We enjoyed our time in Scotland. The people are friendly. The history is rich. The countryside is beautiful. Our previous posts about our trip will remind us of the highlights each time we revisit them. We hope you have enjoyed them. This post is about a few aspects we found interesting that didn’t fit into the narrative of the earlier ones.
The City of Inverness
Situated on the northeast coast, Inverness opens to Moray Firth and then the North Sea. The River Ness flows from Loch Ness 12 miles (19 km) away and through the center of Inverness. The first claimed sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was in the River Ness in AD 565. We stayed in the city of 47,000 for two days prior to our barge holiday on the Caledonian Canal. We never saw the monster.
If you’ve never been to Scotland and someone asks you to free-associate words you link to the country, you might think of things like highlands, tartans, kilts, golf, sheep, and scotch whisky. Though Scotland is much more than these, these stereotypes actually hold true. The land is beautiful and rugged; the people hold their textiles and kilts dear; golf courses are everywhere; and whisky is one of the main manufactured products of the land.
According to wikipedia, “Scotch Whisky has survived USA prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, enjoyed in more than 200 countries throughout the world, and generating more than £4 billion in exports each year.” Besides the whisky itself, the whisky industry is closely linked to tourism. Many distilleries are open for public tours (for a fee), adding more than £30 million of value a year.
When we decided to travel to Scotland, whisky was one thing that drew us. Friends recommended we look at Rabbie’s tours for parts of our journey. Rabbie’s hosts a number of whisky industry tours. Benefits of using a tour company include having a driver/tour guide, an itinerary, and scheduled entrance to distilleries and other sites. We didn’t need to rent a car, drive on the left, or figure out how to get around, all while potentially tipsy!
Where We Went
The Scottish region with most whisky distilleries is Speyside, the area around the River Spey in northeast Scotland. The prime location features fresh water springs and nearby farming of barley, two of the three ingredients used in production. The third ingredient is yeast.
Our 3-day tour, in orange, took us from Edinburgh up to Perth and then northwest through Pitlochry, before turning northeast to follow the River Spey. Near the top of the green region of Cairngorms National Park we stayed 2 nights at a bed & breakfast. On day two we reached the north sea near Forres. The third day brought us down the east side of the park and near Balmoral Castle on the south. Our driver said during one recent summer, on two separate occasions, he met a pair of vehicles on a remote road with one of them driven by the Queen.
So far, the focus of our Scotland vacation blog posts has been on the holiday barge trip we enjoyed the first week. Our travels also included several days in Edinburgh. Our first day was upon arrival before heading north by train to Inverness. After the barge trip, we returned to Edinburgh for three days. Lastly, we enjoyed one more day after our whisky distilleries tour. This post presents some highlights of all three of those occasions in the marvelous city.
We arrived mid-day at the airport and made our way to where we would spend the night. It was only a few blocks from the Royal Mile in the Old Town. The Royal Mile is a series of streets running downhill from the Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace to the east. The descent is from 109 meters above sea level at the castle, to 42 meters at the palace. The thoroughfare is the busiest tourist area in the city. The street was built upon the glacial debris behind the volcanic plug upon which the castle sits. (See more about the Royal Mile and its geology and history here.)
After getting settled into our room, we ventured out to explore and find a place to eat. We walked up the Royal Mile and back again. We explored a few side streets and narrow passages called closes. More about closes in this post. Tourist shops were everywhere, with tartans, kilts, whiskies, and shortbreads in abundance. People from all over the world enjoyed the sights and sounds. Bagpipes could be heard. Street performers (buskers) gathered crowds. The old gray stone buildings rose up with a wide variety of ornamentations. Statues and public memorials were everywhere.
Our train for Inverness was scheduled late the next morning. We packed our bags and rolled them toward a place where we could get breakfast. Afterward, we crossed the Royal Mile and headed toward the train station. This was our view across the tracks. Click on either picture to open them in gallery.
Our visit to Scotland this fall included our week-long barge trip, which we’ve already discussed. We also had three separate visits to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. It is a city that is centuries old. The history of the city’s development intrigued us.
