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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Kyle of Tongue offers enough shelter for an early spring sea paddle

By Ben MacGregor

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Ben Loyal.
Ben Loyal.

Tongue would be my dream place to live. But maybe it’s better just to visit occasionally and keep the dream alive as reality would soon intrude with blocked drains and aches and pains, and of course everything that goes on in the world goes on in Tongue!

The whole area is very special, and any journey to Tongue always includes an element of delight, especially if it involves mountains or islands.

A week earlier I’d taken the boat out for the first trip of the year, an unadventurous paddle round Loch Calder on a day which began with snow but then turned into a fine morning – unlike my previous visit with the canoe club just before Christmas when we paddled down the loch in an increasing blizzard and I nearly froze struggling to get the boat strapped back on the car.

There have indeed been few suitable days for sea-paddling since.

The south-east wind, a direction I never trust, was forecast to pick up and there was still a significant swell on the north coast. But the weather looked fine, and the tide would be high in the early afternoon. Good conditions for paddling the Kyle of Tongue, sheltered from the swell and with a following wind to help me on the return journey.

Lunch stop near the southern end of the Kyle.
Lunch stop near the southern end of the Kyle.

I left the car by the cemetery just north of the causeway on a brilliant sunny morning of frosty ground, blue sky and snow-capped mountains. This would be my first sea trip for a while.

On dragging the boat down to the water the first thing I heard was the yodelling call of long tailed ducks, just off the shore. The air was scented with seaweed and salt. The tide carried me quickly under the bridge and I set course for Castle Varrich, on the rocky knoll a mile across the sea-loch.

The waters are very shallow and at low tide much of the Kyle drains to mud, so it is important to be paddling south on a rising tide!

The sound of a farmer calling his sheep carried across the water from near the village, with distant hammering from a new house being built high above the Kyle. Most of our paddling in the far north is along high exposed cliffs and headlands, spectacular scenery of stacks and geos and caves.

Setting off at the Kyle of Tongue.
Setting off at the Kyle of Tongue.

The Kyle of Tongue gives a different experience, more akin to the west coast. You paddle under steep broken slopes covered in native birch and alder, very rough with piled boulders and inaccessible other than by sea. It is a quiet, wild place.

At the beginning of March the trees were still dormant, the birch groves purple and leafless. Beyond rose the white slopes of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal into a blue sky streaked with wispy cirrus.

The tide was not yet fully in so I had to drag the boat a little way across mud to reach the shore near the southern end of the Kyle. In a sheltered spot for lunch I could actually enjoy the warmth of the sun for the first time this year.

The peace and beauty of this place, the mountains and sea, seemed in stark contrast to all the frantic news on our media at the moment. Oystercatchers seemingly walked on the water, probing mud just under the surface.

On Loch Calder.
On Loch Calder.

I watched the water slowly creep higher and only had a few yards to pull the boat to launch again, now paddling up into the river which enters the Kyle at its southern end with a spectacular view of the snowy peaks of Ben Loyal.

Turning, I set off back down towards the causeway. It was a neap tide and even at high water the boat was still scraping the mud in places before reaching slightly deeper water. The western side of the Kyle is less interesting, the old Durness road runs just above the shore. I saw just three vehicles along it all day and there has been a proposal to close it – this would be a great pity as it’s still a place where those who can’t walk or cycle can get out into quiet, wild country.

The wind had picked up to about force four as expected, helping me along at a good speed, though it always takes a bit to get my nerve back in waves after a winter of swimming pool practice!

A view towards Ben Hope.
A view towards Ben Hope.

It’s nearly 50 years since I walked through a sunny Tongue on a still and quiet Good Friday while on a long distance trek. The world has changed a lot, but some of that atmosphere still lingered. Tongue remains a very special place.

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