In August of 2021, we set off on a 5 day packrafting adventure across the Scottish Highlands, following the course of the river Tay, Scotland’s longest river.
Day 1 – Crianlarich to Killin
Our adventure began in Crianlarich, just north of Loch Lomond. We decided to follow the same route a group of open to canoeists had taken a few years earlier, starting in Crianlarich on the river Dochart, following the river down to Loch Tay and then joining the river Tay proper on the eastern end of the loch.
Their account of the trip seemed encouraging and so we decided to see if we could be the first packrafters to complete the journey.
It turned out after the fact that some crazy guy had already done it solo the previous year but never mind!
We were dropped off the car park next to the police station and walked 200m down the path to the river where we found a great little put-in spot. Most of the river banking is quite steep but there is a suitable place just down to the right. (If you’re taking train to the start, in true packrafting style, then it’s only a 5 minute walk from Crianlarich train station)
Mark had brought his new USB mini pump from Amazon and while at first I thought it was a bit gimmicky I was seriously impressed by the speed his boat inflated. I swallowed my pride and asked if I could use it after him. It was a little of the heavy side for an ultralight purist like me but it certainly did the job.
Soon we were both pumped up and ready to go so after the usual selfies and vlog intro we set off down river.
The river was calm and the water level was a bit low, with the river level website stating that at Killin the river level was about 0.5m.
In hindsight this would prove to be about the bare minimum you would need to get down without scraping your boat to pieces. I would recommend only running the upper section of the route from Crianlarich to above Killin Bridge rapids at 0.6m or above, otherwise you just end up having to get out and drag your ready quite a bit.
We managed to covet a whole 500m along the river before Mark paddled over and informed me in a concerned voice that my boat was leaking. His panicked voice suggested that I might sink at any moment, but when I glanced over all I saw was a small steady stream of little bubbles.
We had both StormSure patches and glue so we had everything we needed to perform a quick repair, but given that we were eager to get moving I decided to wait until our break stop to attempt a repair. So off we paddled towards Loch Tay!
First section of the Dochart was flat and slowmoving, though a steady breeze was doing what it could to push us along.
The birds of prey above were taking advantage of the wind to aid their hunting, circling above the water looking for breakfast. It wasn’t long before one of them was successful and it flew by with a big catch – I couldn’t tell whether it was a fish or a squirrel in its talons but it certainly wasn’t going hungry for a while!
Soon the river opened out onto Loch Dochart and the ruins of castle Dochart, perched on a small island at the upstream end of the Loch. It looked like an interesting place to wild camp so I made a mental note to keep it in mind if we get chance to run the Tay again.
I was busy admiring the castle when I ran aground on a sandbank in the middle of the loch and was very annoyed at having to haul myself out of my boat and walk for 20 yards until I reached the next channel.
As we left the loch we could see what looked like a small boat toward towards the riverbank. It turned out to be to young men who were travelling on home made raft. We were somewhat curious (I love Scrapheap challenge type adventures!) So we paddled over to have a chat with them.
It turns that they had arrived in Crianlarich a couple of days ago and then spent two days going round businesses around asking for materials to build a raft. Eventually they managed to get all the required equipment, including used vegetable oil drums and a couple of crates and now they were finally setting off down river, with no real plan as to where they were going to get to.
They had done something similar the previous year over in Sweden, spending a week exploring the robbers and lakes and now were attempting to paddle down the Tay to Perth.
The wind had picked up a bit so we deployed the pop up sails and headed out across the second loch, leaving them paddling along behind.
We left them to their endeavours, the last we saw of them they were trying to fashion a makeshift sail from a tarp, with limited success. For days after we wondered where they managed to get to in the end. They weren’t wearing life jackets and I doubt they would have made it through the Killin rapids in one piece.
The next section contained a mix of flat water and shallow rapids which were challenging to navigate as the river level was so low. We must have had to get out of our boats and drag them off rocks half a dozen times (and bumped our bums a dozen times more!) Thankfully as the we moved further down river this became less and less of an issue
By 2pm Mark was in serious need of coffee and we both needed to pee quite badly so we stopped for lunch on a banking.
The wind was strong so had to build a wind shield out of stones just to get the BRS stove to boil water. It was at times like these I missed my Jetboil and it’s in built wind shield and heat exchanger, though I didn’t miss the extra 200g of weight that came with it.!
Half way through the kettle boiling my packraft was picked by a strong gust and tossed over my head. Mark was only just able to grab it as it flew by and we were fortunate that it didn’t knock over the gas stove, or worse pop boat.
While the coffee was brewing I took out a StormSure patch and slapped it over the puncture site. Given that the hole was right next to a seam I wasn’t at all confident that it would fix the repair, but I reckoned it would at least slow down the leak enough so that I didn’t have to keep getting out and blowing up my boat every hour, which I was having to do at present.
Soon we were off again, paddling and sailing, making slow but steady progress throughout the afternoon.
Towards the end of the afternoon we hit a small 30m section grade 3 rapid. It was fun and easy to run on our packrafts, but I did give a hint as to the trouble that I would have when we hit the bigger rapids further down.
