The sun is setting behind the towering mountains that surround Loch Morar in Scotland. The sky bathes the heather-covered hillsides in a soft orange fall light. A lone sea kayak rests on the blonde sand and a person sits nearby, just outside a tent camouflaged amongst the low shrubs. He’s slowly raising a cup to his mouth, sipping some, single malt whisky of course. This scene is just one of many that could depict Scottish paddling. It could also be on a tourist advert or a postcard. But for Matt Haydock, this is just one fall evening of solitude on his home waters.
Accessing wilderness using water—and enjoying a nip of whiskey–are a perfect example of how tradition, exploration and paddling come together in the Scottish Highlands to make it a paddlesports dreamland. And this is what ultimately drew Matt Haydock to the deep lochs and wilderness of west Scotland. “The wide variety of stunning and superb bodies of water was the main attraction for me to base myself here,” Matt says. “It is just such an incredible area for anyone who loves water and paddling.”
Matt and his girlfriend Jess live in Fort William, part of an area known as Lochaber, in the West Highlands of Scotland. Matt’s work and play both revolve around paddling, and he owns his own company, Rapid Development where he is a full-time guide and paddlesports coach.
Fort Williams is two-and-a-half hours northwest of Glasgow and has a population of about 10,000. It’s known to many as the home of Ben Nevis, the U.K.’s highest peak. But it’s the diversity of paddling, from technical whitewater to world class sea kayaking, that makes it an ideal base for Matt. “I get to paddle a different boat, in a different place, with different people, more or less every day,” he says.
Maybe he’s sailing his open canoe down Loch Arkaig one day, and then the next, enjoying the pool-drop rapids of the River Etive. One week he could be guiding a sea kayaking multiday in the Sound of Luing and the next week packrafting the River Spey, or maybe paddleboarding up the Spean Gorge.
With this wide array of paddling comes an assortment of weather. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, living, working and playing in the Scottish Highlands can have its challenges. The weather can be harsh and stormy, and daylight is in short supply in the depths of winter. “And whilst the heavy rain makes all the ‘good stuff,’ it can be relentless at times,” he says. But that is part of the Highland experience.
With his family back in northern England where he grew up, living in Scotland means Matt doesn’t see them as often as he would like. And being a small business owner, Matt is ever seeking that all-important work/life balance. “But it’s hard to complain too much when you’re on the water doing what you love every day.”
Many businesses and industries, including Matt’s, depend on healthy Scottish rivers, lakes and shorelines. But some have a greater ecological impact than others. “The waters of the Scottish Highlands certainly mean different things to different people. For me, I have a deep love and respect for the area as a stunning playground filled with countless paddling adventures.” Traditional ventures like catch-and-release salmon fishing on rivers, and deer management on large estates, as well as the Scottish whiskey industry, have been a key part of Scottish history, and continue to contribute to the economy.
“Whilst the majority of these groups respect the home waters for what it provides them, others may not.” Matt says that industrial fish farms, motorhome congestion, litter, human waste and fire pits left by disrespectful campers are big problems in the Highlands. “It’s utterly heartbreaking to see this in a place you love so much,” he adds. “I hope the access legislation can be protected, and I hope that everyone understands that the idea of ‘responsible access’ is very different to the ‘right to roam and do anything.’”
“It’s the interface between the water and the mountains that make the West Highlands so special. The scenery is unlike anywhere else in the world, the people are warm and friendly, unique wildlife is all around you, the food is tasty and the history is rich.”
Matt appreciates the unique combination of Scottish weather, water, culture and the community of paddlers that make the Highlands his home. He’s at home sitting outside his tent, toes in the cold sand, listening to stags rutting in the hills and watching the sunset turn to a starry sky. “To walk here from the nearest road, 10 miles away, is a horrendous haul over broken ground. But the paddle is incredibly pleasant and enjoyable. I’m the only person around for 10 miles, and the feeling is incomparable.”
Editor’s Note: Read more from the Home Waters series.