Cruising Scotland’s Caledonian Canal


by Betty and Dick Wood, Seattle, WA

A few years ago we took a trip on the Göta Canal, a boat trip on inland lakes and step-locks across southern Sweden. After reading about a similar trip — this one on the Caledonian Canal in Scotland with an extension to the Orkney Islands — we decided to join the tour.

A country drive

On Aug. 13, ’04, we joined a group of travelers in Glasgow. Our expedition leader was Richard Butler of London, and Carol Knott from the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides was our lecturer. The day was cool but sunny as we snaked our way through the woodlands high above Loch Long until we reached Loch Lomond.

Both lochs are fjord-like — long, narrow and deep-gouged glacial trenches. Loch Lomond is a freshwater loch because the southward-moving glacier, part of a great ice sheet, dumped loads of gravel and glacial debris at today’s Balloch, making a dam and leaving Loch Lomond about 27 feet above sea level. It was the work of this glacier, a mere 10,000 years ago, which created the “bonnie, bonnie banks” of the famed song.

Warm welcome

The drive along Loch Lomond on the 4-hour trip to Oban was delightful. The bus let us off beside the gangplank of the Lord of the Glens, which would be our home for the next seven nights. After a walk along the waterfront in the beautiful afternoon, we returned to the ship for the captain’s welcome cocktail party.

Trays of canapés and flutes of champagne were served as we met and visited with our fellow passengers. There were guests traveling independently as well as other groups, totaling some 54 passengers in all — a full ship.

A colorfully dressed young bagpiper supplied the evening entertainment both here and at dinnertime. The noisy crowd finally disbanded and went one deck below, where a delicious dinner was served in the Robert Louis Stevenson restaurant.

Most of the tables were set for six, and open seating was the dining policy. Our first meal was typical of what was offered each day: soup, salad with shrimp, a main dish of fish, fowl or red meat, red and white wine and a choice of three or four desserts.

The ship

So began our Scottish adventure. We would navigate the Caledonian Canal, passing through 29 locks, crossing the lochs of Dochfour, Ness, Oich and Lochy, passing the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles and sailing past moorlands, grand castles and a sacred abbey as we viewed a portrait of living history.

The Lord of the Glens is the only passenger vessel able to navigate the Scottish inland waters of the Caledonian Canal and the open sea. Built in the 1980s, it is owned and operated by the Magna Carta Steamship Company in London (www.magnacarta.bz) and was completely reconstructed in 2000 as a luxury ocean liner, yet it remains capable of navigating all the locks in the Caledonian Canal.

The ship has 27 cabins, each tastefully furnished in rich hardwood and traditional fabrics, and is equipped with all the latest navigational aids and safety features.

Oban

Up early the next day, we took a walk along Oban’s waterfront. Oban is a very interesting seaport, part island getaway and ferry terminal and part traditional holiday resort.

Its breezy promenade is very much a part of the experience of the town. From here, the little pleasure cruisers depart to look for seals or circle an island or two, and a good range of attractions for visitors is available, including evening entertainment of a traditional kind. There are also walks to viewpoints, such as Pulpit Hill, overlooking Oban Bay, and to McCaig’s Folly or Tower, a coliseum-like monument that dominates the town’s skyline.

Isle of Mull

After our first hot breakfast, which was served in the dining room (as breakfast was each morning from 7 to 9), we were ready for a new adventure. We crossed the Sound of Mull to Craignure, the principal port on the Isle of Mull. The second largest of the Inner Hebrides, Mull is by far the most accessible, being just 40 minutes from Oban by ferry.

Arriving at Craignure, we were driven over tree-covered hills and across pastures with sheep and shaggy-haired Highland cattle. The marshlands were filled with songbirds, herons, ducks and gulls.

At Fionnphort, near the southwest tip of the Isle of Mull, we walked a short distance and boarded the small ferry for a 10-minute ride across the blue-green waters of Iona Sound to the tranquil island of Iona. Although only three miles long and hardly a mile wide, it manages to encapsulate all the enchantment and mystique of the Hebrides.

St. Columba arrived  here from Ireland in 563 and established a monastery which was responsible for the conversion of more or less all of pagan Scotland as well as much of northern England. Today the island can barely cope with its thousands of day-trippers, so to really appreciate this charming little jewel, one should try to spend the night and enjoy it to the fullest — after the tourists have gone.

