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Last updated 26 February 2020
Barge cruises in Scotland
Across the lush green landscape, a familiar yet somewhat haunting sound can be heard. As the guests onboard raise their glasses to toast another wonderful day, a lone piper appears. Back and forth along the canal, the piper blows his heart out on those quintessential Scottish pipes. This is indeed the spirit of Scotland, and this moment has been perfectly captured on a striking vessel bearing the same name.
Why take a barge cruise in Scotland?
With two barge cruises in France under our belt, we were keen to head a little further afield this time. Hearing the story last year of the Spirit of Scotland’s epic re-positioning voyage from the European continent across the North Sea only strengthened this resolve. She was clearly a vessel with plenty of heart, making her way to her final destination on the Caledonian Canal in Scotland, despite unfriendly seas.
The Spirit of Scotland is one of the latest additions to the European Waterways fleet and she fits in perfectly, resplendent in the tell-tale colours of navy, red and white. Cruising the waterways of Scotland since 2017, she was purpose-built and operated in The Netherlands in 2001 by her Dutch owner, before arriving in Scotland.
Life aboard the Spirit of Scotland is full of such surprises like our own private piper, created especially to heighten the experience of travelling in Scotland. From the moment we set off on this journey, transferred from the glamorous Glenmoriston Hotel in Inverness, the surprises have kept on coming.
The Spirit of Scotland barge
The guests arrive at the first mooring relaxed and more than a little excited. For some, it’s their first time aboard a barge and to say they are excited is an understatement. According to the wife of one guest, “her husband has been planning this special occasion for 12 months”. We’ve been transferred by private vehicle from Inverness. In the comfort of the air-conditioned vans, we get to know a little more about the people we will spend the next week with.
The Spirit of Scotland accommodates 12 guests. This week however there will be only 10 of us who will have the run of all of the wonderful facilities on this 39 metre long, 5.15-metre wide barge.
The saying “start as you mean to finish” couldn’t be more appropriate for the Spirit of Scotland. The smiling faces of the crew make us feel instantly at home. The sparkling glass of French champagne is tangible reinforcement of this. From those first few moments, you know the decision to take a barge holiday in Scotland is a good one.
Being a fan of barge holidays in France, we wondered how the Scottish version would compare. Would it feel like much of the same, just in a different physical location? The waterways of Scotland are different from those found in other parts of Europe. For starters, the locks here are much larger. At 12 metres high, they are hulking pieces of steel, creating a deep cavernous feeling when the barge is on the bottom, waiting to go up. As a result of the size of the locks, more than one boat can be in the lock at once. Sometimes, there were several of us all cosied up together.
There are also fewer locks here. Whilst in France sometimes you can pass through nine locks in one hour, here in Scotland that isn’t the case, with 12 sets of locks along this route. There are also some incredible swing bridges that are opened up to let us pass through, sometimes holding up the vehicle traffic who also use the bridge. With access to the open sea, beautiful sailing boats are often seen along these waterways also.
The pace of travel though is no different.
The Spirit of Scotland barge cruise itinerary
Our cruise this week will take us from Banavie, near Fort William, through to Muirtown, in the shadows of Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. If we were travelling by road, we’d cover approximately 112 kilometres (70 miles) and we’d do it in around an hour or so. As is always the case with any barge cruise, the path we follow will be done ever so slowly. The Caledonian Canal is just short of 100 kilometres (60 miles) No speed records will be set. There’s just no need.
Nudging our way slowly along the Caledonian Canal and lochs of the Scottish Highlands also offers up something that a road trip will never deliver. A different perspective. From deep down in the canal, we can see out over the fields and their luminescent-like green colour. It rains a lot in Scotland but the colour of the grass is insane! Then there are the mountains. Sure, you can see these from the road, but here you feel as though you are down in the gorge, following the line of a deep ravine, with the mountains peering imposingly overhead.
The Caledonian Canal
The Caledonian Canal, in its day, was of significant importance to furthering the economy of the highlands. Initially commenced in 1803, it suffered many delays and setbacks, not surprisingly involving time and budget. In 1847, the canal was finally at a specification that would allow the large ships to pass through, avoiding the often dangerous passage via the west coast. Unfortunately, like the canals of France, the canal was eventually superseded by the railway, reducing its effectiveness and therefore demand.
