It's an unseasonably warm October's day and I'm standing on the deck of Ros Crana, a colourful Belgian barge which is gliding almost silently down the deep, glassy channel of the Caledonian Canal towards Loch Ness. The surrounding Highland landscape looks twice as imposing with the autumnal colours reflected on the mirror like surface and the crisp air carries a hushed soundtrack of birdsong as we leisurely motor along.
The carbon copy clouds floating lazily on the inky water have a hypnotising effect and only the occasional surface bubble from a hidden fish breaks my trance like state.
I'm on day 2 of a week long cruise through the Great Glen with Caledonian Discovery and I'm already wondering if life can get any better than this; sun, scenery, stillness and Scotland.
There are many ways to explore the Highlands of Scotland and a boat may not be the first mode of transport that springs to mind, mainly because not many people realise that it is a viable option.
A trip along the Caledonian Canal will take you from coast to coast through the Great Glen, a Highland wilderness with satisfyingly spectacular scenery. A long straight valley which slices the Scottish Highlands in two, it is home to imposing mountains, native pine forests, tumbling waterfalls, an abundance of wildlife and steeped in clan and Jacobite history.
Construction of the canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1803 to link the west and east coast of Scotland, allowing vessels to avoid the risky journey around Cape Wrath. The famous engineer Thomas Telford subsequently produced the plans for what is recognised as an impressive feat of early 19th Century engineering, now protected as a Scheduled Monument. The 60 mile long route connects four lochs with man-made waterways and during it's construction, provided much needed employment to those struggling after the Highland Clearances.
Nowadays the area is frequented by pleasure craft and outdoor enthusiasts with options to walk, cycle or canoe along the alluring setting of the canal.
After my week travelling it's length from Inverness to Banavie near Fort William I can confidently say that Caledonian Discovery have devised a unique Classic Cruise that provides a rewarding Highland adventure by land and water which really gets you off the beaten track to uncover the hidden gems away from the tourist traps.
'Options' becomes a familiar word during the trip. While you could choose to stay on board and watch the world go by for a week, you really would be missing out on immersing yourself in the variety of landscape that Scotland has to offer. Daily 'options' are weather dependent but include a mix of sailing, canoeing, cycling and walking which are suitable for all levels of fitness and experience (or lack of experience!).
We had barely motored out of Inverness on day 1 when we were confronted with our first 'options' and I chose to leave the city behind on a flat 5 mile cycle along the canal towpath before meeting up with the barge again at the next lock.
Rust tinted trees and frosty cobwebs lined my route, a constant reminder that autumn had arrived. The traffic noise from Inverness gradually began to fade away, replaced by the occasional put-put of a passing boat and a sense of escape from the urban hustle and bustle began to wash over me. Pedaling casually along the canal-side, my anticipation of a new adventure ahead increased with each rotation of the wheel and by the time I had reached our destination for the night at Dochgarroch Lock I was looking forward to settling into my new home for the week.
WARNING: Reading this blog may make you want to (1) immediately book a trip to Islay with Scottish Routes (2) crack open a bottle of Scotch (3) both of the above!
Whisky, Uisge Beatha, Amber Nectar, Liquid Gold
Whatever you call it, every variety of this Scottish aqua vitae all derives from three main ingredients, malted barley, yeast and water. So simple yet so complicated as any whisky lover will tell you.
There are many subtle factors that contribute to the unique character of each bottling and regional differences in Scotch Whisky are obvious even to the untrained palate with the peaty notes of Islay drams among the most revered. This little west coast island is home to 8 distilleries, famed around the world for the quality of their product and responsible for countless whisky pilgrims descending on it’s shores.
My own love affair with Scotland's national drink started with a seasonal job in a Highland whisky shop where, despite being a whisky virgin, i was given responsibility of selling a very fine range of malts and blends to aficionados and novices alike. My first few weeks involved being thrown in at the deep end of an amber tinted pool and reading my way through a pile of books with daily knowledge quizzes. My education was more than just theoretical though and involved ALOT of sampling and after hours drinking, oops I mean training sessions!
One thing that I didn't get to do was visit the distilleries that produced the hundreds of bottles that I became an expert at drinking and selling, so when Scottish Routes invited me to experience their 4 Day Islay Whisky Tour I immediately dropped all other plans and packed my bags!
There are 8 distilleries on Islay and the tour takes you on very different experiences around 6 of them, namely Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. If that doesn't sound enough of a dream come true, then a bonus visit to Deanston Distillery en-route will ensure that the mood is set before you even have time to toast your fellow whisky devotees!
DAY 1 - Highlights
The tour normally starts from Edinburgh although Glasgow pickups can be arranged if required and this is where I boarded and began my journey into the fascinating world of Scotch a short time later at Deanston Distillery in the village of Doune. Joining up with the rest of my international group we dipped our first toe into the malted world of whisky production during a tour of this former cotton mill. I quickly learned that being on a whisky tour in Scotland means that drinking Scotch at any time of day is not only considered sociable but compulsory and certainly no-one on the trip was complaining when we were offered our first drams at what others may still consider 'breakfast' time.
Although Day 1 is essentially a travelling day, the first port of call at Deanston Distillery is followed by several scenic stops to break up the journey with a relaxed lunch at Oban, famed for it's seafood and with enough time to pop in to Oban distillery if you would like to sample the local dram.
For me, a chance to stretch the legs at arguably one of the most historically rich sites in Scotland was a real treat. Kilmartin Glen is home to over 350 ancient monuments within a 6 mile radius and we had the opportunity to explore a few of them before boarding the bus for the evening ferry.
The ferry journey is a relaxing 2 hours and with a malt of the month being served on board in double measure at a bargain price your Islay whisky journey officially starts as you cross the water!
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