Category: Caledonian

Cornwall to Scotland days 44 to 46

Day 44 – Suddenly there is a new urgency to our movement westwards through the canal. Using the internet we have access to weather forecasts for the days ahead (we can see the future) and there are some strong winds ready to impale themselves on the west coast of Scotland over the next few days, nothing spectacular but enough to cause us to react by moving forward our plans to exit the canal. Cirrus in Neptune's staircaseWe start early, motoring the length of the repetitively named Loch Lochy, then navigate the final man-made stretch of canal to the top of Neptune’s Staircase, an engineering masterpiece in the form of a flight of eight locks built back-to-back. In one swoop this transports us sixty-four feet (some nineteen metres) downhill towards the sea, all at the expense of a bit of muscle power as we tow Cirrus from one lock to the next, repeating this eight times in all until we arrive at the bottom. All along the way we are besieged by tourists whose cameras click and whirl (I know digital cameras don’t do this but I have an active imagination) as they photograph us and every movement of our strange craft – viewed from above our catamaran’s decks look like they belong on an aircraft carrier. Behind us the dark clouds build, finally dropping their load after we are safely berthed at Corpach, the sea lock exit of the canal.

Day 45 – Once again we are up early, so early that when we emerge the morning mist is still hiding everything, but at least we are able to lock out and catch our tide down Loch Linnhe.Fort William early morning


We motor on past Fort William as the mist gradually dissipates leaving just long scarves of white through which the mountains occasionally peep.



Corran narrows

At the Corran Narrows the sky ahead has changed from grey to blue and there are ripples on the water but not enough wind to encourage sailing so we decide to do some exploring under motor, to weave our way behind the isles of Shuna and Lismore into the Lynn of Lorne. Islands and islets are dotted everywhere here as if scattered like seeds, dark, weed-covered rocks poke above the water, some having protective pillars erected on them, others crouching low and barely visible whereas all around there are grand mountains which sweep downwards to the water’s edge then continue out of sight deep below us. We are thrilled to be back here at last, in an area which we now regard as home.

Then, still in the Lynn of Lorn just before making a turn towards Tenacity on the rocksDunstaffnage Marina where we intend to stop for the night we pass Rubha Fionn-aird, a low promontory with rocks lurking out of sight beyond the land which have caught out the skipper of the yacht ‘Tenacity’, a boat which had emerged from the canal with us earlier in the day. Taking a short cut here the yacht has run aground with the tide falling around it. A lifeboat stands by but the crew are not in any danger as the weather is benign. It is a long wait for the next high tide but we later learn that they get off safely, although not without some damage.

When we are safely berthed we make a quick decision that faced with strong winds for several days ahead we will leave the boat and travel home to Carradale for a few days. This may seem a strange thing to do but free bus travel encourages such behaviour, despite the distance, and it will give us the chance to check on the post waiting for us and to make sure everything in the house is well.

Day 46 – Our bus from Dunbeg is the first of four which, with waiting for connections, takes up most of the day. It occurs to us that this is not a lot faster than the speed we travel on the boat but it is somewhat less energetic; in fact we both have difficulty staying awake on the long ride south towards Campbeltown. We can see yachts in the sea out near Islay and the conditions don’t seem too bad for them but later on comes the rain and more wind so we are happy to have made the decision to make this trip home.

On arriving at the house our front ‘lawn’ is a little hairier than usual with some interesting botanical specimens peeping through the greensward and our front door is just a little difficult to open due to the mail hiding behind it but apart from all these small irregularities, all is well and we are soon relaxing watching TV with Brahms at the Proms. There’s nothing like home. Hot water comes out of the taps without any effort on our part, the floor stays perfectly still even when it is windy, it feels spacious inside and everything outside is green green green.

Cornwall to Scotland days 41 to 43

Day 41 –Kate on Loch Ness Summer has come to the Highlands. The air is clear, the hills are all in sharp focus and Kate is trying out our inflatable dinghy. Bought last winter and carried all the way from Plymouth rolled up in a bag on Cirrus’ stern we finally get a chance to pump it up to see if it floats and also to find out how easy it is to row. Typically, small inflatables come with a pair of very short oars which are held captive in specially designed rowlocks. They are less like oars and more like a pair of spoons but ours do perform reasonably well despite this.

We had spent the morning motoring along the short section of canal that leads into the vastness of Loch Ness, avoiding the weir on the south side that feeds tons of excess water into the River Ness, and steering well clear of even greater hazards, the hire boats. Exhibitions of astonishing boat handling incompetence go hand in hand with these vessels as families whose only previous experience with anything that floats is a rubber duck in the bath tub are given the keys to a small ship in which they are expected to negotiate locks, moor to pontoons and then navigate across the small sea that is Loch Ness. We hear of an Italian family who take their hired motor cruiser under a swing-bridge without waiting for it to open and successfully shave off the top part of the boat – windscreen, aerials, navigation lights, etc. – without apparently coming to any harm themselves. Whatever short training the hire company gives them fails to include basic rope handling, how to steer in a straight line, what to do if the wind is blowing hard, when to use the bow-thruster and when not to, the list is endless. Any close encounter with a hire cruiser is potentially damaging to us so we make a point of staying well clear.

