A barge cruise on the ‘Scottish Highlander’, between Highland capital, Inverness, and Fort William, is evocative of the traditional steamers of times gone by – but with boutique hotel-style comfort and cuisine.
From the lochs of the Great Glen – Lochy, Oich, Ness and Dochfour – and the connecting canals and locks, can be seen ancient castle ruins perched on the water’s edge, heathered hillsides, dramatic rugged mountains and vistas essentially ‘Highland’. The only thing missing is the famed resident of Loch Ness, “Nessie”.
The classically-decorated 1930s Dutch grain barge sedately cruises the engineering masterpiece known as the Caledonian Canal, running some 90km, with 29 locks including eight at the spectacular Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie, as well as four aquaducts and 10 bridges in the course of the voyage.
At 40 metres in length, the eight-guest, four-crew Scottish Highlander is spacious, comfortable and well-appointed, with tartan furnishings and Scottish landscape artwork. Scottish weather being as it is, there’s ample interior viewing space, including from the wheelhouse. The spacious twin/double cabin/staterooms are decorated in cheerful Scottish plaids, dark woods and antique reproductions with an ensuite bathroom with shower, toilet and sink and two windows.
Evocative of a Scottish country house, the saloon boasts evocative green and blue tartan plaid carpet and features mahogany panelling, with leather club chairs, sofas, occasional tables, a formal dining table, a well-stocked bar and an astounding array of Scotch whiskeys.
Dinner is an elegant, candlelit affair, with regional cuisine (salmon, lamb, venison or game, such as partridge) paired with wine, desserts and cheeses. The dress code at all meals is resort casual, except for cocktail attire at the Captain’s Dinner on the last evening.
The well-appointed sundeck includes seats, six mountain bikes and a Zodiac-type boat with an outboard motor for excursions along streams and creeks and for fly-fishing opportunities.
The itinerary starts and ends in Inverness, with vistas over the Moray and Beauly Firths. From Muirtown to Dochgarroch, the barge negotiates the Muirtown lock flight through Tomnahurich swing bridge, with an option to walk alongside River Ness to the village of Dochgarroch. There’s the chance to visit and taste the product of the Glen Ord whiskey distillery, founded in 1838 on the Black Isle by the Mackenzies of Ord.
Visit Cawdor Castle, immortalised in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, with its stunning collection of furnishings, tapestries and artwork and Culloden Moor, site of the famous battle of 1746 and Bonny Prince Charlie, as well as the site of the Glencoe Massacre between the Campbells and the MacDonalds. Of particular interest is Clava Cairns, a pre-historic clan chieftain burial site dating back to 2000 B.C.
The “flight” at Fort Augustus enables mooring at Cullochy, from where the ruins of the 16th century Urquhart Castle, overlooking Loch Ness, can be inspected, while a drive through spectacular Scottish scenery leads to the famous, oft-photographed Eilean Donan castle with opportunities to explore scenic Loch Oich and a spot of fishing.
Crossing Loch Lochy, near Gairlochy, provides the chance to visit the Clan Cameron Museum and Moy Bridge, the last fully hand-operated bridge on the canal, mooring at Banavie, beneath Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, and a stroll from Neptune’s Staircase down to Loch Eil are both unforgettable.
Inverness, with its mighty castle perched above the river and St Andrews Cathedral, hosts the Highland Games. A university city with a reputation for its quality of life and happiness, not to mention its bagpipes, what better way to start and finish a week’s barging than at the Highland’s capital?