Epic Scottish journey of Canoe Boys retraced eight decades on

The Canoe Boys (left to right) James Adam and Sir Alastair Dunnett with one of their vessels. Picture: Contributed

The Canoe Boys (left to right) James Adam and Sir Alastair Dunnett with one of their vessels. Picture: Contributed

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They won the hearts and admiration of the nation with their feat of derring-do, navigating the cold waters of Scotland’s west coast with only a paddle apiece to keep them afloat. Now, eight decades after the Canoe Boys defied the odds and elements, their journey has been recreated for a new BBC Scotland documentary.

In 1934, two aspiring young journalists with next to no experience of seafaring set off on a feat many thought insurmountable. Wearing kilts and vests and using rudimentary canoes, Alastair Dunnett and Seumas Adams paddled from Bowling in West Dunbartonshire all the way to Skye.

Their adventure helped popularise canoeing across the country and gave rise to a seminal travelogue written by Alastair, a future editor of The Scotsman who would receive a knighthood for services to journalism.

The Canoe Boys, a special episode of BBC Two Scotland’s Adventure Show series, retraces a major part of their original journey, following former footballer Michael Stewart and veteran kayaker Brian Wilson as they battle the tides to paddle from Crinan to Skye. In the spirit of adventure and of the original Canoe Boys, the two men make the 200-mile expedition in replica Lochaber canoes made out of teak and canvas.

When Sir Alastair and Mr Adams blazed the trail, they filed regular dispatches for the press, stories which soon encouraged people to keep a lookout and offer moral support.

They also formed the basis for a book Sir Alastair wrote about their exploits, The Canoe Boys. To this day, it is regarded as one of the best Scottish travelogues of the 20th century, touching on issues such as depopulation and Gaelic.

For Mr Stewart, the experience of following in the wake of the original Canoe Boys proved instructive. He described the journey as a “test of strength, endurance and commitment” that made him admire Sir Alastair and Mr Adams all the more.

“They did it with virtually no money and boats that are a million miles away from the hi-tech models of today,” he explained.

Sir Alastair’s son, Ninian, said: “The two of them had been among that first generation of working class Scots in the 1930s who’d made their escape out into the Highlands, who’d come from industrial Glasgow and taken a bus and hitchhiked and made their way out to the hills and found a land of adventure on their doorstep.”

The Canoe Boys: An Adventure Show Special, will be shown on BBC Two Scotland at 7pm on Sunday.

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