Travel

Cruising down the Caledonian Canal in search of Scotland’s soul

OUR barge wends its way at a gentle pace though a spectacularly beautiful landscape. On either side, at the water’s edge, swathes of fireweed, meadowsweet and ragwort, bloom abundantly. A blue sky is reflected in the calm water and standing on deck with the breeze in my hair, I feel all the worries and cares of the past months drifting away. One of the negative aspects of lockdown is that in keeping us safe, to some extent it ate away at our confidence. For many people, even the most experienced, the chance of travelling again, although deeply desired, felt inexplicably unsettling.

This 6-night European Waterways cruise down the Caledonian Canal is proving the perfect antidote and I am quickly rediscovering the pleasure of meeting people and seeing new places. I had long been sceptical of cruising; for me the idea of being confined with a mass of strangers, to say nothing of Captain’s Tables and enforced entertainment held little appeal.

This however, is quite is different – our smart little vessel, The Spirit of Scotland, a 20-year old purpose-built hotel barge, holds a maximum of 12 passengers, ably looked after by a crew of 5.

Passengers are picked up in Inverness by Mick, the multitasking tour leader and transported by mini-bus to Muirtown where the cruise begins. Once aboard, we are welcomed by our young skipper Helen de Cent and the rest of the crew and offered (the first of many) glasses of champagne. Our cabins prove to be clean, light and compact with walnut furnishings and a pristine shower and loo ensuite.

A little later, we enjoy our first dinner. My goodness, we do eat well on this trip! First though, I appreciate the attractively laid table with elaborately pleated table napkins, flower displays and even little buds and blossoms adorning the butter plates. On this occasion the meal begins with smoked salmon and spinach terrine with cucumber purée, followed by pork tenderloin with mustard sauce, green beans, baked red cabbage and pears.

For pudding we are presented with pretty glasses of cranachan, that delicious mixture of cream, raspberries, honey and sugar. Then come the cheese course, every day we taste a variety of cheese, many Scottish. Charlotte, our talented chef, explains that as far as possible she uses local ingredients to make traditional dishes. We also drink fine wines specially paired with the dishes.

The following morning we have the excitement of entering out first loch, in fact a flight of 4 lochs, each one of which unhurriedly fills or empties until the boat reaches the required level. We also pass though one of the Canal’s 10 swing bridges at Tomnahurich. There are 29 locks along the canal’s 60-mile length, half of which are multiple ‘staircases.’ Later, at Fort Augustus, a major hub on the canal, we climb though 5 lochs to reach the top, which takes about one and a half hours.

The Caledonian Canal runs down the Great Glen from Inverness on the Moray Firth to Fort William and the Atlantic Ocean. Hand-dug canal sections link with the natural lochs, Ness, Oich, Lochy and Darfour. This masterpiece of engineering is the work of that Scottish genius, Thomas Telford, who rose from being a shepherd’s son to the finest engineer of the time.

Its original purpose was both to establish a shorter new mercantile shipping route while also providing employment for destitute Highland clansmen who were then emigrating in droves. Indeed it was they who made up the 1,500 strong workforce, digging the canal sections by hand and carting the spoil away in wheelbarrows. This great endeavour began in 1803 and the canal finally opened in 1822. Ironically by this time trading requirements had changed and the canal never really achieved commercial success until, after extensive restoration in the 1990s, it reopened for pleasure craft.

From our mooring at Dochgarroch we set off in the minibus on our first excursion, a visit to the Tomatin whisky distillery. On our way we pass fields of barley, one of the essential ingredients of Scotland’s signature drink. At Tomatin the distillation process is explained to us at some length, after which we are offered tastings of 4 malts.

Out next stop is the Culloden battlefield, about which I feel somewhat sceptical. So many similar sites have been ruined in attempting to cater for, or rather pander to, the needs of tourists. Here I am wrong: there is a big visitor’s centre but it is grey and stark and architecturally totally appropriate. A long wall passes though the building clad with local larch, Caithness stone and site-salvaged stone. Inside are the usual café, shop and lots of well-designed explanatory material. There is also an utterly harrowing 360-degree film of the battle. Alone in the space I feel myself literally reeling as the horror of the battle seems to be going on all around me. In fact I have to go and lean against the wall to steady myself as the bodies pile up. It is brilliantly done and quite unforgettable – and yes, there is a warning at the entrance to protect children and the over-sensitive.

With the battle cries echoing in my ears, I walk out onto the moor which is of course, a vast war grave. Grass dotted with red clover, ox-eye daisies, buttercups and heather stretches towards distant mountains. In its simplicity it is monument enough and I am very moved. I also realise what a haunted land Scotland really is and how echoes from her painful history can never really be silenced by time.

I feel this too on our excursion to Glencoe. Here, even on a summer’s day the mountains seem brooding and sombre. Although the number massacred here is far fewer than at Culloden, it is as if the landscape will never forget the injustice of the Mcdonald’s treatment regarding the oath of allegiance and the way in which the Campbells accepted their hospitality and then slaughtered every man woman and child they could find.

Another place with historic reverberations, this time from an admittedly fictional past is Cawdor Castle. Dating from 1454, it is still lived in and from the look of the rooms which are elegantly but comfortably furnished with magnificent tapestries, antique furniture and ancestral portraits, one can well imagine that a member of the family might walk in at any moment. That it won’t be Macbeth is certain for he never lived here, the castle being built years after his death. Nevertheless, there is quite enough intrigue, toil and trouble in the present generation to inspire a contemporary dramatist.

The present Thane, Colin Campbell, 7th Earl of Cawdor, does not live at the Castle, nor is he or his brother and three sisters ever welcome there. The ancestral seat is now solely the domain of his stepmother Angelika, to whom his father, who died in 1993, left it, thus breaking the age-old tradition of primogeniture. Since there feuding has escalated with a string of court cases, the latest last year when the Earl’s objection to his stepmother’s proposal for creating a big visitor’s centre was overruled.

The glorious gardens, amongst the best in Scotland continue to flourish impervious to such petty human feuds. Created over the centuries they consist of a walled garden, a labyrinth, a wild garden and a flower garden abundant with colour and scent. There are numerous places to sit and relax – and it is here that the family motto, ‘Be mindful’ seems most meaningful.

These excursions and other entertainments including a falconry display on the banks of Loch Ness where we all had a chance to have owls and other birds of prey perching on our arms, ensured that there was never a dull moment on this cruise. All too soon we reached Banavie where it ended and we were driven back to Inverness. What I shall remember above all is the way the barge’s serene progress though tranquil waters acted as a spiritual balm, helping to heal the ills inflicted by the long lockdown and its chilling implications.

Patricia Cleveland-Peck was a guest of European Waterways www.europeanwaterways.com Tel 01753 598555

Prices for a 6 night cruise aboard the Spirit of Scotland start at £3,350 per person (single supplement £1300) and include, all gourmet meals, fine wines, an open bar, daily escorted excursions, admissions and private transfers at either end of the cruise. Full barge charters are also available.

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