Scottish Water: A guide to whitewater kayaking in Scotland

One keen paddler explains why you should really learn to use a kayak to explore Scotland's rivers – and how to get started

Feature by Cara McGuigan | 05 May 2018

The first time you plunge off the River Etive’s right angle falls, the adrenaline rush is so all-consuming it’ll make your teeth throb. However, here’s the thing. With whitewater kayaking, you don’t need to launch yourself off a 20ft waterfall for the endorphins to hit. It’ll start from your very first trip.

The Scottish Canoe Association (SCA) estimate there are at least 2,000 whitewater kayakers in the country, and numbers are growing. Each Sunday they leave their homes at indecently early hours, huck kayaks down corridors, lash them onto upright roofracks, and take off for the rivers.

Why? Because each trip is an adventure – every single one. Guaranteed, within your first year of paddling, you’ll see more of Scotland than you did in all the decades before. Rivers are a country’s arteries; like veins they’re well hidden until you start to look.

Getting started

One of the wonderful things about learning to kayak is that the only real prerequisites are being able to swim and willing to try. All the rest can be dealt with – it doesn’t matter how old you are (you’ll just envy the teenagers), how fit (ditto), or how outdoorsy (praise be to Gore-Tex). The thrills are there to be reaped with every rapid you make. It’s not monotonous (like jogging), or mindless (like going to the gym). It’s fast and it’s beautiful, and you need to be alert. If you think about other weekend pastimes, it’s probably most like downhill mountain biking, except on beginners rivers you stand a good chance of not hurting yourself if you capsize.

The point is that kayaking is a sport for a hungry mind – there’s a huge amount to learn, and endless variation. Rivers (and the individual features on them) are graded on a scale of one to six, with one essentially flat water, and six nigh-on suicidal. An added complexity is that a river won’t behave the same way from one rainfall to the next. There’s a whole vocabulary to learn: levels, lines, holes, eddies, ferries, tongues, trim, tracking – terms that become second nature alongside your ability to stay upright, and help you not only read a river, but explain it to other paddlers.

The better you get, and the more confident your paddling becomes, the harder you can push the grades – so you might graduate from the Tay, the Tweed, and the Teith to faster moving rivers with more features, such as the Nith, the Garry and the Findhorn. From here on upwards, rivers get more complicated, and mistakes can have higher consequences, which is why it’s definitely worth serving your time with easier rivers. Each time you sit in a boat, you’re learning how a river moves and how to work with it. It’s about increasing your affinity – and the buzz you get when you can use it to your advantage.

One way to fast track your boating is a kayaking holiday, either with a residential course (the national outdoors centre, Glenmore Lodge’s weeklong beginners, improvers, intermediate and advanced courses are excellent); or a coached trip, either here or abroad, with a reputable coach – the French Alps, the Spanish Pyrenees and the Soča Valley in Slovenia are three popular destinations, each with the added benefit of actual sunshine.

This isn’t to underplay what we have here in Scotland – in fact we’re doubly blessed as paddlers. Not only are our rivers clean and gorgeous, but the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act gives us full rights of access (unlike in England and Wales, where boaters only have unfettered access to 3% of their rivers: 1,400 out of 42,700 miles). This July, the eagerly awaited 3rd edition of the Scottish White Water Guide (Pesda Press) will be published, and this is a great place to learn more about rivers and their grades. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be Scotland if it was all brilliant. 

Somehow, both of the country’s two whitewater paddling shops managed to close in 2016, within a few short months of each other. This means that when you get serious (and, again, this being Scotland, you’ll want a drysuit pretty darn quick), you’ll have to travel to England, wait for a demo night, or trust to the slings and arrows of online shopping.

Kayaking Clubs in Scotland

By far the easiest and safest way to get into kayaking is to join a club. Clubs abound across the country, and can be searched on the SCA website, or good old Google. Fees are generally around £30 per year, and allow you to borrow basic kit (boats, paddles, spraydecks, helmets and buoyancy aids) as well as access coaching, flat water sessions, winter pool sessions, and beginners and intermediate river trips.

