Wildernesse or Gaskan

A short canoe journey to Wildernesse to discover Tomkies

Today I had the pleasure of a 1:1 canoe journey on a slightly windy Loch Shiel with the intention of reaching Gaskan. Here lies an old crofters cottage, once owned by Mike Tomkies and renamed to ‘Wildernesse’ overlooking ‘Heron Island’.

The trip was a present for Andy for one of his ‘significant birthdays’. It was also to help him achieve a long standing ambition to set foot on the shores where Mike Tomkies had lived. Unfortunately this meant that we had to make an upwind journey to reach the house. When ‘white horses’ appear we have reached the limit of what most beginners can manage comfortably in an open canoe. As Andy had previous experience of canoeing, we agreed to go ‘tandem’ in order to reach Gaskan as efficiently and safely as possible.

Canoe journey on a windy Loch Shiel
Looking northwards we could see that progress to Mike Tomkies house would be quite challenging with a strong northerly wind creating white horses on the loch

Introducing Tomkies

Tomkies was a successful journalist and writer who walked away from modern life in the mid-1960’s. He exchanged it for solitude, self-sufficiency and new purpose. Initially relocating to Canada, he later returned to the UK settling in the West Highlands.

Andy’s introduction to the work of Mike Tomkies came a while after he had given his mother a copy of ‘Last Wild Years’ to read. Once she had read it she gave it back to Andy saying that he really must read it. After reading it Andy was intrigued by the person as much as his writing. This left him wanting to visit Gaskan, or Wildernesse as Tomkies had renamed it, and see the place for himself.

My introduction came through Andy’s wife who, in an early email, wrote, “Do you know if anyone in the area does boat trips past Mike Tomkies old house?” Saying that is like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey… Following a little internet search and quite a bit of reading, I decided to order an old copy of one of his books. One that I am still reading today.

Sign at Wildernesse, Gaskan
Gaskan, or Wildernesse, is privately owned. The owners do occasionally stay there, so please respect their privacy if you undertake a kayak or canoe journey to Wildernesse.

The passing of a ‘warrior’

Tomkies, described by the ‘Scotsman’ in his obituary as “a warrior for nature”, died in 2016. At the age of 88 he had championed nature’s cause for over 50 years. He had also written numerous books and created several films set in Spain, Canada and the West Highlands of Scotland.

As well as living on the shores of Loch Shiel, Tomkies also lived on Eilean Shona. This beautiful island sits in the mouth of Loch Moidart near Castle Tioram. This is another of our atmospheric canoe journey locations. It is possible to canoe from Wildernesse to Eilean Shona in what would be a very long days efforts.

First glimpse of Wildernesse
Our first glimpse of Mike Tomkies house, Wildernesse, at Gaskan. It sits on a remote part of the shore of Loch Shiel underneath ‘Guardian Mountain’.

An emotional visit

Despite having seen the house from a cruise with Loch Shiel Cruises, nothing could quite prepare Andy for approaching the revered house almost silently by canoe and then stepping onto the shoreline where Mike Tomkies himself must have gazed across Loch Shiel on many occasions.

Pausing during a canoe journey at Gaskan
Stepping ashore at Gaskan for the first time during our canoe journey and achieving a long standing ambition to visit Mike Tomkies house was a fairly emotional moment for Andy.

To help celebrate Andy’s birthday and reaching Wildernesse, I had another surprise for him. Coffee brewed on a wood burning stove and homemade chocolate brownie birthday cake (although I couldn’t find the candles). We sat together on a bench infant of Wildernesse, overlooking Loch Shiel and ‘Heron Island’. Each of us deep in our own thoughts of what it must have been like to live here, so far from any tracks, roads and ‘civilisation’.

Man waiting for coffee to brew
The birthday boy awaiting a surprise coffee and birthday cake (homemade chocolate brownie) outside Mike Tomkies old house. Hopefully a fitting tribute to someone who walked away from ‘civilisation’.

Finishing our coffee we packed up and headed back to the narrow jetty. Hoping to use the northerly winds to aid our return, we continued our canoe journey.

Except that the wind had dropped significantly and we the conditions we would have wanted on our outward journey. By this point, nothing was going to wipe the smile off Andy’s face. I trust the memory of our journey together to Mike Tomkies house will stay with him for a long time.

Bespoke Adventures

It is these bespoke adventures that inspire and challenge me to explore the environments around Strontian. I also want to know more of  the history, culture and wildlife of the region. The more I explore this beautiful region, the more I am going to what to know about it. This I will share with visitors and endeavour to enthuse them as much as Andy has me.

If you would like to challenge me to create a bespoke canoe journey, or by bike or on foot, for you and your family, please do tell me what your idea is using our contact form.

Thank you for introducing me to Mike Tomkies, his books, his house and a little of his love of nature. I hope I have been able to repay you by guiding you on a canoe journey to his home; a method I hope he would have approved of.

“Great natural beauty is a powerful creative force for thought … In the old still silences, intuition, perception and all the spiritual qualities that distinguish man, that make him able to see himself and the universe in perspective, are enhanced.” (Tomkies, 1984, “A Last Wild Place”)

For now I’m off to continue reading what is probably his best known book “A Last Wild Place” that documents a year of his life at his home, Wildernesse, on the shores of Loch Shiel.

6 thoughts on “A short canoe journey to Wildernesse to discover Tomkies
  • Mandy Meikle

    Great blog, Karl! As the wife in question, I can confirm Andy had an amazing time. I see you're also keen on lichens, mosses and the other 'lower' plants. Me too! I edit the Reforesting Scotland Journal and there's a PDF of an article we ran on the Atlantic woodlands here - http://www.reforestingscotland.org/reforesting-scotland-journal-51-2/ All the best & have a great season!

    • admin

      Thanks for the link to the PDF - I'll keep an eye on the website as well. What a season it has been! Every day I've been out has been amazing and finding the time to explore the smaller habitats has added a little to the experience.

  • Maureen Young

    On Ardnamurchan just now and reading Between Earth and Paradise and have seen my first seal in Loch Sunart

    • If you head to Garbh Eilean wildlife hide on Loch Sunart you’ll almost certainly see seals in the hours either side of low water.

  • Christine Wain

    As a avid Tomkies fan I so envy your trip to Wildernesse.I treasure a signed video he sent to me and my late husband although I can no longer watch it. An inspiring man.

    • On a calm day the journey to Wildernesse is achievable in a canoe by almost everyone either as a day trip or part of a multi-day canoe adventure down Loch Shiel from Glenfinnan.