Edinburgh of the Past
Edinburgh was built upon ground surrounding an ancient volcano core. The crag sticking up above the surrounding land where the castle was built stands over 100 meters (330 ft) above sea level. Tailing off toward the east was a ridge of land sloping downward to about 30 meters (100 ft). The top of the ridge served as a roadway. Buildings with shops and residences were densely arranged roughly perpendicular to the roadway. Two old maps show the layout from different perspectives looking north and then looking west.
Previous posts about our Scotland trip can be found here.
Our barge Fingal of Caledonia embarked from Inverness and traveled to Banavie near Fort William to the southwest. This video gives some perspective for that journey.
Lake | Loch | Lock
Loch (/ˈlɒx/) is the Irish and Scottish Gaelic word for a lake or for a sea inlet. In English and Hiberno-English, the anglicised spelling lough is commonly found in place names, pronounced the same way as loch. In Scottish English, ‘loch’ is always used. Some lochs could also be called firths, fjords, estuaries, straits or bays.
A lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways.
Caledonian Canal and Lock System
Three lochs are aligned end to end along the route. The largest and most well known is Loch Ness at the northeast end of the route near Inverness. Loch Lochy is situated at the southwest near Banavie. Between them is the much smaller Loch Oich. The Caledonian Canal connects them and allows boats to access them from the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Rivers also connect the lochs. The rivers are not navigable by larger vessels. The canal parallels the rivers.
The elevations of the three lochs are different. Loch Oich is the highest and most inland at 106 ft above sea level. Loch Lochy has an elevation of 94 ft above sea level. Loch Ness is 52 ft above sea level. Ample precipitation inland maintains the loch levels. Because of the differences in elevation, a system of locks raises or lowers vessels to allow them passage. From the Inverness end, there are 14 locks to allow vessels passage to and from Loch Oich the highest elevation. From the end near Fort William, there are 15 locks to allow vessels passage to and from Loch Oich.
Three places have multiple locks arranged end to end. There are 4 in a group near Inverness. There are 5 in a group at Fort Augustus. And there are 8 at Banavie. This last large group is known as Neptune’s Staircase. Passage through it can take more than 90 minutes. Operations can be challenging when the holiday season brings many pleasure boats to the canal. Our barge barely fit its length into the locks. Our width also limited the vessels that could join us in the lock.
How Locks Work
A lock can raise or lower a vessel depending on the desired direction of travel. Below are two series of graphics provided by Wikipedia User Cmglee illustrating the step by step process to raise and lower a vessel in a lock.
In the past, lock gates and valves were operated by a team of men at a rotating device called a capstan. Sturdy lengths of wood were inserted into the four white square holes so the men could push it around to turn the mechanism. Seven turns were needed to open or close a gate.
Today, the lock gates and valves are operated by hydraulics. One person can control the gates and valves from a console next to the lock chamber. In the past, a busy lock might have several men assigned to operate the gates and valves. Below is one of the hydraulic control panels.
Passage by Fingal
On the third day of our voyage we approached the set of five locks at Fort Augustus at the end of Loch Ness. The video shows our very slow and deliberate approach into the system of locks. Next, we see Fingal within the first lock being readied to be raised. The crew tied the barge and moved the small craft out of the way. The third part shows the water pouring into the chamber. The crew is busy adjusting the ropes to keep Fingal snug to the side. Finally, the water level is the same as the next lock chamber. The gate is opened for us to proceed. The whole process starts over to secure the barge and prepare for being raised in the next chamber.
First lock near Inverness at Beauly Firth.
Slow opening of the first gates. Water levels must be the same.
Upstream gates at the first lock.
Note the height of the gates.
Steve making sure the Fingal is securely tied.
Gates open to allow passage into the chamber for raising to the next level.
Getting tied in the lock in order to be raised.
Fingal barely fits into the chambers.
Fingal will soon be raised to the water level in the foreground.
