The Commando Memorial near Spean Bridge in the West Highlands is one of the Caledonian Canal’s most poignant sights. A bronze statue of two muscular commandos, hauling heavy packs, forever looking towards Ben Nevis with binoculars ready; it commemorates where commandos trained during the Second World War and for subsequent conflicts.
A couple of miles from the canal, the journey is a reminder that hiring bikes from Le Boat helps cruisers to see a lot more of the Highlands. From the memorial it is just a short cycle to Spean Bridge Mill. Hopefully, if we succeed in keeping COVID under control, weaving demonstrations and whisky tasting will resume at the Mill.
Shelf after shelf of whisky pay tribute to Scotland’s whisky heritage, “the water of life” they call it round these parts. The peaty taste to the water makes 115 distilleries thrive throughout Scotland, with them exporting 38 bottles every second. No surprise then. that a portion of Haggis is often served with a whisky sauce.
In the quiet West Highlands, where retail opportunities are sparse, Spean Bridge Mill provides a rare chance with its cornucopia of tartan to buy some souvenirs and presents to take home: maybe a book, a calendar, beginner’s bagpipes, a kilt, Scottish knitwear, whisky or whisky marmalade.
On the outskirts of Fort William, another cycle ride from the Canal, the Ben Nevis Distillery, unsurprisingly set against the backdrop of the 4,143 feet of Britain’s highest mountain, offers fascinating tours. Obviously, they set you on your way with a wee dram or two for good measure.
Whisper it quietly, but you can always cheat. Cruisers who have taken the canal north to Inverness, can return to Laggan Locks and use their car to explore the southern canal. Or vice versa. From Fort William, the West Highland railway runs along a spectacular route of lochs, valleys and white sand beaches to the coastal port of Mallaig.
A route that is often acclaimed as the world’s greatest rail journey. In fact, The Jacobite, the steam train that completes the journey twice every day, was used in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwarts Express. Tickets on The Jacobite can be hard to come by. But a diesel service takes exactly the same tracks for less than a third of the price.
Saving the time of descending Neptune’s Flight of 8 locks, taking around 90 minutes, you can moor up at Banavie and catch the diesel from there. As soon as you board the train, look for seats on the left of the train, as they provide the most spectacular views heading towards Mallaig. If you drive from Laggan Locks, it is less than 40 minutes to Banavie’s huge car park.
Remarkably, there is even time in Mallaig before the return train to take a seal-spotting boat trip, out to sea, with backdrop views of the isles of Eigg, Rum and Skye. Alternatively, there’s the option of an outstandingly fresh sea food lunch, perhaps hand-dived scallops or huge langoustines?
Golfers who drive to Fort William will probably spot Fort William golf course on their left. It would seem wrong not to play a round in the country that gave the game of golf to the world, though at Fort Augustus, the golf club is even closer to the canal.
So much to see and do, but the canal is not to be rushed. In 1873, Queen Victoria steamed through 39 locks from Inverness to Fort William in a day. Inevitably she was not amused, stating that although the canal was “a great wonder” it was rather “tedious”. The Caledonian Canal is a journey for slow travel, a slice of Highlands life to be savoured.
2022 will be a very special year to sail the 60 miles of the Caledonian Canal, not only will it be the 209th anniversary of its opening, the year will also commemorate two centuries of the Highland Games too.
West Highland fact file
Learn more about cruising on the Caledonian Canal at leboat.co.uk, currently Le Boat have early booking discounts available for the 2022 and 2023 seasons. Visit the website for more details.
A seven-night self-catered cruise in Scotland in 2022, starting and finishing at Le Boat’s base at Laggan, is priced from £673 per boat.
For more about the West Highlands.Caledonian Canal, Highlands, Michael Edwards, Scotland, Travel Last modified: February 20, 2022