Late August: Fort George, Fort Augustus and Fort William .
As a final fling before the children went back to school here in Scotland, there was a "colossal celebration of the centuries" at Fort George (see more pictures). The fort itself was built after the battle of Culloden as a stronghold for the army of King George II, and to deter the Highland clans from rising again in support of the exiled Stuart dynasty. By the time is was complete, peace reigned and it never fired a shot in anger. However it did act as an icon for army recruiting, and was the depot for one of the Highland regiments until 1964. Now it managed by Historic Scotland and houses the regimental association and museum. With the walks around the imposing battlements is worth a visit even when not filled with colourful and noisy people playing at dressing-up.
The day opened and closed with a parachute display. The first one down had a red smoke flare attached to his heels and spiraled down leaving twisting trail in his wake (see more pictures). The last carried the flag as shown above. He made a miscalculation on his jump, the flag increased the drag so he had to make an unscheduled landing on the battlements short of the landing area on the Glacis. These are very wide, so there was plenty of space, and just added to the entertainment.
Throughout the day the each of the re-enactment groups put on a show in the main arena. It all started with the Romans, they put on a display of military manoeuvres showing the defensive use of their large curved shields. These just made us giggle as there were only eight of them, and they looked as if they had stepped out of an Asterix book (see more pictures). We kept looking for Obelix to appear and beat them up. The afternoon progressed through knights in armour and chain mail fighting with sword and mace, then on to red coats form several different eras marching up and down and firing blanks from their muskets with great gusto. The Covenanters and Jacobites joined forces and charged across the arena in a large mob, yelling and waving their swords. They ran at full tilt, pulling up just short of the spectators on the opposite side (see more pictures). Far from frightening the younger children, they shrieked encouragement and had to be restrained from joining in! Right on queue the Spitfire arrived for an aerial display; the canon were rolled out, loaded and fired; and all those with guns lined the ramparts firing rippling volleys. All combining for a very a very noisy finale.
After Fort George the canal came as a peaceful contrast. The canal is 60 miles long, of which only 22 miles is man made, the rest being though the lochs of the Great Glen. From the Inverness end there are 14 uphill locks, and then 15 downhill. In addition there are two railway bridges and eight other bridges. Thankfully all the locks and bridges are hydraulic and operated by British Waterways staff so there is no straining at capstans to open the gates.
Starting from the marina in the Muirtown basin, the first obstacles were the road swing bridge and the muirtown flight of three locks. At the Inverness end of the canal the roads across the canal are busy, so have restricted opening times, and no opening at all during the rush hour. This meant we were able to have a late start guilt free! The lock keeper was very friendly and gave us novices lots of advice. The ideal scenario would be to have a crew of three people, one each at the bow and stern to adjust the ropes as the lock fills, and the third to fend off from the rough lock wall. There is considerable turbulence in the lock as the water gushes through the sluices giving the fenders a rough time as the hull surges against the wall. Three people would also have been an advantage when moving the yacht from one lock to the next. The idea at a flight of locks is to turn off the engine and drag the boats from one lock to the next. As there were only two yachts in the lock at Muirtown the helpful keeper gave us a hand taking the bow rope, so Judith could control the stern while Tim steered the yacht and fended off from the wall.
Due to the delay at Muirtown we reached the next bridge at Tomnahrich five minutes after the bridge keeper knocked off for his lunch break. There are waiting pontoons on both sides of the bridges and locks so it was easy to tie up and have our own leisurely lunch. Here we encountered our first hire cruiser. There are several places on the canal where motor and sailing boats can be hired. We were very wary of these as the person at the helm is unlikely to have had much practice at steering that particular boat, and just as importantly is probably not skilled at coming to a controlled stop. This was evidenced by the fact that most of the ones we saw had a wide area of scratches along both sides of the hull, whether from collisions with other boats, with pontoons, or with the lock walls was not clear, but we gave them plenty of clearance just in case. This first one we saw was quite safely tied up to the pontoon doing a spot of fishing. So far he'd only caught eels with which he was not very impressed. As soon as the bridge was opened were off again, and after another lock at Dochgarroch we were out into Loch Ness.
Loch Ness is 23 miles long and 236m deep, which is deeper than the north sea between Scotland and Denmark. It is also very cold, staying between 5-7 degrees all year. It is a deep murky peaty brown, so all in all a good breeding ground for the monster legend. It was our first encounter with a large body of fresh water, and it was immediately noticeable that is was much choppier than salt water. The waves were closer together giving a more uncomfortable ride. Loch Ness is a popular place for tripper boats. These give tours of the loch starting at both the north and south ends. The effect of fresh water on the size of the wake that these boats made even at relatively low speeds was considerable. We weren't prepared for the first one and rocked uncomfortably. Thankfully we had prepared for passage with the usual routine so everything had been put away and nothing went flying.
