the village its name. With no wind, I was soon gliding along, remembering to use my back and shoulders to add power to my paddling without tiring my arms.

Further up the islands, at Lochmaddy on North Uist, kayaking courses have become the most popular activity at Niall Johnson's Uist Outdoor Centre. Many visitors tell him they are taking up paddling because the mountains too busy these days. In the Western Isles it's easy to be alone. "On a sea kayak expedition one guy asked me how many times I'd camped at that beach on a deserted island," Johnson explains. "I told him I'd never been there before. There are enough islands to stay in a different place each time."

For non-paddlers, several operators offer boat trips. The ultimate Hebridean adventure is a Seatrek expedition to the Flannan Isles (which have held an eerie sense of mystery since their lighthouse keepers unaccountably vanished in 1900) or the rocky outpost of distant St Kilda. Seatrek – which ferried film crews to and from the island of Taransay and Scarp for Castaway 2000 – take small parties of up to 12 in a rigid inflatable boat (RIB). Sights include seals, dolphins, whales and sharks, plus the many sea birds that nest on the stacks and cliffs.

The Western Isles also have plenty to offer on dry land.There are 13 waymarked routes, or, better still, join a guided walk with someone like James MacLetchie of the Southern Isles Amenity Trust. As a Gaelic-speaking crofter and fisherman he can provide insight into the local way of life, where you can still see hand-tied stooks of grain drying in the fields and families cutting peat for fuel. Elsewhere, walks explore standing stones, chambered cairns and other prehistoric or Viking sites.

The Western Isles offer all levels of accommodation. If you are on a tight budget, the Gatliff Trust's hostels provide basic amenities, often in renovated blackhouses – traditional cottages built without chimneys. Although there are few campsites, it is generally acceptable to pitch a tent on open dunes or moorland.

Most visitors arrive on one of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, often choosing an "island hopscotch" ticket so they can travel the length of the islands, heading north from Castlebay on Barra through the Uists and Harris before sailing back to the mainland via Stornoway on Lewis. By air, you can enjoy the only scheduled flight in Britain subject to the tide tables – the daily flight from Glasgow to Barra lands on a dazzling-white cockleshell beach.