Kayaking holidays in Scotland

It’s entirely possible that there are better places in the world for kayaking than Scotland. But, if we’re honest, there are probably not that many.
With some 5,000km of coastline (including islands), much of it rugged and uninhabited, and over 30,000 freshwater lochs, plus rivers and canals, Scotland is among the finest places in the world to take to the water.

The ‘right to roam’ means that kayakers on multi-day expeditions have immense freedom when it comes to wild camping on isolated beaches and islands. As this introduction to kayaking holidays in Scotland explains, however, the best way to go is in the company of an expert local guide who is able to illuminate aspects of culture, history, geology and wildlife you might otherwise paddle past.

What is the difference between kayaking and canoeing?

There are two key differences between kayaking and canoeing. Canoes tend to be larger than kayaks (so you can fit more people in), whereas kayaks are smaller, nimbler and built more for speed, plus you’re lower down, closer to the water.

Secondly, with canoes you usually have a one-bladed paddle, while kayakers use a two-bladed paddle which gives you greater manoeuvrability. We have both kayaking and canoeing holidays in Scotland – on the sea as well as across the Highlands, on rivers and lochs – so whether you prefer one blade or two, you can paddle on with confidence. 

Scotland canoeing holidays predominantly stick to inland lochs, canals and rivers, while kayaking is done mostly on the open sea and on sea lochs.

Best places to go kayaking in Scotland

With more than 900 islands, Scotland boasts some 10 percent of Europe’s total coastline, so when it comes to exploring by kayak, there’s a huge amount of potential. Joining a guided small group trip is, however, the best option for most. Not only is it safer and sociable, but local guides can show you the most picturesque routes, and add more colour to the landscapes you’re paddling through with their knowledge of the history, geology and wildlife.

Summer Isles

Sea kayaking in the Summer Isles gives you the opportunity to admire dolphins, porpoises, seals and even whales. Look up, and you may even see a golden eagle. The channels and inlets between the islands of this archipelago in the mouth of Loch Broom teem with marine life. The islands themselves, which are uninhabited except for Tanera Mor where there is a café and post office, can be explored on foot too once you’ve moored up.

Outer Hebrides

More amazing wildlife is on display when kayaking in the Outer Hebrides, where you can spend a few nights in a bunkhouse at a village on Lewis, before a spot of wild camping on an expedition that takes you to Harris. Guides select routes around deserted islands, beaches and sea lochs based on their in-depth knowledge of the weather, tides and sea conditions. This is true wilderness kayaking.

Sound of Arisaig

The Sound of Arisaig is on Scotland’s mountainous west coast, close to Fort William, and ideal for short family sea kayaking holidays. You can duck into sheltered sea lochs, look out for dolphins and otters, and explore ancient castle ruins.

More experienced kayakers can tackle longer, adventurous kayaking trips in the Sound of Arisaig. You’ll camp on isolated white sand beaches and roam remote headlands and rocky inlets where seal colonies nestle, framed against the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck.

Mull

A number of Scotland’s most wildly beautiful sea lochs are found between the Sound of Mull and the Rough Bounds, which are known as the highlands of the Highlands – very remote and under-inhabited. Paddling off the Atlantic Coast along a section of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail (500km along the west coast), you’ll trace a path between marine wildlife reserves, pretty sandy beaches and castle ruins with outstanding views of magnificent Eilean Shona island. Sea eagles, minke whales, dolphins and otters all inhabit these waters.

North West Highlands

The shores of Wester Ross, Coigach and Assynt are classic territory for sea kayaking in Scotland, ideal for learners, with water so beautifully clear that if you lean over (steady now) you can see crabs, urchins and starfish on the seabed. On land, you’ll see Highland cattle munching mouthfuls of grass as they ponder you, and seals basking on rocks strewn with kelp.

