Scottish Canoe Routes

Going North: a trip up the Great Glen

Going north is synonymous with seeking out wilderness, solitude and adventure. Here in the UK we may lack an open canoe heritage. but we do have a North, which, echoing the North American version, is rugged, sparsely populated and remote enough to make one feel adventurous. Scotland’s wilderness is gratifyingly replete with wild rivers and lochs, authenticated by the constant companions of Northern wild places, prodigious rainfall and voracious midges; it is preserved by its climate far more effectively than by any legislation.

A chain of lochs, linked by short sections of canal (the Caledonian canal), stretches across Scotland from Fort William on the west coast to Inverness on the east. Together they give a unique canoe trip across the country of a mere 62 miles in length. This seems an indecently short span for an entire country, but within it are distilled the elements of really great canoeing. We had been contemplating the trip for quite a while and when the opportunity finally presented itself the five of us headed North with our wood/canvas Peterborough and Old Town Discovery. We set off somewhat unlike the eager and well prepared family from the pages of a canoe-camping book. A recent visit to the dentist had left me with a persistent headache, my wife was recovering from a canoe accident (the canoe was hanging up at the time) and wasnʼt at all sure that her back would hold up to days of paddling, Jim and Dan being at an age of intense rivalry were arguing over who was going in which canoe, and who was having which paddle. The team was completed by seven-year·old Sarah whose first words as a baby had been "I hate canoeing." The preparations were consummated by a terrible weather forecast. Even so, these shortcomings had failed to extinguish completely the mounting air of excitement that had gathered over the house during the preceding week.

After the drive up, we registered at the Corpach sea lock just outside Fort William on the west and put in above the first lock flight, Neptuneʼs Staircase, under the shadow of Ben Nevis, Great Britain’s highest mountain. It seemed slightly unreal to think that we could enter this fold in the hills and emerge days hence at the North Sea, The Caledonian canal is about 80 feet wide, fringed by a variety of exotic trees and the whole framed by snow-streaked mountains; it is altogether very unlike a man-made waterway. It was completed in 1822 as a safer and quicker alternative to the route around the turbulent north coast, although commercial traffic has long since subsided leaving the waters as a quiet preserve for a variety of small craft and the occasional pleasure cruiser revelling amidst the spectacular scenery. It is usual to do the trip from west to east to take advantage of the prevailing wind. On this occasion, the wind was prevailing in the wrong direction causing us to expend more energy than we would have liked at such an early stage of the trip, considering what was to come, for the spectre of Loch Ness was never far from our thoughts. Loch Ness is famed for its wild beauty, its unpredictable violence and unusual fauna. It is 22 miles long, one mile wide and precisely aligned with the usual south-west wind. Being trapped between steeply rising mountains, all the wind is funnelled along the loch accounting for its tempestuous nature, it not being uncommon for the water to be whipped up into a fury of six-foot waves within minutes. Happily, as we neared the end of the first section of canal, the wind died away to nothing and we emerged on to Loch Lochy and into a canoe-trippers dream. The deserted, treelined shore fell back into secluded little sandy arcs offering perfect camp sites, the water flattened out to reflect the grandeur of the mountains and the sun began to break through the lightening clouds.

We pulled out on to a beach, and once we had the tent up, the gear unpacked and dinner cooking, we explored this little spot that was ours for the night. I noticed that a change had come over the boys who were now politely offering each other the first trip out solo in the Peterborough on the evening loch, and even Sarah was smiling; the relationship between the kids turned out to be a pretty accurate barometer of our fortunes on the trip. It was also time for a little canoe maintenance. The Peterborough had hit a granite block, sharply split during the making of the canal, which had all but holed the canvas. In preparation for covering the gash with duct tape, I took a glowing stick from the fire and in imagined Northwoods fashion blew on this near to the wound to dry out the canvas; it made me feel good even if it didn't achieve anything. Before turning in, I wandered out to the tip of a sandy point in the half-light. The moonlit water stretched out into the distance finally becoming lost between the mountains and the scene radiated an overwhelming sense of calm and space. Whilst collecting a few last pieces of driftwood for our fire, I spotted treasure in the shape of a large empty tin can, which enabled me to fulfil an ambition to try out the classic can-and-string  moose call. A majestic sound, not heard hereabouts for centuries, soon echoed across the dusky loch and was surely instrumental in attracting the two deer that woke me at first light next morning.

The next stretch, Loch Lochy, is a pretty ten mile lake, strikingly set amidst the peaks and forests. made all the more memorable for us by the cascades of newly emerged beech leaves and enticingly choppable canoe cedars. Then the rain came, first as a misting in the distance. then a darkening of the surface of the loch before the final wet blast. The headwind was back too, stronger than before and this, together with the driving rain relentlessly dulled our senses and wore down our resolve. On this trip, a road follows the entire route so that you can escape at any time; because you can escape, there is an extra pressure on you not to quit when the going gets tough. Before the idea of making for the road had a chance to seriously take hold, we happened upon that most rare of wilderness institutions, the floating cafe. Moored strategically at Laggan locks is Scot 2, a converted icebreaker, into which the five of us filed out of the pouring rain and succeeded in steaming up the windows and dripping a large puddle on the floor by the time the coffees arrived. A guitar propped up in a corner told of rollicking nautical nights, safe inside, whilst the rain pelted against the portholes.