I didn’t have a spraydeck for my boat so I took on water every time I hut rough patches. This meant that my boat became sluggish to handle and would cause me problems the next day.
It was getting late and we were tired so we decided to wild camp a few kilometers upstream of Killin, so that we were fresh for the Dochart Falls rapids the next morning.
Distance covered: 12 miles
Day 2 – Killin to Lawers (Loch Tay)
We were woken up at 7 by a farmer yelling at his sheep dog. It was clear that whatever the dog was doing it certainly wasn’t what the farmer wanted.
Mark was up and about and chatting about being cold the night before in his Chinabay special down bag. The cloud cover had lifted by midnight so it had dropped down to single figures. I was warm and cosy in my 20 degree mountain Hardwear bag, though I suspect my Sea to Summit insulated mat was also doing it’s job.
We Set off at 930, eager to make progress. I needed to stop in Killin to pick up a bottle of water as I had lost mine, presumably in the rapids the day before. Lesson learned – make sure water it inside a pocket that’s zipped up!
Pretty much straight off the bat we hit the first run of rapids, a little taste of the fun to be had at Killin Bridge later on, and soon we were being carried
We paddled down the last 2km to Killin and then got out to inspect the rapids at the bridge. After some umming and arghhhing Mark decided to sit out the class 4 rapids above the bridge, given that his back wasn’t great and he didn’t want it to go on him. I decided to run the route but without gear and have Mark as safety of the lower drop below the bridge.
The run went pretty well, though the lack of water meant I got stuck at one point. It was the most technical section I had ever run and I was happy with the results.
We packed up and headed into Killin for a spot of lunch and to pick up some meat for the fire later. I also picked up a bottle of water to replace the one that had disappeared earlier.
At 2pm we headed back onto the river, putting in just below the bridge and set off again down the last section of rapids. At this point everything went wrong. I had pumped up the boat in the sunshine above the bridge and as soon as it touched the cool water it lost some rigidity. I didn’t have time to sort it out as we were straight into the rapids and I immediately began to struggle.
My bag wasn’t secure enough because of the lost pressure and leaned to the left. This made the boat hard to handle and so I struggled to maintain a good line down the last set of rapids. Fast forward 30 seconds and I had lost my bag and was in the water.
I was safe but all my gear was floating loose in the river. I tried to haul my rucksack out of the river but the wet weight made it difficult.
Lesons learned – always have your gear ina dry sack, even if it doesn’t need to stay dry
After sorting myself out we paddled out onto the Loch and to the suprise of canoeists on the loch we hitched up our sails and stated gliding down the loch at a steady 3mph.
After a couple of hours the wind began to die so we decided to stop for the evening, on a sandy outcrop.
We pitched up just inside the trees and set about sorting a small fire for dinner. By the time we started cooking the wind annoyingly had picked up again and so we struggled to cook the meat through properly, a decision that Mark and I layer came to regret.
By 11pm we were completely knackered and a little drunk so we turned in for the night, oblivious to the carnage awaiting us the next morning.
Day 3 – Lawers to Fearnan
The next morning I woke up feeling a bit rough, thought nothing beyond the usual fuzziness associated with having a couple of beers, and the loch was unbelievably serene too.
Things were soon to change though. Mark tramped over to me and informed me that he ‘felt like shit’ and that he had a dodgy stomach. I didn’t think anything of it, given that he often has stomach issues.
By that time we got packed up and ready to go everything had changed. My stomach was giving me issues and Mark had already puked. We headed out regardless but the weather had also changed for the worse, with a strong headwind making every foot of progress along the loch a challenge.
We pushed on for an hour but by now were both in trouble, struggling to paddle against the wind given our ill state. By 10am we decided there was no other option but to pull up, set up a tarp and try and sleep off our illness for an hour or two.
I dived in my sleeping bag and fell asleep, Mark following suit in his foil emergency blanket. When we woke again it was 4pm.
We had slept through the entire day and were still miles away from Kenmore at the end of Loch Tay, where the Tau river nominally begins.
We had no option to pack up and carry on rowing towards out goal. We soldiered on bravely into the wind. As we approached Fearnon an old chap in one of the fancy summer houses on the loch saluted us by launching a couple of fireworks in our honour and shouting encouragement.
By this point I was a broken man, a shadow of my former self. I had already vomited once earlier in the day and now I was having to stop every 10 minutes to add to the tally.
We struggled on past the hamlet and within a few hundred yards I reached my limit for the day. I told Mark that we needed to stop. We quickly found a suitable pebble beach. I desperately needed to get warm and dry so I skipped setting up my hiking pole tent, which would have been difficult to erect on the stony beach anyhow. Instead I rigged up my 3m fire tarp, suspending by branches on one side and stones on the other.
I limped into my bag and lay there shivering, my stomach cramping. We had clearly given ourselves a decent dose of food poisoning.
I rolled over into unconsciousness and Mark sat up for a bit, watching with amusement as a family of ducks waddled over to investigate the smelly homeless person who had stolen their sleep spot.
I woke up briefly in the middle of the night and even though I was still ill I was very impressed with the night time panorama in front of me.