Large sailing ship in the first lock at Neptune’s Staircase.
Eight locks in all at Neptune’s Staircase.
One of my favorite images I found in researching this post is a map published in 1848. I include a link to it if you are interested. It is a large file over 2 megabytes. On a computer screen, it can be view full-sized showing some amazing details of the canal system. In the lower right corner:
Ordered by The House of Commons to be Printed 29th August 1848.
On September 3 we began our week-long trip on the Fingal of Caledonia, one of two barges owned by Caledonian Discovery. Each day the barge averaged about 10 miles of progress. To read about our first few days, read here and here.
On the fourth day we left Loch Ness at Fort Augustus, traveling through 4 or 5 miles of canal to Loch Oich, the smallest of the three lochs (lakes) in the glen. Some passengers including Jim biked to Cullochy Lock, which provides entry into Loch Oich. He was able to easily stay ahead of Fingal as evidenced in this video. On the way he encountered a startlingly large slug and a slow worm, which is not a worm or a snake, but a legless lizard.
Canal view as Jim biked the path.
This was about 3″ long.
The slow worm seemed to enjoy the warmth of the sunshine.
Can you spot Melanie?
Getting tied in the lock in order to be raised.
A surprise treat was mooring up with the Fingal’s sister ship, the Ros Crana. While the two barges were linked, passengers on both were able to step aboard the other. I think everyone decided their own accommodations and crew were best. We also took on some canoes and exchanged other equipment and supplies.
A different treat awaited us in the afternoon, when we visited a hotel for cream tea. Those of us unused to the ritual of tea needed “cream tea” demonstrated. (That is, the two of us!) It is tea accompanied by a scone or treat with clotted cream and jam. The photo below shows the tables set for 6 passengers. If you look closely through the window, you can see the Fingal in the bay.
And On To Laggan Locks
Drenching rain swept the next morning. As the clouds lifted some, we passengers chose our activities. We decided to walk to Laggan Locks at the south end of Loch Oich. Clad in rain gear we set off, encountering several northbound hikers with fully loaded packs. On the way we passed antique train cars, waiting for use within a historical restoration project. By the time we reached the locks and the Fingal, the rain had ceased. Docked across from the barge was the Eagle.
The Eagle is a Dutch barge built in 1926. It was used as a troop carrier in World War II and is armour plated. It weighs about 200 tons. After the war, it was used as a sugar beat mover. After being decommissioned, she was brought over to Scotland and placed on the Caledonian Canal here at Laggan locks and converted into the Eagle Bar and Restaurant. Periodically, it must be moved. Then, it is allowed back to this same spot.
In the afternoon the sky was clear. Captain Adam suggested canoeing. He and Chef Kevin prepared canoes and the small motorboat as passengers donned flotation devices. We headed north a ways before boarding the canoes. None of us had recent experience with them, but we soon found our rhythm.
After dinner, we all headed to the Eagle for a drink. Jim went back again later to see if Susie our hiking guide could help him remove a small tick embedded in his ankle. She did so. He found another on his waist next day. Once home, the family doctor did a Lyme test and got a negative result.
The Final Dinner
On the last full day, the Fingal anchored in a small bay. All passengers but Melanie hiked the Dark Mile, crossed World War II commando training grounds and the great Cameron estate. A small museum and ice cream shop enticed some in. On the last part of the outing, Melanie met them at tiny mission church on the estate.
The Dark Mile
St Killians Church
The Cameron Estate
The Fingal in the bay
Our final evening’s wonderful dinner included chicken stuffed with haggis and vegetarian haggis. The crew were dressed smartly in their finest kilts. A highlight before eating was the Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns.
Our daily menu board.
Steve, Susie, Kevin, Adam
Coming to Banavie
The next morning broke quite rainy. We had about 7 miles to go in order to reach our final destination at Banavie. Two passengers chose to walk along the tow path. Jim and another passenger chose to ride bicycles. They suited up with rain gear and set out. It gradually quit raining. Jim recorded this short video along the way.
