Cruising the Caledonian Canal
Whilst the Spirit of Scotland wraps its arms around you in such a way that makes it incredibly difficult to leave, the history of the lands surrounding the Caledonian Canal is a strong calling card.
Each day aboard this luxury vessel is a journey, an often over-used word, but nonetheless a true one. As the barge cruises from Banavie northwards towards Inverness, we venture through some of the most incredible Scottish landscapes.
From the striking peak of Ben Nevis to the mountains of Glencoe and the rolling green hills in between, there is never a day that doesn’t serve up a display of natural beauty. Then there’s the culinary journey. Local cheese, five-star cuisine and matching wines, it’s a veritable foodie’s delight.
Day trips and tours on the Spirit of Scotland
Every day, an off-barge experience creates a highlight for the day and is a good opportunity to get some exercise and move away from the lure of the food and the open bar. The itinerary is carefully planned to provide a level of interest and interaction without being overly onerous.
All of these activities can be done as day trips from Inverness, so even if you aren’t on a barge, they are all possible by road, or by taking a Loch Ness cruise.
Drive around Scotland for only a few wee minutes and you will come across the word “glen”. Often used in the name of a town or a brand of whisky, the Gaelic term glen means deep valley and there are many of these to be found in Scotland. A 30-40 minute drive from our first mooring point of Banavie lies the small Scottish town of Glencoe.
Our visit to Glencoe combined with a day of excellent weather, making the hills and valleys of the Glencoe area seem even more dominant than they otherwise might. As we drive to our final destination, the full beauty of the Scottish Highlands is clearly on show.
Rivers and streams are in abundance, meandering through the rich green hills, whilst hikers use their sticks to guide their way along the many paths. The entire area is a haven for bushwalking and hiking and in the winter months, skiing.
The Visitor’s Centre in Glencoe is a great place to start. From here you can literally stare into the enormous valleys and look sky-high to the towering mountains of the Glencoe ranges. The deep ravines between the mountains were created during the Ice Age when melting glaciers sent their water down below.
It is also the site of one of Scotland’s bloodiest massacres. In 1692, the Campbell clan, linked to the government killed 38 members of the MacDonald clan. It is quite a complex story, but essentially it involved what the Scots call “murder under trust”.
The Campbells were enjoying the hospitality of the Macdonald clan, staying in their homes, and yet in the early hours of the morning on 13 February 1692, they took them by surprise and initiated an attack. It is now a part of Scottish folklore.
There are plenty of activities to do in this area if you are travelling independently as well. If you aren’t up to large hikes, there are several walking tracks that are easy in the vicinity immediately outside the Glencoe Visitor’s Centre.
Where: Glencoe Visitor’s Centre
Address: Visitor Centre, Glencoe, Ballachulish PH49 4HX, Scotland
It was a reasonable drive from our mooring location to the Eilean Donan Castle, but it was definitely worth the visit. Before visiting, I thought the name Eilean Donan was that of the castle. Eilean however, is the Gaelic name for island. As an island though, the natural defences of the sea were well utilised and forts and castles have existed on this island, in some form, since the 13th century.
It is said that the medieval castle was most likely the largest of all fortifications built on the island. There were improvements and additions made in the years that followed until the 18th century when much of the castle was destroyed during battle.
The castle lay dormant and neglected for around 200 years until the island was eventually purchased by a private individual in 1911. During the subsequent 20 years, the castle was rebuilt and the island restored. For the first time, a bridge was also built, connecting the island to the mainland.
The castle remains in private hands and is a “lived-in” castle.
Where: Eilean Donan Castle
Address: Dornie by Kyle of Lochalsh, IV40 8DX, Scotland
Birds of prey
With spectacular landscapes in Scotland, it seems only too fitting that their wildlife would be equally so. As I sat on the lawn in front of the former Benedictine Abbey in Fort Augustus, I was keen to see this for myself.
Over the course of the next hour, we were allowed to interact with some of the most fearsome birds of prey found in Scotland. Simultaneously, we were educated on each and every one of them so that we understood a little more about how they live, eat and behave.
Before anyone gets upset about animal shows or animals in captivity, I will clearly state that these birds live in exceptional conditions and are most likely being rehabilitated.
Some of these birds are rescued as chicks, left to themselves when born in ferocious Scottish winters. Without intervention, they would not survive. Even before us, many of these birds flew freely around us and up into the trees, coming back to a mere whistle.
Fort Augustus Abbey
Also known as Benedict Abbey, this beautiful building in the Scottish Highlands has had a long and sometimes chequered past. It was built on the site of an old fort, and after its days as a monastery were over, various attempts were made to re-purpose the building.
Today, it is known as the Highland Club and owned by a consortium. Whilst every attempt has been made to preserve the history of the building, it has been converted into prestigious apartments.
Where: Highland Club (Fort Augustus Abbey)
Address: St.Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus PH32 4BJ, Scotland
We were lucky enough to be on the canal and therefore passing through the “Flight of Locks” at Fort Augustus, but even if you are not on the water, a stop by this cute town is a must.
