Log #16b The Great Glen (Caledonian Canal) Part 1

July 19, 2000 in Log Series 11 - 19, Logs by Series, Series 16 Scotland, The Logs

Log #16b The Great Glen (Caledonian Canal) Part 1

Written July 19, 2000
At Eriskay, Acairseid Mhor
Hebrides, Scotland

Covers the period through Loch Ness and Loch Oich
June 6 to 10, 2000

I’m starting this log on my birthday, having just anchored in Acairseid Mhor (Gaelic for big anchorage) on Eriskay, the Hebridean island made famous by the book and movie “Whisky Galore” about the sinking of the cargo ship “Politician”, loaded with several thousand cases of whisky, off the rocks of the island. It is a typical Hebridean (Scottish) day weather-wise, cool, windy, and a falling mist – a good day to stay onboard and get caught up on my logs.

Our friend Judy Johnson brought a nice bottle of Glen Morrangie whisky from the airport for us (me, as my Judy doesn’t like whisky). We (I) have been spoiled by the good single malt whiskies here in Scotland. Anne and Pete Harris, Canadian friends from Elliot Lake whom we met here in Scotland, brought us a good local single malt, and I bought one in Oban, and some friends who visited us from the tall ship Grand Turk also brought us one from Glen Nevis, in Fort William at the end of the Caledonian Canal. But, I get ahead of myself.

As we depart Seaport Marina for our cruise through the Caledonian Canal on June 7, I note that, in the two months since leaving London on April 14, we have travelled over 1700 nautical miles, touching five European countries before arriving here in Scotland.

We slipped from Seaport Marina at 0900 to make the first bridge opening, and  cleared the four step locks by 1052. No problems, as the locks were quite gentle. Our friend Judy was a quick learner and had no trouble helping with the line handling. The canal was a pleasant pastoral meander through the gentle Scottish countryside, the banks festooned with an abundance of yellow blooming broom shrubs. We passed Caley Marina, a cluttered marina to which I had walked for a repair kit for the dinghy prior to our departure. This marina is also the headquarters for the many  charter cruisers which ply the canal. After another swing bridge and lock, we went through Loch Dochfour, which emptied out into Loch Ness.

The Great Glen is a fault line diagonally crossing Scotland, in which Loch Ness is a major feature, fantastically deep, and which, we were told, has more fresh water than all the other lakes and rivers in the UK combined. It is a narrow 23 mile long loch, running from northeast to southwest, directly along the line of the prevailing winds, which were blowing against us at 30 to 35 knots most of the way up to Urquhart Bay. A very heavy motoring trip!

There was a nice small concrete-walled harbour asking for a pay and display ticket costing £8.00 for the night alongside. While there, my Judy patched Sprite with the repair kit from Caley Marina, and we dinghied to Urquhart Castle, one of dozens if not hundreds of ruined Scottish castles dotted along the glens and lochs. The bloodiness of Scottish history is amazing! The battles, massacres, murders and intrigues associated with each castle are horrific. The Loch Ness Monster Exhibit in Drumnadrochit, the local village, was “tacky” but good, giving a geological overview of the development of the loch, and the stories, research and theories about “Nessie”, the Loch Ness monster.

The next day, leaving at 1210 in a Scottish drizzle, we motored again down the loch, passing many sailing craft participating in a large regatta. Fortunately they were going downwind with what little wind there was that day. By 1510 we were alongside the waiting pontoons at Fort Augustus, to go up another flight of 5 locks called Neptune’s Staircase.

The five locks here had the worst turbulence we have encountered in any of the locks we have transitted; the St Lawrence Seaway, the Trent Canal, the Mississippi/Tenn-Tom, and the Dutch canals. We were sandwiched at the front of the locks beside a large fishing vessel, with another large fishboat behind him and two other yachts astern of us. The yacht astern lost control at one point and swung over against the fishing boat. We knew the quietest part of the lock is the back, away from the forward sluice gates which let the water in from the upper stretch, but we had no choice, and if not us, some other poor yachtie would be stuck in that forward turbulence.

July 25, 2000

En route to the Crinan Canal

It has been several days since I started this log, but I wanted to get back to it while we have a quiet day motoring down to the Crinan Canal. This cuts across the Kintyre peninsula instead of our going around the Mull of Kintyre (made famous by the Beatles’ song). More about it and our sailing in the appropriate logs.

Anyways, when we got up the flight of 5 locks, we moored (free) at the pontoons in Fort Augustus, and had a delightful walk through the town. The two Judys settled in for an early night while I walked over the bridge across the River Oich and through a pleasant wooded area. I wandered past the abbey, which is not open to visitors, before going back into town to a Ceilidh (pronounced Cayley), a community get-together, beer tent, barbeque, with pipes, fiddles accordions, harps, and highland dancing including the Gay Gordon and Strip The Willow.

