Paddles Touring Guide – Loch Etive

‘This Land of Rainbows spanning glens whose walls,
Rock-built, are hung with rainbow-coloured mists…’

William Wordsworth, ‘Composed in the Glen of Loch Etive’

Glen Etive probably needs no introduction, but on the off chance that you are the only British paddler who has never paddled or seen photographs of the River Etive, a description follows. The Glen descends steeply from Rannoch Moor, hemmed in claustrophically by numerous 3000 foot-plus ‘Munro’s. The river is famously blessed with clean and photogenic waterfalls and slides. Having enjoyed this, paddlers often paddle or drive down past the normal takeout. After several miles, the road and river terminate into open water, but the steep glaciated valley sides continue to the horizon. This is a prepossessing spot, lingering in the memory of all who have visited and gazed upwards to the mountains and outwards down the Loch. Salt water and fresh water intermingle, but do not mix. This is Loch Etive, a British fjord.

Never more than a mile wide, Loch Etive extends for nearly twenty miles between the foot of Glen Etive and the open seas of the Firth of Lorn. For most of its length, there is no road access and little habitation. It really is a fjord! The characteristic features include the classic glacial U-shaped valley profile, the deep water centre section, the shallow ‘cill’ at the mouth and the complex strata of salt and fresh water beneath the surface. The mountains that hem in the Loch are among Britain’s finest; walkers and climbers will salivate at famous names like Ben Cruachan, Ben Trilleachan and Ben Starav. Hard to believe that the name ‘Etive’ is generally interpreted as meaning ‘Little Ugly One’!

The wildness of the Loch is matched by the wildlife. There is at least one seal colony and they encountered along the length of the Loch, often trailing kayaks for miles (what is that all about?). Otters are common and are easily spotted, swimming along or rummaging around among the inter-tidal seaweed. Ashore, herds of deer forage the mountainsides and you might well the catch a glimpse of the Monarch of the Glen himself. Less majestic but equally entrancing are the Sessile Oak woodlands which stretch along the Northern Shores of the Loch, a designated ‘Special Area of Conservation’ and a remnant of the ancient Great Caledonian Woods. High above, Golden Eagles wheel around the peaks, to be spotted only by the most keen eyed.

What does Loch Etive offer the paddler? The whole length can be traversed end to end as a day trip if wanted, albeit with a pretty daunting shuttle drive of about 65 miles each way. Spreading the trip over at least two days to camp and explore is highly recommended. Finding good quiet wild camping spots is simple enough; obviously, leave it all as you found it. Using the Loch as a base for hill walking adventures is certainly a viable option; the only problem is choosing a peak to begin with! A ‘there and back’ expedition is a worthwhile possibility, exploring a different shore in either direction. Another appealing possibility is to paddle down the Loch, and walk or mountain bike the lochside tracks back. Any kind of boat could be used, but sea kayaks will be in their element. Open boats are ideal for the upper Loch, but will need to take special care with the tidal features at the seaward end. Loch Etive sometimes provides sheltered paddling when the outside seas are raging, but the mountains are also capable of funnelling and focusing the winds to generate truly evil conditions on the water!

The route of Mark's 6 day trip in February 2006 - Loch Etive is the section shown going east, then north-east.

Glen Etive to Bonawe Narrows

In the nineteenth century, a regular steamer service from Oban would land at the head of the loch, disgorging tourists who would then travel by carriage to view Glencoe. Additionally, the south shore bore a busy road towards Taynuilt. The modern road ends at the Loch’s edge and only a ruined pier and some old shacks remain. A beach makes launching simple and there is plenty of parking space.

Paddling southwest along the Loch, you won’t fail to notice the Trilleachan Slabs, high above to your right. These are impressive overhanging expanses of smooth rock, the sort of thing that climbers get excited about. The next few miles are the narrowest stretch of the Loch and it’s pretty hard to complete them without neck ache from constantly craning your head upwards. Take time to land on the south shore and wander among the oak woods. They were even more extensive up to the end of the eighteenth century, when clear-cutting took place to feed the Iron Ore Furnaces at Bonawe; during the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy desperately needed ammunition for their cannons.

The Loch widens after the headland of Rubha Bharr and the paddler is faced by a choice of direction! The south shore is characterised by a series of glens stretching down from the hills, often with envy-inspiring private residences and lodges hidden among the trees. Glen Kinglass in particular feeds the Loch with a sizeable river which must be worth exploring, if any whitewater paddlers can get their heads around the logistics? The north shore is less populated (it’s all relative) and you’ll notice a series of floating mussel farms anchored in sheltered bays.

