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Issue 7 - Easy as she goes

Scotland Magazine Issue 7
March 2003

 

This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Easy as she goes

IF YOU WANT TO SEE SCOTLAND PROPERLY, THEN WHY NOT SAIL ITS CANALS? MAXWELL MCDONALD TOOK A VOYAGE INTO THE UNKNOWN

It was still dark night when I untied the ropes and pushed her out onto the southern end of the freezing-cold Caledonian Canal at Banavie.

I suppose it must have been about 7am. Still dark, but only just. Certainly, the darkness had a hint of grey in it as we (that’s ‘Coinbra’, my yacht, and I) buzzed along the canal under outboard motor and at a snuffling four miles an hour.

After about half an hour of this, the sun sort of oozed through the freezing grey mist until it sat like a fuzzy white golf ball suspended over the stirring town of Fort William.

And on the canal, 70 feet above the town, I started to sing. Sing loudly in the bitter dawn. Maybe it was the whisky in the porridge I had just gulped down. Maybe it was utter desperation. Maybe I had gone mad.

Rationally, I certainly had no reason to sing. An hour earlier, when I had woken, cold and stiff on my hellishly uncomfortable bunk, my cursed idea of sailing my daft wee yacht up the Caledonian Canal in late November had seemed to be one of the worst mistakes I had ever made in a life in which there was plenty of competition.

We keep our wee boat in the summer near Fort William at one end of the canal, and in the winter at the other end, at Inverness. Lying in a hot bath with a whisky in my hand in August, I had come up with this ludicrous idea. I would spend three days sailing up the Caledonian Canal in the winter to Inverness … it would be fun, an adventure. It’s a terrible thing, the drink. Mind you, I do love the Caledonian Canal. It’s not really a canal at all but three big lochs, 40 miles long in total, all linked up by 20 miles of canal. A perfect necklace across the lush neck of the Scottish Highlands.

Such trips can also be tremendously life-enhancing. It’s the sort of experience that turns up the volume on your physicality. Puts you in touch with the child within. Reminds you how good it is to be hungry and then eat, tired and then sleep, cold and then warmed up. And it makes you sing as you buzz along in a freezing dawn.

I suppose I had better describe the boat. It’s awful. Well it’s not so much awful as awfie. Awfie wee. Awfie old. Awfie cold.

I bought her in a computer auction in Govan last spring. I had gone to buy a computer. During the sale I had phoned two pals and asked if they had £500 each to throw away as there was this cracking wee corribee coming up in the next few lots. They, bless them in their idiocy, had both said “Aye fine, do what you like, just get off the line.”

Or some such. I won’t tell you what they said when I called them an hour later to inform them that they now owned a part-share of a 40-year-old 21-foot-long yacht. A yacht which was currently being pelted by urchins outside a Govan auction house. And could they please both send me a cheque that very day as the one I had filed was due to bounce. Anyhow we’ve all had a grand summer with her.

But enough blether, back to my trip up the Callie in winter. The first part of the journey takes you up the seven locks of Neptune’s staircase, which is Fort William’s answer to the pyramids, and a damn sight more impressive too.

I had done these, the first of the 29 locks, the previous night, so by 10am I had had my chilly breakfast and was through the next lock, at Gairlochy.

It was there that I was nearly killed by fairies. Well not fairies – that would be ridiculous – but bogles. You see, beside Loch Lochy there dwell infamous bogles that sleep amongst the soft snowy beds that line the bottom of the corries of the lochside mountains.

Now, these bogles are the sort of drunken Gaels that really hate yellow-wellied yachties who come along in their daft wee boats waking them up when they have hangovers, so in revenge they chuck down great lumps of cold air which arrive at the yachties in the form of terrifying gusts.

Now, such gusts can have an alarming affect on your domestic arrangements. This is particularly true when you are in a Govan bought yacht steering with one hand and eating porridge with the other. And there’s a pan full of fat sizzling up some venison sausages on the cooker. And you’ve got acres of sail up because there’s quite obviously going to be damn-all wind. And the yacht suddenly whaps over on her side as if she’s been slapped really hard by a giant hand. So. Was it the flying fat that near killed me? No. The porridge in my lap then? No. It was going down into the cabin to get something to mop up the porridge and sliding on my backside on the fat, that’s what. Anyhow, after two hours of fierce sailing down Loch Lochy, we found ourselves at the other end of the 10 miles of thrills and spills and I staggered into Iain Mackinnon’s canal-side office demanding a hot drink, dry matches and an audience for my tale of the famed bogles’ latest outrage.

Iain runs the water sports centre at Loch Oich, and a great centre it is too – you should try the river rafting, it’s sensational.

Anyhow, having heard me out he gave me coffee, matches and his own thoughts on the Caledonian Canal.

Like all the commercial operators that I know who work on the canal, Iain adores the place, and feels that it could be greatly benefited by more access jetties for boats such as mine and reduced rates to encourage more craft to use it. Certainly, with my own passage fee being a whopping £112, I could sympathise with the latter point, and given that I was the first yacht to make that passage in three weeks, I suspected that the former made sense too.

Coffee over, Iain asked a favour. He had a skiff above the top lock at Fort Augustus that was needing to be taken to the lowest. Could I give him a hand shifting it down the locks? Naturally I said I would be delighted, and set off again, much refreshed.

Now, everyone who has ever used the Callie has their favourite sections, and for me it is the tranquil glades between Loch Oich and Loch Ness.

You know, it’s the diversity of the Caledonian Waterway that makes it a contender for the title of the most beautiful in the world. Try hard and you could pass through the waterway in 14 hours, but it would surely be a crime worthy of jail.

For if you did, you would miss contrasting the almost sea-like quality of the 300-foot-deep Loch Ness with the almost swamp-like quality of Loch Oich. Miss contrasting the almost Venetian qualities of the urbanised canal as it runs through Fort Augustus with the utter serenity of the wooded stretch before Collochie. Miss the mallards and the otters of Loch Oich. And miss telling your kids daft tales about the bogles above Loch Lochy.

Anyhow, it was now getting on for five in the afternoon, and having phoned Iain from Cullochie lock, I met him in the gloaming at the top of the locks at Fort Augustus to give him a hand down with his skiff.

It seemed like half a lifetime since I had awoken on that frozen canal bank in Fort William, but in fact it was less than 12 hours. That night I tied up at the pontoon in Fort Augustus, ate a fish supper and settled down in the chilly cabin with three swaying candles and a good book.

But it was hard to concentrate on an evaluation of the first days of George W. Bush’s Presidency. Inside, my head was spinning with memories of mallards in Loch Oich and mayhem on Loch Lochy and of Coinbra buzzing along frozen panoramas so seraphic that the very memory of it prevented sleep. But there was something else preventing my sleeping that night.

It was the wind. The wind howling in the rigging as a force-seven gale rattled the Coinbra noisily against the metal pontoon on the southern edge of Loch Ness.

Tomorrow’s dawn wasn’t going to be dry and freezing, it would be warm and damp, and possibly a little frightening. And we had a 20-mile Loch to cross. A Loch with a monster in it. Good grief. That was all I needed.

It looked possible that my second day on the Caledonian Canal would be every bit as memorable as the first.