About a third of the way along the loch is Urquhart Castle. This stands on a promontory that sticks out into the loch, which makes a delightful bay in which to anchor for the night. In the above picture Innisfree can just be seen on the left. As it was getting late we postponed our trip to the castle until the following day. This dawned grey and drizzly, so it was not until the afternoon that we pumped up the dingy (for the first time since June in the Outer Hebrides) and rowed across to the landing stage. The castle is a very popular tourist destination, and as such has all the associated trappings: a short film with a subtitles in a choice of umpteen languages, a very expensive cafe, and a queue for the toilets! We were distinctly disappointed, finding Fort George, and the castles of Brodie and Cawdor much more interesting (see previous page). It does have the advantage of a stunning vantage, but if you are looking for location, then Duart castle on Mull we think is much more impressive.
Next stop for us was Fort Augustus. This is a very busy place as the hire boats from both ends of the canal converge, and competition for places on the pontoons is fierce. A close encounter from a hire boat with our stern was only avoided when Tim leant out of the cockpit and grabbed their pull pit to stop them crashing into our rudder! The following morning we were careful to ensure we were first off to avoid the possibility of more collisions.
Negotiating the five locks at Fort Augustus was exciting. There were so many boats that we had to be divided into two groups. These locks were quite deep, making for a long throw for the ropes up to the waiting lock keeper at the first lock. For this one we were on board so could fend off as the waters rose. Our loch had five boats, which meant that boats had to be closer to the turbulence, thankfully we were second in line so had a considerably easier time of it. After the first lock things got more fraught as this time there was no helpful lock keeper to give us a hand, so Innisfree had to be left with no one onboard while we controlled the ropes from high above. We learnt quickly, initially we forgot to secure the rudder, so she was very difficult to control as we dragged her through to the next lock. Then it started to rain and we discovered that we had forgotten to shut the hatch. Thankfully it was only a light shower so things did not get too wet.
A few miles from Fort Augustus is Kytra Lock (see more pictures) which Judith would like to forget. Her first throw of the rope was not very good, and the lock keeper was not quick enough to catch it. The rope fell in the water, making it very much heavier, and twice more she failed to throw up the rope. The lock keeper gave up and threw down one of his ropes - a great indignity. It was also a very hard and rough rope which was very unkind on the hands. This coupled with us getting soaked in a heavy shower prompted the decision to call it a day at Cullochy (left). This turned out to be a lucky choice because the wind got up from the south, and it is beautifully sheltered. It was so nice that we stopped there two nights and walked around Loch Oich during the day.
After negotiating Cullochy lock the next morning it was then downhill all the way. Loch Oich (see more pictures) we felt to be the prettiest of the lochs. It is the smallest, and is dotted with small islands. It too has a ruined castle at Invergarry, but this is in the grounds of a hotel so we did not stop to explore. The stretch of canal joining the Laggan road bridge at the southern end of Loch Oich with the Laggan Locks at the northern end of Loch Lochy is a dramatic dark avenue between towering Scots Pines. We were the only boat about and it seems a shame to destroy the beautiful reflections (see more pictures) . We suddenly seemed to have the urge to keep going, so we quickly traversed Loch Lochy. In contrast to Loch Ness the water here was crystal clear. After two more locks and two more bridges we arrived at 2.30 p.m. at the top of Neptune's Staircase just outside Fort William in the shadow of Ben Nevis (right).
Neptune's staircase is a flight of 8 locks, which raises (or lowers in our case) the canal by 19m. It is a quarter of a mile of continuous stonework. Thankfully it is out of the normal range of the hire boats, and we had it to ourselves. By this time we were getting quite practiced at locks, and by the time we got to the bottom were reasonably competent! It took just over an hour to get through, and we had the added bonus of watching the Jacobite steam train from Fort William to Mallaig cross the bridge below the locks. Unfortunately it was at quite a tricky juncture so not a good time to take photographs!
It was still a pleasant afternoon, and with rain and possibly strong winds forecast for the next couple of days we decided to press on to Oban. This would mean arriving in the dark, but we are very familiar with the harbour so were not worried. The timing was perfect, we arrived at the tidal gate at the Corran narrows at slack water so avoided any of the overfalls. From then on the tide was with us all the way. We passed the entrance to Loch Leven at around 7pm, and were through the tricky bit of navigation at Port Appin and passed Castle Stalker (of Monty Python and the Holy Grail fame) before the light faded. It was fully dark without a breath of wind as the island of Lismore slipped slowly passed. The rain started about an hour before we arrived at Oban, but with the engine on and the tiller pilot controlling the steering we could both shelter under the spray hood. That is until we got into the entrance channel for Oban harbour... it is amazing how wet you can get in just a few minutes. We were soaked by the time we had crept into a vacant berth in the marina at 11pm.
The Autumn is noticeably on its way. The fungi are appearing in profusion on our walks and the swallows are congregating on the telegraph wires. Though this (left) is the first time we have seen them gathering on the mast of a yacht. They seemed to enjoy it, and there was much competition to be the one perched on the windex (wind vane) as it spun round. Thankfully they did not chose Innisfree, as although they are entertaining to watch, they are also messy...
So ends our summer cruise. There is just the short hop to Loch Creran where Innisfree will again spend the winter. First there is a list of jobs to do, most of them involving cleaning, washing or polishing, but hopefully the weather will be nice enough for the odd walk, and as we have the car, perhaps a trip further afield.