Kayaking and walking off Scotland’s west coast, plus campervan buying guide
Once a tent-sleeping purist, Judy Armstrong was converted to the luxuries of kipping out in a campervan by an unforgettable recent trip walking and kayaking the Isle of Mull
I LOVE MY TENTS. I love my Hilleberg for backpacking, freestanding MSR for beach camping from the sea kayak, GoLite shelter for cycle touring… I love the freedom that goes with them, shedding the daily grind for the simplicity of action-reaction: when whatever you do has a direct impact on what happens next. Eat, shelter, sleep, move. It’s the best antidote to the busy-busy-busy of modern life.
Except for when it’s raining hard. And blowing a gale. Or snowing. Or there are so many midges battering the tent that it sounds like a hailstorm. Or when I get back from a long weekend to spend the entire next day drying and sorting camping gear. Then, I love my campervan.
Yep. It happened a year ago, after my husband Duncan had an injury mountain biking in the French Alps. He spent two days lying on a thin sleeping mat in a tent blowing sideways in the freezing Mistral wind, covered in dust and grimacing with pain, until a couple in a campervan invited us in for a cup of tea. That was it, really. We’d sneered, slightly, at campervanners as being soft, not ‘real’ campers like us. Until we realised that the two are not mutually exclusive: having a campervan wouldn’t mean we’d have to give up the tents, it would just allow us to pick the tool for the job, as we would with any piece of equipment.
So, we started looking. We didn’t want a coach-built motorhome (too wide, too plush, not so suited to the rough tracks and land we planned to camp on) nor a rising-roof van (too small for us and all our toys). We did want a roof high enough to allow a fixed bed over a roomy garage, an indoor loo and shower, and space to cook and relax. Soon it became apparent that the best option was to buy a large panel van and convert it to our own specification. We didn’t have the time for DIY, but there are plenty of companies who are experts at this stuff, so we found a local outfit, bought a van and handed it over. The remit was to make it fit for wild camping, so we needed solar panels and extra water tanks, midge screens on all opening windows and doors, a fridge, heating and hot water to run off gas, mains or the leisure battery, and front seats that turned to become our living area.
A few months later, ‘et voilà,’ as they don’t say in Yorkshire: our custom campervan was good to go. The first time we used it, as a base for a weekend walking in the Yorkshire Dales, I felt like a fraud: were we still ‘camping’? But that evening, after a hot shower and good meal, with a glass of chilled wine from the little fridge, sitting under the awning with the Dales at my feet, I knew that yes, we were camping, just with in-house facilities.
First big voyage, then, was to the Isle of Mull. We bought a high-lift rack for the sea kayaks, loaded the garage, fridge and water tanks, and headed north. Our target was Uisken, a white-sand beach on the Ross of Mull’s southern coast. Turning off the narrow road with passing places that threads the length of the Ross, onto an even slimmer lane with stone walls either side, we drove carefully down to the bay and onto a bouncy sand track to a perfect seaside pitch.
Uisken is a dream: a sweep of sand backed by rough farmland, facing a bay with islets and, beyond, the Paps of Jura. There are no facilities; a family in a tent made forays behind a wall with a shovel, and left after two days as they’d run out of water. But in our campervan, we were in heaven. Parked on grass, directly above the beach, we launched the kayaks to paddle east to the Carsaig Arches or west toward Errad and Iona. We carried camping gear in the kayaks, and landed on white-sand beaches to cook scallops over our little gas stove or brew fresh coffee. A seal lived on the rocky island in the centre of Uisken bay, and pods of dolphins patrolled around us as we made early-morning forays in the boats. We stayed for a few days, finding rock castles and caves, and the unimaginable expanse of Ardanalish beach topped by an Iron Age hill fort. We had sunshine. We had gales, midges, rain. We had comfort. It was a revelation.
Moving, finally, to Fidden campsite near Fionnphort, we paddled to Iona and then explored the western edge of the Ross on foot. Landing on an isthmus beach off the Bull Hole, a slot of calm water in the Sound of Iona, we found the King’s Cave, where the bodies of kings were kept for a night before being transported by boat to Iona for burial. There is a hole in the rock, a window framing Iona’s abbey across the Sound. I sat in the cave and stared at the view, with the musty breath of the dark cavern and misty memories of what once lay here.
Above the isthmus is a quarry, where pink granite of unique quality was extracted for buildings including Blackfriar’s Bridge in London, and the wedding ring of a local man we met on the beach. We walked through and around the quarry, then admired its wonderful shapes as we kayaked up the coast: art in nature, the best possible kind.
