History Scotland Expert Blogs - The inception of modern canoeing in Scotland

17 June 2014
Olivia Petra Coman charts the history of canoeing in Scotland, from early explorations of the Highlands and Islands, to the inception of canoe clubs aimed initially only at those who had the wealth and fitness to enjoy the sport. ...

Olivia Petra Coman charts the history of canoeing in Scotland, from early explorations of the Highlands and Islands, to the inception of canoe clubs aimed initially only at those who had the wealth and fitness to enjoy the sport.

‘Adventure’ was the key word from the second half of the nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century: there were several attempts at conquering the summit of Everest, modern surfing came into being, skiing began to be practised for recreation, exercise, and competition, the first base jumps were recorded, and the modern canoe was created, among others.

This was the dawn of one of the most popular and dangerous extreme sports of our time. In that era, however, when Western Europeans were barely starting to discover the benefits of sports as means of relief from a stressful life and to travel more widely because they could afford it, these recreational activities were not as strictly separated as they now are. Consequently, no distinction has been made between ‘canoeing’ and ‘kayaking’ for over a century and the two terms were used interchangeably.

Land of adventure

With Scotland often described as a land of adventure and with the Highlands and Islands standing as its playground, the invention and design of the modern canoe by a Scot came as no surprise. John MacGregor worked as a lawyer in London; he therefore had the time and the money necessary to indulge his own interests. Self-confessed, his greatest passion was and would remain paddling a canoe down a rapid or through the still wilderness of an uncharted lake.

His travels along European lakes and rivers, on the Baltic, and even on the Jordan, the Nile, and the Red Sea were not only popular as rare and bold adventures and ideal for his bestsellers, but also opportunities to improve the design of the modern canoe. This became shorter, narrower, shallower, lighter, and stronger than the initial ‘Rob Roy’, with a paddle weighing only 2½ pounds and a new set of sails and apron.

Canoeing was not for everybody. It is a statement that could be backed 150 years ago and still be valid nowadays.

By being one of the most difficult sports, its practice required fit and courageous followers and a lot of exercise. Moreover, it did not address all social classes, as the equipment was very costly – between £15 and £25 for a new sailing canoe, plus approximately £3 for the canoe’s sail and a tent, in the 1870s and 1880s.

The first Canoe Club was formed in 1866; its members were exclusively middle or upper middle class and its objectives were to improve canoes, to promote canoeing, and to unite canoeists. Several clubs followed, with Clyde Canoe Club being one of the first in Scotland, launched in 1873. Regattas were widely organised following the establishment of canoe clubs; it was not surprising to see 50 canoes taking part in them and large crowds continued to watch them.

The most popular canoe-related activities involved, however, touring, MacGregor style. The expeditions designed by the canoe clubs offered glimpses of the rugged and remote Scottish Isles and rare encounters with wildlife, by building on the satisfaction of the participants in overcoming difficulties. The fame of the ‘Rob Roy’ canoes was spreading from America all the way to Hungary, where Balaton Lake was claimed to be rough enough to break the back of even this legendary boat.

There are records of such canoes used on other expeditions in Europe, namely in the 1876 voyage of author Robert Louis Stevenson and his friend Sir Walter Simpson on the rivers and canals of France and Belgium. In 1866, James Inwards, the mate of the Canoe Club, left Inverness in his cedar canoe for a trip down the Caledonian Canal and the exploration of some of the greatest Scottish lochs.

The canoe boys

Causing furore, Alastair Dunnett and Seumas Adam, ‘the Canoe Boys’, embarked on a canoe journey at the beginning of the twentieth century, from the Clyde to the Outer Isles.

They travelled in canoes built by John Marshall of North Queensferry, whose design was based on the low-slung secrets of the Eskimo kayak and especially on the more rigid pattern developed by John MacGregor three generations before.

The aspect that actually revolutionised canoeing was the fact that MacGregor was among the first people to not only understand, but apply the custom-made building of canoes, as he was of the opinion that these should vary in length and width, fitting the owner, like a suit of clothes. An idea still applied today via the adjustable straps and seats, the length of the paddles, the volume of the kayaks and canoes, or the size of the wetsuits and drysuits used.

Then, in the same way as now, kayaking rose shyly, but steadily as a sport practised by likeminded people looking to differentiate themselves from the mainstream, to push their limits, and to challenge themselves. It is still rising. 


Olivia Petra Coman is a history postgraduate student and experienced traveller, always thirsty for adventure.

She travels the world to discover its hidden treasures and dreams of getting to the historical sites she's only explored in books, and hopes to make a difference through her work and vision of the world around her.

Read Olivia's blog site.

Olivia studies with the Centre for History, University of the Highlands & Islands.


‘A Canoe Festival’, Daily News [London], 17 June, 1872

‘Canoe Pleasures on the Danube’, The Leeds Mercury [Leeds], 15 May, 1866

‘The Rob Roy on the Baltic’, The Examiner [London], 29 December, 1866

‘Yachting in Hungary’, The Morning Post [London], 26 April, 1867

“The Rob Roy Canoe ‘Movement’”, Daily News [London], 14 August, 1866

The Story of the Clyde Canoe Club, accessed 06/06/2014

Dunnett, Alastair, The Canoe Boys (Neil Wilson Publishing: Castle Douglas, 2007)   

MacGregor, John, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe (Milton House: London, 1866)

Burke, Peter, ‘The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe’, Past and Present, No. 146 (1995)

Page, Stephen, Steele, William, and Connell, Joanne, ‘Analysing the Promotion of Adventure Tourism: A Case Study of Scotland’, Journal of Sport & Tourism, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2006)

Smyth, Mary-Ann, ‘Activity tourism in an upland landscape: dudes and hippies in the hills’, International Journal of Biodiversity Science & Management, Vol. 2 (2006)

Zauhar, John, ‘Historical perspectives of sports tourism’, Journal of Sport & Tourism, Vol. 9(1) (2004)

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