This section of the Loch ends at the Bonawe Narrows, where the Loch turns to the west. Henceforth there is road access on both shores, a car ferry operated here until the Connel Bridge was adapted for road traffic in the ‘60s. The Narrows are only a few hundred metres wide, and the tide forces water through the gap. This does not generate any impressive waves like the Connel Sound (aka the Falls of Lora), but if you are against the tide some eddy hopping along the shore may be required as the current can reach 2.5 knots.

As you approach the Narrows, the tranquillity is spoiled by the din of trucks and grading machinery. The working quarry on the north shore is thankfully Loch Etive’s only ‘blemish’. To the south is Taynuilt, where the River Awe and A85 meet the Loch. An hour devoted to wandering the streets of Taynuilt is no bad plan, it’s a pleasant place. The sizeable remains of the afore-mentioned Bonawe Iron Furnaces are close to the Loch and preserved as a museum. Up the hill, Muckairn Parish Church has glorious views along the Loch and incorporates the Thirteenth century ruins of Killespickerill, seat of the Bishop of Argyll. Taynuilt also boasts the ‘Inverawe Fisheries, Smokery, and Country Park’, which one hopes is more exciting than it sounds.

Bonawe Narrows to Connel Sound

After the Bonawe Narrows, the hills fall back and the Loch is not quite as grand as previously. However, the immense massif of Ben Cruachan continues to dominate the skyline behind, and to the west the mountains of Mull provide a new point of focus. The Loch bends and winds, so that new views open up every mile or two around headlands. One landmark on the north shore is Ardchattan, where King Robert I (‘Robert the Bruce’ to the English) reputedly held Scotland’s final Gaelic Parliament in St. Modan's Priory. Today, the priory ruins (destroyed by Cromwell’s English forces) are preserved by Historic Scotland and only a short yomp up the hill from the Loch.

The massive steel cantilever bridge at Connel can’t be missed! It first bridged the Connel Sound in 1903, originally built for rail transport. What is lurking underneath is far more important, however…the Falls of Lora! Be careful upon approaching the bridge. The expanse of Loch Etive is all hemmed in right here, by the narrow gap and a shallow underwater cill. Depending upon the tide state, the level of the Loch can vary by several metres from the sea level. As the sea level outside rises or falls on the tide, incalculably vast amounts of water spill into or out of the Loch. The resulting conditions range from frustrating (a strong current to stop your progress) to bowel loosening (immense sea kayak back looping stoppers forming in mid stream). Play boaters gather at spring tides on the flood flow to surf this phenomenon; see the May 06 ‘Paddles’ for more details. Nautical Almanacs suggest that the flood tide begins about 3.5 hours before and that the ebb flow begins about 2 hours after HW Oban…but these timings are often wildly distorted by a range of arcane factors such as weather, air pressure, rainfall and astrology. The Falls are a law unto themselves! They can be portaged with moderate difficulty on either bank if need be.

Connel Bridge

Connel to the Firth of Lorn

Once clear of the Connel Narrows, it is only two miles to the open sea. Riding the tidal flow to Dunstaffnage Bay on the south shore is a good option, taking out near the marina. This gives the possibility of visiting the sturdy looking bulk of Dunstaffnage Castle, which presides over the point where Loch becomes ocean. The castle’s origins are swathed in myth and legend; some believe that the Stone of Destiny once resided here. King Robert was here too, seizing the castle in 1308 from the McDougalls to donate to his Campbell followers. It now belongs to the Crown, being kept by the Duke of Argyll. Historic Scotland maintains it and it is open to visitors.

What’s left? Anyone who has paddled all the way from the fresh water at the mouth of the River Etive, may well wish to venture slightly further. Squeezing through the inlet between the castle and Eilean Mor, the Firth of Lorn opens around you and the open sea presents innumerable choices. North to the Island of Lismore? West to Mull? South to Oban? Or perhaps east; back along the route you have travelled, up into the long deep quiet of the Land of Rainbows.

More pictures are included in this discussion

Further Reading

'Scottish Canoe Touring: An SCA Canoe and Kayak Guide' ed. Eddie Palmer ‘West Highlands (Pocket Mountains)’ by Nick Williams
‘The Yachtsman's pilot to the Isle of Mull and adjacent coasts’ by Imray
Landranger Maps 49 and 50 – Ordnance Survey
C65 Crinan to Mallaig and Barra – Imray Chart
SC 5611 West Coast of Scotland – Admiralty Charts Leisure Folio

Useful Websites – useful tidal info.
2006 Tides for Oban - Falls of Lora guide - how Fjords ‘work’, with reference to Loch Etive. – Loch Etive Special Area of Conservation

Mark Rainsley - 2006