Making 'The Canoe Boys'

A diary detailing the work of the programme-makers Simon Willis and Cailean MacLeod as they trace a classic 1934 kayak expedition along Scotland’s west coast for a BBC Scotland radio series.

The Canoe Boys

Simon Willis and Cailean MacLeod

Sitting in sea kayak, with waves breaking all around, can make even a hardened mariner feel vulnerable. With sea kayaking surging in popularity, safety is paramount, and kayakers carry flares, radios, buoyancy aids and all manner of electronic aids. Yet none of these was available to the pioneers whose route we were following for three Radio Scotland programmes.

In 1934 two young lads kayaked from Glasgow to Skye. Their boats were made from teak and canvas, not carbon and Kevlar. They didn't wear dry suits, but paddled in vests and kilts, pulling on canvas jackets when it rained. Their safety equipment for each was a car inner tube. They'd sit inside the partially inflated rubber ring, so if a boat capsized or broke up on rocks, they ought to be able to float away. Fortunately they didn't put that theory into practice.

Long before blogging, Alastair Dunnett and Seumas Adam wrote stories about their adventure and posted them back to newspapers. The book about their journey, The Canoe Boys, is much more than a classic adventure tale, it's also a penetrating analysis of the problems facing remote coastal communities as they try to come to terms with an industrialising world. Dunnett went on to work in the Scottish Office, helping to bring hydro power and oil to Scotland, and then become editor of The Daily Record and then The Scotsman.

I've been captivated by this story since I started sea kayaking four years ago. Together with my friend Cailean MacLeod from Lewis, we spent several weeks this summer kayaking key sections of the Canoe Boys original route. We wanted to discover how the issues identified back in 1934 had changed.

By coincidence, Alastair Dunnett's son Ninian, had recently re-published the Canoe Boys book in a new format, adding some photos and cuttings from his Father's private scrap-album. Scotland has world-class sea kayaking, which is why the sport is fast becoming popular here.

I hope that the programme inspires you to get involved. Just don't head out with only a car inner tube for safety.

Diary of a modern journey

Day one

Recording The Canoe Boys

First task was to work out a way of getting decent quality sound by putting microphones in condoms and nappy-pinning them to the buoyancy aids. Mini-disc recorders were sealed in waterproof food-bags and stuffed inside our back pockets. To check it worked, Cailean executive a stylish roll while I just toppled in. Dripping wet, we staggered to the bank where a coach load of tourists had stopped to observe.

The recording began on the Island of Seil with Ken Lacey of Sea Kayak Scotland, chatting about the area, safety and the rise in popularity of sea kayaking.

We're using two P&H sea kayaks, a LV Quest and a new Cetus. The Cetus is going down very well with Cailean and when Ken tried it today he was highly impressed. Rather different to the 80lb, teak-and-canvas, “Lochaber” canoes paddled in 1934.

We missed out the first section of the route paddled by Seumas Adam and Alastair Dunnett as we’re only paddling the highlights. Programme one will start on the west coast with tomorrow’s recording in a tide-race, the thought of which is making me rather nervous.

Day two

The Dorus Mor, Gaelic for "Great Door", has a deservedly fearsome reputation. The tide moves at 8knts at springs, 16km per hour. Today is the day after spring tide, and with a forecasted Force 6 wind against it, we expected quite a ride. The wind-over-tide should have made the waves stack up.

Paddling the Dorus Mor

We’d hired a boat so we could be filmed for an insert to the Adventure Show. For safety, our first attempt was at slack-water, but the sea was so flat it did not make interesting pictures. The hardest thing was paddling in the wake of the boat, fast enough to keep up with it so the cameraman could get close-up shots. We went back through and waited in an eddy.

An hour and a half after slack water, the sea was moving fast enough to give a little bounce. On the recording I described it as like paddling across the top of a badly iced Christmas cake. (Mmmm cake).

I’d been quite worried about this, so while it was a relief I was slightly disappointed the waves weren’t bigger.

We only had the boat for half a day, so through we went. Got the shots, loaded the boats back on board, and headed back to Crinan.

Day three

Sea Kayak journey

Today we struck gold. On Mull we were given the phone number of an elderly gentleman who, we were told, might have met the original Canoe Boys in 1934.

I telephoned 83 year old Duncan McGilp and sure enough, he’d paddled around Tobermory Bay with them as a nine year old. His Father is even mentioned in the book.

"It was a big occasion when the Canoe Boys arrived", he told me, "They were famous". I arranged to meet him the following morning.