But maybe the incompetence is infectious for on our first night in Loch Ness we anchor on a sandy ledge in Urquhart Bay close to the castle but far enough away to avoid the tourists. The wind cannons down the length of the loch from the south-west but we are sheltered here, just the occasional random gust finding us. There are, of course, no tides in the loch so we anchor in two metres with just enough chain paid out for this depth. Mid-way through a balmy afternoon on board we suddenly notice that Cirrus is drifting away from the shore and we rush outside to discover that our anchor had failed to pierce the layer of weed and on the first gentle tug it had slid across the bottom and dropped off the ledge into deep water. It is now hanging straight down beneath the boat, touching nothing as even this close to the shore the bottom is seventy metres below us– oops! Foyers FallsWe gradually winch the weight of chain and anchor back on board then start the engine and motor back in to reset it, firmly this time, then we set a depth alarm on the echo sounder so we will not be caught out again.

Day 42 – We sail off in the morning, tacking up the loch against another fresh south-westerly breeze, as far as Foyers, famous for its spectacular waterfalls and on the agenda of most tourists, it seems. We moor here for our second night and go exploring around the lake shore where tiny patches of rounded pebbles nestle between the trees which lean out over the water as if the land is too crowded for them.Foyers beech tree This knobbly old beech tree is so ancient that some of its branches have grown back into the tree again making a mockery of the standard pattern of tree growth. Back at the boat the wind has shifted slightly so our mooring is a little bumpy but by dusk it calms down as it does every evening here, the night becoming quiet and still.

Day 43 – Our time in the Caledonian Canal is limited by the eight-day licence issued to us at Clachnaharry so we get up early to do some serious motoring, to cover some more of the fifty nautical mile length and negotiate some more of the twenty-nine locks. For a change the wind is very light but it rains sporadically for most of the day so we stop for the night just before the Laggan Locks, one hundred and six feet above sea level and at the highest point on the passage. One very good reason for stopping here is the presence of the Eagle, a floating bar and restaurant which winks at us until we drop by to sample its wares.

Cornwall to Scotland days 40 to 42

Sunset in Burghead



The gloaming in Burghead, a west facing harbour on the east coast of Scotland.



Day 40 – Burghead Harbour gives us a superb night’s sleep in total peace. No traffic noise, no grinding of fenders nor squeaking of warps, no wind to rattle the halliards, just peace until the gulls start laughing in the early hours. But this doesn’t matter as we are up at half past five and away by six before the sun has even got out of bed properly.

Six am also coincides with low water and, as every Burghead fisherman will know, there is not a great depth of water outside the harbour at this time. We had thought to creep out quietly so nobody would notice but there is one local man up and about and anxious for our safety even at this hour.
“You’d be better leaving it a half oor as there’s nae much water ootside.”
There is little we can do to reassure him other than to confess that catamarans don’t need more than a thimbleful of water to keep them afloat. Whether he believes this or not we cannot tell but he wishes us a safe journey anyway and we carry on regardless.

Of course he turns out to be correct about the lack of depth just outside the harbour but Cirrus takes all this in her stride and stylishly slides out with just inches under her keels. The man’s presence at such an early hour and his concern for us touches us deeply just the same, confirming our warm thoughts about Burghead.Morning in Burghead Bay

Just outside the sails go up and we begin the final twenty seven mile passage to Clachnaharry lock, the start of the Caledonian Canal. The sea is as smooth as it gets, just a slight roll of swell left over from yesterday, and the sky surpasses itself providing us with an ever-changing drama that no camera can do justice to.

Lighter wind than expected means we have to use our engine for a time since our arrival at the Canal entrance must coincide with high tide but within a few hours we are moving into the narrow channel at the head of the Moray Firth, with Fort George on our left and Chanonry Point to the right. It is still early but standing on the beach here is a large group of people, dolphin watchers. This place is famous for its dolphins, big ones, hungry ones. They congregate here for the salmon which pass by en route to their spawning grounds upstream, the fish being forced to pass through the narrows right under the noses of their predators. The fish bring the dolphins, the dolphins bring the people.

