Urquhart Castle ruins on Loch Ness. European Waterways
by Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
Southwest to northeast through Scotland’s Great Glen, my husband and I barged the Highlands in the summer days of early July. Yes, we could have driven the 62 miles or 100 kilometers in a leisurely morning, or perhaps even walked the route from the Atlantic coast to the North Sea coast in the same seven days and six nights of our barging trip. However, not for either of those options would we have traded our elegant, educational cruise through the 29 locks of the two-hundred-year-old Caledonian Canal, nor our stately navigation along the length of four finger-shaped lochs, including Loch Ness of monster fame.
There were two firsts happening here for Peter and me as we waited anxiously for our van pickup in Inverness, a city facing the North Sea coast. It was our first time in the Scottish Highlands where both of us have a few teaspoons of clan blood in our respective family histories, and our first time to try all-inclusive barging. Both were equally exciting prospects.
While driving southwest to rendezvous with our barge near Fort William on the other side of Scotland, Philip, our guide for the next week, quickly revealed his depth of knowledge about the complex, usually bloody, history that scarred the region for so many centuries past.
Most ruthless of all, the Vikings dominated the Highlands until the 13th century, but the Scots created their own turmoil with equal intent. Clan against clan, alliances made and broken, massacres and tales of revenge, Scots against English, we were just beginning to sort out a few logical, historical threads when we pulled up on a towpath beside the Scottish Highlander. An hour and a half drive had passed very quickly, with Scotland proving to be a lot narrower than it looks on a map!
The barge’s saloon/dining room. European Waterways
As we step into the “saloon”, Hostess Tania, Chef Steven, and Captain Dan greet us with champagne and seafood hors d’oeuvres. What about the Scotch whisky? That comes later, we are assured. With a barge 117 feet long and 16.5 feet wide, there is no chance of getting lost on board, but it still takes a while to get oriented on any vessel, offload the contents of luggage into bedroom cupboards and drawers, and explore the best viewpoints from the upper deck where much of the countryside will slip by under our daily scrutiny.
The bedspread continues the tartan theme. European Waterways
Built as a Dutch grain carrier in 1931, Scottish Highlander’s transition from industrial workhorse to trim tourism vessel was made in the mid-1990s. Today, the interior wood and brass gleam to perfection, soft tartan carpeting is a gentle reminder of exactly where we are, and the furnishings suggest a slower Edwardian era of grace and polish when cruising 60 miles in a week was considered a civilized distance. Major British newspapers appear magically on the saloon coffee table as we pass by to breakfast ….. does some paper boy stumble along the tow path at the crack of dawn to pitch them onto the gangplank?
Since the barge only travels a short distance each day, Philip has prepared a creative collection of half-day van excursions to lure us deeper into the Great Glen while still guaranteeing that we’re back on board for each one of Chef Steven’s traditional Scottish meals focusing on salmon, game, venison and seafood. I see our culinary maestro off shopping at every mooring, returning with grocery bags of the freshest of every item he serves. The bottomless cellar of fine French wines, British ciders and beers to complement every dish is also a point of great pride aboard the barge, all included, of course, as are the excursions and entry fees to any attractions along the route. An excursion early in the itinerary to the Ben Nevis whisky distillery has also transformed us into resident experts on that treasured Scottish drink.
Certainly we don’t want to miss those moments when the barge’s 47-year-old diesel engine rumbles to life and the ropes are neatly re-coiled on the deck ready for the next tie-up. For the men in our party, the engineering fascination of the Caledonian Canal locks is a natural conversation topic with Captain Dan, predictably found in the wheelhouse whenever the vessel is under way.
Our hostess, Tania, switches to deckhand as we prepare to enter a lock. Alison Gardner
Even in July, weather changes quickly in the Scottish Highlands. Alison Gardner
Yes, there are those, my husband among them, who occasionally see fit to abandon ship and accompany the Scottish Highlander from the shore, either walking or bicycling a picturesque tow path along the narrower stretches of water. On a sunny morning or afternoon, a walk of four or six miles along a perfectly flat path that skirts sheep farms and bird-rich parkland is pretty enticing. More often, I succumb to the pull of a deck chair and our hostess’s invitation to sample a “Caledonian Coffee” or “Highland Fling” – we never could decide which name sounded more appealing. Nevertheless, the taste is indisputably delicious with strong brewed coffee, a dash or two of Scotch whisky, a generous dollop of whipped cream, all topped with crunchy brown sugar.
As part of our barging itinerary, guided van excursions to three very different clan castles provided a thorough appreciation of the rough and tumble history among the Highland clans and between the English and Scots. On another day, we visited the site of the famous Glencoe Massacre with an outstanding interpretation center overlooking a misty steep-sided valley of smooth green velvet, far too peaceful to match its history.