Neptune’s Staircase in Banavie
The longest set of canal locks in Britain consists of these 8 locks to raise or lower boats 64 feet (20 m) in about 90 minutes. They were built between 1803 and 1822. Three operators can coordinate to run the lock gates on a schedule. From this point, the waters gradually open to the southwest and into the Atlantic Ocean.
The view looking up the 8 locks of Neptune’s Staircase. Our barge did not descend.
We stayed in the town of Fort William for two more nights before continuing to Edinburgh by train. The town population is around 10,000 and is a short distance from Banavie. Fort William serves as the southern entrance to the Caledonian Canal, a skiing center in the winter, and as the gateway to hiking the Great Glen Way as well as to Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles at 1345 m (4414 ft).
We continued our trip with time in Edinburgh and a three-day whisky tour in Speyside. (We’ll share some about those, as well.) But none of it dimmed our enjoyment of the week on the Fingal, the funny and interesting passengers, and the skilled and generous crew.
On September 3 we began our trip on the Fingal of Caledonia, one of two barges owned by Caledonian Discovery. Each day the barge averaged about 10 miles of progress. The first day it was about 6 miles. We moored that night north of the entrance into Loch Ness. Next morning we were underway before breakfast.
After dinner every evening, the activities director outlined the options for the next day. Our cruise was focused on hill hiking. Mountains rise up on either side of the lochs and canal, while foot paths line most of the way. Passengers could hike, bike, or walk, depending on the weather and their preferences. The activities director led the most challenging of those options, and those who chose otherwise were on their own.
Our intention when we booked the trip was to hike as much as possible. However Jim injured a knee in May and Melanie did in early August, leaving her unable to trek very far. Below we’ll share a few pictures of our outings, as well as some of the vast beauty of the Great Glen.
Loch Ness is approximately 23 miles long. Our progress on Day 2 would take us about halfway, to the town of Foyers. On the north side of the loch is a peak that two adventurous passengers chose to hike, led by Steve. On the south side is a less challenging choice, a beautiful waterfall tucked within woods, which we opted for. Roundtrip of our outing was about 3 miles. Part of the journey was on paved roads, and part was on maintained hiking trail.
Captain Adam checked the water traffic from our Foyers mooring. Could there be pirates?
Later that afternoon, Jim posed for a photo. What’s that behind you, Jim??
After mooring at Foyers overnight, we proceeded to the locks at Fort Augustus. Jim steered us toward our destination for part of the way. Steering was a challenge for a couple of reasons. It was windy. And, the barge was built in the 1920s. The steering mechanism was via chains and gears. It had a lot of slack. It took more than a full turn left or right to engage the chain and gears to get a response from the rudder. Jim handled the challenge well. He is a former farm boy.
As we neared Fort Augustus, Captain Adam took over the wheel for the final approach to the locks. Moving a 180 ton vessel into and through is a delicate job. Not one for an amateur.
Fort Augustus is a small village on the south end of Loch Ness, with a population of about 650. From the looks of the main street, most of them are involved with the tourist trade.
After passing through the locks, all passengers and a new crew member, Susie, hiked to another waterfall. We enjoyed an ancient cemetery, some tree covered lanes, a boggy patch, ferns, and pushed through shoulder-high bracken on the way. Round trip mileage was about 5 miles.
Sheep guarding the old cemetery
Old cemeteries are always interesting to explore
The designs and inscription are still strong after many years
One of several tree covered lanes
The ferns are often more than 4 ft tall
Cia Aig Falls
At the end of our busy day, Chef Kevin served another delicious dinner, which we all enjoyed. What kinds of meals did he fix? Salmon, venison stew, curried chicken, and haggis-stuffed chicken, to name some of the dinners. And there were always vegetarian options. Breakfasts were wonderful, too!
Chef Kevin preparing dinner
The next day we continued our journey through canal to Loch Oich. Come back next time for more of our adventures.
