Ness Knight is a full-time adventurer and regular contributor to our Field Notes blog. In this latest expedition, Ness explores the rural Parish of Assynt in North West Scotland. Join Ness as she explores this remote, mountainous landscape on foot and by SUP.
I’m not quite sure if it’s the impossibly twisted remnants of lone Scots Pines, long dead, yet still clinging to the tiny rocky islands, or the millions of years old mountains that rise up flanking me that gives this place such an ancient feel, but I feel like I have stepped back to a time when great beasts of the Jurassic age roamed these lands.
The geological history of Scotland is a stunning tale of tumultuous change, a series of upheavals that both formed and transformed this landmass dramatically, in a journey extending back more than halfway to the origins of Earth itself. I find it extraordinary to think that this wilderness once stood cheek by jowl with Antarctica. It is no wonder that Scotland spawned so many of the great ideas and theories about the history of our planet Earth.
From where I stand, looking out across the loch, my world and this moment in time suddenly becomes but a fleeting glimpse into what is just one chapter in Scotland’s lifetime, as it continues on its journey. Right now, it is slowly rising up as the weight of ice from the recent Devensian Glaciasion has been lifted. We, too, have made our mark on this landscape as its once thickly forested surface has been laid bare from deforestation, making way for farmland and exposing the rocky terrain beneath. Perhaps that is what gives so much of Scotland its distinctive, and rugged feel. As I prepare my standup paddleboard to head out exploring the loch, it is the gnarled remains of this ancient forest that break the still horizon. Part of what remains of the 1.5 million hectares of original Caledonian Forest can be found on the many small islands that are scattered across lochs, giving me the opportunity to experience what this place once would have been like when it was the domain of animals, and not of humans.
The Land Rover is parked up in a muddy layby alongside Loch Assynt and my paddleboard is loaded up with everything I need for the next twenty-four hours of paddling amongst islands and wild camping. To the east lie the remains of Ardvreck Castle where I plan to pitch at dusk. I squelch my way down to the water's edge, sinking into the boggy bank that sucks my wellingtons down into its peaty grip.
As I push off the wind catches me like a sail and nudges me out towards the islands. There’s no need to paddle so I sit back and let the wind decide where to explore first. I want to find an island that I can tether the paddleboard to and make lunch, but the more I hunt around the clearer it becomes that this will prove extremely difficult. Huge boulders guard the edges of the islands, with rough surfaces that would shred my equipment and my hands. I flit between islands, gawping at the beauty of these microhabitats and dodging enormous boulders hidden just below the dark surface of the water. After a long search for a sandy entry to any of the islands I give in and haul my board up onto the only viable piece of land; a long flattish rock backed by a small overhang where the water has eroded the peat away. I lay out my lunch and scan the slopes on the far side for the faint movements of deer.
By now the sun is beginning to sink, and I need to start making my way along the loch towards my camp for the night. Setting the board back on the water I turn the nose into the wind and head east, muscles straining against the force of today's gales. There’s no possibility of rest as any break in my strokes means I come to an abrupt halt before being blown backwards at an impressive pace. Sweat breaks on my forehead and I can feel a trickle down my spine. I’ll be earning that beer tonight. I zigzag between island, using their mass to shelter from the wind and catch my breath before pushing on to the next. Then the islands stop and the final stretch to the castle opens out to the most spectacular view. In the distance, I can see the crumbling outline of Ardvreck Castle. Murphy’s Law has it that the winds dies down minutes after I hit landfall before the ruin. But you won’t find me complaining as the quiet and stillness is broken now by the bellowing of stags all around me. Rutting season is in full swing and the male red deer are making themselves heard with the most bizarre, desperate roars. I pitch my tent in the last of the light, and rustle up dinner with a view overlooking the ruin, and out towards the misty mountains. As the night closes in I crack a beer and lie awake listening to the stags vie for mating rights. I am so tired that not even the legend of Ardvreck Castle and it’s original owners’ deal with the devil can’t even spook me enough to keep me awake.
I wake up with the dawn light as usual, and unzip the tent to a light fog blanketing the wilderness and softening the rugged landscape. I have a couple of hours to myself before others start arriving to view the castle ruin. A quick coffee brews while I change into my swimsuit and Dryrobe.
I pack the tent up and pile my equipment near the shore below. The water is flat and glassy as it usually is at dawn, with only the occasional whisper of wind threading its way across the loch. I take a tour around the little island before beaching the SUP board and jumping into the icy water for a wild swim, gasping for air as the shock of it jolts me awake. Drizzle is now floating down in sheets and it is about as sodden out the water as it is in. I come careering out the water with a grin so broad it splits my face in two. The first tourists arrive just at this moment and the look on their faces is one of both bemusement and surprise. Sod it, one more swim…
An hour later I bundle into the Land Rover, crank the heated seats and begin to make my way north towards my next adventure.
Looking for more adventures with Ness? Explore the Namibian desert by fat bike with her here.