Only 30 minutes from Britain’s fourth largest city, Glasgow, lies the gateway to the Highlands; Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. As Britain’s largest freshwater body Loch Lomond sits remarkably concealed, nestled between snow-chequered Munros and Corbetts, snaking its way north in a narrowing ribbon of inky-dark water, and peppered by luxuriant islands, with sandy bays and rocky islets. Its expansive waters seem to balance the needs of both people and wildlife with minimal conflict and when you start to delve a little deeper you really begin to see what this loch and its islands have to offer.
For six years I had resided just 20 miles away from the loch yet I had never kayaked out to the west side, to the so-called ‘Scottish Bahamas’, the islands famed for their sandy bays and blue skies, so my wife and I set our sights on a Sunday paddle out in search of one of the Lochs most unusual inhabitants. Luck was on our side and the day was immaculate; infinite blue, cloudless skies, and not even a quiver of a breeze. The loch reflected a jagged horizon with mirror perfection, accentuating the rich tans, tawny-browns, and mauves of bracken, heather, and seemingly lifeless late-winter woodlands (spring is slow to arrive in these parts).
It seemed almost a crime to slice the waters surface with our paddles, but we cruised slowly between the islets and islands heading west to our destination, Inchconnachan. The hull of the double kayak grated up the course sandy beach to a standstill and we dragged her up and away from the waters edge. This is where our mini-adventure really started to take shape.
Tracks and signs
With enthusiasm we struck out around the island. It’s a small island, a mile long by half a mile wide, blanketed by wizened old Scot’s Pines, Oaks and Alders and a scattering of planted conifers. Swathes of bracken melt into heather and bilberry and in places flushes of damp ground hydrate the landscape. If nothing else it’s a beautiful place to stroll around, and until very recently it even supported Capercaillie.
An animal track led us north along the shoreline but there was no indication as to what had forged the path. We reached a particularly boggy section. The track led into a bobbled landscape of Sphagnum clumps and here were the first signs of our quarry; two bizarre elongated depressions in the moist moss and a neat pile of large cylindrical droppings. Not your average deer or hare that’s for sure.
Our route continued along the trail and on to the beach where isolated trees stood incongruously along the waters edge. An hour of searching had proved effectively fruitless other than a set of strange prints. We had circled the northern half of the island when from nowhere a smoky-grey and rufous shape bounded nonchalantly away, pausing to glance back from under a Spruce tree. A Red-necked Wallaby! From the shadows, two large ears on a disproportionately small head, teetering on a large pear-shaped body turned to look at us. A charismatic alien in a classic Scottish landscape.
Leaps and bounds
There’s something quite adorable about the wallabies. They have a fundamentally friendly face, a jet-black leathery nose that looks like it should be wetter, and deep, almost lost eyes. Short forelegs (much like a T-Rex) are contrasted by huge powerful hind-legs balanced on tough elongated feet that leave just a two-clawed and toed impression as they bound through the oak woodlands. It really is a peculiar sight to witness this marsupial at home and doing well in the woodlands of Scotland!
Over the course of the next hour we managed to find another 3-4 animals, some more obliging than others. We soon got our eye in for the distinctive depressions left by the long hind-feet in the soft moss, and along the beaches, especially where the sand was fine; here a criss-cross of tracks could be found, often showing the trailing tail too.
It’s not just the wallabies that inhabit the island; both Fallow and Red Deer can be seen and the tracks along the shore hinted to their presence. In spring and summer you can expect to see Ospreys fishing around the island whilst Redstarts and Wood Warblers sing from the oaks, Common Sandpipers pipe their presence from the shoreline and with a lot of luck you may just catch sight of an Otter working its way through the tangled mass of roots hanging down into the loch. It really is a magic place.
The history and the future
A species such as Red-necked Wallaby doesn’t get to Scotland of its own accord. Lady Arran Colquhoun bought the animals to the island back in the 1940s and here they flourished. Over the following decades their population rose and pioneers frequently swam the short distance across to the mainland at Luss, or crossed when the loch froze over. where a few met their demise on the main road. More recently, there has been a call to cull the animals given their alien status and their potential impact on natural habitats. What the future actually holds for them is yet to be seen but if you fancy a mini-adventure then don’t delay in getting out to Inchconnachan.
When and How
The most fun way is to hire a kayak from Jock at the Bunkhouse in Balmaha on the east side of Loch Lomond and paddle your way west through the islands to Inchconnachan. It takes about an hour and a half to reach the island so get a full day hire, take a packed lunch, and check the weather first to make sure it won’t be blowing a gale! You can visit the island at any time of year and the wallabies are there all year round. Winter is likely to be quietest for other people, whilst summer might produce more wildlife.