A cruise across the top of Scotland

Patricia Cleveland-Peck cruises the Caledonian Canal in a purpose-built luxury barge, enjoys the rich history of the area, and the excellent food onboard

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It is hard to think of a better way to see some of the most glorious scenery in the British Isles than by being conveyed at a gentle pace in a purpose-built luxury barge.

Spirit of Scotland is such a vessel, one of the fleet belonging to European Waterways. Travelling on her is very different from most cruises; the operation is small scale and intimate, with a maximum of only 12 passengers, looked after by a crew of five.

After being picked up in central Inverness Mick, the tour leader drove us to join the boat at Muirtown where 50% of the cruises start (the other 50%t operate in reverse) for we were to spend the next 6 days cruising down the length of the Caledonian Canal to Banavie.

We were welcomed aboard by our young skipper Helen de Cent and the crew and offered the first of many glasses of champagne. Our cabins proved to be clean, compact and light with walnut furnishings and a pristine shower and loo en suite.

The Caledonian Canal runs down the Great Glen from Inverness on the Moray Firth to Fort William and the Atlantic Ocean, thus cutting a route right across the top of Scotland. Hand-dug sections of canal link four natural lochs, Ness, Oich, Lochy and Darfour to create its 60-mile length. It is the master work of the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford who rose from being a shepherd’s son to the foremost engineer of the time. Its original purpose was to establish a shorter route for mercantile shipping while also providing employment for the destitute Highland clansmen who were then emigrating in vast numbers. It was they who made up the 1500 strong workforce which dug the canal sections by hand and carted the spoil away in wheelbarrows, something almost inconceivable today. It was started in 1803 and finally opened in 1822 but by then trading requirements had changed meaning that it never achieved commercial success until, after a massive restoration in the 1990s, it opened for pleasure craft.

The next morning we experienced the excitement of our first loch. Lochs are key to the operation of any canal and the Muirtown loch is in fact a flight of four, each one of which unhurriedly fills and empties until the boat reaches the level of the next section. There are 29 lochs on the canal, half of which are multiple ‘staircases.’ Later at Fort Augustus, a major hub on the canal, we climb through 5 lochs to reach the top, something which takes about an hour and a half. En route for our next mooring at Dochgarroch we also pass through two road swing-bridges.

As we glide peacefully along we see colourful swathes of ragwort, fireweed and meadowsweet at the water’s edge. There is ample time to observe the other canal users; yachts, canoes and motor vessels. We also pass a variety of big old boats moored along the way, even one converted into a pub. On the towpath we see a few walkers and joggers and indeed passengers can leave the barge and walk some sections if they wish, an opportunity many felt necessary because on this cruise we do eat very well indeed.

It is the cuisine which adds the luxury element firmly to this holiday. Not only do we quaff champagne and other cocktails at will but Charlotte our chef regales us with excellent meals prepared in the main from local produce. A day’s menu would include a breakfast with options of cereals fruit, yogurt and cooked-to-order full Scottish; a lunch which consists of two courses, a delicious dish followed by cheeses, all served with selected fine wines. A lunchtime example? ‘Citrus and mustard glazed salmon with sautéed leeks, courgettes and a lemon risotto followed by Bradan Is Gruth – traditional Highland Crowdie cheese with peat smoked salmon & Camembert.’ Dinner menus also include a starter and a pudding. I remember a particularly enjoyable dinner with a distinct taste of Scotland; Veggie Haggis with clapshot and whisky sauce, followed by cannon of venison with red wine and blackberry reduction served with a creamy mash and steamed purple broccoli followed by the dessert of Raspberry and Drambuie crème fraiche tart and lastly the cheese course, Highland Brie, Barstone Blue and Whisky Dunlop, all of course paired with appropriate fine wines.

It is no wonder several passengers took the opportunity to take some exercise. Even the laziest of us however, were not confined to the boat all the time. Every day we were driven to do or see something interesting. We went to 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. We also visited the Tomatin whisky distillery, now Japanese owned, but at least still functioning. Here the distillation process was explained to us at some length after which we tasted 4 malts, all good.

Another very memorable visit was to the Culloden battlefield, about which initially I felt rather sceptical. So many similar sites have been ruined in attempting to cater for, or rather pander to, the needs of tourists. In this case I was wrong: there is a big visitor’s centre but it is grey and stark and architecturally totally appropriate. There is also an utterly harrowing 360-degree film of the battle. Alone in the space I felt myself literally reeling at the horror of the battle which seemed to be going on all around me. In fact I had to go and lean against the wall to steady myself as the bodies piled up. It is brilliantly done and quite unforgettable – and yes, there is a warning at the entrance to protect children and the oversensitive.

With the battle cries echoing in my ears, I walked 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 was very moved.

That Scotland is a haunted land, I felt too on our excursion to Glencoe. Here, even on a summer’s day the mountains seemed brooding and sombre. Although the number massacred here is far fewer than at Culloden, the austere Highland landscape seems to reflect the pity and injustice of the slaughter of the Macdonald clan.

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. Cawdor also boasts glorious gardens, amongst the best in Scotland. 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 to speak to me. Indeed as I sat and relaxed I reflected that enjoying every element of this cruise as mindfully as possible had helped dispel the stress and 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 +44 (0) 1735 598555

Prices for a 6 night cruise aboard the Spirit of Scotland start at £3,350 per person (single supplement £1,250) 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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