You can read about days 1 to 3 of my adventure here.
Sitting on the southern tip of Loch Ness, the small population of Fort Augustus is buoyed during the summer months as a stop off for travellers heading along the busy road between Fort William and Inverness, although I suspect just as many drive by unaware of the charms this little hamlet conceals.
Previously named Cill Chuimein, it is a pretty settlement with shops and pubs lining either side of 5 locks that link Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal. After the Jacobite Uprising in 1715, a fort was built here and the village was renamed Fort Augustus after Prince William Augustus, better known as the Duke (or Butcher) of Cumberland. Later the village was famous for it's Benedictine Abbey which closed in 1993 and although the historic complex is still standing today, it now comprises self catering holiday apartments and cottages.
With day 4 providing rain and a free morning to explore Fort Augustus and the only real civilistaion you pass through on the trip, I opted for some retail therapy and picked up some pretty Scottish made gifts from the lovely Coopers on the canal-side.
In the afternoon the all too familiar 'options' were presented and I chose to cycle the 8 miles to our next stop at Loch Oich. Following the canal towpath for the first 5 miles, the tranquility was immediate with bands of trees muffling any noise from the not too distant road. The low hanging cloud on the hills provided an atmospheric backdrop as the rain once again began to fall steadily, creating expanding ring-shaped patterns across the normally glassy canal surface.
Crossing over the road just by Cullochy Lock, the path then follows the old railway line along the shores of Loch Oich. The new track started off smoothly enough until a navigational error saw me leave the tarmacked path and head off road along a more challenging route. I could have rejoined the surfaced cycle track but to be honest I was having much more fun bumping along over the boulders and tree roots!
Ros Crana was just pulling up to moor in Loch Oich for the night as I arrived at our rendezvous point. Shore pick ups and drop offs by RIB were a common occurrence during the week and usually carried out by Lucy, our bosun. Lucy was our final crew member along with Swampy, Chris and Tree and when not maintaining the boat, throwing ropes or guiding the Skipper, she was always there to offer a confident hand to those without sea-legs as we unsteadily manouvered in and out of various vessels.
The earlier rain had long disappeared as I stepped back on board and took in our new surroundings. For me, Loch Oich was the most stunning overnight location of the trip. Straight off a shortbread tin or tourism campaign, it is the Scottish Highlands at it's most romantic and mysterious.
As several of us sat out on deck the encompassing trees and hillsides reflected perfectly in the water, the rutting bellow of a stag surrounded by his hinds on a nearby ridge echoed eerily through the air and a mysterious layer of wispy mist began to rise from the loch surface like an emerging water spirit.
As day turned to night, the stars appeared from the darkness with the Milky Way streaking overhead and the deep roars from the testosterone filled stags could still be heard in the distance.
I was more than aware that our rewarding experience was only possible thanks to our advantageous ability to moor out in the loch; a captivated audience to the best show that nature could put on.
Day 5 dawned and it was time to take to the water again, this time on a gentle canoe trip to explore rusting, abandoned boats and to land on an old causeway, normally submerged, but thanks to the low water levels once again providing a solid link between the shore and an island formed by old crannogs.
Our canoeing party of 6 had mixed experience levels from complete beginner to competent and with my last kayak lesson taking place 25 years ago, I very much classed myself in the beginner category. My partner in canoe crime was slightly more accomplished, having had his first (albeit only) tuition 3 days previous, I was confident that with some guidance from our instructor Chris, we would make a dream team!
I absolutely loved canoeing and I learned some useful tips which will remain with me for the future
In the afternoon I decided to stretch my legs by walking to our next destination at Laggan Locks which took me past the new railway track forming part of the Invergarry Station Project and ended at the Eagle Barge, the only floating pub on the Caledonian Canal.
This unique refreshment stop is full of quirky curios and memorabilia, including a collection of intimidating looking swords mounted on the wall which were used as props in some well known films including Lord of the Rings. As the pub was moored just opposite Ros Crana it would have been rude not to visit.
Our penultimate day saw us cruising down Loch Lochy and dropping anchor in Bunarkaig Bay on the fringes of Achnacarry Estate, seat of the Chief of Clan Cameron, also known as 'Cameron of Locheil'.
Those familiar with Jacobite history may know that Clan Cameron were supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie and after his defeat at Culloden he reputedly hid from the redcoats in a cave on the estate before heading to the Hebridean islands and eventually France. The original Achnacarry Castle was destroyed by the Duke of Cumberland's soldiers in 1746, although a partial piece of the stone internal chimney stack still stands as a reminder of darker times.