The recorded interview turned out to be even better, so Programme Two will be restructured around him. Before we met we dived into Tobermory book shop and bought him a copy of the new edition of the Canoe Boys, complete with lots of extra photos. Cailean presented it to him as a gift.

Day four

On the north coast of Mull there’s a remote farmhouse at a place called Ardmore where the Canoe Boys sheltered from a storm. It becomes so important, there’s a whole chapter in the book named after it.

We wondered – could we find it? We were told it was unlikely since there'd been a lot of forestry planting. But we like a challenge. Back to the book shop for a more detailed map.

And we found it! A tree was growing from the centre of the building and ferns oozed out of the mortar as the forest gradually reclaimed the building, but the gables and windows were intact.

There was even the recognisable fire place and iron grate on which Seamus and Allistair cooked their dinner. For the first time I found it hard to speak, which isn't good for radio, but I was rather choked up. Slightly snivelling too –what a wimp! This visual connection with the original canoe boys coming just after the personal connection from someone who met them was very moving.

I shot a short piece of video of the place on my little camera. Click here to view the video.

Day five

The new Canoe Boys

An early start saw us at Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly point on the British mainland, by mid-morning. Neither Cailean nor I had ever seen the sea here so quiet. With the lighthouse towering above us, I could get close enough to reach out and touch the very point.

Our producer Meg was waiting for us on the old jetty and again the lack of swell meant we could get close enough for us to be recorded on the higher quality boom microphone. Here we recorded the opening to Programme Three, an opening which involved me getting wet!

We make no claim to be paddling the entire Canoe Boys 1934 route. It would be wonderful to have the time to do so, but budgets and other pressures just don't allow.

So cars and ferries are speeding us through the sections we've both previously paddled to get to the next recording location. Hopefully one day I'll be able to take a month off work and paddle the whole way.

Day six

We’re recording all out of order now. We’ve jumped ahead to the Sleat peninsular of Skye because it was the only day some key interviews could fit our schedule.

The Canoe Boys were concerned at the decline in Highland culture. They’d have been amazed at the cultural revival around Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College. People are learning gaelic in Japan and Alaska. We met two women who came (separately) from Germany to work at the college to learn the language. Runrig has a lot to answer for.

Gordon Brown was next. Not the politician – but the top kayak coach who runs Skyak. Then a couple of architects, Neil and Alistair Stephen, who’ve been friends of mine for ages.

So lots of talking and no paddling today, but interesting stuff.

Day seven

The new Canoe Boys paddling

On the water again. This time across the Sound of Sleat to Doune hotel. Canoe Boys visited a bay near here and predicted that, with a metalled road, it could be “a tourist heaven”. One bay down, that’s exactly what Doune has become, a very rustic yet up-market hotel.

I hear their food is excellent, but we only had time for tea and biscuits which seemed a shame. We often kayak in this area, so I’ll have to pop back with my wife Liz.

Day eight

Messing about in the tide race at Kyle Rhea recording links for the programme, we acquired a new team member. The ferry, which crosses from the mainland, has a ship’s dog. However, it deserted its post and decided to join us, at one time attempting to climb onto Cailean’s kayak. The front paws made it, the back paws didn’t. As the kayak was pushed further from the rock on which it stood, it stretched like a bridge, before collapsing into the sea. Very funny.

Clearly accustomed to such mishaps, it climbed out and continued to patrol the shore.

Click here to watch my short video of the Glenelg Ferry dog.

We made it around to Kyleakin where, in the shadow of the Skye bridge, we came up with some words which we hope will provide a suitable end to programme three.


Weeks later, we reassembled, sadly without Cailean who was otherwise engaged. We recorded two interviews, for radio and TV. The first was with Duncan Winning OBE, honorary president of the Scottish Canoe Association and something of a guru on the history of Scottish kayaking.
Click here to listen to an interview with Duncan Winning OBE.

We spent the afternoon in Edinburgh with Ninian Dunnett, Sir Alastair’s son. After living so close to this project for so long, I was utterly floored when he handed me a battered, brown scrapbook and said, “I thought you might like to see my father’s private journal”.

The more I learn about this story the more it fascinates me. I can’t wait to hear how it’s all going to fit together!

Arcbive photos and illustrations are from 'The Canoe Boys,' published by NWP and courtesy of Ninian Dunnett.

Page first published on Thursday 8th November 2007
Page last updated on Tuesday 17th June 2008

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