Whilst we pass many beautiful mountains and castles as we make our way along the canal, it is the image of the Grampians mountain ranges that won’t leave my mind. Specifically, it’s the highest mountain in Scotland, Ben Nevis that grabs our attention. This rugged mountain and its surrounding ravines, gorges and waterfalls is visited by over one hundred thousand people every year, many determined to conquer the peak. The mountain so-named “mountain with its head in the clouds” in Gaelic language spends most of the time under a misty cloud. So much so that a friend of mine remarked, “I have been there so many times and never have I seen it out of the mist”.
The extraordinary weather we experienced during our Scotland cruise paved the way for an extraordinary moment. At our first mooring at Banavie, Ben Nevis stood out in the clear blue summer skies. Not a drop of mist could be seen. The granite at the peak, evidence of the volcanic explosion that created the ranges, stood out for all to see. As we awoke the next morning, the sun came up, exposing Ben Nevis once again, fully unclothed. A truly special thing to see.
The other aspect that is, of course, different from other European waterways is the presence of a different type of loch. 61 kilometres (38 miles) of the total canal length is covered by lochs of the watery kind. Loch Oich, Loch Lochy (obviously named on a day lacking in inspiration) and the iconic Loch Ness offer a deep water experience. They also provide the water for the Caledonian Canal. It may be a myth, but I guarantee everyone on the Spirit of Scotland was keeping an eye out for Nessie, although it was suggested that we might only see this legendary creature of the deep if we drank a little too much whiskey.
Onboard the Spirit of Scotland
The lower deck is where we lay our head at night. Six twin/double cabins are identified with the names of Scottish islands and are tastefully decorated. Tortoise-shell timber panelling is interspersed with pops of Scottish tartan throughout. Three of the cabins are accessible from a set of stairs at the front of the barge, the others from the rear. Their location supports privacy and the thick steel walls in between ensure that you can never hear another guest. As I was packing up on our last day I found a “Do not disturb sign”. Clearly, this hadn’t been a necessity.
At 130 square feet (12 square metres), the cabins are spacious enough to move around easily. We are in a double room which easily converts to a twin should guests prefer. The bed, kept cosy with a doona and quintessential tartan blanket, is comfortable, and combined with a peaceful mooring each night, is the perfect place to sleep. Unless you are like me and have to take your own pillow with you everywhere you go, you’ll be more than happy with the abundant supply of cushions and pillows here.
The cabins are airconditioned and whilst moored overnight the portholes are able to be opened. In Scotland, the infamous midgies may be about, but screens that cover the portholes mean that they get to stay outside.
The ensuite bathroom has a full-size shower, toilet and vanity basin. With plenty of large water tanks on board, there is no issue with water supply or, my personal favourite, plenty of hot water! Toiletries are provided in a more sustainable fashion, using refillable bottles of shower gel, shampoo and conditioner made by local manufacturer, Highland Soap Co.
A useful quantity of towels are provided and are changed regularly via the daily housekeeping service. The rolled-up bathmat nestled against the door was always a sure sign the fairies had been to tidy up. Fluffy towelling bathrobes and slippers are also provided as well as a small hairdryer.
There is good storage with a cupboard, clothes hangers and shelves, meaning you can pack away all of your clothes for the week instead of living out of a suitcase. A small bedside cabinet and a desk cupboard also allow for storage of small items. Inside the main cupboard is a digital safe for any valuables you require extra security for.
A small desk runs along the wall of the cabin. I find the desk chair here to be too large for the purpose as it juts out into the walking space between bed and bathroom and is immediately behind the main door. Considering the availability and ambience of places to sit upstairs, this would be my preferred “desk”. It’s a minor comment about an otherwise beautifully appointed cabin.
There is a small television and DVD player but we found no need to turn this on at all during the week. It’s also the only really useful space to use the powerpoint. There is one located behind the bed but in the double bed configuration, the plug is immediately behind the sleeping person’s head.
Glass bottles of Scottish sourced water are provided each day in the cabins. In a bid to cut down on waste, guests are also provided with European Waterways drink bottles that may be filled using the filtered water tap located in the bar. In the event of an emergency, there are several items onboard to ensure passenger’s safety. These include personal floating devices (life jackets) and a fire extinguisher. Each cabin is also fitted with a smoke detector.