Eilean Donan Castle was built on Scotland’s west coast as a defence against the sea power of the menacing Vikings in the mid-13th century. Though virtually an impregnable fortress, with some walls up to 14 feet thick, the English navy did manage to get men inside its walls in 1719 where they gleefully discovered 343 barrels of gunpowder, and blew the castle into a ruin for the following 200 years. A clan chief bought the remains of the castle in 1911 and devoted the next 20 years to re-constructing and authentically re-furnishing this rugged clan castle, now open to the public between March and November. In 2007, readers of Scotland magazine voted Eilean Donan the Best Castle in Scotland under the “Icons of Scotland” category.
Urquhart Castle For nearly 500 years this medieval fortress [see opening image to this article] changed hands in bloody conflict between warring clans, various Scottish kings, and finally the English army until it was relegated to its present state of ruin in 1692. Maintained and managed by Historic Scotland since 1913, its grounds and easily-accessible ruins of what was once one of Scotland’s largest castles still seem to maintain a vigil over a strategic promontory on Loch Ness. A fine visitor center opened in 2002 which includes an impressive model of the castle in its full defensive glory days and a collection of well-displayed artifacts from archaeological excavations around the site. Urquhart Castle is open to the public year round.
Cawdor Castle conjures up visions of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, written with this fairytale-style castle and his cast of Highland characters in mind even though the location and timeline are fictitious. Still a residence of the Cawdor family and lavishly decorated with historical items and memorabilia from medieval to modern times, both the castle and three superbly landscaped gardens require several hours to absorb the nobility of this property.
There are also five popular nature trails meandering through a Great Wood which could extend your visit to the whole day and a picnic too. If you just can’t tear yourself away from all this gracious living, you may even rent Banchor Cottage, a 4-star, 3-bedroom beauty on the property. Cawdor Castle was built in the late 1300s (nearly 300 years after Macbeth’s time!) with plenty of additions right through the 1700s. It is open from the beginning of May to mid-October.
The geological fault that created the chiseled mountains, gently-flowing rivers and vivid blue lochs (lakes) of the Great Glen slice through the Highlands of Scotland as though a pencil and ruler had been used to line them up precisely. While only 23 miles/37 kilometers long, Loch Ness is very deep at 754 feet, containing more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. Clearly, the illusive Loch Ness Monster has plenty of places to hide!
Captain Dan plays accordion for guests after dinner. Alison Gardner
Many of our Highland views included just a hint of pink on the hillsides, announcing the start of the heather season. From late July through the Fall, its thick blanket of color softens the grayness of the ancient weather-scoured rock often covered with only the thinnest layer of earth. The hardy heather clearly thrives.
The smaller lochs – Loch Dochfour, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy – that thread our route together seem more appealing because of their close shorelines and tempting towpath possibilities. Local people walking their dogs or their children offer greetings and indulge our camera compulsions, while oncoming sailboats and other pleasure craft pass very close with a predictable wave. Many fly Scandinavian flags, and we are surprised to learn that our route is popular recreation for those former Vikings whose homelands are the nearest foreign landfalls to Scotland’s east coast.
One-third of the route is manmade, with 29 locks, four aqueducts and 10 bridges making up the Caledonian Canal that we navigate over several days. Built between 1803 and 1822, it was never the commercial success it was intended to be because the depth proved insufficient for industrial traffic even then. By the time the canal was deepened in the mid-1800s, most commercial vessels had also grown in size beyond the new canal dimensions and railways were carrying a lot of cargo in competition to ships. Impressively maintained by government-owned, Scottish Canals, the route today is largely for recreation. Our Scottish Highlander is one of its largest clients in size, and the only hotel barge plying the waters between the two coasts.
The barge navigates a lock on the Caledonian Canal. Alison Gardner
For nearly 40 years, European Waterways, www.gobarging.com, has been a leader in luxury hotel barging, with many of its vessels owned outright, including the Scottish Highlander. European Waterways presently offers cruise vacations on the waterways of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Scotland, Ireland and England. Check their Special Offers page for 2017 added-value discounts.
With a maximum of eight guests in four cabins, the Scottish Highlander cruises year round. It accommodates theme cruises (golf, cycling, fishing, family) as well as popular Christmas and New Years cruises. Check out a variety of one-week itineraries from classic cruises to family or golf cruises. You may also listen to the author’s 15-minute radio travel show interview about this barging experience and watch a seven-minute video launched on YouTube.
For comprehensive travel information, see the Visit Scotland website, www.visitscotland.com/.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.