Take one barge and a unique Highland journey
Michael Cowton admits to being undeniably spoiled on an activity-based mini cruise through the great glen with Caledonian Discovery
Tree debris had started to collect on the ground, the onset of winter all too obvious. A gentle breeze rippled through the canopy, the trees blanking the view, but not the sound, of the River Ness. I struck out on foot from Muirhead Basin, the sky a pale blue and fading to a light grey as it drifted into the horizon. I moved at a steady pace along the towpath, twigs crackling underfoot as I skirted the layers of sodden, copper-coloured leaves. It was a splendid afternoon for a walk, the weather unexpectedly bright after the morning’s drizzle that we had encountered on the drive from Perth to Inverness that morning.
We had travelled to the Highlands to partake in a four-day mini cruise on board the Ros Crana, one of two barges operated by Caledonian Discovery. The route would take us from Inverness to Fort William along the Caledonian Canal, negotiating numerous lochs amongst superb Highland scenery. The first leg of the journey was six miles to Dochgarroch, at the head of Loch Ness.
The gravel towpath followed the course of the canal, the River Ness tracking to my left. The barge had soon cruised by, leaving me with the sound of the river as it cascaded over clumps of rocks, a gentle, regular heartbeat which grew in volume as I ventured closer to investigate across open spaces of wet grass. There was little else to disturb the peace. I nodded to the occasional dog walker and cyclist, cheerful at the pleasure of stretching my legs after the long drive the previous day, when we covered over three hundred miles from Lincoln to Perth, a relentless motorway biased journey. Driving northbound on the M6, we passed a sign, which stated: ‘Please drive carefully through the roadworks as my mum works here.’ So glad to see someone in the control room had a sense of humour.
As I approached Dochgarroch, I could see the barge casting its silhouette across the still, dark waters. The fading sun had started its slow but steady descent behind the brooding Highlands to the north, and a light drizzle was setting in. Music was blaring from speakers in a nearby field as scouts were enjoying their weekend jamboree.
The Ros Crana accommodates 12 guests in twin en-suite bunk bed cabins with central heating, splendid hot showers, heated towel rail and hanging locker. There is a comfortable salon where we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink with our fellow travellers, before settling down around the large square captain’s table for an informal meal, on the menu a choice of fish pie or vegetarian stir fry, strawberry Eton mess, and biscuits and cheese. We were to be joined each mealtime by skipper Dave Roberts, first mate Chris Absalom and bosun Lucy McGhee, whilst chef Martin Harrison occasionally popped his head through the large kitchen hatchway.
Breakfast was served at 8am: porridge, beef sausages, mushrooms, toast: a solid start to the morning. Heavy rain had pounded on the roof during the night, and grey, claggy clowds shadowed our passage on to Loch Ness, a relentless drizzle setting the tone for the day. The inky waters of the loch were determined to conceal her secrets; the mysteries locked away in the uncertain depths of water cold enough to chill to the very bone. The waves, churned up by the brisk southwesterly wind, slapped angrily against the bow of the 200-tonne vessel, as the rain hammered on the deck and lashed the windows. I used the back of my hand to clear a view, droplets of moisture collecting on my sleeve as I peered into the gloom. If we wanted atmosphere, then we had it in bucket loads. We passed close by the impressive Urquart Castle, which stands above Strone Point, a ruin of towers and turrets, and a magnetic draw for tourists.
Late morning we berthed in Foyers on the south side of the loch, donned waterproofs and boots, and set off up the trail to a series of magnificent waterfalls. A narrow, tarmacked road soon led to a forest trail, where a spectacular carpet of pine needles coated the earth. Red squirrels and pine marten are local residents hereabouts, but they kept their heads down as we passed through their territory. In this glen of wind-borne chaos, the trees were alive, an occasional burst of rain peppering the yellowy-orange Aspen leaves, which in turn shimmied to the tune of the wind. This side of Loch Ness is indeed a magical place, with its yawning chasms and waterfalls pounding the rocks below, the highest tumbling 90ft and sending plumes of spray into the atmosphere.
The great glen, which slices Scotland in two as it runs from Inverness to Fort William, formed an ancient travelling route across the country. The u-shaped valley, having been sheared by glaciers, contains Lochs Ness, Oich, Lochy and Linnhe. This is a place of magnificent scenery, tranquil loch-side woodlands, soaring valley walls and mighty rivers. Fort Augustus, where we were to berth overnight, has been a crossroads for travellers for centuries.
Let me tell you about dinner on the second night: a choice of beef lasagne served with garlic bread and side salad, or roasted aubergines stuffed with tomato and mushroom rice, followed by bread and butter pudding. Martin was certainly doing us proud.
