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Barging Scotland Review

Southwest to northeast through Scotland’s Great Glen, my husband and I barged the Highlands in the summer days of early July. Yes, we could have driven the 62 miles or 100 kilometers in a leisurely morning, or perhaps even walked the route from the Atlantic coast to the North Sea coast in the same seven days and six nights of our barging trip. However, not for either of those options would we have traded our elegant, educational cruise through the 29 locks of the two-hundred-year-old Caledonian Canal, nor our stately navigation along the length of four finger-shaped lochs, including Loch Ness of monster fame.


There were two firsts happening here for Peter and me as we waited anxiously for our van pickup in Inverness, a city facing the North Sea coast. It was our first time in the Scottish Highlands where both us have a few teaspoons of clan blood in our respective family histories, and our first time to try all-inclusive barging. Both were equally exciting prospects.

While driving southwest to rendezvous with our barge near Fort William on the other side of Scotland, Philip, our guide for the next week, quickly revealed his depth of knowledge about the complex, usually bloody, history that scarred the region for so many centuries past.

            Map of Scotland.        

Most ruthless of all, the Vikings dominated the Highlands until the 13th century, but the Scots created their own turmoil with equal intent. Clan against clan, alliances made and broken, massacres and tales of revenge, Scots against English, we were just beginning to sort out a few logical, historical threads when we pulled up on a towpath beside the Scottish Highlander. An hour and a half drive had passed very quickly, with Scotland proving to be a lot narrower than it looks on a map!

      Barging Across Scotland: clan castles, nature and Scotch whiskey.                                      

The barge’s comfortable saloon/dining room.
 Go Barging

As we step into the “saloon”, Hostess Tania, Chef Steven, and Captain Dan greet us with champagne and seafood hors d’oeuvres. What about the whiskey? That comes later, we are assured. With a barge 117 feet long and 16.5 feet wide, there is no chance of getting lost on board, but it still takes a while to get oriented on any vessel, offload the contents of luggage into bedroom cupboards and drawers, and explore the best viewpoints from the upper deck where much of the countryside will slip by under our daily scrutiny.


The bedspread continues the tartan theme. Go Barging

Built as a Dutch grain carrier in 1931, Scottish Highlander’s transition from industrial workhorse to trim tourism vessel was made in the mid-1990s. Today, the interior wood and brass gleam to perfection, soft tartan carpeting is a gentle reminder of exactly where we are, and the furnishings suggest a slower Edwardian era of grace and polish when cruising 60 miles in a week was considered a civilized distance. Major British newspapers appear magically on the saloon coffee table as we pass by to breakfast ….. does some paper boy stumble along the tow path at the crack of dawn to pitch them onto the gangplank?


Since the barge only travels a short distance each day, Philip has prepared a creative collection of half-day van excursions to lure us deeper into the Great Glen while still guaranteeing that we’re back on board for each one of Chef Steven’s traditional Scottish meals focusing on salmon, game, venison and seafood. I see our culinary maestro off shopping at every mooring, returning with grocery bags of the freshest of every item he serves. The bottomless cellar of fine French wines, British ciders and beers to compliment every dish is also a point of great pride aboard the barge, all included, of course, as are the excursions and entry fees to any attractions along the route. An excursion early in the itinerary to the Ben Nevis whiskey distillery has also transformed us into resident experts on that treasured Scottish drink.


Certainly we don’t want to miss those moments when the barge’s 47-year-old diesel engine rumbles to life and the ropes are neatly re-coiled on the deck ready for the next tie-up. For the men in our party, the engineering fascination of the Caledonian Canal locks is a natural conversation topic with Captain Dan, predictably found in the wheelhouse whenever the vessel is under way.


            Left: Our hostess, Tania, switches to deckhand as we prepare to enter a lock.
Alison Gardner

Right: Even in July, weather changes quickly in the Scottish Highlands. Alison Gardner


Yes, there are those, my husband among them, who occasionally see fit to abandon ship and accompany the Scottish Highlander from the shore, either walking or bicycling a picturesque tow path along the narrower stretches of water. On a sunny morning or afternoon, a walk of four or six miles along a perfectly flat path that skirts sheep farms and bird-rich parkland is pretty enticing. More often, I succumb to the pull of a deck chair and our hostess’s invitation to sample a “Caledonian Coffee” or “Highland Fling” – we never could decide which name sounded more appealing. Nevertheless, the taste is indisputably delicious with strong brewed coffee, a dash or two of Scotch whiskey, a generous dollop of whipped cream, all topped with crunchy brown sugar.


The geological fault that created the chiseled mountains, gently-flowing rivers and vivid blue lochs (lakes) of the Great Glen slice through the Highlands of Scotland as though a pencil and ruler had been used to line them up precisely. While only 23 miles/37 kilometers long, Loch Ness is very deep at 754 feet, containing more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. Clearly, the illusive Loch Ness Monster has plenty of places to hide!


Captain Dan plays accordion for guests
after dinner.
 Alison Gardner

Many of our Highland views included just a hint of pink on the hillsides, announcing the start of the heather season. From late July through the Fall, its thick blanket of color softens the grayness of the ancient weather-scoured rock often covered with only the thinnest layer of earth. The hardy heather clearly thrives.

The smaller lochs – Loch Dochfour, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy – that thread our route together seem more appealing because of their close shorelines and tempting towpath possibilities. Local people walking their dogs or their children offer greetings and indulge our camera compulsions, while oncoming sailboats and other pleasure craft pass very close with a predictable wave. Many fly Scandinavian flags, and we are surprised to learn that our route is popular recreation for those former Vikings whose homelands are the nearest foreign landfalls to Scotland’s east coast.


One-third of the route is manmade, with 29 locks, four aqueducts and 10 bridges making up the Caledonian Canal that we navigate over several days. Built between 1803 and 1822, it was never the commercial success it was intended to be because the depth proved insufficient for industrial traffic even then. By the time the canal was deepened in the mid-1800s, most commercial vessels had also grown in size beyond the new canal dimensions and railways were carrying a lot of cargo in competition to ships. Impressively maintained by government-owned British Waterways, the route today is largely for recreation. Our Scottish Highlander is one of its largest clients in size, and the only hotel barge plying the waters between the two coasts.