Some of the best single malt whisky in Scotland is distilled and barreled on the shores of the Inner Hebrides, an archipelago off the country’s west coast. So when I learned that Hammock, a former whitewater kayaking coach and the owner of Sea Freedom Kayak, could customize a trip around the islands of Jura and Islay that included pauses to sip whisky at coastal distilleries along the way, I figured I’d finally found an ethical way to drink and drive. In five days, Hammock had us slated to hit four distilleries, a remote beach camp, and a handful of quaint Scottish inns. To his knowledge, such a trip was unprecedented. Given the beauty of the waters, renowned among boaters worldwide, and the quality of the whisky ashore, it’s a wonder no one had thought of it before.
We began our journey a day earlier in the village of Crinan on the mainland, a castle-studded, loch-raked landscape as green as Ireland and home to the earliest Scots. We struck northwest, through small chop, and made for the north end of Jura, not quite seven nautical miles distant. Hammock had arranged a new, English-made North Shore Buccaneer for me to paddle. A sleek yellow craft with red-and-black trim, it handled beautifully and had enough volume in forward and aft hatches for longer expeditions—or hundreds of well-padded Scotch bottles. As Jura’s mass came more clearly into view, the island appeared untamed and nearly uninhabited. A lone white farmhouse hunched invitingly in its lee. It was the kind of place you’d want to move into on sight, cut the phone lines, and catch up on a few years of back reading. In 1948, while fighting the tuberculosis that would kill him two years later, George Orwell finished 1984 in another white farmhouse a mile or so south along the coast. He had wanted to be somewhere wild and remote, where the world couldn’t easily find him. Sixty years later, not much had changed.
At midday we rounded the northern tip of Jura into the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a legendary patch of water long categorized as unnavigable by the English Navy. The rocky- bottom topography, ripping tides, and sea swell in the straits between Jura and its northern neighbor, Scarba, often collude to create one of the world’s most infamous maelstroms—a swirling, sucking mass of whitewater feared by sailors for centuries. Standing waves can reach heights of 30 feet; their roar can be heard ten miles away. Locals call it the Hag, among less flattering names, and when it’s going off, no sane person in a small craft goes near it. To illustrate the point, a BBC documentary team once threw a mannequin into the whirlpool—a simulated paddler or diver equipped with a regulation life jacket and a depth gauge. The Hag promptly swallowed the offering, ignoring the flotation device. When the mannequin finally resurfaced, far down current, it appeared to have been dragged violently along the rocks below. Its depth gauge had maxed out at 262 feet. To our mixed relief and disappointment, the Hag was asleep when we passed; Hammock had wisely timed our crossing to slack tide. Rather than skirting the beast, we rested our paddles and let a light current carry us southwest along the coast.