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Loch Calder and Loch Watten make good half-day paddles in the kayak

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Taking to the lochs of Caithness for a calmer kayaking experience

Loch Watten.
Loch Watten.

It may be April, but there have been quite a few days when just going out has meant dressing for winter mountain conditions.

It is only half a mile along the road to the wood, but on that exposed stretch of road I have met weather as severe as any I’ve encountered on the hills.

I particularly remember a January blizzard with a force nine from the north, a temperature of -4C and heavy snow. It was a one-step-at-a-time fight back home, ski-goggles and scarf essential in the blinding white drift.

This time it wasn’t quite that bad, just force eight and a hail-storm, but still a struggle.

Needless to say, kayaking conditions have not been good. A couple of club members, cannily making the most of a weather window, did manage a round trip from Dunbeath to Latheronwheel. I reckoned the sea would be too rough and headed for the lochs, where waves die down in any brief interlude in the wind.

Chambered cairn, Loch Calder.
Chambered cairn, Loch Calder.

Loch Calder and Loch Watten both give good half-day paddles of about six miles, following the shores round. It was a grey but mild day for Loch Calder, remarkably calm before the wind picked up later, kidding myself that spring was here.

At the north end of the loch I always like to land at the ancient chambered cairn, early primroses gleam yellow amid the drab greens and browns of the wintry grasses. The remote western shore of the loch is also a good place for a break, especially in summer when bees buzz in purple heather and you can enjoy the peace of a spot which is a slog to reach on foot.

If the loch is high, as it was this time, you can explore the reedy south-western arm of the loch with inlets frequented by ducks and waders and little marshy islands of willow-scrub to thread between. It’s worth stopping to walk up to the ruins of the isolated Carriside croft, another very peaceful spot.

Loch Watten is tamer than Loch Calder, surrounded by farmland but still rich in wildlife. A bonus is easy access for launching and landing at the eastern end of the loch, so often the choice on my own is between damaging the back or damaging the boat by dragging across rough ground and stones. I usually put up with a few more gouges to the tough plastic keel as the least worst option.

It was a calm and clear morning but cold with an early frost, the only truly fine day in several weeks. A variety of ducks often congregate near the eastern end of the loch, paradoxically the best way to watch them is to drive up in a car and never get out. They always swim well away from the boat.

A little to the north is the only crannog I know in Caithness, a small artificial island created thousands of years ago – but disappointing as there is nothing to see but dense nettles growing over the stones. You don’t need a boat, it’s just a short swim from the shore. Black-headed gulls were already in residence, dipping and screeching as I paddled past.

The crannog on Loch Watten.
The crannog on Loch Watten.

For once I paddled down the middle of the loch, enjoying the calm water and blue skies. Of course the easiest way to see the loch is from the train as the railway runs right along the northern shore. It’s worth persevering to the far end as there is a little wild corner here, the only spot like it on this often busy and much-fished loch.

Between the Quoynee Burn and the railway is a natural nature reserve, a boggy area thickly grown with native alder and willow. You can paddle a little way up the burn till the way is blocked by overgrowing willows. Birds sang and there was the strong scent of a fox.

It was just a short paddle across to the boats at Oldhall, then back along the southern shore with large flocks of greylags feeding in the fields near Watten.

Gulls were swooping on something in the water, an otter would surface, put its head out then dive again. I watched for a while as the animal gradually swam away in the sunshine, then I headed for the shore for another cup of tea from the flask.

I’m no great paddler and just enjoy being in these wonderful places which the kayak lets you reach so easily.

Rain is hammering on the window again now and it’s blowing about force six, but there’s hope it may settle down in a few days' time!

The west end of Loch Watten.
The west end of Loch Watten.

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