Kayaking in Scotland’s North West Highlands you’ll paddle around sheltered sea lochs beneath the towering peaks of the Torridon Mountains, spend a few nights in the picturesque village of Plockton, and take in Eilean Shona Castle, said to be the most-photographed in Scotland, so pack a camera in your waterproof bag.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scotland or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

What do Scotland kayaking holidays involve?

Expert guides

There are many pleasures of a Scotland kayaking tour: the landscapes, the wildlife, the food, the opportunities to share a friendly chat with islanders or people in remote fishing communities that you pass. But all of it hinges on your guides, who are superb ambassadors for some of Scotland’s wildest places (especially when it comes to Leave No Trace principles), and passionate about sharing their knowledge about them with you.

So not only will they lead the way, offering tips on technique and ensuring everyone is okay, but they’ll also tell you about the flora, fauna, geology and history of the areas you’re paddling past. Guide ratios are kept very low, 1:4 usually, for reasons of safety and to ensure you get to know them well over a week or so on the water.

Small group kayaking

Our kayak trips in Scotland are predominantly guided, small group tours, however those designed with families in mind tend to be tailor made holidays with greater flexibility for your travel dates and routes. You can also learn to sea kayak in Scotland, the sheltered waters of Loch Torridon in the North West Highlands ideal for beginners getting their bearings.

Small group kayaking trips in Scotland are limited to around eight people. That means you can stay in smaller, often locally owned accommodations such as Highland inns and guest houses, and your group’s presence isn’t disruptive to often-remote communities.

When to go kayaking in Scotland

The ideal time for kayaking in Scotland tends to be from May to September, so late spring to late summer, when the sea is calmer and both the water and the weather are warmer. Happily, this is also when you get some of the most glorious colours in the landscapes, and the greatest likelihood of seeing marine life such as dolphins.

Kayaking equipment

All of the kayaking equipment you’ll need is included, plus waterproof bags, which are essential. If you’re camping, however, you’ll want to bring your own sleeping bag. And if you’d like to bring your own kayak there’s no stopping you. But many of these holidays are designed by be accessible by public transport, which is fab, so you may want to rely on the high-quality kayaks provided and enjoy a relaxed train journey.

Kayaking & wild camping

A big part of the thrill when it comes to kayaking in Scotland is the ‘right to roam’ that means you can take a multi-day expedition, wild camping throughout. Single tents are often available for solo travellers, but if you’re prepared to share with another it means you can have smaller camps, so there are more options for where you can stay. A larger bell tent means groups can gather together to share meals and drinks in the evenings.

Every member of the group pitches in with set-up and at mealtimes while camping – often your guide will whip up a hearty feast over an open fire. And this being Scotland, where the ‘natural larder’ is justly renowned, much of the food and drink will be seasonal and sourced from local producers. Think freshly landed seafood and fish, and game. Vegetarian and other diets can usually be catered for too, with enough notice.

Fitness & experience

Most of our kayaking holidays in Scotland are suitable for beginners, but you’ll enjoy them more if you have a little experience. A reasonable degree of fitness is necessary, as although you’ll always be going at a relaxed pace, several hours of paddling a day can be demanding on the upper body.

There are trips that are aimed at beginners, where you’ll learn basic paddling techniques, as well as safety procedures. Family trips, and ‘learn to kayak’ holidays, tend to be shorter, around four or five days, whereas trips for more experienced kayakers range from six to eight days.

Can I kayak anywhere in Scotland?

Due to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, the public has a right to roam pretty much anywhere (with some exceptions), whether it’s private or public land. When it comes to kayaking in Scotland, that means not only do you have a wonderful amount of freedom on where you can put in and paddle – there’s also no need to return to the same base every afternoon. You can pack tents and wild camp as you go, as many of these trips do.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Michael Jagger] [Intro: Roddy Mcdowell] [Best places to go: Roddy Mcdowell] [Small group kayaking: Roddy Mcdowell] [Kayaking & wild camping: Andy Waddington]