by Susan Parker
Avid Cruiser guest contributor Susan Parker had the great good fortune to travel on a European Waterways’ barge this summer. It was the second barge trip for this website. Just a few months ago, Ralph Grizzle boarded the company’s Panache to barge through Alsace & Lorraine. See A Recap Of Our Adventure on Panache.
This time it was the Scottish Highlander on the Caledonian Canal. It did not disappoint, Susan writes. Her story follows.
Lovingly restored following its purchase in 2000, the 81-year old Dutch grain barge now offers its eight passengers comfortable and cosy Scottish-themed living quarters. The three cabins are on the small side, as might be expected from a barge, but come en suite as does the larger suite.
The seven-day cruise began in Banavie near Fort William and ended in Dochgarroch near Inverness, places even I, a seasoned Scottish traveller, had not heard of. No matter, for on arrival at Inverness airport we transferred to the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel, where we were collected by tour guide Dan who spent the rest of the week sharing his considerable knowledge of the area with us.
First I should tell you a little bit about the canal which was built between 1803 and 1822 by Thomas Telford to provide a safer passage for naval and fishing vessels than going round the north coast of Scotland.
Today we are left with the legacy of this beautiful waterway, which is frequented by pleasure boats of varying sizes. Not least Scottish Highlander which has its own special place in the canal’s recent history. I can’t tell you the number of times we, or rather she, were photographed as we navigated 11 of the 28 locks along the way.
In Fort Augustus there are five such locks which we were lucky enough to transit along with fellow ‘sailors’, all enjoying the picturesque village and the experience of changing from one water level to another.
To idle through Scotland by barge rather than drive its winding roads was a treat for me. Having visited on numerous occasions, I had never been fortunate enough to view stunning Scottish scenery from the water. Entering Loch Ness, a body of water larger than all of those in England and Wales combined, early one morning was a sight I shall not forget.
A mystical glow hovered over the loch and the water was like a mirror, reflecting its sloping banks and the ruins of Urquhart Castle. For four hours we chugged along, seeing only the odd wild goat and osprey but not a sign of Nessy, the famed Loch Ness monster.
For Scottish Highlander this is a chance to ‘let rip’ with her engine although we are hardly talking many knots. Captain Dan who hails from these parts has been with Scottish Highlander for eight years and is clearly passionate about both the barge and the canal.
He tells me Scottish Highlander was built in Holland as a grain barge but later converted to a hotel barge. In 2000 she was purchased by owner and managing director of European Waterways, Derek Banks, who painstakingly restored and upgraded her into what we see today.
On arrival we were greeted by the Captain Dan, Dan the tour guide, chef Pete and general factotum Carlyn who spent the week working tirelessly to make our time onboard as comfortable and special as could be. Pete is the master of visual presentation and cooked us up some mouthwatering dinners of traditional Scottish fare as well as made to order breakfasts and simple salad lunches. Fine wines and after dinner liquers were all available to those who so wished and at no extra expense.
Talking of after-dinner drinks, Scotland is the home of whisky and the chance to visit Ben Nevis Distillery on our first full day and taste a wee dram or two was too good to miss. All the excursions are included so, unless you want to chill out on board or take one of the bikes out for an alternative ride along the tow path, I recommend joining all of them. Dan was an excellent and informative guide who had spent many years living in the region.
Our first lock experience took place at Laggan following a visit to the World War II Commando memorial and woollen shops at Spean Bridge. Here all manner of traditional knitwear and tweeds were on sale for those wishing to take home something local or, more immediately, be able to fold themselves in after the sun went down on deck. A gondola trip up the mountain of Aonach Mor provided stunning views on what turned out to be a wonderful day of history, shopping, scenery and lock transiting.
No trip to Scotland would be complete without a castle or two and the opportunity to visit Eilean Donan Castle, the setting for the film ‘Highlander’, came our way on day four. Set on an island it has commanding views of three sea lochs. Following the abortive Jacobite rising of 1719, the ruins were abandoned for 200 years until the 20th century when a complete reconstruction took place.
We were lucky enough to visit on a fine day. We climbed up narrow stone staircases, walked through recreated kitchen scenes and felt the history of this ancient place seep from the walls. Afterwards we were treated to an extra drive to view the Isle of Skye, returning through stunning Glen Moriston to our only dinner on shore.
The Lovat Hotel in Fort Augustus has a fine reputation and we certainly enjoyed our dinner but I don’t think I was alone in being happy to be back on board and enjoying chef Pete’s culinary and visual flair the following night. That morning we had the opportunity to wander through this small Caledonian village before getting back on board to transit its five lochs.
A number of pleasure boats joined us in the lock system and we had fun watching as owners skilfully manoeuvred their craft from one lock to another. We went through solo, being larger than most, although there would have been room for one small extra.
This was the day of one of two highlights for me. The first was simply steaming through Loch Ness. Having lived north of Aberdeen and spent two glorious years in the wilds of Scotland, I was reminded of how this country can get under your skin. There is something truly beautiful about the landscapes and the light that you cannot find anywhere else in the world.
The second highlight was the gardens of Cawdor Castle dating back to 1600. Immortalised in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the interiors are full of fine tapestries, antique furniture and paintings, but for me the gardens were a wonderful surprise. From Chinese dogwood to numerous varieties of thistle, each corner held a new discovery for this ‘wannabe’ gardener. I now have a long list of flora to plant in my tiny garden. It’s time to upsize, although perhaps not to a castle.
Here I must also mention our visit to Culloden Moor, the scene of the last major battle in mainland Britain in 1746. This is a place that still evokes scenes of bygone feuds and gives rise to a feeling that we have stlll not progressed beyond wars, just made them more sophisticated. The modern museum blends well into the countryside and tells the story in a very accessible format.
Sadly this was our last day but the crew had pulled out all the stops for our final dinner. The table was made beautiful by Carlyn, the food had an extra Pete flourish and we were all in the mood for an evening to remember. The company was convivial, the talk ranged from the serious to the ridiculous but we all agreed on one thing. Our six-night cruise on Scottish Highlander had been a great success.
As Avid Cruiser has already said, travelling by barge is not cheap but if you want something out of the ordinary and to see this very special corner of Scotland, then I would recommend wasting no time in booking it and combining a pre- or post-stay in the region.
Although I have stayed in neither I have been told the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel in Inverness is excellent, certainly lunch there was. Also luxury guesthouse Glencoe House, about 20 minutes from Banavie, has recently opened and looks very inviting. For transfers but also private tours, Robert Laidlaw provides an excellent guide and taxi service (+ 44 777 840 8456).