ONTO THE HILLS
The weather became too naughty for paddling, so we headed north to the mountains. Camping on the shores of Loch na Keal, we loaded daypacks and headed up Ben More, directly from the van. Ben More, at 966m, is Mull’s only Munro. It’s a lovely mountain, with a side for walking and a side for scrambling. We followed a track past the farm of Dhiseig and up the west flank. As the path evolved from meadow to heather to scree slope, it felt like we were climbing a volcano. Off the scree, we followed the ridge to the summit for a paradise panorama. To the south were the Paps of Jura, a gull’s scream from our Uisken pitch. To the west, the Outer Hebrides; I could have sworn we saw the mountains of Harris.
As a descent, we chose the east side of the summit, steeper and more exposed than the path up. The route led along the ridge to
A’ Chioch, sometimes scrambling, sometimes walking. At a col north of A’ Chioch, we turned down the pathless valley of Beinne Fada, via a waterfall crashing in giant steps, into a ravine. It felt wild and joyous, and we landed back at the van relishing one of the best mountain days of our year.
Opting for a different view, we nudged north to Killiechronan farm. A large patch of grass on the eastern end of Loch na Keal, it is a top spot for sighting sea eagles and otters. The farmer, who visited by quad bike to collect the £5 nightly charge, described a double whammy from two nights earlier: a sea eagle swooping on an otter to steal its fish. We held our breath, and watched the bay as we cooked outdoors (a rare, midge-free evening) but the wildlife was resting…
From the campsite it was a short hop to the island of Ulva, which has since been bought out by the local community. We had planned to kayak around it but the wind wasn’t playing ball, so we compromised with a boat trip to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, uninhabited since 1800, Staffa is famous for Fingal’s Cave, an extravagant slot 20m high and 75m long, lined with glossy, black hexagonal columns and with a roof like a Gothic vault.
Leaping off the boat in the tiny harbour, we walked to the cave on a horizontal via ferrata: a chain bolted to the cliffs as a safety line against the sea. Standing on a narrow ledge, listening to the boom of waves smashing against age-old basalt, feeling the spray on our faces, made my soul shudder. Afterwards, we climbed to the high point, onto cave-riddled cliffs over 40 metres above the sea, their basalt columns formed by the same volcanic activity that created the Giant’s Causeway in Ulster. The cliff tops are pocked with puffin burrows and studded with wild thyme and flowers; an hour on the island wasn’t long enough to properly explore.
On, then, over a sparkling sea to Lunga, largest of the Treshnish Isles. Here the volcanic flows have formed a lava plateau crowned with short grass and sea pinks, orchids and the rare oyster-plant. It is home to thousands of sea birds including puffin, shag, guillemot and razorbill, some breeding, others passing through. We walked among crowds of puffins sliding feet-first into burrows, clacking beaks, preening, wheeling and flapping like little clowns. Endearing and fascinating, they were a visual and emotional treat, and two hours on Lunga disappeared like water through fingers.
The whole trip was like that, to be honest. Time disappeared. Having the campervan made the weather less relevant: we kayaked when conditions were good, and walked when the waves were too cheeky. We moved location almost without planning, and knew we would be warm and dry wherever we stopped. Provisioning was simple, with the fridge to keep food and drink cold. The sensation was of simplicity and freedom – just as with our tents, but with metal walls and a toilet.
This year, we’re going back to Mull, and Uisken, with the campervan, boats and boots. But we’re also taking the MSR tent, to pitch on a secret beach just short of Errad, for a night under the stars en route to Iona by kayak. It’ll be the best of both worlds. I can’t wait.
Wild Camping With a Van
The most crucial elements of being self-sufficient, off-grid or wild campervanning, however you want to phrase it, are water, gas, lights and toilet waste disposal. After months of pre-purchase research, our set-up has been a real success. Here’s how it works:
WATER: our main water tank is 90 litres. We added an extra 80 litre tank in the garage. Being careful but not paranoid about water use, the two last us a week including a brief daily shower (water turned off while applying soap, etc), stock-piling dishes into one daily wash and careful toilet flushing.
GAS: our gas tank is 25 litres and powers the fridge (three-way, to run off the engine battery when we’re moving, gas or mains electricity), hot water (as fridge), heater (ditto), two-ring hob and oven. It is amazingly efficient and we have never run out, even after weeks of use.
LIGHTS ETC: to run the lights, TV/radio, charging points (USB, 12V and 240V) we have two 100W solar panels on the roof, with Votronic MPPT regulator, and two Banner 100Ah leisure batteries. We have never run low on power, even in dull weather.
TOILET: the main reason to hit a campsite. Being super-careful with usage (peeing outside, you know the drill…), two people can fill a toilet cassette in three to four days. This is ditched in a chemical toilet disposal point at campsites or, in Europe, at aires and some motorway services.