The combination of coffee. warmth and easing rain had a miraculous effect on our spirits. and presently we continued, smiling again, the short distance to Loch Oich and our next camp. It was still wet. so we pitched camp as quickly as possible and retreated into the haven of the tent, securely zipping our the weather.

In the tent early next morning, the canvas walls suddenly turned bright orange — the sun had come out, which was good news because the gear, draped over the tent and hung from a line between bushes was nearly all dry by the time that we set out on to the lake. Loch Oich is small and homely and the surrounding trees and islands gave its a little more protection from the headwind, although we crossed the loch occasionally to seek out the calmer water that always seemed to be on the other side. At one point we passed beneath the walls of Invergarry Castle, the sight of which invoked the feeling of forlorn history that is so typical of Scotland.

On the left, at the end of the loch, the River Oich branched off over a weir, giving an alternative route to Loch Ness, its crystal waters and silver boulders looking a very inviting prospect for next time. The following stretch of canal was the most attractive, the summit level of the waterway, which over-spilled into little lochans here and there amidst the distinctive landscape of untamed Scots pine, birch and wild crags standing out on tho moor against the blue sky, It was in fine mood that we glided in to the Fort Augustus pontoon and back, abruptly, into society. A run of locks here led down to Loch Ness, blue to the horizon, looking huge and a little menacing.

Fort Augustus is a lively tourist village with a hundred attractions to delay the canoeist; the sight of the boats plying the locks, the usual craft shops and even a monastery. We stretched out in the sun for a while with ice creams and feasted on the unfamiliar bustle and colour of civilization. Pulling out onto the loch with wishes of bon voyage, but still against a headwind, we were suddenly alone again and because it was getting late we landed at the first convenient spot, set up camp and hung our blackened pot over a driftwood fire for the first cup of tea of the evening. In the morning, in that lying-awake period before the body wants to move, my senses strained to detect any clue about the weather. Then came the dreaded soft pitterpat against the canvas; at first I could make myself believe it was insects or the wind, but then there was no doubt; it was rain. The wind was still stubbornly blowing the wrong way down the lake although, strangely, the clouds were now moving in a west to east direction, Quite suddenly the smoke from the campfire started behaving erratically and then began to drift steadily in our intended direction down the loch. Excitement broke out in camp and we immediately set about test ing the sailing rig, consisting of a tarp and canoe pole at one end of which I had drilled a small hole to take the line that hoisted the sail. We put out, set up the pole and when I pulled on the hoisting line we shot off like a startled rabbit. The euphoria lasted less than five minutes when it became clear that the waves were building fast and were already making handling difficult. Soon we had to take down the sail, but left the canoes lashed together for stability.

After Urquhart Castle, the waves continued to increase, finally to the point of worry; each paddle stroke seemed like pole-vaulting and took us an enormous distance down the loch. When the waves reached the three-to-four foot mark the tops started breaking off and coming into the Peterborough, which, being tied to the Old Town, was not free to ride the crests. I had to bail continuously and landing be came an imperative, but the waves were crashing onto sharp granite rocks along the shore, making the prospect daunting. We finally went, all or nothing, for a small gap and landed, unloading with the waves bashing the canoes together and soaking us, relaxing only when the boats were safely away from the water. Landing on sharp rocks in rough water seems to be one of the more demanding aspects of managing a wood/canvas canoe.

The next morning the sun came out once more and again everything had steamed dry by the time that we set off. Although the loch was still choppy, it was nowhere near as rough as on the previous day, but ominously the wind was rising all the time and when we reached the end of the Loch we again had large waves. Turning across the bottom end of the loch we had to make a dash for the outlet with the waves full broadside. This was a frenzy of all-out paddling, half-heard shouted instructions drowned by the breakers crashing on to the beach, sitting in the troughs unable to see out, and occasionally reaching down with the paddle and feeling not water but air.

Once through the narrow outlet of the loch I turned around and the sight of the others, still some way off, in their tiny red boat against the huge angry waters thrashing behind, suddenly brought home our frailty. When we turned the corner it was sheltered and immediately calm. We linked canoes, passed round a packet of biscuits with trembling hands and paddled for a while together whilst the tension ebbed slowly away. We now had only a short section of canal leading to Inverness and although it is possible to transfer to the river Ness and continue awhile, we stayed with the canal because it passes closer to the campsite. When we finally rolled into the site pulling the canoes on wheels behind us, it was with an end-of-trip high that put a rosy glow on the normally routine task of setting up camp. If only that feeling would last.

The bus back to Fort William to retrieve the van followed closely our route and as the lochs unrolled beside me, I relived all those little incidents that happen during a trip that make the experience priceless; Danʼs forlorn little cry for help from out on the lake when he dropped his paddle on his first solo in the Peterborough, Sarah's joy at finding a stowaway teddy in the bottom of her sleeping bag, Jim easily starting the fire after my failed lesson for the kids with birchbark. The rearing mass of Ben Nevis signalled the end of the bus journey and the driver, with typical Northern hospitality, went out of his way to drop me at the locks.

We got back home after a tiring twelve hour drive, but still hadnʼt fully returned from our trip; the house seemed unfamiliar, something only half-remembered from a previous era.