Whilst downstairs provides the perfect mix of serenity and peacefulness, upstairs is where all the fun and conversation happens. It is also the epitome of elegance. Space is what I notice the most. The upper deck is largely enclosed, providing shelter from the Scottish weather if it decides to forget that you are on holiday and turns a little unpleasant. With huge windows throughout however, it means your eyes are never far away from a beautiful view and it ensures that the internal space never feels closed in. It’s spacious and luxurious and there are plenty of spots for the guests to spread out and have their own space, should they require it.
A large expandable timber table, always elegantly decorated for each meal, sets the tone for the dining room. Over the course of a week, it will become the focal point for many a robust discussion and many, many laughs and shared stories. Long, leisurely lunches will be taken here and wines will also be served to complement each dish. Imagine a venison tataki being matched with a riesling from the Alsace or discovering that potted salmon goes perfectly with a fresh, white picpoul from the French Languedoc region. White, red, rose and sparkling, there is most definitely a wine for every occasion.
The seemingly never-ending source of light that is a hallmark of Scottish summers backlit our dinners, providing the perfect setting for an end of day gathering. Having spent all day cruising and visiting amazing Scottish locations along the way, we all relished in our time to relive the special moments.
The resident chef Dave, hails from somewhere close to our heart. Along with his partner Michelle, who is a Spirit of Scotland host, these two Australians bring a great sense of humour and social engagement to the guests. Dave is also an exceptional chef, with modern, considered menus that draw inspiration from Scotland. His style is innovative, showcasing ingredients in a fresh manner whilst highlighting one of his passions, foraging. The food aspect of a barge cruise is for us, an integral part, and Chef Dave allowed us to be involved with his preparations and was happy to indulge in food conversation with us, in a way that no onboard chef has before.
By the time we’ve reached our destination, we will have indulged in more food than many people will have eaten in a month. There will be freshly sourced salmon, local speciality Aberdeen Angus beef and Scotch eggs. The ubiquitous but often scorned haggis and black pudding will also make an appearance. It would be un-Scottish for it not to. It’s a decadent and hedonistic food adventure but we can always go back to eating normally when it’s all over. For now, however, we are happy to be grazing on our four-course lunches and dinners and taken on a journey of the French wine regions.
At the bow of the upper deck is the internal wheelhouse. Here, Captain Melissa guides this enormous hulking vessel as the only female skipper in the European Waterways fleet. French-born, Melissa spent much of her youth in New Caledonia before returning to France to attend university. With a Masters degree in hospitality, tourism and management under her belt, she kicked off her working life in hotels before finding her place in the hotel barging industry.
She spent time as a hostess and a tour guide before the opportunity came to get her captain’s licence. After relocating another barge from Paris to Burgundy, Melissa said, “this was a turning point and I knew I could do it”. Having proven that she could not only pass an exam but be “comfortable navigating a barge in all kinds of weather and different moorings”, Melissa now also leads a crew of five.
“Every week is different because the guests are different and the lifestyle is great”, she says. When Melissa left university she wanted two things. She wanted to have a job that she loved so much that it would feel like part of her life, and she wanted to have free time. On the water for seven months of the year, six days a week, she works hard but in a way that is fulfilling. With four to five months off a year, to spend time with her partner and to enjoy her other loves of climbing and hiking, I’d say Melissa has everything she has ever wanted.
The bar and sitting room at the other end of the barge is the spot where everyone loves to hang out. Early in the morning, before the others have risen for the day, it’s my quiet place to catch up on some emails and download the mass of photos we’ve taken the day before. I sit up here, cosy in my bathrobe, making myself comfortable with a cup of tea and a Scottish shortbread. As the week wears on, I get less enthused about my laptop and spend time catching the morning sun. If we aren’t undertaking an onshore excursion, by mid-morning, the bar area has become a lively place, which will continue well through the night.
With an open bar, we are never going to find ourselves parched. Of course, this is Scotland, and a Scottish barge cruise just wouldn’t be the same without being able to sample some of their finest single malt whiskies. Whilst I am personally not a fan of this barley-based spirit, my fellow guests more than made up for my abstinence. “Just a wee dram” was a common saying, although, I’m quite sure that they invented a new size for a dram as the week progressed. From Tomatin to Dalwhinnie, Talisker, Glenmorangie and Scotland’s number one whiskey, Glenfiddich, there was ebullient tasting and discussions of the redeeming qualities of each.
For the non-whisky drinkers, there is a plethora of liqueurs and wines on offer. I settled in mostly with the local gins, the result of a burgeoning gin industry in Scotland. With host Michelle, who knows everything there is to know about the things that live in a bar, and second host Lori, a fancy cocktail was also never far away.
