Sunday, 8 June 2008


Spring is supposed to be here, though the weather hasn’t really caught up with it. It’s time to get out the big boat and be out to sea. The Easter holiday saw me with a half day and Angus home and wanting to get out paddling.

A late Wednesday afternoon saw us in Kinghorn, in order to set off for Inchkeith Island. I’d wanted to go to Inchkeith for some time. It has an interesting, but rather odd, history. At one time it was used as a quarantine island for Edinburgh, so goodness knows how many poor folks have died miserable deaths on it. Over the ages it’s been the site of various struggles between English navies and Scottish defenders, and it is covered with the remains of more modern wartime defences. King James IV carried out a rather bizarre experiment on it. He wanted to find out if there is a native human language that we would speak if not taught any other. To do this he imprisoned a mute woman with two babies on the island, and left them long enough to see if the children would speak. Accounts from the time suggest they grew up speaking good Hebrew!

We set off in calm conditions, about an hour before high tide. For a sea kayak it is quite a short trip, about 4km to reach land, with a few more for circumnavigation. The major hazard of the outing is the main Forth shipping channel, which has to be crossed. Once we were a third of the way over we noticed a big ship somewhere around the bridges. This prompted a bit of dithering, and finally a decision to sit it out until it passed. This proved to be a good idea. The speed with which ships move is very deceptive, and they are almost always going faster than it appears. If we’d kept moving we would undoubtedly have been rather close.

The Forth Islands that I have visited before have all been pleasant and mostly green places. On approaching Inchkeith it was clear that it was very different. There is no grass, at this time of year at least. It is littered with derelict wartime buildings. We passed along the east side, which has low cliffs and litter covered rocky beaches. The birds were all big gulls and cormorants, and all of them seemed angry- no friendly puffins here.

We circled the island to land on a slipway in a surprisingly well built and large harbour. Lots of scrap metal lay about. A series of concrete paths lead up to the summit, where there are more remains of wartime buildings, but also an unmanned lighthouse. For some reason there are a large number of dead rabbits, and the whole place stank. We explored concrete tunnels into some of the old gun emplacements. Areas of the island resemble a rundown industrial estate, and the whole atmosphere was rather threatening. By the time we left I felt a bit spooked by the grimness of the place.

We set off back to Kinghorn in a rising breeze, checking behind us for ships coming out of Leith. As we cleared the north end of the island the only boat in sight was the Forth Ports pilot vessel. It passed in front of us, and then came to a halt some way upstream. At this point we began to make out a big ship somewhere in the region of Inverkeithing, but we were happy it was no threat to us. Very quickly a smaller ship appeared from the other direction. It seemed to be heading in front of us, but again speed and direction were hard to judge. We paddled slowly, watching this carefully. As it neared it seemed likely, but not certain that it was clearing us. We didn’t know for sure that it had seen us, and a small change in its course would have been bad news. I was already composing the VHF message in my head- “huge blue boat, huge blue boat, this is tiny sea kayaker, over”. Just my luck if they only spoke Latvian. Fortunately it held its course, passing about 200 yards in front of us. At this point the other big boat was behind us. It must feel like this when you’re old and on a zimmer frame and crossing Prince’s Street.

After this it was a straightforward paddle back to Kinghorn Bay. We were just too late for the ice-cream shop, though.

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