By Norrie Hunter
A cruising holiday on a 117ft converted barge, as it sedately plied the Great Glen and through Loch Ness, was in stark contrast to our last break afloat on a yacht in the Caribbean.
Three American tourists were to be our fellow passengers aboard the 127 ton ‘Scottish Highlander’, which was moored alongside pontoons at the head of Neptune’s Staircase near Fort William. This series of locks marks the start of the Caledonian Canal, connecting the sea at Loch Linnie to Loch Lochy then up through the Great Glen to Inverness and the Moray Firth.
The canal, regarded as one of the great waterways of the world, was built in phases between 1803 and 1840 and of its 60 mile length, 38 miles are lochs and the remaining 22 miles are through manmade canals. All 29 locks and 10 bridges are fully automated and attended by a squad of highly dedicated ‘lockies’.
The six-day cruise from south west to north east Scotland would take us up and down a series of locks, canals and of course the full 23 miles of the famous and mysterious ‘monster’ loch…all set amid some of the most stunning scenery to be found, anywhere! On alternative weeks, the trip is in reverse, starting at Dochgarroch near Inverness.
With a champagne reception awaiting our arrival, we eagerly loaded our gear aboard, assisted by captain Dan Clark and his crew – a hostess, chef and an on-board tour guide called George!
Our en suite cabins – there are only four cabins aboard Scottish Highlander – turned out to be spacious, tastefully decorative, remarkably well equipped and extremely comfortable. The combine toilet and shower room was neat, but spacious enough and with limitless hot water. Eight tons of water are carried on board!
Built in 1931 and converted into a ‘hotel barge’ in 2000 with a refit six years ago, the Scottish Highlander is one of a fleet of canal boats operated throughout Europe under the European Waterways banner.
Below the main deck – it is 16ft in the beam – is the commodious, all wood main saloon which is luxuriously furnished with Chesterfield leather sofas and chairs and a fine oak dining table set for eight. The barge is fully centrally heated, with additional space heaters if required.
And the food…surprise after surprise from the galley!
To say our chef, Peter Norrie deserved a television programme all of his own would be to undermine his culinary skills. From breakfast, through lunch, to his deliriously sumptuous dinners – all served by our highly capable hostess, Wendy – left us wondering how, throughout our six-day cruise, he managed to create such quality cuisine from such a relatively small galley / kitchen.
A selection of fine wines accompanied dinner and the well stocked bar was open 24/7.
The powerful 127 hp Gardner engine of our vessel throbbed hypnotically as we cruise at a sedate 5knots (6 mph) – the maximum allowed in the canal system – with no sign of Captain Dan, with his 18 years experience on these waters, tempting to floor the throttle.
This type of barge holiday isn’t just cruising; Scotland’s history and heritage, through various excursions by private, luxury mini-bus are included in the cost of the holiday. We visited stunning Glencoe, Culloden Moor near Inverness, the majestic Eileen Donan castle on the west coast, took a cable-car ride up the snow-capped Aonach Mor mountain via the Commando Monument at Spean Bridge and, of course, a ‘sampling’ tour round the odd whisky distillery (Glen Ord near Inverness).
The popularity of the Caledonian Canal with both private and charter boats remains high and shore side attractions including two Loch Ness Monster exhibitions at Drumnadrochit. The ‘official’ Nessie visitors centre has a life-sized statue of the ‘Beastie’. Rumours that the Italian Air Force killed Nessie in 1960 have been well and truly scotched by locals!
The Great Glen Way was officially opened by Prince Andrew in 2002 and follows a towpath almost the entire length of the canal and is ideal for walkers and cyclists. The barge has a bike for each passenger.
Day three saw us make an afternoon cruise via two locks at Laggan on through Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, mooring below the canal lock at Cullochy. Dinner was on board.
Our forth overnight saw us moored alongside the locks at Fort Augusta where the canal system begins its small descent into Loch Ness. Before our (only) dinner ashore at the impressive Lovat Hotel – it was our chef’s night off – we boarded our minibus for a short drive up the west coast of Loch Ness to the beautifully restored Urquhart Castle. This much fought over pile sits on an advantageous promontory and is the location where most sightings of the Loch Ness monster have been recorded. St Columba in the 6th century being the first!
As dawn broke, the mist covered Loch Ness beckoned and we began what was to be our longest passage on this trip. Breakfasting as we sailed, our waterborne approach to Urquhart Castle revealed the full majesty of this imposing home and fortress. With the sun having burned off the early morning mist it was a photo ‘opporchancity’ not to be missed.
Loch Ness is the largest loch in the Caledonian Canal with a surface area of over 35 square miles but only 1.5 miles across at its widest point. It is some 1,000 ft deep in places and contains some 263 billion gallons of peat-dark water…and loads of underwater caves for lurking monsters! We all had binoculars at the ready but still no sightings of the illusive ‘Nessie’!
The only sign of humanity we encountered on this section of the Great Glen were the odd stately home on the north and southern shores of the loch and the distant flow of traffic up the busy A82 between Fort William and Inverness. Otherwise we were alone with nature and our highly impressed American passengers. Mid-morning coffee and biscuits on the foredeck topped off a memorable cruise towards Dochgarroch and our final destination.
However we still had our final two excursions – Culloden Moor battlefield with its impressive visitors’ centre and our Glen Ord distillery trip – to come, before our final evening Captain’s Dinner on board Scottish Highlander.
Culloden Moor can be a forbidding place in winter and proved just that in 1746 when the famous battle took place between the Jacobites and the government-led English army, many of whom were actually Scots! Visitors wishing to walk the site are provided with mobile, satellite-prompted commentary equipment that explains how the conflict unfolded. It is said that some who walk the moor sense an uneasy feeling of that fateful day over 260 years ago…we certainly did!
Dinner on the final night of our memorable cruise was hosted by captain Dan whose knowledge of the Great Glen had us captivated throughout the evening. The Buccleuch beef main course was again a master class creation that we washed down with some fine claret from the captain’s cellar.
The passage through the Great Glen has many attractions not least the variety of other craft on view. Remember, this is still a commercial waterway with fishing boats, logging freighters and private vessels using it as a vital link across Scotland from the North Sea to the Atlantic and vice versa. Many Nordic registered yachts transit this amazing canal system in preference to taking the often treacherous route round the north of Scotland and the notorious Pentland Firth.
This experience of the barge life and the food and hospitality afforded by the crew was, alas, all but too short. Staying onboard for the reverse trip sounded a good idea. With all this on our doorstep, why would anyone want to join the airport queues, endure embarrassing security checks and lengthy delays to go abroad.
Prices for a six night cruise start at £2090 per person inclusive of local transfers to and from the barge, all meals and drinks on board, excursions and site admission fees and use of bicycles carried on board.
European Waterways have a fleet of 20 other similar cruisers operating in France on the Canal du Midi and in the Burgandy region where wine tours are available; in Italy, Holland (flower show cruises), Belgium, France, England and Ireland. Barges can also be chartered by groups and families.