The daunting seas of St Kilda don’t deter Tim Pickering and Murdie Campbell, the two expert kayak guides on our trip. Ex-army man Pickering, head of Canoe Hebrides, runs the trips and Campbell is his wingman, whose day job is as coxswain of the legendary Stornaway lifeboat (legendary for venturing out even in hurricane conditions). Before the end of the first trip they are settling the nerves of the 10 paddlers, who range from real enthusiasts, with their own kayaks, right through to me, with my basic ‘skills’ from day trips on lakes and rivers in Australia and New Zealand.
The week-long expeditions are based on board the 67ft MV Cuma, a former research ship. The skipper, Murdo MacDonald, has an expert knowledge of the local waters and is usually happy to let guests up on the wheelhouse. He is backed up by his wife, Cathy, who dishes up hearty hot meals that are perfect after a day on the water. Over dinner the disparate group starts to get to know a bit about each other, something that is handy when you are relying on each other in your battle against the Atlantic.
After the shakedown day the Cuma ploughs out through the force seven winds in search of St Kilda and luck is with us, as it is a westerly and we land before dark. Ministry of Defence staff and the National Trust rangers are the only humans on St Kilda now, but there is one pub, the legendary Puffin. This ramshackle little drinking den has seen its fair share of wild nights over the years with the nearest police station more than 60km away.
The Puffin is well named as for the next few days our kayaks are surrounded by thousands of the famously cute little birds, that swoop around us, comically crash-landing into the water and struggling to get airborne again. Sharing the waters and skies are seals, sea eagles, skuas, terns, shags and even dolphins and whales. Seeing birds from kayak level is a thrilling experience, but encountering whales and dolphins is sublime.
Easing along when the water is calm – or as calm as it gets in these parts – with the sun shining you really get a chance to appreciate the drama of St Kilda, and its geology, which has more in common with the Faroe Islands and Iceland than Scotland. When the swell gets up, though, we have no time for admiring the scenery as we begin our struggle to stay afloat. More than half the group ends up being dumped by the freezing Atlantic at some point. With Pickering and Campbell quickly on hand for capsize rescues, though, I never feel in real danger, but paddling these waters without them would be suicidal.
Each day brings something new, whether it is edging through a narrow surf-ravaged sea cave, dodging bats as you go, or rounding a frothing rock stack where we are massively outnumbered by gannets – St Kilda is home to about a quarter of the world’s gannet population. The Cuma is never too far away to pick up and drop off, or haul soaked paddlers aboard, with the chance to get out for a paddle at least twice a day.
By the end of the week we have become a tight-knit team. I may not have become an expert paddler, but at least I have survived the Atlantic. The last paddle takes us to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and the mystical standing stones of Callanish, a fitting finale for an adventure that offers the chance not only to test your sea kayaking skills, but also to discover one of the most unique island chains in Europe, an otherworldly oasis that most Scots never manage to get out to.
Scottish extreme sports
Take on the serious whiteout conditions of the Cairngorms on an organised expedition. See www.cairngormmountain.com
Head to Aviemore and the rough white waters with a company that can even train you up as a guide. See www.fullonadventure.co.uk
Train up and then brave a few nights in the UK’s most inhospitable mountain plateau in your own snowhole. See www.scotmountain.co.uk
Scotland has recently been voted the world’s No. 1 mountain biking destination and next year it will hold the World Championship. A great new course was recently opened by Wolftrax at Laggan. See www.basecampmtb.com
Tumble down the Perthshire hills in a 10-12ft plastic sphere. See www.naelimits.co.uk
• For more ideas, see http://adventure.visitscotland.com