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Scotland: the magnificent Caledonian Canal

Michael Edwards calls Telford’s engineering masterwork, the Caledonian Canal, home for week as he sails from Fort William to Inverness on a LeBoat cruiser.

Neptunes Staircase Caledonian Canal
Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal.

Slashing diagonally, like a stripe on the saltire, Scotland’s flag, the Caledonian Canal links east coast Fort William with west coast Inverness: a dramatic short cut from Atlantic to North Sea. 

Millions of years before today, two tectonic plates collided, pushing up the ground and forming the Northwest Highlands above and Grampian Mountains to the south. Ice Age glaciers swept clean the scars of this trench, the Great Glen, and three lochs – Lochy, Ness and Oich – waited millennia for Thomas Telford’s engineering ambition to link them up. 

Wee drams along the way - Caledonian Canal.

With mud, sweat tears – and a few wee drams – Highlanders created a ribbon, shades of peat rather than blue, for commercial sailing ships. By the time the canal had been hewn from the rock, budget overspent by more than 100%, finally opening in October 1822, the days of sail were dwindling. 

Le Boat takes the reins

Nowadays, the Caledonian Canal is a waterway of pleasure. Picking up a Le Boat cruiser from Laggan Lochs, even sailing novices, after watching a few videos at home and receiving an hour’s hands-on tuition, can take to the water. 

Galley LeBoat cruiser - Caledonian Canal.
Well equipped and spacious galley.

As the canal cuts through the Highlands, its 60 miles of waterways introduce newcomers to wild Scotland: a voyage of dramatic landscapes, anglers fishing for salmon, bagpipes, golf, haggis, tartan, ospreys, whisky – the irrepressible essence of Scotland.

Le Boat’s mid-canal base at Laggan Lochs is blissfully, idyllically remote. Some boaters arrive via the supermarkets of Fort William to provision whilst others stock-up on the A9 services to fill their fridge. 

By late afternoon, we had taken our driving lesson, stowed our belongings away in ample cupboards, caught a 2lbs pike – although the serious angler across the water had netted a 21lbs specimen – and were ready. But we postponed departure until the next morning.

Cruising the Caledonian Canal.
Not a bad view to sit down to in the evening.

Shunning the boat’s galley, we had booked dinner at Laggan Lock’s cosy Eagle Barge, a Dutch barge converted into a floating bar and restaurant. Run by Victoria and Will with a little assistance from Penny the whippet, it is a taster for a voyage along the Caledonian Canal through Scotland’s culinary traditions. 

Drifting from lock to loch

Le Boat provide some suggested itineraries for 3, 4, 7 and 10 night voyages. First, we headed north towards Inverness. Fortunately, for beginners, the mechanised locks are manned by friendly lock-keepers dispensing the wisdom of an Ancient Mariner, “A mere nudge on the throttle will take you a hundred yards. Take it easy.” 

This is slow travel. Life relaxes to a sedate five knots. A serene voyage through avenues of pines and spruce, past the melancholy ruins of Invergarry Castle. Swifts are plentiful, boats scarce. 

Barge - sailing the Caledonian Canal.

“Down south some of the waterways are like dodgems,” a boater confides as he helps us to moor up to at the Fort Augustus pontoon equipped with electricity and water. Our three-bedroom boat has en-suite bathrooms but the space of a nearby shower block is appealing. 

Once Fort Augustus was frontier territory. A bloody cauldron where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters were brutally repressed by Cumberland’s English redcoats. Now it houses the Caledonian Canal Centre, essential for information and an even more essential supermarket for top-up shopping before 22 miles of Loch Ness. 

“Your Lake Windermere is a puddle compared to that,” a local warns as we descend through five locks towards a loch that holds more water than all the lakes and rivers of England and Wales. 

Sometimes deeper than 125 fathoms, dark Loch Ness, so cold that it rarely rises above 5 centigrade, has been a source of myths and superstitions since 565 AD. Only in the 1980s were deep swimming Arctic char discovered and found to be the Loch’s most numerous fish. A visit to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition at Drumnadrochit explores the obsession with finding Nessie, even though scientists have proved that the traditional vision of a long-neck monster would not survive in Loch Ness. 

Historical walks and bike rides

Bike hire from Le Boat allows travellers to venture beyond the canal’s banks. At Culloden, just south of Inverness, an exhibition presents the defeat of the 1746 Jacobite rebellion. Frequently, the Great Glen Way runs alongside the canal providing an option to explore on foot and by bike. 

walk

After the Battle of Culloden, the subsequent crackdown, when bagpipes and tartan were outlawed, prompted mass emigration. Telford’s plans to make the Caledonian Canal a reality, paying a guinea to the workers who had to supply their own pick and shovel, aimed to save the Highlands. Nearly two centuries on, the canal is a vibrant expression of Highlands culture.

Fact file 

Learn more about cruising on the Caledonian Canal at leboat.co.uk

Currently Le Boat have early booking discounts available for the 2022 and 2023 seasons. Visit the website for more details. 

A seven-night self-catered cruise in Scotland in 2022, starting and finishing at Le Boat’s base at Laggan, is priced from £673 per boat.

For more inspiring UK boat holidays and voyages, see our travel channel.

Tags: , , , Last modified: September 22, 2021

Written by 3:42 pm Around The UK, Travel

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