Sitting area and lounge
Books are read in the comfy chairs by the windows, often borrowed from the nearby library, whilst sipping on a mid-morning glass of bubbles or an afternoon aperitif. The luxury of space inside facilitated the constant movement of guests, chatting to one another at the bar or in the lounge. A small table and chairs provided the ideal spot for a chess challenge, with a wee whiskey accompaniment of course.
During our week-long barge cruise in Scotland, we were blessed with what the Scottish call perfect weather. In a country where the weather can, quite literally, change often, to have a bright day full of sunshine, was something to be celebrated. Imagine then that we had a week of this! Sunshine, clear skies, a little warmth (well as warm as it gets in Scotland in summer) and next to no rain. Everyone was celebrating this special weather, but none more than us. We understood this to be unusual and we made the most of being outside, enjoying the top deck of the Spirit of Scotland, even when the skies finally turned a little grey.
Kicking back on the timber furniture here provides yet another different perspective of the canals. From here it’s much easier to get a bird’s eye view of Urquhart Castle, dominating an area on the side of the Loch Ness.
The top deck is also the best vantage spot when we travel down the ‘Flight of Locks” at Fort Augustus, lowering us down from the upper reaches of the Caledonian Canal to be at the same level of Loch Ness. The locks run through the heart of this tiny town and it is truly a spectacle to see. It’s perhaps why the locks are almost always lined with people watching from the land. It’s like a carnival atmosphere.
Cameras and iPhones are worked at a frenzied pace, taking the images of this luxurious barge and jumping in front of her for a selfie. For the most part, we feel as though we are miles away from people and civilisation. Here, however, it feels almost celebrity-like, and we onboard are playing out the dreams of those watching us move past. Who knows, perhaps someone in the crowd is inspired enough to plan their own journey on this beautiful lady.
Walking the towpaths
When time, and energy permits, we jump on and off the barge, walking along the towpath and into the little villages. Bicycles are also provided onboard for those who want to go a little further or a little faster. As mild as this Scottish weather might be (for the Scots), it’s still cool enough for all of us to be enticed by the hot tub. With its warm waters bubbling underneath the cover, the hot tub was a source of amusement and relaxation for many on board. With a glass in hand, we’d jump in, often to the amazement of those who passed us by.
The lure of the Spirit of Scotland and all she has to offer is strong. Strong enough to make you feel as though you could never leave the tartan-carpeted inner sanctum. But to do so would mean missing out on seeing the 13th-century Eilean Donan, built on an island at the convergence of three sea lochs. Destroyed in the 17th-century and then rebuilt in the early 1900s, there is a reason why it is a must-do on any visit to Scotland.
Or how about walking on the Battlefields of Culloden and tracing the steps of those who fought in the bloody Jacobite uprising? There’s also a visit to the mountain area of Glencoe and the Fort Augustus Abbey, no longer used by the church but a beautiful piece of architecture nonetheless.
Cawdor Castle, another wonderful Scottish castle gives a sneak-peak into the juicy history and life of the current Lady Cawdor and no Scottish tour would be complete without a tour and tasting at a whisky distillery. Tour guide and crew member Helen wraps her deep knowledge of Scottish history around all of these experiences. As someone who also loves a good chat, she approaches her job with enthusiasm, motivated by the variety of her role and the fun of entertaining and guiding new guests each week.
“Who’d want a normal 9-5 job”, she muses as we discuss her current training to hopefully become the Spirit of Scotland’s next captain. It’s another positive nod to the way in which the crew interact, with Captain Melissa taking a dedicated interest in Helen’s training. It’s also a sign of the succession planning and support of their team by the corporate European Waterways.
In the evening, Scottish storytellers came to visit, regaling stories about the tradition of the kilt and teaching us how to wear one correctly.
The lilting tones of two young Scottish lads carrying an acoustic guitar and a piano accordion brought tears to my eyes. Their voices carried the heart and soul of the Irish and Scottish folk songs they played. As we sat in the lounge area, they had us clearly under their spell.
Coming soon >> A full review of the Spirit of Scotland’s tours and experiences
What you need to know to book a barge holiday in Scotland
In Scotland, there are several options for taking a barge cruise. For Scotland cruises and those and further afield in Europe, head over to the Barge Lady Cruises website. Details relating to the specific canal barge, availability and pricing can be found here.
