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Early July 2013, Caledonian Canal

Broomhill StationHaving completed the mammoth sail from Orkney to Inverness, the forecast was true to form, and there followed a week of strong south-westerlies. This is "on-the-nose" for traveling down Loch Ness, and being fresh water, it kicks up much more of a chop than the sea. It was therefore prudent to stay in Inverness and look for alternative entertainment. Other boats went, but motoring into steep waves is not our idea of fun, so instead we went by train; north, south, east and west.

The first excursion was south to Aviemore. All we saw of the town was the station, as on arrival we dashed across from the ScotRail platform to catch the Strathspey Railway steam train. It was the last day of the school term so blissfully free of fractious kids and over stressed parents. Since we were here last in the mid 1990s they have opened an extension from Boat-of-Garten to Broomhill, on their way to the eventual target of Grantown-on-Spey. We were hauled by Ivatt 2MT 46512 and alighted at Boat-of-Garten on the return journey to visit the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten in the Abernethy forest.

This reserve is only open for the spring and early summer while the Ospreys are nesting, the rest of the time people are free to walk the paths in the hope of seeing rarities like Capercaille, but the hide, shop and toilets are closed. In the winter they rig up several CCTV cameras around the nest, and so far the birds have returned every year. The hide/visitor centre is well supplied with binoculars and telescopes as well as the screens from the CCTV, and the warden and helpers are there to answer questions. It was at his suggestion that we tried taking photos through the telescopes. The camera was useless, but the iPhone worked well (right). In addition to the draw of the ospreys, the hide was surrounded by bird feeders which attracted the usual chaffinches, but also siskin and coal tits. Some feeders were also hung on tree trunks to attract red squirrels. This one (left) was very protective, the woodpecker would approach stealthily from the far side of the tree trunk, sidling around trying to sneak a peanut when the squirrel was not looking, only Elgin Cathedralto be furiously chased off, and the whole sequence start over again. It was fascinating to watch. The toilet facilities were 'dry' compost affairs and took your breathe away when you opened up the seat!

A couple of days later we intended to take the train west and north to Dunrobin, but there were "engineering works" and the train replaced by a bus. As the train ride was half of the reason for the trip, we opted instead to go east to Elgin. The only thing we knew about Elgin, was it was not home to the Elgin Marbles, and it had an impressive ruined Cathedral (left). It is an interesting town, and has a delightful little museum that houses the collections of several early benefactors. One of the key exhibits was a genuine shrunken head of about 3"- very creepy (right). The town is also the home of Walkers Shortbread, and we were delighted to discover their seconds shop on the high street. Here we bought a large bag of broken shortbread, and a couple of small fruitcakes. All tasted delicious if not visually perfect. The only disappointment was discovering they no longer make wholemeal shortbread.

Dunrobin CastleA couple of days later, with the engineering works complete, we finally managed our train ride to Dunrobin. The private station at Dunrobin is a quaint mock-tudor cottage (see More Pictures) owned by the family. It is a request stop only open in the summer to allow tourists like us to visit the castle. The station is opposite the castle gate house, and far enough away from the castle itself not to cause any disturbance. The castle (left) is mainly Victorian, and was used as a hunting lodge, their main residence being Cliveden overlooking the Thames near Marlow. We are sure it is not most people's idea of a second home in the country.

The castle is perched on a steep bank, with formal gardens laid out below leading to high wall overlooking the Moray Firth. A shady corner of the gardens is the home to a falconer who gives displays twice a day. He was a consummate performer, and obviously a very skilled falconer. We were treated to the sight of a golden eagle enjoying some rabbit before the display started. Then he showed the different techniques used by the birds, with a hawk demonstrating slow flight and ground attack, then a falcon (right) super fast flying and attacking a moving target at high speed, before finally the silent gliding flight of an owl over our heads. See More Pictures.

A last the strong south-westerlies abated sufficiently to tempt us to continue south along the Caledonian Canal. By then it was scorching hot with very little wind, discouraging us from anything energetic, though we did manage a couple of short walks in the early mornings before the sun was too high. The mid point in the canal is Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness. This is usually busy, but was even more so when we arrived because the lock a mile south of the town was temporarily out of action with a faulty sluice in one of the gates. This meant that nothing could move on from Fort Augustus, so they were holding all the south-going boats at the bottom of the Fort Augustus flight. The gate had been fixed by the evening so the first locking in the morning was very busy. We were the middle boat of nine (left) traveling up the flight. Innisfree was rafted up to up to a larger yacht meaning we did not need to worry about the changing water levels or moving from lock to lock, just stayed tied to the other yacht who did all the work. We did offer to help, but they were a well practiced crew of six and we would have just been in the way. Instead Tim stayed on board watching the antics of the others and fending off the motor boat on our other side when necessary, and Judith did the shopping, and wandered around taking photos.

It was such beautifully clear weather that for once Ben Nevis was out of the cloud all day. It did generate its own clouds in the early morning (below) but these quickly burnt off. It was far too hot for us, and we only summon up the energy to lounge around listening to the cricket and reading books.

From the canal we motored south to anchor at Port Ramsey at the north end of Lismore for two more days of Ashes Cricket listening, and then on to Oban Marina. Next we are thinking of going south as we have not been to that area for a couple of years.