Remembering Scotland’s sea kayaking pioneers

Hamish Gow, who died last year aged 87, is considered one of Scotland's sea kayaking pioneers. PIC: Contributed.
Hamish Gow, who died last year aged 87, is considered one of Scotland's sea kayaking pioneers. PIC: Contributed.
0
Have your say

They were the first people to reach St Kilda in a kayak, the voyage so perilous that no one attempted it again for some 16 years.

Now the achievements of Scots sea kayakers Hamish and Anne Gow are to be celebrated in the Western Isles this weekend.

Hamish and his wife Anne (pictured) were the first to reach St Kilda in a kayak. PIC: Contributed.

Hamish and his wife Anne (pictured) were the first to reach St Kilda in a kayak. PIC: Contributed.

Film footage and photographs of the sea adventurers will go on show at An Lanntair in Stornoway on Saturday in a tribute to the couple who broke new ground on the water, often in a double canoe.

READ MORE: What it’s like living on St Kilda

The Gows paddled from Morar on the mainland to St Kilda - via Harris and North Uist - in 1965, a feat which earned them instant status with the route still considered a great challenge by sea kayakers today.

Kayaker Mike Sullivan, of the Isle of Lewis, was left some of Mr Gow’s personal archive following his death last year, aged 87.

Hamish Gow left a vast archive of pictures and cinefilm from his travels around Scotland. PIC: Contributed.

Hamish Gow left a vast archive of pictures and cinefilm from his travels around Scotland. PIC: Contributed.

Using original cine film footage, he has now created the Kayaks in Kodachrome series with two films, a Scottish Odyssey and Glasgow to Galway, charting the “golden age” of the sport and the Gows contribution to it.

He added: “The trip to St Kilda is still seen an iconic journey for sea kayakers and Hamish Gow and his wife Anne were the first to complete the trip.”

The Gows made it to St Kilda despite poor visibility, a high swell and difficulty finding Hirta. Conditions were so tough that their friend turned back on the voyage.

Mr Sullivan said: “At first, they landed on the wrong island. They went to Boreray when they should have gone to Hirta.

Kayaks at the Sound of Sleat. PIC: Contributed.

Kayaks at the Sound of Sleat. PIC: Contributed.

“They took a rest on Boreray and by around 2am they saw the outline of Hirta and set off again.

“There are not actually a lot of pictures of St Kilda because they were so scared.

“I think there was a feeling they had bitten off more than they could chew. They were mighty relieved to get back.

“I asked Hamish once what his plan B was. He said there was no plan B.”

Pictures and film from the Hamish Gow archive have now been turned into two films that recall the 'golden age' of the sport. PIC: Contributed.

Pictures and film from the Hamish Gow archive have now been turned into two films that recall the 'golden age' of the sport. PIC: Contributed.

In a newspaper report of the day, Mr Gow described the difficult journey and the “serious” position the couple found themselves in.

He wrote: “By two o’clock in the afternoon, where we should have been about eight hours and 32 miles out, we should have sighted the St Kilda group. But cloud and rain had come up with the wind and there was nothing to be seen, behind or in front.

“Our world consisted of grey skies and the heaving empty swell, broken into bursting crests by the southeast wind.

“On top of that, Anne became sick, fortunately she was not too bad and recovered later on.

“The position became serious indeed. Each time we topped the swell, we both strained our eyes in the direction of St Kilda.

“I began to wonder if the islands existed at all.”

No one attempted to reach St Kilda in a kayak for another 16 or 17 years after the Gow’s journey, Mr Sullivan said.

Now around 20 people, including himself, have since paddled out to the isolated cluster of islands which sit around 40 miles off the coast of North Uist.

He added: “I know some people who after 12 hours on the water still hadn’t found the islands. But they could see the gannets, so it was a case really of following the birds.”

The Gows later separated with Hamish continuing his travels by kayak across the Hebrides and the west coast with his film and photos leaving a vivid historical record of the time.

He captured busy fishing villages and their people, as well as landscapes from the vantage point of his kayak. The material also serves as a record of the evolution of the sport, Mr Sullivan said.

He added: “Kayaking of course has been around for thousands of years. It took off as a hobby in the 1940s and 1950s and people like the Gows were at the forefront. The boats were homemade from canvas and plywood wood. There were no buoyancy aids.”

“There is massive interest in sea kayaking today. It is becoming the new mountaineering. More and more people are heading up hills and bagging Munros and people are getting fed up with how busy they outdoors has become.

“People want to know what kayaking was like, what kit people were using, the clothes they were wearing. This is what these films show.”

Hamish Gow recorded the voiceover to both films before he died, with the late kayaker, who also worked in the printing business and later as an outdoor instructor, talking the viewer through his travels.

Mr Sullivan added: “In a world of instant filming, you go away and people see your pictures as you are having your holiday.

“In Hamish’s day, you would wait maybe a month or so before you got your slides back and then you would invite your pals to come round and have a look and then you would relive the experience with them. That’s the kind of thing we are trying to recreate. It’s to remind people how things were done before mobile phones. It’s about creating a little bit of history.”

Singer song writer Rosie Sullivan will perform at the event at An Lanntair on Saturday with money raised on the night to help fund the digitisation of Hamish Gow’s cinefilms.