The Caledonian Canal is a waterway that lays perfectly sheltered in between the rugged Scottish mountains. Crossing Scotland by boat is the perfect way to discover the beauty of the many castle ruins that take you back in time and let your imagination on the loose.
Scotland by boat
About the trip
Our journey started in the airport, where me and five friends boarded an incredibly small airplane and later touched down in Inverness. From there, the bus would take us to Laggan. We’d seen the landscapes deep below during our flight, and finally driving through them was an amazing start of our adventure. In Laggan, things got real when we rented the boat that would take us all the way towards Inverness and back. The whole journey took six days and was a great experience.
A bit of history
The 100km long Caledonian Canal connects Inverness with Corpah and provides an alternative and safe route for small boats that go from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea or the other way round. It’s a complex waterway, connecting the already present lakes with each other. Along the way we got through 29 locks and passed four aqueducts. One third of the canal’s length is manmade and the construction ended in 1822 after 21 years of hard labour.
Best time to go
It’s safe to say that you always need to bring warm clothes when you go to Scotland. The average temperature in summer lays around 14°C with a maximum around 18°C and temperatures can easily drop under the two digit mark. The best time to go is between the end of May and early September. If you’re not afraid of cold and wet weather, though, there’s nothing holding you back from going any other time of the year. The most rainy months are December and January.
We chose to do our trip in September, partly because that was easier to get a break from work, but also because the costs for renting a boat went down after the busy Summer season. Unfortunately, the temperatures had gone down as well. It was getting really cold when we entered the Scottish highlands, but luckily we were well prepared and we’d packed some winter gear.
We really wanted to have a unique experience, so we decided to cross Scotland by boat. We jumped onto google and soon found a company called Le Boat. They’re renting out different sizes of boats, so we picked one that fitted our needs and budget. There are, however, plenty of other options. You could choose to go by kayak, or hike or cycle your way through the valleys on the pathway that follows the canal.
Even though we picked one of the smaller boats, it had plenty of space. It was easy to cook, eat and relax on board, because they played with space in a very creative way. While the living room could easily sit six people during the day, it could also be transformed into a bedroom for two at night. There were two other bedrooms, of which the smallest bedroom one was located in the tip of the boat, with space to sleep three people. The two bathrooms had an all in one combo of toilet, shower and sink - not super comfy but it did what it had to do.
It’s actually pretty simple to steer these boats. We got a 30 minute introduction and we were ready to go.
The bus dropped us off in Laggan, a very small town next to the canal. The scenery was absolutely beautiful and we were excited to finally see the boat. We were greeted by a real Scottish skipper. He was a fun guy and he explained us some details about our journey by boat. There were a few rules to follow and we had to keep a map on hand, showing us the depth of the water ways. After just a short explanation, he took us for a spin to see whether we understood it all and after that, we could go our own way.
The first lake we’d be going through was Loch Oich, which is already a pretty big lake. With the dark green hilltops covered in a layer of mist, our journey towards Inverness started off in a true Scottish atmosphere. Loch Oich is the highest lake of them all, laying 32 meters above sea level. To secure passage towards the Northeast, boats need to travel through many locks. We soon had to go through a first lock and we all went outside to make sure that we could secure the boat. The difference in height between both sections was around 3 meters. It was a bit stressful at first, but since every lock along the way is guarded and there are always people happy to assist you, there’s not so much to worry about.
The first evening, we arrived at Fort August, where we decided to stay the night. The village isn’t too big, but it has a nice bar where we spent some time. It was already pretty cold at night, with temperatures flirting with zero degrees. Luckily, our boat had a stove to keep us warm during the night.
On day two, we had to go through the Fort August locks in order to continue our journey. There are 5 stairs in these locks, so it took us about an hour to get through them all. We had to pull the boat into each lock by hand, then wait for the water level stabilize and move on to the next section. The day started off pretty slow, and we were all still feeling sleepy, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and securing the boat with the other. At the other side of the locks, we would reach the legendary Loch Ness. It had been capturing our interest for years and years, and we would finally see the lake of Nessy with our own eyes. We eventually didn’t end up seeing the monster of Loch Ness, but the jawdropping scenery made our journey worthwhile. No wonder they wrote stories about this place, it’s really mythical, with abandoned castles on the hilltops, and some old ship wrecks near the ruins. It’s pretty easy to moor the boat on different locations around the lake, so we even managed to visit a couple of the old castles. When navigating Loch Ness, it’s important to keep a close eye at the depth of the lake, because it’s pretty shallow and dangerous in certain spots.
Loch Ness is around 36km long and we decided to moor somewhere in the middle of it so we could go for a nice hike before dark. We walked up through the meadows all the way to the top of one of the hills. The hike was amazing and we even got to see some deer near the edge of one of the forests. Once we reached the top we just sat down and enjoyed the stunning view.
When we woke up the next day, the morning sun made the scenery turn into a fairy-tale landscape, with a soft mist over the water and Nessy’s spirit keeping us company. After spending a long day on the water the day before, we arrived surprisingly quickly in Inverness. This would be our cultural stop of the trip. We took the bus towards Tomatin, where we visited the local whisky distillery. You can’t really go to Scotland without trying out the local whiskey, right?
From Inverness, we made the return trip towards Laggan, where we arrived two days later. We then continued our trip further Southwest towards Fort William, the home of Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis is Scotland’s highest mountain, and we were excited to get our hiking boots dirty the next morning. The summit of the Ben Nevis is actually the collapsed dome of an ancient Volcano, so the landscape is very rugged and wild. With freezing winds and rain, the hike wasn’t easy, but it was totally worth the trouble.
Back in the boat, we warmed ourselves back up and got ready to for the so-called Neptune’s Staircase. The Staircase is a combination of 9 locks right behind each other. It took us around 2 hours to get through them all, after which we cruised around on the final and westernmost lake of them all.
We finished our boat trip on the next day, with one last trip back to Laggan. We sadly docked our boat back in Laggan, waved it goodbye and took the bus back towards Inverness. Soon we were flying back. All of us stared out of the window, looking at the amazing Scottish highlands and already dreaming about the next time we’d see them.
Tips and recomendations
What to bring
Warm clothes, even in summer.
Non-slippery shoes to run across the deck. The surface is often wet and you need stability when mooring the boat or entering a lock.
Hiking gear. The Scottish highlands are made to explore on foot.
Insect repellent, best bought locally. Scotland is known for their midges, attacking in a group.
If you want to buy alcohol or go to bars, you will need to be over 21 years old and show your passport to prove it. Also know that most pubs close pretty early.
When traveling by boat, you will always need to close the cupboards and secure any stuff that’s laying around. When you take a turn, or when a larger cruiser passes by, the waves can get pretty big and they’ll shake everything around. We had all of our kitchen supplies flying around on the floor one time, so we learned our lesson quickly.
The whole experience was truly amazing. It was great trying out this unconventional way of traveling, but it’s the Scottish scenery that really made this trip as unforgettable as it was. The old ruined castles, the mysterious misty lochs and the amazing hills and mountains, there’s just nothing like it.