A Caledonian canal boating adventure, that sounded just the ticket for my 60th birthday. Thank you, Tim and Pru, for the inspiration.
One dark damp evening in February while watching Great Canal Journeys we decided to follow in Tim and Pru’s wake. Luckily there were months to go before the big day and we chose the perfect boat and travel dates for us.
Getting there and back
Sometimes I forget just how far away Scotland is from the Midlands and the Caledonian canal is a long way from the English/ Scottish border. Picking the boat mid-afternoon we broke up the journey staying on the picturesque shores of Loch Leven. A nice hotel in a great location. The journey north takes us through Glen Coe and I love the way the road meanders along the feet of the tall dark brooding mountains.
Caledonian Canal Boating Adventure
The Caledonian Canal
Built in the early 1800s, the Caledonian Canal crosses Scotland linking the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a bit like a 60 mile long necklace with the natural loch shaped beads joined together by a string of man-made canals. Different from most English canals, the Caledonian it is much deeper and wider allowing the passage of seagoing vessels. The locks are electrified and manned, no windlasses required.
Laggan and Boat Pick up
Keen to begin our Caledonian canal boating adventure, we arrived a little too early to pick up the boat. Lunch aboard the Eagle Barge was a somewhat disappointing experience not to be repeated in a hurry. Having done quite a bit of boating in the past we love life afloat and were prepared for anything that Scotland might throw at us. With a car-load of rations and wet weather gear, we could survive without civilisation for a few days.
The lovely Curlew 1 is quite spacious for two people with two cabins as well as the lounge and kitchen area. Her dual helm areas are quite appealing with one outside for fair weather and the other inside for foul. Everything loaded aboard we were quickly trained up and shown her capabilities. Then it’s off through Laggan locks and along the beautiful tree-lined Laggan Avenue. We emerge into Lock Oich hardly able to believe how far we’ve come in such a short time. That’s another difference from the English Canals. Speed on Lochs is unlimited and our boat goes faster than 4MPH. Through Cullochy and Kytra Locks and on to Fort Augustus.
Our overnight stop is on the landings just above Fort Augustus and after a quick shower its off to explore the village. The focal point is the flight of 5 locks which lower the boats into Loch Ness. We are well fed and watered at The Bothy right by the locks, its busy and we were lucky to get a table.
Next morning we were up and about ready to take the boat on an early passage through the locks. Firstly a large passenger cruiser goes through on its own and then its our turn. The keepers group the boats together and take several through at once saving time and water. We are joined by sailing yachts – Nigel wants one. Unusually we have to pull the boat through the locks. This isn’t quite as hard as it sounds, especially as I am given the role of steering the boat from the front while Nigel is the engine at the back providing the momentum.
At the bottom of the Fort Augustus locks, we emerge into Loch Ness and I’m on a monster hunt. The lock is deep and dark. It is a big loch rather than a particularly beautiful one with Nessie being its main attraction.
Eventually, we arrive in Lock Ness harbour close to Drumnadrochit with Urquart Castle on the corner of the bay. Like many of Scotlands historic castles, its a ruin and being an hour and a half’s walk from the boat we give it a miss. Drumnadrochit is the home to the Nessie visitors centre and so we assumed that it would be close to the lock. Actually, it was quite a walk along a busy road with little or no path – next time we would take a taxi.
The village its self is quite small, a once pretty place cheapened for tourists. Loads of gift shops here but nowhere to get a decent meal on a Sunday afternoon in late September. We bought a few trinkets and adopted Nessie here – the closest we got to her. The Nessie visitor’s centres are just about to close, they look more family oriented than would interest us anyway.
It is damp and dull and the loch looks spooky in the mist. I imagine Nessie emerging, unseen to prey upon innocent boaters.
It rains all night and into the next morning. It is damp and dull and the loch looks spooky in the mist. I imagine Nessie emerging, unseen to prey upon innocent boaters. She wouldn’t let us finish our Caledonian Canal Boating Adventure!
Eventually, we could see a boat size gap between the clouds and the water and we slipped through it to the end of Loch Ness. Here we turned around, we see plenty of cities in everyday life and so Inverness didn’t hold much appeal. We turned around returning to Fort Augustus and moored at the foot of the staircase locks. Now we had more time to look around and the shops were open. Do you like my bobble hat?
Due to lack of options, we end up eating at the Bothy again. If your ever in that direction I would recommend booking in advance, we saw loads of people turned away. Breakfast at a local hotel was not the best I’ve ever had but left us well fortified for a days boating.
Back up the Fort Augustus lock staircase and returned via Kytra and Cullochy locks. Here we have to await passage as its lunch time for the lock keepers.
We hear from some other boaters that afternoon tea is served in a lovely old hotel on the banks of Loch Oich. I rarely turn down the opportunity for cake. This loch is beautiful, my favourite of all on this Caledonian canal boating holiday. There is quite a narrow channel to navigate. On the map, it looks scary and difficult but close up and personal its quite easy to keep to the channel. We moor in a secluded spot just below the ruins of Invergarry castle and set off to explore.
Invergarry castle is in a dangerous condition and so not actually accessible but you can still feel its atmosphere. Perched so it juts out into the loch it must have been a fine building in its day.
Instead of afternoon tea, we choose an evening meal at the local hotel. A somewhat limited menu but excellent quality and what view. Pre-dinner drinks in the lounge and then a bell was rung calling everyone to eat. Leisurely after-dinner coffee is taken in the lounge again making it a lovely experience.
The next night we stop in Laggan as we need some calmer weather to cross Loch Lochy. It’s a bit like Loch Ness, large and wet but after half an hour it all begins to look the same. I’d like to return when it’s bright and sunny, maybe it would have a completely different atmosphere. We arrive at Neptune’s staircase late afternoon. This is the most westerly point of our journey as hire boats are not allowed through it into the tidal loch below. Neptune’s staircase is a marvellous feat of engineering with 8 huge locks. Regrettably, we don’t see a boat going through the locks but still a great sight to see.
What a Birthday surprise, next morning I find the boat all decorated for my 60th. How lovely and touching.
A bus trip takes us from Neptune’s staircase into Fort William for the day. We explore the shops and have a walk along the seafront. I rescue a few pebbles from the beach to keep as a memento of the day and gift to friends.
Fort William sits at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britains highest mountain. The main purpose of the town is to provide board and lodging for the tourists that come to visit.
Friday sees the end of our Caledonian canal boat week and us returning through Loch Lochy. It’s back to Laggan base ready to make an early start for home on Saturday.
Another Caledonian Canal Boating trip?
Would we do another Caledonian Canal Boating trip? It was certainly great fun and the scenery was amazing. Its an adventure worth adventuring. Yes, it would be worth returning to in years to come. Many more places to go and see first I think. It would be great to hear from others who have enjoyed this trip as much as we did. Or are you thinking of going? Let me know if you found this helpful.
All the best