Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Loch Lubnaig - Waters of the wild swan

The mountains, woods and waterways around Loch Lubnaig are the territory of my favourite nature writer, Jim Crumley.  In his writing Jim conveys a deep connection with the landscape and the wildlife that inhabits it. He somehow captures the beauty and detail of the nature and elements around him in a way that creates a magical, other-worldly atmosphere and I'm immediately transported to the places he describes.  One moment I might be lazing against a drystane dyke scanning the sky for golden eagles and the next moment crouching in dusktime woods watching badgers.

Within his writer’s territory, in the quiet bays of Loch Lubnaig, there has lived for many years a pair of mute swans and Jim has recorded the trials and tribulations of their life in his books. It’s a challenging place for those swans to live and raise a family, being isolated from other swan communities in an area that is subject to devastating spring floods which time and again wipe out nests and eggs. The story of this pair of swans is truly moving at times as Jim records the good years when they hatch one cygnet and the bad years when they hatch none. Mostly, they are bad years. I really wanted to explore the area and wildlife that I‘d read so much about in Jim’s books and decided the best way to get out into the watery world of the swans was by canoe.

My journey started on the River Balvaig at Strathyre on a gorgeous summer morning when mirror-like waters reflected mountains, blue sky and puffy, white  clouds. The shallows were warm as I stepped into the canoe and pushed off from the bank. The river meandered lazily south through a dense corridor of ash, alder and birch. The branches of rowan trees, weighted down by clusters of ripe, red berries, trailed in the deep, dark water. The scene was so green and lush that I easily imagined I was drifting down through the tropical jungles of the Amazon, along uncharted waters, in search of un-contacted tribes. The image was completed when two flashes of dazzling colour flew through the overhanging branches on the opposite bank – not parrots but kingfishers!

At some point river became loch and I paddled through shallow bays clogged with summer water-lilies and reed beds. At that moment, it was hard to imagine anything more perfect. The delightful aspect about being out in the canoe, especially tracking down the river, is that you feel completely detached from the outside world. It’s as if nothing exists except the ribbon of water that you’re travelling along. The feeling is enhanced by the fact that in the canoe you can get to the quiet places and the secret spots that nobody else can. 

As I paddled along, shoals of tiny fish darted around in the shallows and dragonfly couples formed ampersand-shaped clutches as they mated above the surface.  Two herons flapped clumsily overhead, making their characteristic tuneless croak, and a pair of Canada geese honked further out on the water. But of the mute swan pair, there was no sign.

As the day wore on, I paddled out into the deeper waters of the loch as a keen breeze blew in grey cloud and threw up choppy waves that made this novice canoeist a bit nervous. As I was concentrating on the conditions, I didn’t realise that the wild landscape behind me had undergone a subtle change. With an evening bus to catch home, I turned the boat around late afternoon to paddle back up-river. It was only then that I noticed the reed beds had acquired two long-necked, white shapes. The mute swan pair had finally made an appearance. But they weren’t alone. Behind them trailed four long-necked, grey shapes. 

Jim will be pleased, I thought. This is a good year. A very good year.

Fact File

Yes that’s a new canoe … full review to follow!

Start/finish: Strathyre, north of Callander. The summer season Edinburgh-Oban Citylink bus stops at Strathyre. Out of summer, you’d be lucky to make a weekend of it in Strathyre by public transport!
Map: OS Landranger 57
Route: Behind the picnic spot at the village shop walk south on the bike path which soon crosses the River Balvaig by a wooden bridge. There are put-in places here. There are minor rapids just beyond but the water was so low here I just floated the canoe around them. There is also a spot in the campsite with a ramp which is good for getting back out before the rapids. The River Balvaig on my visit was mostly deep, slow, free of obstructions and easy paddling downriver and upriver. It flows into the north end of Loch Lubnaig where there are sheltered bays as well as open water.
Tip: For nature lovers I’d highly recommend Jim Crumley’s books. The two about the swans are “In the Company of Swans” and “Waters of the Wild Swan”, though my favourite book is the magical "Something Out There". He also writes a monthly column for the Scots Magazine which is the main reason I brave ridicule by friends to buy it.


  1. Tremendous! Love how the pics marry up perfectly with the story. Looks like a great mini adventure in stunning surroundings and good weather. Made me envious and I wanted to go and do the same.

    1. It's a beautiful place, Graham. I want to explore the area more.

  2. The swans are lovely but tell us about the new canoe! I had my first paddling experience in a kayak on Lake Windermere over the Bank Holiday and came away thinking this could easily become a new obsession ;¬)

    1. I'm totally excited by my new canoe .... review coming in a day or two. Enjoying the story of your trans-Alba ride. Pauline