Skye by SUP: The ultimate sustainable way to see this Scottish island

Paddleboarding the Hebridean coastline takes time and a bit of oomph but it’s well worth it, writes Mike MacEacheran

Thursday 21 October 2021 17:48
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<p>Far from the madding crowd: An SUP tour of Skye</p>

Far from the madding crowd: An SUP tour of Skye

Let me tell you about my favourite spot in Scotland, if I may. When I think of the Isle of Skye – as I’ve often done over the past 18 months – it appears pictured in my mind on a perfectly still summer’s evening, the mountains and shore backlit by a horizon on fire, as if everything were leading up to some sort of biblical climax. Sometimes, I recall the tired joy of climbing the Black Cuillin here, camping on Glenbrittle beach as a child and sitting by embers with friends in the dying afterglow.

I’ve come to the island in the Hebrides more than any other and, while its semi-mythic ridges, coral beaches and unnerving cliffs are intoxicating, they are certainly not exclusively mine. Increasingly so, in fact – it’s hard to find a space of my own.

Which was why, this summer, I decided to chase a route that offered away-from-it-all adventure without the crowds. And mine was the green, sustainable option, allowing me to explore the island from a wholly new angle and yet still see those places that linger in my memory.

Unbeatable views can be enjoyed from a paddleboard

Most people arrive to drive from Kyleakin to Portree and back again, but I was travelling by SUP in the company of Donald Macpherson, owner of Inverness-based micro-adventure outfitter Explore Highland. The paddlesport guide offers canoe, sea kayak and SUP trips throughout the Northwest Highlands but, like me, Skye is his favourite spot. We’d planned a beginner’s midweek trip starting on the Sleat peninsula. From there, we’d hug the coast of Loch Eishort and Elgol, exploring islands and beaches as we went, and for as long as our paddles would keep us moving. He had two new inflatable, twin-fin boards from Brit manufacturer Red to road-test, and his enthusiasm was infectious. All I needed was a wetsuit.

“We’ll have you turning on a sixpence in no time,” he said, as we pushed off across the limpid water, our tents, sleeping bags and supplies in dry bags strapped at our feet. “Now brace yourself for Skye as you’ve never seen it before.”

Brace yourself for Skye as you’ve never seen it before

If Scotland’s most-touted island has emerged as a UK destination in demand, it helps that it packs in the whole of the four devolved nations into a single spot. There are the gorgeous, fudgy sand beaches of Cornwall and Devon. There are the wild coastal edges and surf breaks of Pembrokeshire. There are the clifftop scrambles and basalt columns of County Antrim. There are Highland clan castles, shooting estates and Hebridean crofts galore.

Spectacular views abound too. Ahead of us, across glassy-calm Loch Slapin, the Black Cuillin were skirted by an avalanche of igneous rocks as old as the dinosaurs. The coast was thick with purple-budding heather and orchestrated by the faint flap of cormorants drying their wings, diva-like, in the sun. Below, there was just as much to inhabit our imaginations: soft-pink maerl beds and sea kelp shifting at a funereal pace at odds with schools of wriggling fish.

Travelling by SUP is a green way to see Skye

Our first destination was an unnamed coral island, a sandy skerry to get any adventurer dreaming. Beyond, the ruins of the village of Boreraig, a reminder of the Highland clearances, had the smashed-in teeth of a giant, but we were focused on the speck of land that would turn heads in the Caribbean. It was all soft, cockleshell-sown sand encircled by a ring of brilliant blue and our boards’ v-shaped hulls eased through the water, past swirls of seaweed and onto the shore. The easy-won reward was a private island for the afternoon. “Mind you, it’s not like this every day,” was Donald’s down-to-earth reminder. “I’ve been here when it’s been more like an Atlantic squall.”

That evening, with no such forecast, we set up tents and lit a beach fire further along the Sleat peninsula beside dilapidated Dunscaith Castle near Tokavaig. There were no other tents or camper vans, only the hunched shoulders of the Cuillins in the dusky half-light and the rhythmic chug of a sole creel fishing boat heading out to sea. By morning, we had packed and gone, leaving only our gently smoking coals behind.

It was all soft, cockleshell-sown sand encircled by a ring of brilliant blue and our boards’ v-shaped hulls eased through the water, past swirls of seaweed and onto the shore

For most paddle boarders, Skye is a blank map. Donald often plans trips to the island of Soay, almost uninhabited and home to a curious, if failed, basking shark factory, and to Spar Cave, a cathedral-shaped sea inlet. It was once abseiled into by Bear Grylls and his unlikely sidekick Ben Stiller and is now more popular than ever. Don’t let that put you off; it’s truly wondrous.

The next day, the weather turning to fog and a smirr of rain, we deflated and packed away our boards and set an improvised course for Kyle Rhea and Loch Alsh on Skye’s busy east coast: a good call. Our destination was another of the island’s bypassed highlights – the 14th-century ruin of Caisteal Maol, once the clan seat of Findanus MacKinnon who supposedly married a Norse princess nicknamed Saucy Mary. It’s a romantic place right enough, all Outlander time-travel and swoonsome views.

Paddleboarding lets you get up close and personal with Skye’s coastline

From here, we paddled deep into Skye’s Inner Sound – ferry-gliding, as Donald called it – to use the flow of water to move our boards sideways across the strait. The Skye Bridge was a carousel of camper vans, tour buses and cars, but as the tidal current carried us beneath it and away from the traffic, peaceful Loch Carron and the empty islands of Scalpay and Raasay came into view. And then the sun shone.

Squinting, it was possible to see the haunting landscapes of Sligachan and the Red Cuillin, and beyond that Trotternish with its car parks and world-class Celtic monuments, the Old Man of Storr and Quiraing. All were no doubt overrun with day-trippers and smartphone wielders, but here we were alone, with no one else besides us on the water. Just two men bobbing in tight neoprene and at peace with the sea.

Travel essentials

Mike MacEacheran was a guest of Explore Highland, which offers a series of bespoke, guided SUP camping trips throughout northwest Scotland. A full day, including use of a Red Paddle Co. touring board, costs from £270 based on three adults. Prices for multi-day camping trips to Skye on request. Paddleboards were supplied by Red Paddle Co. and SUP kit by Red Original.

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