More recently the estate was used as the training ground for the Commandos during the Second World War and a filming location for movies including Rob Roy.
I took the opportunity to walk and cycle the grounds that have played such an important role in Scottish history. A circular route led me through the green but gloomy Mile Dorcha (Gaelic for dark mile) where strange shaped trees and moss carpeted walls lined the narrow road. It has an otherworldly feel and is the sort of place you could imagine fairies or witches gathering to dance and conjure spells in the woody shadows.
Continuing along the road, the landscape opens up to reveal the rushing Eas Chia-aig Falls (featured in Rob Roy) and the picturesque Loch Arkaig comes in to view soon after. If you visit this area be sure to look out for hidden gold, reputedly concealed here by the French and destined for the Jacobite cause, it has yet to be found.
It's at this point I had my most memorable mishap of the week when the chain came off and jammed in my bike. Not the end of the world but pushing my defective cycle for the next 2 miles had slowed down my plans and disappointingly left me without enough time to visit the Clan Cameron museum.
However, I did manage a quick stop at the original castle remains and the Cameron Cairn, erected to celebrate the international gathering in 2001 and built with stones brought from clan members around the world.
As I trudged along, a kindly estate worker in shining armour appeared with his modern day steed in the form of a landrover and trailer. Taking one look at my bedraggled appearance, he obviously took pity on me and kindly offered to convey me back to my rendezvous point, this was no time for my usual stubborn pride and I gratefully accepted a lift.
Arriving back on the barge I decided that I had more than fulfilled my activity quota for the day and opted to relax on board with a cool beer as the anchor was lifted and we set off on the short journey to our stop for the night at Gairlochy Lock.
After such a wet summer, I felt really blessed that we were able to sit out under a blue sky and sunshine for much of the trip and as we ventured on, we were greeted by the mighty Ben Nevis, clearly visible apart from a few puffy cotton wool clouds lingering over the summit.
The cute little pepper pot shaped Gairlochy lighthouse guided us from the open waters of the loch back towards the narrow channel of the canal and soon we were tied up safely once again for our final night on board.
I decided to soak up the warmth of the evening sun and autumn colours on a reflective stroll. Passing the river, stopping to explore an old cemetery, chatting with some curious cows (a strange habit of mine and I swear they talk back!), admiring the variety of boats and ending up on a bench at the the little lighthouse, the tranquility and setting could not have been more perfect for my last night in the Highlands.
The fast approaching ending of any memorable journey is always tinged with sadness, however our day finished on a high with the ultimate Scottish surprise. The crew had donned their kilts, the sound of very miniature pre-recorded bagpipes filled the air and haggis was served in true Burns supper style with a very theatrical and excellent address by Swampy. Of course I didn't have my camera as I didn't know what was coming, a total fail on my part! Needless to say it raised any deflating emotions and was a fitting finale to our Highland adventure.
A nominated member of our group then finished the evening with a heartfelt speech and thank you to the crew for providing us with such an incredible week.
As I'm nearing the end of this blog it is probably time I added my own tribute to not only the crew but also my 8 fellow adventurers, 3 couples and 2 solo travellers, all of them full of fascinating life stories and exuding an inspiring joie de vivre.
There is no getting away from the fact that in terms of actual age I was just a wee bit younger than the rest of my fellow cruisers, however actual age is just a number, it is your spiritual age that counts in my book and in that respect we were equals; an eclectic mix of characters bound and bonded together by a common love of life and adventure.
It was a joy to travel with such an enthusiastic and supportive bunch of individuals who kept me laughing all week long. I've learned that the people you share moments with can make or break your time together and there is no doubt that the crew and my companions helped turn a great adventure into an extraordinary one.
The following morning we arrived at Banavie and I reluctantly said goodbyes and headed for the train thinking about a quote I read recently describing adventure as "going on a journey, exploring new places, learning about yourself, making friends and stepping out your comfort zone."
As someone who has had many Adventures Around Scotland, this quote has never been truer than on my week spent with Caledonian Discovery.
I experienced a Classic Cruise which allows you to sample a variety of activity options or simply relax and enjoy the scenery. Caledonian Discovery offer a range of themed cruises along the Great Glen and you can find out more on their website at http://www.caledonian-discovery.co.uk/cruises/
I was a guest of Caledonian Discovery for this cruise, however as always my opinions and experiences are completely honest and I only ever recommend businesses that I truly believe in.
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