Clubs including Monklands Canoe Club and Glasgow Kayak Club have the added bonus of being based at Pinkston Watersports, Scotland’s only purpose built whitewater course, meaning easy access to guaranteed white water, just ten minutes from George Square. With most clubs, you’ll not only get the benefit of experience and consistent coaching, you’ll also meet people at the same level as you, and this is gold-dust – nothing beats getting better with your buddies.

If you happen to be at uni, chances are you’ve got a club on campus – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Aberdeen and Dundee all have active clubs, as do some of the smaller universities, including Napier, Stirling, St Andrews and Heriot Watt. Uni clubs stereotypically have a bit of a gung-ho attitude to safety, which is unfair as many are epic and pitched at exactly the right level. However, it’s worth remembering that the transient nature of the student population means a university club won’t be the same from one year to next, so a wise man (or woman) would ca’ canny at the beginning of term.

Make friends

Your paddling pals might not be the people you socialise with off the water, but on the water, they’re who you trust – they’re looking out for you and you’re looking out for them. The rule of thumb is that you don’t paddle in a group smaller than three – one to stay with an injured party, and one to go for help. The longer you paddle, the more you realise that Scotland has about two degrees of separation – if you don’t know another paddler, chances are your friend will.

Digital communities are lively, and between that and annual events such as the SCA Club Volunteers Conference, the Scottish Women’s Paddle Symposium, and the Garry Boater Cross, you’ll start to see the same faces again and again. Indeed, when river levels are low in the summer, dam-release rivers like the Awe (which guarantees water throughout the dry summer months) become really sociable, drawing desperate paddlers from across the country.

Being on the river is an excuse to be completely in the moment. Deadlines, school runs and office politics dissolve with every paddlestroke. Friday’s spreadsheets have disappeared, and Monday’s team meeting is way beyond the horizon. Paddling is a trip you can just keep on taking, no matter what age you are. Sure, there’s the thrill of pushing higher grades, but paddling new rivers, discovering new places, or simply knowing you’ve managed to get really slick at that one thing you’ve been trying to nail for ages, all make it incredibly addictive.

The rivers are waiting. Go out and play.

Know Your Boat: A kayak glossary

Like any family, there’s a great deal of slagging off between the different branches of recreational paddling.  However, as in most families, it’s pretty good natured – each kind of paddler understands why another wants to be on the water.  Chances are they might sneak off to the dark side occasionally too... and maybe not come back.

Sea kayaks
Sea kayaks are long boats, starting at around 15 feet and often longer. Sea kayakers themselves are a slightly different breed, needing to understand more about weather and navigation than river paddlers, who simply launch themselves down a waterway. There’s definitely a hardy, endurance aspect to sea kayaking, with the hardcore intrepid travelling some crazy miles – Greenland to Scotland for example. However, it’s also perfect for people who simply want to putter about shorelines, spotting birds, seals, porpoises and dolphins.

Canoes (sometimes known as Canadians) are open boats, paddled with a single blade on inland lochs and waterways. The appeal of canoeing is the journey, and canoe camping is popular because canoes are essentially juggernauts that can transport a healthy amount of kit (including dogs, camp tents and children). Learning to canoe can be trickier than other types of boating because of the single blade aspect, but when you get the hang of it, it’s very zen. Literally nothing beats a lazy float trip down a fat river in the summertime.

Playboating (or freestyling) is the boat equivalent of stunt biking – in fact, it used to be called ‘rodeo’. Paddled in tiny, light manoeuvrable boats, playboating takes place in whitewater features (often at artificial whitewater facilities), where paddlers use the power of the water to help propel them into tricks with names that grow more outlandish the harder they get (including Phonics Monkey, Tricky Whu and Donkey Flip). You need a pretty solid roll to take on freestyle, but if you’ve got that, the world is your McNasty.