Monday morning. More rain. The ever-cheerful skipper had been correct the previous evening, when he commented: “The forecast for tomorrow is the worst one I have had so far, so we might have some liquid sunshine!’ By now we were all hardened to the heavens, and try as it might, the weather certainly did not dampen spirits as three of us headed out on a five-and-a-half mile bike ride along the towpath to one of the prettiest locks on the canal, Kytra Lock, where we waited patiently for the arrival of the Ros Crana.
Activities offered during any of the cruises are optional and, subject to weather conditions, include walking, cycling, canoeing and sailing. I joined several other members of the cruise on a six-and-a-half mile walk along the southern edge of Loch Oich with first mate/guide Chris Absalom. Weather blew all around us, rain squalls and sudden blasts of sunlight dancing on the glistening, slippery rocks along the shoreline, and rainbows, I had lost count, arching across the sky like colour-coded bridges linking Highland peaks as a thank-you to our patience. For the dampness was no substitute for the beauty and enchantment of this place, a spell cast across our consciousness like a subliminal drip-feed of ever-changing emotions, rallied by the clean air and intermittent rain which pebble-dashed our faces, making us feel fresh and alive to the moment. To travel from Inverness to Fort William along the great glen by barge gives one a different perspective on the landscape, so missed by road. There is time to gaze and wonder at the beauty; to soak up the atmosphere; to be lost deep in thought.
History was all about as we trod sections of the military roads constructed under the command of General George Wade during the middle part of the 18th century, as part of an attempt by the British Government to bring order to a part of the country which had risen up in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. The roads were constructed to link the Central Lowlands with a series of fortified barracks located strategically across the Highlands, the purpose of which was to suppress and exert control over the local population.
Visible across the loch were the ruins of Invergarry Castle, where Bonnie Prince Charlie reportedly stayed after his defeat at Culloden in 1746. The Redcoats burned the castle after the battle, but the stout walls refused to yield, and today serve as a reminder to their glorious past. Below the castle lies the wreck of the Eala Bhàn (White Swan). She had been left on the loch over winter, safe from the southwesterlies that blow through the loch. No one, however, had accounted for a savage northeasterly blasting her way through. As the gale ripped at her, she dragged three anchors before giving up the fight and was blown on to the foreshore. It was as if she had somehow turned her back on the storm and valiantly tried to burrow her way through scrub, a last ditch effort at sanctuary. Four years on, and utensils still hang forlornly in the kitchen area, whilst mattresses and other debris float aimlessly around, a ghost ship in every sense, of which the costs of her salvage by all accounts far outweigh any repair and refit. A white swan shunned by human company and occupation, left to her own fate, to die a sad, lonely death, as the waters slowly consume her soul.
Talking of soles, I had lost one of mine the previous day, which I only noticed when I inadvertently slipped on wet grass. Now the other sole of my boots decided to work itself loose, which was not terribly helpful when tramping along sodden paths layered with fallen leaves. We arrived back at the Ros Crana later than expected, with lunch already prepared as the skipper departed Laggan locks and ploughed the barge through the turbulent waters of Loch Lochy.
Skipper Dave Roberts with Chris Absolom and (right) chef Martin Harrison
Monday night we moored at Gairlochy locks, where we were treated to haggis, neeps and tatties, the alternative being a mixed bean ragout, followed by sticky toffee pudding. We were in for a special treat, as the crew were in highland dress, and Dave, looking every bit the part as Braveheart with his dreadlocks, read the ‘Address to a Haggis’, memorialised as the national dish of Scotland by Robert Burns. It was indeed a compelling performance, followed by a fitting last supper to a most enjoyable journey, journey’s end being completed the following morning at Banavie in the shadow of the brooding hunched peak of Ben Nevis, the cloud offering tantalising glimpses of the snow-capped summit – the perfect end to a very special cruise.
Captain on the bridge (with a little help from my friend!)
Dave Roberts works as a a freelance skipper on different passenger vessels during the summer, and as a ski and snowboard patroller on the Nevis Range in the winter months. The majority of his wheelhouse work is on the Ros Crana. “The wonderful thing about this particular journey is that guests have the chance to explore every inch of the great glen. Along the route you can expect to see red and roe deer, birds of prey, red squirrels, pine marten, foxes, and even wild goats. There are plenty of plantations of pine, and the woodlands include ash, elder, oak, beech, rowan and Caledonian pine. In fact, there are not that many areas that have remained so untouched as this part of Scotland.” Dave began his time with Caledonian Discovery as first mate, as he had previous experience of water sports and guiding, before he began his training as a skipper. “The job fits in really well with the skiing in winter, and I am very lucky to have two jobs that most people would give their right arm for just one of them. The whole point of the cruise holidays is that we do not do epaulettes. We all sit round the table and join in, which helps people feel more relaxed.” Although Dave rents a house in Forth William, working a six-and-a-half-day week, he admits to hardly ever getting to see it!
All images © Michael Cowton
Caledonian Discovery Ltd, The Slipway, Corpach, Fort William PH33 7NB