We followed our guide no more than 100 meters to the ruins of the small Augustinian nunnery. Founded about 1200, the nunnery fell into disrepair after the Reformation but gave us some idea of the state of the original buildings.

Continuing on for less than a kilometer, we arrived at the abbey. No buildings remain from Columba’s time, but the present abbey dates from the arrival of the Benedictines in 1200. The abbey was extensively rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries and restored virtually wholesale in the 1900s. The cloister was entirely reconstructed in the late 1950s and now shelters a very interesting historical account of the abbey’s development.

South of the abbey is Iona’s oldest building, St. Oran’s Chapel, which has a Norman door dating from the 11th century. The chapel stands in the middle of the sacred burial grounds where kings are buried as well as, it is said, Duncan and Macbeth, who were immortalized by Shakespeare. In the old infirmary building, behind the abbey, are the best of the old Christian gravestones, crosses and other relics.

Locks and lochs

Sailing down the Sound of Mull, past Craignure and Duart Castle, we passed through the Corpach sea lock and tied up inside the canal for the night. While the ship was docked, we took the Corpach railway on a 50-mile scenic ride to the seaport of Mallaig. We had about two hours to enjoy the town and watch the ferries sail for the islands of Skye, Rhum and others before returning by bus.

Next we sailed up the canal to Neptune’s Staircase and made the climb up this series of eight locks, measuring over a quarter of a mile long and with a vertical rise of 64 feet.

Still cloudy, with light to heavy rain most of the day, it was a bit cooler for our morning bus tour through the pretty town of Fort Williams with its many stone houses and tall trees. Next, we headed up into the beautiful, breathtaking valley of Glen Coe, about 16 miles out of town. One of the best-known Highland glens, it is a spectacular mountain valley bounded on both sides by sheer cliffs and jagged rock summits.

We returned to the ship for lunch, then boarded the bus to Ben Nevis Distillery for an hour-long tour and a wee sample.

Continuing our journey the next day, we cruised along spectacular Laggan Avenue, a narrow, mile-and-a-half-long section of the canal lined with trees, before entering Loch Oich, the highest point on the Caledonian Canal.

The next morning we sailed out into Loch Ness. Over 23 miles long and more than 700 feet deep, it contains more water than all the other lakes and reservoirs in Wales and England combined. It is long and undeniably scenic, with rugged heather-clad mountains sweeping up from a steep, wooded shoreline, but if it were not for the legendary inhabitant, Nessie, most would probably not think any more of this lake than the others.

We stopped to view and photograph the ruins of Castle Urquhart, located about halfway along the lake. Built as a strategic base to guard the Great Glen, the castle played an important role in the Wars of Independence. It was taken by Edward I of England and later held by Robert the Bruce against Edward III, only to be blown up in 1692 to prevent it from falling to the Jacobites.

Military sites and Bronze Age cairns

In Inverness we boarded our bus to visit Culloden Battlefield, where the Jacobite Rebellion was crushed on April 16, 1746. This was the last battle to be fought on British soil.

Next we drove to Clava Cairns, which features three burial chambers surrounded by standing stones dating to the early Bronze Age (2000-1500 B.C.). The three cairns are of two main types. The two outer ones are passage grave tombs, each with a narrow passageway leading to a circular central burial chamber, and the center one is a ring cairn, a large circular pile of rocks with a burial chamber in the middle but no entryway.

Few specifics are known about these monuments, as they have been repeatedly looted over the millennia. The passage grave tombs are oriented to catch direct light on the winter solstice, so they likely had religious significance as well.

Later we drove to Fort George, considered the best remaining 18th-century fortress in Europe. Built in 1748, just a few years after the battle of Culloden, it was part of a series of forts built to ensure there would be no more rebellions. Interestingly, it is still used today as a military barracks.

The most unusual of the buildings was the chapel with a stained-glass window of an angel playing bagpipes. We strolled along the ramparts and had a view of the harbor and even saw some dolphins in the bay.

We arrived back in time to participate in the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner, a lively occasion with hors d’oeuvres and champagne.

Later we went upstairs to the Sir Walter Scott Lounge, where children dressed in native costumes and accompanied by two young bagpipers entertained us for over an hour. The dancing was great.

Next month, the Orkney Islands.