The Great Glen was involved with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, and Bonnie Prince Charlie got support of many clans from the area, and fled back through after the defeat at Culloden. Many of the towns and castles from here out to the Western Isles sheltered him as he escaped to France. The local histories are reminiscent of the many places in the U.S. claiming “Washington slept here”, except it is the flight of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

The next day, July 9, after going over town for meat and vegetables, and the daily paper, we left at a leisurely 1300, motoring up through Kytra Lock and Cullochy Lock, spending less than 10 minutes at each of them. We cleared Abercalder Swing Bridge which opened for us on our approach, and continued into Loch Oich, staying alongside the pontoon past the bridge for a late lunch at 1500. We then motored half way up Loch Oich to tie up (free of charge) for the night at the pontoons by the remains of Invergary Castle. We enjoyed our wander through the paths around a wooded shoreline, over to the ruins, which were fenced off for safety reasons, then over to the old Invergary mansion, now a hotel with a beautiful view of the loch over their groomed gardens. We went in for a very civilized afternoon tea, a luxurious frill after the long trips down the canal in cool, misty, rainy weather.

Meanwhile, back on the pontoons, we (me) were entertained by two audacious ducks, Mallards I think (no relation), who waddled onto the pontoon, right up to the boat, looking for handouts. When I was tightening up our lines on the pontoons, they were both around me to the extent I had to watch not to step on them or that they were not going to nip at my toes. Judy J. took a picture of them threatening me.

Crinan Canal, Ardrishaig Basin
July 26, 2000

(I’m completeing this at the end of the Crinan Canal as I will be able to hook into a phone line at the sea lock office before we take off tomorrow into the Clyde estuary.)
After supper, I took Sprite for a ride part way up the River Garry which empties into Loch Oich from Loch Garry. (Thus the name Invergarry for the castle and nearby village.) I then motored to the far side of the loch to an abandoned farmhouse, and wandered along the shore pastures to an old bridge spanning a dried out brook, then hiked up above the tree line for a gorgeous view up and down Loch Oich. The hills are covered at the shore line with trees and pastures, but only a few hundred feet up, the trees disappear and there is soft boggy, moss-covered terrain between the rocks, with some low foliage of heather, gorse, and bracken. As I ascended above the tree line, the expanse of Loch Oich stretched out below, allowing me a panoramic view of the entire length of the loch, as well as of Veleda across at the pontoons below Invergarry Castle, and the little islands and shoals that make us careful of our navigation through these narrow lakes.

After drinking in the view, and getting wetter from the “Scotch mist” that was falling, I eased my way back down into the trees and found an old abandoned road (probably the remains of the Military Road built in 1745 to combat the Jacobite Rebellion) elevated above the marshy pastures. It was a long green bower overhung by moss-covered branches of the surrounding trees, with a soft carpeted ground cover strewn with occasional fallen branches, small trees valiantly struggling through the middle of the old trail, and clusters of fern and bracken, to create an elongated “Alice-in-Wonderland” verdant tunnel. I followed this beautiful botanical trail back to the bridge, and the dried out brook where I left Sprite. The grazing sheep with green tufted spots, gave me a wide wary birth as I walked across their shoreline pasture to the dinghy.

Sheep! They are everywhere. They are left in pastures far from any habitation, in the middle of nowhere, on abandoned islands, deserted moors, remote valleys and rocky promontories. At this time of year (June and early July) they are shaggy creatures, not yet shorn of their wool. They have dyed fluorescent lime green, shocking pink, deep orange , vivid yellow, and even royal purple splotches of colour on their mangy coats, each colour to denote either the herd, or the category of treatment or dipping of the animal. Scotland’s history is bound up with the sheep farming as the expansion of this industry was one of the factors in the “clearances” of the Highlands in the mid nineteenth century. Some say these clearances were like an ethnic cleansing, as the poor crofters were evicted from their hovels, many forcibly, and sent to settle in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the eastern townships of Quebec, parts of Ontario and some to the U.S. That’s why many areas of Canada have such a vibrant Scottish culture, especially in Cape Breton Island.

Before returning to Veleda, I bombed up the loch to the far end. Sprite is a lively inflatable dinghy, a Quicksilver 270 with a V-shaped inflatable hull and a solid plywood floor. For us as cruisers, the dinghy is a very important asset. Sprite is powered by a 9.9 hp Johnson outboard, and can get up on a plane with both of us in it, assisted by fins attached to the lower unit just above the propeller. Sprite has taken us some long distances, through heavy waters, and has served as a tow boat for Veleda and others whom we have assisted with it. We still use our dinghy-tow system which allows us to tow Sprite stern first, hoisted up on two rigid arms so only the bow is in the water. We removed it coming across the Atlantic, but have had it attached ever since (including the English Channel, Dutch and Kiel canals, the Baltic, the North Sea, the Caledonian Canal, and the Minch over to the Outer Hebrides). However on retrospect, we should have removed it again for our North Sea crossing as it and Sprite took quite a bashing from the force 9 gales. It allows us to tow the dinghy with the motor in place, gas tank and a small spare jerry can of gas, and life jackets tied in, a knife strapped under the thwart, and a bailer, sponge, collapsible anchor, wire security strop, and hand lead and line, secured into a bracket I built into the transom below the engine. I have even built in a flag holder for when we want to display the Maple Leaf. It takes less than two minutes to launch and have Sprite operational after we have anchored. A reliable dinghy, easily deployed, is a high priority for us.

We left for Loch Lochy the next day, July 10. The rest of the trip down the Caledonian Canal will be completed in the next log. I want to get this off while I have the chance.