Slashing Scotland diagonally in two, the Caledonian Canal, is an intense slice of the images of Scotland: eagles flying over pine forests, anglers casting patiently for trout, a bagpipe lament lingering long over lochs, aromas of an aged single-malt whisky.
Flowing from Fort William to Inverness, man-made canals link the lochs of Lochy, Oich and Ness to provide 60 miles of cruising. Close to the mid-point of the canal, Le Boat’s base at Laggan Locks is strategically placed for three, four, seven or 10-night voyages of Highlands exploration.
Cruising north takes you through Fort Augustus, then 23 miles of Loch Ness to Inverness. Or, using the navigation charts provided, you could plot a southern course for Neptune’s Staircase of eight locks, lowering the canal by 62 feet at Banavie and ultimately on to Fort William. This is a coast-to-coast cruise, through the Highlands, discovering Scotland’s past and present.
Our elegant motor-cruiser had three bedrooms with three en-suite bathrooms, plus a large dining-room / living area. There is a well-equipped galley too, complete with fridge, gas hob, oven, microwave and ample crockery and cutlery for meals for six. It sleeps six but Le Boat provide stylish vessels ranging from couples to groups of 12.
In the week before departure, Le Boat sent links to a number of videos on safety, driving the boat and a guide to Caledonian Canal attractions too. With just a throttle for forward and reverse, plus side thrusters, the boat is relatively straight-forward to drive. Even for novice landlubbers. A Le Boat instructor introduced us to the controls and took us out for a test-drive, only handing over the keys when he was confident that we were competent.
Good-natured lock-keepers dished out affable advice: “You’ve got to have momentum to steer … tie the knots so that you can cast off from the boat … use the bow thrusters ..”
Steadily, we learned how to negotiate locks and moor up for the night at pontoons, often supplying electrical power and water for top-ups.
Food and drink
Heading east, just beyond Laggan Lock, the Eagle Barge, is a floating bar and restaurant, ideal for first and last night meals. It is the beginnings of a culinary taster for Scotland’s heritage, that could begin with the creamy rich chicken soup that is cullen skink.
For centuries, haggis cooked in a sheep’s stomach was Scotland’s fast food. Now, vegan recipes for the 21st century, replacing the lamb, use beans and pulses to accompany traditional barley. Though the neeps and tatties, turnips and potatoes, remain the same. Robert Burns may have to update his poem Address to a haggis. Cranchan, for dessert, could complete the ultimate Highlands menu, blending many of Scotland’s God-given gifts: raspberries and cream topping oatmeal doused in whisky.
Fort Augustus is a scenic location for a meal, there are views over five locks, and on past ancient pepper-pot lighthouses to Loch Ness. Avid self-caterers can stock up for crossing Loch Ness with supplies from D J MacDougall, a quality supplier of beef, venison, Scotch pies and much more.
For Scots, whisky is ‘the water of life’: there are 115 distilleries, usually over 20 million casks of whisky in storage and 38 bottles exported every second. Steadily, whisky tasting opportunities are re-opening after the pandemic.
By Fort Augustus’ bridge, the Caledonian Canal Centre presents the history of an epic engineering project.
When playing bagpipes and wearing tartan were banned after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion in 1746, the demoralised Highlands were emptying. Engineer Thomas Telford planned to bring economic revival with a canal created through mud, sweat and tears.
Le Boat offers bike hire, giving explorers the opportunity to visit activities and sights beyond the canal’s banks. A short cycle ride takes you to the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, remembering the commandos who trained for the Second World War and subsequent campaigns in the Highlands’ challenging terrain. Another bike-ride gives easy access to the 360-degree displays at the immersive and evocative Culloden battlefield, recording the defeat of the Jacobite uprising of 1646 led by Bonnie Prince Charlie.
At Drumnadrochit, the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition explores the age old fascination, with a creature lurking in the dark peaty 125 fathom depths of Loch Ness. On the one hand science states that a long-necked Nessie could not survive in waters never warmer than 6 centigrade. Then again, the Loch’s most numerous inhabitant, the Arctic char, was not discovered until the 1980s.
Switching from boat to steam train, Fort William is the starting point for The Jacobite which crosses the towering arches of the Glenfinnan viaduct. With a make-over, the locomotive doubled as the Hogwarts Express in The Harry Potter films. Terminating at the port of Mallaig, travellers have time for a seal-spotting cruise or a sea-food lunch – maybe langoustines or scallops – before the return journey.
In a nutshell
This is slow travel at a sedate pace of 5 knots per hour, a chance to discover the Highland’s complex heritage. Yet, for independent travellers there is a sense of adventure as they navigate, negotiate canals and cross the legendary waters of Loch Ness.
Address: West Highland Sailing Laggan Locks, Spean Bridge, PH34 3EA
Phone: 023 9222 2177
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, which includes early booking discounts.