A full moon hung low above the hills on the opposite banks of Loch Tay, it’s reflection shimmering across the water. I scratted around for my phone to take a photo, knowing that the Pixel 4a’s night mode would do a passable job of capturing the moment. Job done, got up for a piss, noting how the temperature had dropped significantly and was now probably in high single figures.
I scurried back to my sleeping bag and was soon back in the land of the fairies.
Day 4 – Fearnan to Aberfeldy
We woke up about 7am and I put the coffee straight on, I was feeling almost 100% and was eager to make up for lost time.
Mark rose soon after and after a brief pow-wow we agreed on hiking the last 5km to Kenmore, on the grounds that a headwind was forecast and since we were going to have a look around Kenmore anyway we wouldn’t have to get changed out of our rowing gear just to go to shops.
We scrambled up onto the road and began the 1 hour hike into town. My rucksack was heavy but what amazed me was that it wasn’t that heavy. In my younger, pre-ultralight age, I would often lug a bag this heavy up the side of a mountain. In fact my West Highland Way hike rucksack probably weighed nearly the same!
We were soon tramping into Kenmore, where we set about finding some lunch and supplies.
After munching on a soggy, overpriced chicken wrap from the local tourist trap shop we headed over the bridge into town to pick up some supplies at the local post office/ general stores.
Google maps had informed me that the lady in the shop was friendly and chatty and I have to say Google was bang on the money. So much so that I wasn’t sure if Mark was every going to leave, with him being somewhat of the chatty persuasion himself.
Resuplied with essential Wagon Wheel biscuits we were now ready to run the 8 mile leg down to Aberfilly.
We began our daily ritual of donning our gear and within 30 minutes we were off again.
I was expecting a slow moving river similar to what we had experienced further up before I was pleasantly surprised to almost immediately hit a fun section of class 2 to 3 rapids and the river didn’t really slow down much. So much so that to my surpise we almost missed your our get out at Aberfeldy, at what now was the end of our tour!
Day 5 – Grandtully Rapids
Mark was up and about by 8am and despite his assertion that I could have a lie in it was clear by his rushing about that he wanted to get moving.
We headed out into the village to grab some breakfast but we’re disappointed to find out that Aberfeldy is pretty much shut until 10:30am on a Saturday morning, which isn’t terribly surprising considering that every man and had dog was out in town drinking until the early hours.
We marched up and down until Mark finally accepted that there were no hidden cafes hiding down side streets and settled on a cold pie from a butcher’s shop that we’d already walked past 3 times.
Suitably stuffed with meat and pastry(there’s no veg in Scottish pies!) We hatched a cunning plan to go back to the hotel, pack our stuff, and then head off to the putting green for a quick game of golf while waiting for our lift.
Fortunately neither Mark or me are any good at golf (I kept hitting the turf and Mark kept whacking the ball top far) so it was a close game and we certainly got our money’s worth!
After pickup we headed down to the much vaunted Grandtully rapids, so that I could at least have a go at running the slalom course, even if we weren’t going to get to tour the rest of the river.
Once we arrived at Grandtully it was clear that we were going to have issues with my cunning plan. The Scottish canoe slalom division one trials were in full swing, with the river full of competitors.
I was about to give it up as a bad job when an official looking man came along and told me that if I wanted to run the rapids I needed to go speak to the race organisers in the green shed. I thanked him kindly and then set off for the green shed, realising that I wasn’t paying any attention when he mention the location of said shed.
I walked down to the river and began shed hunting. Once I found the shed, just up the river on the left bank past the pub, I went in to ask if I could run the rapids.
A stern looking lady was less than impressed with my request to run the rapids, given that it would interfere with her military precision planning, and was even less impressed when I said I was going to run it in a a packraft.
‘ A packraft? What on earth is a packraft?’ she said.
I looked around a bit embarrassed and pointed to my boat, which was tucked under my arm.
‘oh…’, she said. ‘I’ll speak to the starter and you can go after the men’s number 1 bib at 1:50.’
I thanked her and then went up the river to where the start was, or at least where I thought it might be. A female competitor ran past men upstream so I followed her upriver. All was going well I thought until she turned around an started squatting. Pre race nerves had obviously kicked in for her.
I went red-faced, blurted out an apology and then headed back down river at double speed.
I finally found the start area and started pumping up my boat, much to the bemusement of the stream of competitors waiting to access the start line.
After waiting for ages for the final male kayaker to go, squatting girl indicated to me that I was my turn to go, so I set off, careful to avoid paddling through the electronic start line posts that measured the canoiest’s start time.
It turns out that canoe slalom poles are actually quite heavy and attempting to paddle through them with your paddle above the water line is a bad idea. I soon gave up on my initial plan of trying to run the correct course, hitting all the gates.
Instead I settled on just getting through to the end without making a complete fool of myself. The banks of the river were crowded with spectators who were no doubt confused as to why a random person on an inflatable boat was being allowed to interrupt their race.
20 seconds later and it was all over and I have to say I was a little deflated. The rapids were good fun( and if there wasn’t a race going on I would have run them 2-3 times) but they weren’t nearly as fun as the longer Killin Bridge rapids.