Pick up location
Our pickup location for the Spirit of Scotland barge cruise was in Inverness.
*Subject to change but advised by the booking company to enable flights etc to be arranged.
Cost of a barge cruise in Scotland
Pricing is determined by a range of factors and is subject to change. For accurate pricing and to check for seasonal promotions, visit the Barge Lady Cruises website. The one aspect that can be guaranteed when it comes to price is the list of inclusions. Unless you see something special that you want to buy along the way (think souvenirs, shopping or that special bottle of whiskey to take home), then everything else is included.
Cruising for six nights
Onboard accommodation in your own cabin with ensuite
All meals prepared by the onboard chef plus one dinner at a local restaurant
Matching wines with lunch and dinner
Open bar available 24/7
Private transfers to and from the designated meeting point
Airconditioned transfer vehicle
Daily excursions with a private tour guide
Use of bicycles and hot tub
Onboard library and DVD collection
The price does not include gratuities which remain entirely at the discretion of guests.
What to wear on a barge cruise in Scotland
In Scotland, the weather can be very interchangeable. Depending on where it is you hail from, the weather here can be cool (or cold), even in the summer time. Whilst we had what you could call brilliant Scottish weather, I still spent every day with a long sleeve shirt and often a jacket/jumper. I wore long pants (leggings, jeans, cotton trousers) every day. A rain jacket is also a good idea although the team onboard carry umbrellas with them everywhere just in case.
If you are planning on doing a bit of walking or bike riding, bring comfortable shoes for doing so. Otherwise, there’s no need to bring anything too fancy. Getting changed for dinner is optional, not obligatory. Most times after a day visiting the local sights, we just stayed in what we had been out touring in. On the final night, the captain hosts a Captain’s Dinner. It’s a chance to dress up a little if you want to but again it’s not required. It’s certainly not what you might expect on ocean cruises. Here, the vibe is always relaxed and casual and this most certainly extends to the dining table also. The less you pack, the better it is to store in your cabin.
Do remember to bring your swimwear as making the most of the hot tub is a must.
Other things to pack
The wifi onboard the Spirit of Scotland was excellent, which is not always the case on a barge. A simple password at the beginning of the trip will see you connected throughout your entire journey. If you have a lot of gadgets, it is useful to carry a universal adaptor with you so that you can plug in multiple devices at once. We use this universal adaptor, allowing us to plug in up to four USB connections, one USB-C connection and an electrical plug in the front. Being universal, it readily adapts to any type of plug. All of our equipment is 240v/110 v but you should check your specifications before plugging in.
How to get to Inverness
Inverness is the capital of the Scottish Highlands and is located on the River Ness, 250 kilometres (156 miles) north of Edinburgh.
Inverness has a small international airport, serviced by full-service airlines like British Airways but also low-cost carriers like Easyjet.
You can check flight timetables and pricing here.
Inverness also has a train station and is accessible from all the major cities of Scotland including Edinburgh, Glasglow and Aberdeen. Trains are also possible from London and other parts of England.
Getting to Inverness by car is also easy and there are major car rental locations in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness (airport and city centre). Driving around Scotland is easy. The distances are small and unless you are on some of the more rural roads, they are generally in good condition.
We use and recommend Auto Europe to find the best car rental deal for your trip. If you have time in your itinerary, spend a few days in Inverness before or after the barge cruise. If you have more time, we can also highly recommend hiring a car and taking a short road trip. The North Coast 500 (NC500) and the North East 250 (NE250) are two incredible road trips taking in the western islands and coastline or the northeastern coastline and the Cairngorms National Park.
Coming soon >> Our four-day road trip via the North East 250
Where to stay in Inverness
There are many hotels to stay at in Inverness, although be warned that Inverness has a reputation for excessively high rates when compared to other areas of Scotland. There are many media reports also highlighting this over the past several years.
Our tour commenced at the Glenmoriston Townhouse and Hotel, on the banks of the River Ness. A delightful looking hotel, if the staff were anything to go by, it would be a wonderful place to stay. As we had been on a road trip since we arrived in Inverness, we didn’t actually spend the night in this town. They were more than happy to look after our luggage whilst we had a drink at their bar and waited for our transfer to arrive.
You can check out the reviews of this hotel and others in Inverness on Trip Advisor.
Scotland also has a huge variety of apartments, guesthouses and B&Bs which are well worth a look.