Michael Edwards discovers the floating delights of cruising the Caledonian Canal.
When the Caledonian Canal cuts Scotland in half, running 60 miles from Fort William on the west coast through to Inverness on the north-east coast, starting in the middle at Laggan Locks may seem perverse. Mid-point gives choices, you can do a stretch of the waters, either north or south.
Forget Queen Victoria’s “not amused” tone from her 1873 voyage. “The Caledonian Canal is a wonderful thing … but rather tedious.” A somewhat inevitable verdict as she steamed, full speed ahead, through the lochs and locks in a day. There is plenty along the route – from axe hurling to museums to white-water rafting – to keep everyone entertained.
Embarking cruising the Caledonian Canal from Le Boat’s mid-canal base at Laggan Locks gives options, three or four-day itineraries provide a short taster of the canal, heading either north or south. In reality, it takes a week – or even better – a 10-day voyage to really see and explore the Highlands.
It is possible to cruise the three lochs of Lochy, Oich and Ness in a week. Though this is slow travel at a relaxed pace of around 5 knots per hour. In all there are 39 locks: Neptune’s Flight of eight locks, at Fort William, take around 90 minutes to clear. As with every mechanised lock on the Caledonian Canal, it is with the help of amiable and helpful lock keepers. In reality, it takes a 7 day – or even better – a 10-day voyage to really see and explore the Highlands.
Even though Le Boat send links to instruction videos the week before departure, an instructor comes onboard for an hour or more to run through the basics, from throttle to the kitchen’s microwave. Our three-bedroom / three en-suite motor cruiser is large and the instructor takes us out for a spin to check that we are competent.
There are some counter-intuitive tips for embarking from Laggan Locks. Take advantage of Le Boat’s bike hire. Often running parallel with the canal, The Great Glen Way provides some spectacularly scenic cycling and walking scenic trails. More importantly, a bike allows you to access pubs, restaurants and attractions a few miles from the canal.
The short bike ride from the canal takes you to Spean Bridge Mill. Hopefully, as COVID restrictions recede, whisky-tasting and weaving demonstrations will resume. Even better, Spean Bridge has a shop to top up on groceries. In the remote Highlands, you are more likely to see an osprey swooping for trout or an eagle gliding over the pine forests than find a grocery shop.
It is a bike ride that could also take in a visit to the Commando Memorial. A sombre grey monument of two angular jawed, heavily laden men. This muscular duo represents the many commandos who trained in this challenging terrain before serving in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts.
Another tip for sailing from Laggan Locks is – don’t. Stay moored up for the first evening and book dinner at the Eagle Barge, a cosy and eccentric converted Dutch barge: a light sabre features amidst the collection of cutlasses and swords on display.
Will, Victoria and Penny, their whippet, run the floating bar and restaurant, introducing the traditional Scottish flavours of haggis, peat-smoked salmon and slow-roast lamb. Though change is afoot. Will rustles up a vegan haggis where barley is joined by beans and pulses. Some things never change, the whisky sauce remains the same.
Bizarrely, a train ride is one of the highlights of Cruising the Caledonian Canal. The Jacobite steam train, often acclaimed as the world’s greatest railway, departs from Fort William for Mallaig twice a day. Doubling up as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films, it is a journey, crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct, which usually takes less than two hours, with stunning views of heather valleys, lochs and white sand coastal beaches.
Unsurprisingly, tickets for The Jacobite are scarce. Tickets for the regular diesel service, following exactly the same route, are a third of the price. If time is scarce, you can moor up at Banavie and catch that train from the station.
Both train services have sufficient time, before the return journey, for a seal-spotting hour boat cruise from Mallaig’s harbour. Or a leisurely seafood lunch fresh from the port’s fishing boats: both hand-dived scallops and the langoustines are highly recommended.
Far more than just a canal cruise, cruising the Caledonian Canal serves up a slice of Scottish life. As we return to Laggan Locks, a tartan kilted local hones his skills on the bagpipes, as he does most days. Meanwhile, large a range of whiskies awaits us at the Eagle Barge.
Tell Me More About Cruising The Caledonian Canal With Le Boat
Le Boat, West Highland Sailing Laggan Locks
Spean Bridge PH34 3EA T: 023 9222 2177
Cruising the Caledonian Canal on a 7-night self-catered cruise in Scotland in 2022, starting and finishing at Le Boat’s base at Laggan, is priced from £673 per boat.