We, of course, are just passing by but nevertheless our boat gives us a grandstand view. All around us in the water are these magnificent creatures, fins rising to the surface here and there, difficult to spot as so often we are looking the wrong way as they broach. A group of three beasts surface to breathe just feet away from us and then suddenly there is a big disturbance as one hurls itself out clean of the water, its whole body visible just for a second before diving cleanly, disappearing from view. The watchers on the shore go green with envy at us being so close to the action while we simply drift along serenely under sail, silent save for the ripples in our wake.Kessock Bridge

We pass beneath Kessock Bridge (and an ‘Independence Day’ sky) to arrive at Clachnaharry to find the lock open and a welcome from the same man as when we arrived here two years ago (he remembers the boat). In the interval he has charity-shaved both his beard and his head hair, he admits coyly, but he is as talkative as ever, keen to explain the workings of the canal we are about to pass through. Little changes here though. The canal water is fresh but still a rich brown colour as the whole system is fed from peat-enriched streams which drain the mountainous countryside. We berth to a pontoon after the first lock lifts us three metres above the sea. Tomorrow we will rise higher, locking up towards the level of Loch Ness.

Day 41 – Cirrus stern in fresh waterHaving made the transition from salt to fresh water there are several boat-related consequences that we need to bear in mind. Firstly, fresh water is less buoyant than salt, meaning that Cirrus now sits lower in the water. I am intrigued to see whether the difference is noticeable to the eye so I peer beneath the stern to check the water level against our nacelle, a known load line. The stern just kisses the water now whereas in salt it is just clear of the water. So that proves that theory then. It is always comforting when science and reality actually agree on something.

Floating lower in the water means that our keels will be closer to the bottom but we decide that once we reach Loch Ness tomorrow this will be of no significance. The chart shows that this loch has depths of two hundred metres, something even our new echo sounder won’t be able to tells us about as the numbers only go up to ninety-nine.

What is also happening down beneath us, I sincerely hope, is that any salt-dependent weed or crustacean living on Cirrus’ bottom will turn up its toes and die, leaving us lovely and clean again. We may well acquire some new wildlife before we reach Corpach at the western end of the canal but once we transition into salt again, this too will pass away. Cirrus at DochgarrochIn theory.

As we move inland across the country the scenery becomes more dramatic and the vegetation more luxuriously green. Suddenly we are in the heart of the Highlands, a place we have sailed the length of the country for, the place where we have made our home. To our eyes it all just looks right, natural, big and beautiful.

So why did we choose to sail the long way around Britain from Cornwall to the west coast of Scotland? Familiarity is the main reason, familiarity with the harbours and anchorages on the east coast which has given us most of our sailing adventures in the past. This brings us a sense of comfort and also one of nostalgia. We started our retirement by exploring this side of the country and fell for the charm of its rugged little ports, the muddy creeks of the south and the cold clear waters further north. It has lost none of this charm since our first circumnavigation, indeed if anything we like it more than ever now.

Loch Solitude

The eight-day licence which permits us to transit the Caledonian Canal has almost expired as we approach the final spectacular flight of eight locks at Banavie, close by Fort William. Soon we’ll once again have to contend with tides, currents and salt water and maybe we also need to prepare for sailing boats in greater numbers as the holiday season is nearly upon us.

One of the most striking features of the canal for us has been the absence of other boats. It was not uncommon for us to have a Scottish loch all to ourselves for the whole day, miles of water stretching out to the east and to the west, and we rarely shared a lock passage with another vessel. All this was unexpected. Indeed we had established emergency procedures for repelling wayward hire boats which might threaten our paintwork in the confines of the canal, knowing that there is nothing more dangerous than the tired driver who steps out of his car and slips behind the wheel of a boat, then expects it to line up with the pontoon as if he were parking at the kerbside. Kate was to rush forward with a roving fender to protect the impact site whilst I had practised a stony-faced glare guaranteed to keep anyone at bay. But in the end none of this expertise was needed simply because there were too few hire boaters about to bother us.
True, Urquhart Castle did seem to be getting its fair share of foreign tourists if the coach park was anything to go by but the view from the Loch in the sunshine, the aspect the tourists never see, was ours alone.
Thomas Telford would be a disappointed man were he alive today, disappointed because worldwide celebrity status around here goes not to his engineering masterpiece in the massive stone works of the canal but instead to the elusive creature living beneath the waters of its longest loch. So naturally I have to report on our own experiences after having now spent several midsummer nights afloat on its surface. Did Nessie put in an appearance?
The waters of Loch Ness are deep brown in colour as indeed is all the water throughout the length of the canal. Steep waves form easily here (steeper in fresh water than in salt) and the mountains which drop precipitously into the loch throw long shadows which reflect back inverted summits, distorted by any surface disturbance. No matter who first gave birth to the magical monster it is easy to see how it is perpetuated and who can blame the Scots for the monster replicas in purple plastic or wickerwork which are as much a part of the culture as scotch whisky. So maybe, just maybe, that flickering shadow far away across the loch was Nessie flicking her tail for us, who knows. None of this can take away the magic or the beauty of the place. It is just too big and too overwhelming for that.