The city of Inverness opens to the North Sea via the Beauly and Moray Firths. The city of Fort William opens to the Atlantic Ocean via Loch Linnhe. Three inland lochs (lakes) Ness, Oich, and Lochy are aligned between the two cities along a geological fault called the Great Glen Fault. It was formed about 400 million years ago.
Navigation by ship between regions around Inverness and Fort William was a long and dangerous undertaking over 200 years ago. They had to go around the islands to the west, or around England to the south. Both journeys faced hazards of weather and piracy. The trips took a long time.
A canal was proposed to be built between Inverness and Fort William which would drastically shorten the journey. Much of the 60 miles would utilize the lochs. To raise and lower ships, a system of 29 locks were to be built. The system was called the Caledonian Canal. On 27 July 1803, an Act of Parliament authorized the canal project. It opened in 1822 nearly 12 years later than planned at a cost nearly double the estimate.
The finished canal system allowed ships to cross from the Atlantic Ocean on the southwest to the North Sea on the northeast, without endangering their ships and cargo. In truth, the canal was never a commercial success for shipping. However, the rugged beauty of the area led it to become a tourist attraction.
Holiday Barge Cruises
The company Caledonian Discovery Ltd. formed in 1996, proposing to offer holiday cruises by barge along the canal. It operated one barge until 2013 when a second was added. We booked a cruise from Inverness to Fort William. It was a cruise of 7 days. Each night the barge was tied up to a pier or at anchor as we made our way to the southwest.
The trip we engaged emphasized hiking the hills and trails along the way. We also had bikes available, and one day we canoed. Some of the company’s other trips include wildlife spotting, music, and kayaking. Check their site if you’re interested in more information.
Arrival at the Barge
We stayed overnight in Inverness about a mile from where the barge was moored. With suitcases rolling behind us, we walked to our destination. Though we’d seen photos, we felt a rush of excitement as we walked up to the pier.
Robbie, red-haired and genial, greeted us. He handed our suitcases down the hatch to Steve, who showed us to our cabin.
Quarters are tight on the barge. It hosts a maximum of 12 passengers and typically runs with four crew members at a time. For our trip there were only six passengers including us.
Each of the passenger cabins is about 7′ x 8′. That includes all floor space, bunk beds, and a set of shelves and a small closet. Also in the cabin is a tiny sink. The cabins are en suite, with an adjoining toilet and shower. The shower had great water pressure and comfortably hot water.
The common areas felt roomy in comparison. The dining table had space for all passengers and crew to eat together, though it would be quite tight with 12 passengers rather than six. The galley kitchen adjoined the dining area, separated by a window. Our able chef, Kevin, created wonderful meals in abundant proportions. We had both meat and vegetarian options for all meals, but I think everyone ate everything. Click on any picture to see the gallery.
Adam, our trusty captain.
Common space view toward the galley and hatch.
Steep stairs at the hatch. Note the bar at left.
Common area and hallway to cabins viewed from the galley.
First Day of Travel
Our barge was tied to a pier about a mile from the actual beginning of the Caledonian Canal. We all walked along the towpath to the beginning lock and then back. By that time the Fingal was ready to depart. We continued walking another 5 or 6 miles to where it would be parked for the first night. Fingal had to leave at a particular time in order to have a highway bridge open for passage.
We walkers got a fair distance ahead of the slow moving barge. We were at the swing bridge when she arrived.
Fingal approaching a highway swing bridge.
The bridge is hinged at the right.
It swings clear of the canal in about a minute or two.
Nearly all the way and ready for water traffic to pass.
With the highway swing bridge cleared, Fingal was allowed passage. Melanie was on board and offered her fine rendition of the Queen Wave. At the end of the video watch as the swing bridge closes.
We spent the first evening getting acquainted with our fellow passengers and crew. After dinner (salmon filet with béarnaise sauce, followed by dessert and a cheese plate) Adam, our captain, reviewed the day’s progress by boat, while Steve reviewed the activity for the day. They also told us the next day’s plan and options for activities.
We’ll have a couple more posts on the cruise. One will focus on the locks, with a few comments on their engineering. Join us on our adventure.