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Barging on Scotland’s Caledonian Canal

In all the years I’ve lived in Scotland, Fort William and the outlying Scottish Highlands have long been a favourite destination of mine. The dramatic mountains that lay in the north captured my imagination years ago. Whether I’m in the mood for mountain biking or hiking in Scotland, this fabulous little outdoor town is my ‘go-to’ destination of choice. There’s just one thing wrong with Fort William; the mountains have enamoured me so much that I’ve never really looked beyond its famous peaks. It’s an injustice that I’ve frequently vowed to change but have so far failed to achieve. So, when Caledonian Discovery offered me the chance to explore a different side of Fort William by boat, I was definitely on board (pun intended!).

Caledonian Canal
On board Ros Crana

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal

The Caledonian Canal is a dramatic stretch of water, unique in its hand-cut design and amalgamation of hewn man-made channels and deep, natural lochs. Originally built as a shortcut for military vessels back in the 1800s, it never fulfilled its original purpose. But all that hard work, chipping away at solid rock with basic mining tools, didn’t go to waste. These days the Caledonian Canal is popular with boating enthusiasts out for a leisurely sail, and absolutely perfect for an afternoon of kayaking fun. Plus, if you’re in a hurry to get from, say, Norway to New England’s green coastline, the canal is a convenient way to avoid sailing the chilly and unpredictable waters of Scotland’s northern shores – just cut straight through the middle!

Setting Sail on the Caledonian Canal

With the promise of mountain biking through the Great Glen, kayaking on Scottish lochs and hiking to some dramatic waterfalls, I packed everything from my swimming costume to waterproof trousers and set off for Fort William, dragging my husband along for the ride. We’d never been on a group holiday before, much less a barge cruise through the Scottish Highlands, and we were definitely curious enough to find out more. By early afternoon on what was a fairly overcast Saturday, we found ourselves standing on a pontoon next to the Ros Crana, a brightly painted barge in distinctive red, green and yellow. Her smiling crew greeted us with hot drinks and biscuits, and showed us to our compact but perfectly designed cabins. It was all very exciting.

Introductions made, Martin the skipper (and Caledonian Discovery owner, as it happens) made to set sail, and I jumped at the chance of trying one of the activities straight away. Grabbing a bike, and forcing my husband to do likewise, we set off ahead of the barge. The gentle towpath eastwards is an easy route to follow and ends at the banks of Loch Lochy. There’s a pretty pepper pot lighthouse there, standing stark white against the dark glimmer of the water. It signals the entrance to the Caledonian Canal and we sat on the bench at its side, admiring the view while we waited for our floating hotel to catch up.

Loch Lochy Caledonian Canal
Pepper Pot Lighthouse at Loch Lochy

That first afternoon really set the scene for the trip. For the next seven days we spent our mornings and afternoons exploring the delights of the Great Glen Way, hiking its undulating forest trails, marvelling at the encroaching mountains and relaxing on the barge’s deck with a steaming cup of coffee from dawn to dusk. But that’s not all we did, because Ros Crana has been impressively well designed, right down to the space it has for carrying several Canadian-style canoes and a sailing boat perched on its stern.

loch Oich Caledonian Canal
Calm morning Loch Oich

Highlights of Cruising the Great Glen Way

There were several highlights to the trip. Some of which we expected, and others that we did not. An amusing highpoint was our foray into the world of sailing, when Martin took us onto the calm waters of Loch Lochy in the four-man sailing craft. We were just a few feet from the barge when the wind, which had been a promising gust right up to the point we lowered a wind-powered boat into the loch, decided to die completely. It teased us with an occasional draught now and then, picking up the mainsail and sending us into a gentle glide before dropping again. It was, quite possibly, the slowest and most sedate sailing lesson I have ever enjoyed. But, wow, what a giggle!

Cruising gently onto the murky waters of Loch Ness, before stepping off to explore the craggy ruins of famous Castle Urquhart, were two more highlights of this week long sailing holiday in Scotland. Whether you’re a history buff or not, you can’t fail to be impressed by the fascinating account of this unique castle. While Urquhart isn’t a regular stop for Caledonian Discovery, the crew are happy to make an exception if it’s the will of the majority to make the trip.

Loch Ness Caledonian Canal
Loch Ness Monster??

Now, I’m not a believer in mystical monsters or paranormal affairs but the legend of the Loch Ness Monster is a story I’d love to believe was born from truth. I do confess to having done some ‘Nessie-spotting’ while we cruised from Fort Augustus to Inverness in the northeast, but no eons-old long-necked plesiosaurs (from which the Loch Ness Monster is supposed to have evolved) reared their heads to say hello. Having said that, when I checked the photos I’d snapped from the banks of the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus, I did find the one attached above. Make what you will of the suspicious-looking smear in the middle, because I certainly have no idea what it is.

Perhaps unexpectedly, one of the main highlights of the trip came in the form of mealtimes on board. The gourmet food, all freshly prepared traditional Scottish cuisine, is so elegantly presented it’s hard to believe it was created in the cramped galley kitchen of a revamped coal-hauling barge. This is group dining at its best, seated around a large wooden table, sharing dishes, passing baskets of freshly baked bread and relaxing with a glass of local ale. Martin, our talented young chef, surpassed himself night after night. He ended the week with a traditional haggis supper, complete with kilted crew, Burns’ recital and ritualistic stabbing of the meat. Fabulous! Best of all was the social interaction, with amusing tales told and experiences shared. One of our Texan friends regaled us with stories of his previous life as a deputised sheriff, most of which I cannot repeat here.

fort augustus caledonian canal
Fort Augustus canal locks at sunset. That’s LOCK’s, not LOCH’s You know who you are… ;)

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Caledonian Discovery and their group barge holidays. Ridiculously relaxing, the week we spent on board was the perfect antidote to my normally hectic life. Seven days of calm sailing, fresh air and only the gentle hum of the motor to break the pleasant silence. Well-organised, helpful, knowledgeable and interesting, this friendly and experienced group of sailors and outdoor instructors took me on a unique voyage through one of Scotland’s most famous glens. I met some crazy people along the way, saw a side to Scotland I’ve never seen before and indulged my love of photography, fine dining and the great outdoors in one neatly-presented package.

If you’re looking for a new way to experience Scotland, this is an excellent choice. I’m delighted to recommend Caledonian Discovery cruises as one of Scotland’s best holiday companies. Take a look at their website here.