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Issue 81 - Loch Lomond in Style

Scotland Magazine Issue 81
June 2015

 

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Loch Lomond in Style

Roddy Martine goes luxury cruising

It began in the 1860s when Johnny Sweeney, a fourteen year old Irish boy from Donegal arrived off the ferry at Dumbarton and set off to have a look at Loch Lomond.

So as not to spoil his brand new boots, he walked barefoot the five miles to Balloch where he found a job as a boat man and, in the course of time, had accumulated enough money to start his own business, hiring out rowing boats from the Silk Dye Works on the west bank of the River Leven. By the time of his death, he was running steam passenger launches for the legions of holidaymakers who annually descend upon Loch Lomond from all over the world.

Fast forward four generations and his great grandsons John, and Ed Sweeney, and three great great grandsons, another John, Craig and Marc, are still operating his original passenger, charter and boat mooring business. Still based at Balloch, the company operates a fleet of five superb passenger boats –
Silver Dolphin (capacity 125); Silver Marlin (capacity 127); Astina (capacity 180); Lomond Duchess (capacity 95), and Glen Falloch (capacity 50) – providing a mix of private cruises and private charters and catering for an increasing number of weddings and corporate events. With a new pier facility at nearby Loch Lomond Shores, Sweeney's Cruises now carry in excess of 100,000 passengers in a year linking up with tour bus companies such as Timberbush Tours, Gray Line Scotland, Highland Heritage and National Coaches. Sailings are only officially closed on Christmas Day and at New Year.

When the current John's father, also John, took over in 1964, the business included self-drive motor boats and passenger boats. When the current John and his wife Catherine took charge in the 1980s, they expanded into catering for weddings and corporate entertainment. Sweeney's Cruises currently employs up to 30 members of staff, all of them cheery and welcoming.

“I've been working here since I was nine years old,” John reflected as we set off from Balloch on the
Astina, brother Ed at the wheel. “There has never been any pressure on the family to join in, but can you think of a better life?”

A multi-talented master-craftsman, John's parallel career as a boat builder began as an apprentice on the Rosneath Peninsula and he has since been involved in the construction of over 600 glass reinforced plastic (GRP) fishing boats. He is a Director of the Love Loch Lomond Destination Organisation and represents passenger boat operators in the Loch Lomond Association. His modest and understated passion for his boats and the area in which they operate is instantly recognisable.

Loch Lomond, fabled in that everlasting melancholy song of the same name, is 24 miles long (39km) and 5 miles wide (8km). It is the largest inland stretch of water in Great Britain by surface area, and something that is often forgotten is that, depending on the water level, there are in excess of twenty four main islands on Loch Lomond, ranging from the largest Inchmurrin to Inchmoan, Inchcailloch and Inchconnachan, which curiously is home to a colony of over fifty wallabies introduced in the 1950s by Lady Arran, sister of Sir Ivor Colquhoun of Luss.

After a gentle run up the River Leven, we were almost at once out into open water. With Balloch Castle Country Park on the right hand side, the boat circumnavigated left around the Loch Lomond Shores Visitors' Complex to pass the magnificent Cameron House, built by the Smollett family in the 18th Century and today the 5 Star hotel centrepiece of a timeshare and leisure complex. As we glided onwards up the western shoreline, the purposeful recorded voice of Neil Oliver, BBC television's
A History of Scotland and Coast presenter, provided a detailed commentary.

Beginning with Cameron House, five great mansion houses mostly built by wealthy Glasgow entrepreneurs in the Victorian era, dominate the western shores of the loch. Auchendrennan House, on a hillside was built in 1866 by George Martin, a tobacco baron, on a site once occupied by one of Robert the Bruce's hunting lodges. Next door is Auchenhaglish House, created for the first Chairman of the Clydesdale Bank. It was destroyed by fire in 1990 but has been completely restored and converted into loch side apartments. Arden House, built in 1860 for Sir James Lumsden, Lord Provost of Glasgow who made his fortune in the stationery business, has also been converted into luxury apartments. Further on is Rossdhu, former ancestral home of the Colquhouns of Luss and now the clubhouse of the exclusive Loch Lomond Golf Club which opened in 1993 with its course designed by Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf.

Directly ahead of us rose Ben Lomond, standing 3196 feet (974 metres) with just a dusting of snow on the summit. On the near left, we passed the privately owned island of Inchmurrin where there are several holiday chalets and, rather unexpectedly, the headquarters of Scotland's oldest naturist club which surely goes to show how resilient Scots are against the midges.

This is the widest part of Loch Lomond where Scotland's celebrated Highland Boundary Fault is most visible from the group of islands running in a direct line to the mainland hills on either side.

Loch Lomond abounds in 200 species of birds including ospreys, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, capercaillies, and the largest grouse to be found in the world. The southern waters are inhabited by salmon and sea trout and the Powan, a rare type of fish herring, the ancestors of which were trapped here during the last ice age.

Sweeney's operate seven variations of cruise: a 45 minute Loch Lomond Shores (April to October); a one hour Experience (All Year; Winter Timetable November until March); a two hour Island Discovery (May to September); a one and a half hour sunset cruise (July and August); a one hour Balloch to Luss Waterbus (May to September); a 30 minutes Luss to Balmaha Waterbus (May to September) and a one hour Osprey Cruise from Luss (May to September).

With a big sky overhead, seaplanes taking off and landing in front of Cameron House, and that wonderful sense of freedom that accompanies being out in the middle of this magical expanse of scenic water, surrounded on all sides by rolling hills and a distant mountain, it was an experience to be cherished. As we berthed back at Balloch, the queue for the next sailing had already assembled. What a glorious way to spend a morning or afternoon.

Tourist Information
Sweeney's Cruises, Loch Lomond, Balloch, Dunbartonshire G83 8SS
Tel: +44 (0) 1389 752376
Email: info@sweeneyscruises.com
www.sweeneyscruises.com