The locks are quite an event to watch, even from the land, with boats taking about an hour to get from the top to the bottom (or vice versa). If you don’t understand how locks affect the flow of water, there’s nothing better than to see it all unfold right in front of your eyes.
Cruising on the Caledonian Canal means that there is an endless supply of great landscapes and things to see along the way. Some, like Urquhart Castle, are more substantial than others.
Sitting on the end of a peninsula on the famous Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle is one of the most visited in Scotland. It is believed the first castle presented somewhere around the year 1230,
Like many of the castles in Scotland, Urquhart has seen its share of uprisings and has been a constant pawn in the battles between the Crown, government and religious groups. Whilst in ruins today, a visit here is a chance to learn more about its fiery past and to get some exceptional views across Loch Ness.
Where: Urquhart Castle
Address: Drumnadrochit, Inverness IV63 6XJ, Scotland
Visiting any castle or chateau is great in my opinion, but it’s even better when you realise they aren’t just a part of history, but a real-life lived in castle.
This was the case when we visited Cawdor Castle, a 20-minute drive from Inverness. Being lived in doesn’t mean it’s without the usual drama and Cawdor Castle contributes more than its share of this.
As we assembled outside, the lady of the house, Lady Cawdor arrived in her British racing green Range Rover. Parking it quite literally in the middle of nowhere, she exited the vehicle and made her way into the garden, apparently to check on the bird feeder. It was our glimpse of castle royalty and we were keen to make the most of it.
Owned and built by the Thanes of Cawdor in the 14th century, it remains one of the best-kept castles in Scotland. The castle was built over and around a tree, the remains of which exist today and is visible from the dungeon prison. In the 1500s through an act of treachery, the castle’s possession changed from that of the Cawdor clan to the Campbells.
Inside, the castle is like a fairytale with opulent decor, tapestries, vintage pieces and antique furniture. From the drawing-room to the bedrooms and the impressive kitchen, it’s fit for a king or queen. The garden, only a part of the massive amount of land on which the castle sits is equally impressive.
Like its history, there is plenty of drama still being played out in current times with the Lady Cawdor and her husband’s family at odds over who should have the rights to the castle.
Related: Read our article on two of the lesser-known French chateaux
Where: Cawdor Castle
Address: B9090, Cawdor, Nairn IV12 5RD, Scotland
If there was a theme to the majority of the excursions we took whilst travelling the canals of Scotland on the Spirit of Scotland, it was the fierce battles that occurred. Many of the best places to see in Scotland have a link to their dark and bloody past. Culloden is front and centre of these battles.
The Battle of Culloden in 1746 occurred on a moor in the Scottish Highlands, not far from Inverness. The story is complex but the goal was for one thing, royal rule of Britain.
As each side (British vs Scottish) waged their war against each other and secured various territories, both believed they could win. However on 16 April 1746, the battle was at its peak and in the dark of night, on a bloody battlefield, the Scottish Highland defenders were defeated.
Today Culloden Moor is a war grave and a visitor centre has been established to commemorate and educate people about the battles that occurred here.
Where: Culloden Visitor Centre
Address: Culloden Moor, Inverness IV2 5EU, Scotland
Glen Ord Distillery
No visit to Scotland is complete without a tour of a whisky distillery. Even if you don’t like whisky (like me), it’s still a great thing to do. Whisky making is an essential part of Scottish culture and it’s fascinating to learn how it is made. It’s also very interesting to learn the difference between single malt and blends and whether in fact, it is ok to call it Scotch.
We took a tour of the Glen Ord Distillery, one of the oldest in Scotland, and maker of many “peaty” whiskies, which are an acquired taste.
Where: Glen Ord distillery Visitor Centre
Address: A832, Muir of Ord IV6 7UJ, Scotland
Should you do the day trips?
As guests onboard the Spirit of Scotland are on holidays, nothing is mandatory. If a particular tour or activity is not to your liking, or you just feel like taking some more time out, it’s easy to continue to just hang out onboard.
There’s nothing like getting the crew’s attention all to yourself! Most guests, however, relish the opportunity to stretch their legs and engage in an excellent spot of holiday learning and adventure.
The tour directors onboard the European Waterways barges are well versed in all activities and are there to ensure that everyone has a great time when off the boat.
Doing the day trips add to the overall experience of life on the canals and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
All guests are transported on each day trip via the airconditioned vans and taken directly to each point of interest. There is also a good time allocation provided for each event, meaning you don’t just breeze in for a few minutes and have to leave. All entrance tickets are included.
If you are considering a canal cruise in Scotland, you can check out all details on the Barge Lady Cruises website.
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About the author
Kerri left her corporate career to pursue a different lifestyle, establishing the successful travel website, Beer and Croissants.
Kerri and her husband Stirling now regularly travel the world, where eating great food, sampling local beverages and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.
You also won’t find them too far away from an epic road trip either, with motorhomes their speciality.
Beer and Croissants was a guest of Barge Lady Cruises. As always, all editorial, images and opinions are entirely our own.