Deprived by the Covid crisis of an annual trip to his ancestral home in Ireland, James Ruddy heads for Scotland’s Caledonian Canal in search of Celtic craic and stunning natural beauty.
An elderly man walking an equally ancient grey terrier caught me staring at the Lock Inn on the quayside at Fort Augustus and confided in that gentle Highland lilt: “Ye may be disappointed if y’ere seeking a lock-in at the Lock Inn . . . it closes on time!”
Immediately, he walked off, tugging wobbling Fido on a short leash and chuckling as he savoured a joke he probably made on a daily basis to passing ‘Sassenach’ boat people like myself.
Further along the dock, a lock gate began to open up to enable cruisers to pass upstream from nearby Loch Ness, and a small girl tugged her mother’s hand to ask: “Mam. Why is the bridge broken?”
The woman replied in a flash: “It’s jes like the monster Kirstie. It’s goo’in to swallow the boats.”
Tiny Kirstie looked upset until the woman added: “But do nae worry, it’ll spit them oot agin straight aweea.”
Such moments of precious humanity are valued by all of us who enjoy our ‘fix’ of similar craic and blarney on visits to Ireland – and how we have missed it this year with Covid restrictions forcing many to abandon trips to the ‘Old Country’.
And so it has been for me. But, just before the latest lockdown in England, I went to find a version of it in the Scottish Highlands on a voyage on a self-drive cruise boat along the mighty Caledonian canal.
With my partner and photographer Sue Mountjoy being the wrong side of 60, we have been following the Covid rules slavishly, avoiding flights, ferries and public transport since March, when we were caught up in the Spanish lockdown and just scraped home on the last two seats of a packed Ryanair flight from Malaga.
But a socially isolated break amidst the misty solitude of the autumn Cairngorns was too tempting to miss, with the promise of so much to remind me of Ireland and, particularly, the wild and wondrous County Mayo.
First, there was the journey north from our home in the Midlands: just eight hours by car, yet 14 by ‘forbidden’ train. With difficult weather threatening, a reliable car was vital and was picked up at the Sixt rental office at Nottingham Railway Station – a new Audi Q3 35 TFSI, that was necessary for handling the sometimes tricky Highland roads.
Next came the cruiser which was moored at hire company Le Boat’s Laggan base, which is connected to the nearby A86 via a long lane where I encountered my first navigational error – and got completely lost in the gathering dusk.
After a mile or so on the single track road in the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen country, headlights approached and I pulled up, wound down the window to ask directions, only to be met by the other driver, who in an East Coast American accent, exclaimed: “We’re lost. Can you help?”
“Er, no I’m afraid, we’re lost too,” I replied.
Thankfully, a van appeared on cue and an elderly local man sporting a flat cap and a quizzical smile (the Highlands are full of them) stepped up and asked: “Can aye help ye at all?”
Luckily, he could, and I was soon at the Le Boat reception desk, meeting with manager Sheila Bartlett who sports a smiley face mask, but adds: “I smile most of the time anyway, except when I’m concentrating hard!”
In a few minutes that first evening, I too was concentrating very hard as I went through the instruction course for skippering the 36-foot Clipper, with six berths, two ensuite cabins and a roomy kitchen and living area.
With some narrowboat and sailing experience, I was slightly ahead of the hordes of first-timers who have taken to the Scottish waters this year, forced into a staycation by the Covid uncertainty of a foreign holiday.
Many opted to forsake their usual fortnight of Costa cocktails by the sun-dappled hotel pool for the locks, swing bridges, cleats, knots and galley cooking of life on the canal in the uncertain Highland weather.
Laggan, at 106 feet above sea level, is both the centre and the highest point of 19th century Scottish engineer Thomas Telford’s 60-mile waterway, which slices through Northern Scotland, linking the sea beyond Fort William with Inverness and the east coast.
The route follows the Great Glen geological fault which helped create several lochs and continued across to Northern Ireland through Lough Swilly, Donegal Bay and Clew Bay. As a result, just one-third of the canal was dug by impoverished crofters and the rest takes you through the often vast expanses of the lochs.
In fact, as I pulled away from the Le Boat dock, my voyage began as I entered one of those huge waterways, the 20-mile-expanse of Loch Lochy, heading south-west through the towering green and gold landscape.
As the moody skies suddenly blackened, I was battered in the open cockpit, head-on, by stinging sleet driven by a bitter westerly wind.
After two shivering hours on top of the £250,000 luxury Clipper, the slashing sleet caused me to wimp out and turn round to head for the calmer east.
That was a wise decision, although a hot shower would not come for some hours later when I moored for the night at a picnic site in sheltered Loch Oich.
Before that, there was a lock and a swing bridge to negotiate. Happily, all these were manned by those often very characterful local men and women who dish out advice about everything – from the weather to the pubs that are open and even the likelihood of Scotland gaining eventual independence.
One keeper, in a jaunty brimmed hat, even suggested the possibility of a Celtic Union being formed between Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall. “And Britanny?” I suggested. “Ye never know,” he chuckled.
Nights aboard the Clipper became cosy cave events, with a decent gas cooker and a microwave combining to turn out such delights as cottage pie and a Balti curry.
But it was at my final destination, Fort Augustus, the pretty village of 650 souls on the western shores of Loch Ness, where I was able to produce a proper ‘neaps and tatties’ Highland feast with home-made haggis from nearby MacDougall’s butchers (preceded by a couple of his hot steak and onion Bridies earlier).
There are stacks of local activities there too, from mountain biking and walks up the nearby munroes to paddle boarding and canoeing the quiet canal waters.
But everywhere, too, were plenty of those Highland smiles, jokes and people knocking back pints of ‘heevie’ at the Lock Inn with its ‘Ceud Mile Failte’ door sign.
Heading back to Laggan for the final night, the autumn winds reached 70 miles an hour after I moored at Le Boat’s quiet pontoons.
That evening, with a glass of Talisker Skye in hand, I felt that warmth of belonging that comes from being among people who shine with humanity and hospitality, born from the harshness of their history and environment.
Next day, as the hired Sixt Audi hummed confidently through deep puddles in partially flooded Glencoe – with dozens of instant waterfalls pouring down its soaring slopes – I was struck suddenly with memories of my father’s home in County Mayo and the hope that I would be able to return there next year – or, if not, to its close Celtic cousin, the wondrous Highlands.
Picture credits – all Sue Mountjoy, except the featured image, stones by River Lochie and the landscape of Loch Laggan, courtesy of Visit Scotland.
Tell me more about self-drive cruising along the Caledonian Canal
Le Boat operates the world’s largest fleet of over self-drive boats, including Europe’s inland waterways. The season in Scotland runs from April to October. A seven-night self-catered cruise there, starting and finishing at Laggan, sleeping up to five, during the 2021 season starts at £843 per boat / £167 pp. Smaller craft start at £603 per week. Bigger boats are also available. For information: call 0208 234 6534. For more on holidays in Scotland specifically. See here for the company’s Covid Safety Charter
For cut-price car hire across the UK, Sixt has a wide variety of deals and is offering long-term rentals (minimum 28 days) with a free additional driver from £19 per day.
The company also has offers covering students, teachers, last-minute and key workers.