The Highlands are located in the northwest of Scotland, a land full of mountains, glens, mysterious lochs, ancient woods, and majestic castle ruins. It’s a rugged and fascinating landscape, the beauty of which can turn anyone into a poet. It is bisected by the 60-mile-long Caledonian Canal, which connects the North Sea with the Atlantic, starting in Inverness and ending near Fort William. The canal leads through lochs like Dufour, Ness, Oich, and Lochy and through 29 locks and under 10 bridges.
Inverness has an international airport; other airports to reach the Highlands are in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.
There are several possibilities to visit the Scottish Highlands; for instance, biking the Caledonian Way or hiking the shorter and less challenging paths. That said, exploring the highlands by water is, in my experience, not only the most comfortable but also the most scenic way.
I went on a 6-day canal cruise onboard the barge Ros Crana, starting in Inverness through all the lochs and locks all the way down to Fort William. Here are my reasons why I just love to explore the Scottish Highlands by water.
1. Comfort And Adventure In One
At well over 50, I am fit enough, but I love my comfort, so the possibility to sleep, eat, and glide along in a rustic barge and still see all the best sights is very attractive. The Ros Crana has six en-suite twin cabins with bunk beds and bathrooms with showers. She also has an upper deck to enjoy the views if you wish to put your feet up and a communal dining room. Meals are prepared fresh onboard by a Scottish chef, so expect some special local dishes.
Access to land is via a small ladder. You can bring your bicycle; along the route, there are many opportunities to walk or cycle along the towpath and be picked up by the barge at the end of your excursion for the day.
The 6-day Great Glen Cruise is only available once a year. You can browse the 2022 schedule on their website. There are lots of different cruises on other dates as well. The Caledonian Canal is open for sea to sea shipping from May 16, 2022.
Pro Tip: There is no access for wheelchairs and you must be fit enough to climb the small ladder. Bring a small pillow, I found those provided in the cabins a bit hard.
2. The Excitement Of The Locks
If you have traveled the Panama Canal or other big waterways, you may be a bit blasé about locks, but let me tell you, Scotland is different. You can get off the barge when it comes to a lock and has to wait until it opens and just walk along, seeing the water rise and even touch the boat if you please. You can’t have that experience if you travel on a cruise liner in the Panama Canal. Then there is the nail-biting moment when you wonder if she will fit through because all is so narrow and steep. Of course, she does; they make the trip all the time, but even so, it’s exciting — an experience you can only have if you travel by water.
3. Look For Nessie Really Close
Loch Ness is probably the best known of the Scottish lochs, and as the barge cruises to it, nobody can resist looking out for the famous monster called Nessie. Armed with binoculars, the passengers hang over the wooden railing of the upper deck, pointing out any hump they think they see and excitedly calling out, “Is this Nessie?” But it’s not only the monster hunt that makes such a close view of Loch Ness interesting and an experience you can only have on the water.
The loch runs along the tectonic fault of the Great Glen with its view of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, as well as the 1715 Fort Augustus and the romantic Telford Bridge.
Depending on which of the many cruises you choose, you can go ashore and explore all the attractions around Loch Ness either on foot or by taking your bike that you can transport on the barge.
4. Making Friends On Board
I am a solo traveler and went on this cruise on my own. With only a maximum of 12 passengers and communal meals, it was easy to make friends, another reason why I liked to explore the Highlands by water. Nobody stayed on board the entire time and just let the world go by. Everybody went on one or the other excursion and then exchanged what they saw and did at the communal dinner table. Or even planned joint trips for the next day! A feeling of community and friendship that is not possible on one of the journeys on giant cruise ships.
5. Getting Off The Barge To Visit Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle sits on a triangular promontory overlooking Loch Ness called Strone Point. Although a ruin, it is one of Scotland’s most visited castles with a long history of raids, clan wars, destruction, and reconstruction and invites a day trip from your barge. The castle dates from the 13th to the 16th century and is also one of the largest castles as far as grounds are concerned. The entire complex is divided into a northern part, known as Nether Bailey, and a southern part, roughly forming the shape of an “8” and connected by a causeway and a drawbridge. Nether Bailey is where the better-preserved parts of the castle are to be found, i.e. the gatehouse and the (once) 5-story Grant Tower. The castle ruins are open to the public, and a visitor center explains all the various parts and history.
The castle is surrounded by green lawns which make walking around very pleasant, although the climb to the northern part is quite steep.
The distance from Loch Ness where your barge stays to Urquhart Castle is approximately 2.5 miles, and there are several ways to get there. One is by taxi, another is by a bus that departs from the castle car park. Another is to take to your bike and ride up, but be aware that the road (A82) is steep and very winding. The bus may be your best option, followed by walking to wherever your barge is moored.
Pro Tip: Buy your admission ticket beforehand and online. Wear comfortable and solid walking shoes and bring an anorak or raincoat. Be aware that the weather in Scotland is unpredictable at any time of the year. It may be sunny with blue skies one minute followed by a heavy downpour the next. You want to be prepared.
6. Gliding Under The Bridges
The A82 crosses the Caledonian Canal no less than four times between Inverness and Fort William, and gliding under them and looking up at the different structures is another experience of the Scottish Highlands you can have only on the water.
The most elegant and pleasing is the suspension bridge of Oich across the River Oich and Loch Oich. It consists of three parts: the wrought iron links of the suspension chains, the pylons anchored in the water, and the planks. The original stone bridge was destroyed by flooding in 1849, so this suspension bridge was constructed and opened in 1854. Just north of the bridge, the stone foundations of the old bridge can still be seen. Another remarkable bridge is the Fort Augustus Swing Bridge, just before the staircase of locks that lowers the Caledonian Canal to Loch Ness.
All the bridges are still operated locally from a cabin on the opposite side, and some are also footbridges.
7. Exploring Fort William From The Water And Finishing In Inverness
Fort William is located at the northern end of the West Highland Way, which runs for 95 miles through the Highlands and is located near Corpach at the Caledonian Canal. The town also lies on the east shore of Loch Linnhe, Scotland’s largest sea loch. It has a pedestrian High Street and many picturesque squares, but it’s best known as a starting point for hikes and bike trips into the mountains, its proximity to Mount Nevis, and its aqueduct. Fort William has served as the location for movies such as Braveheart, Highlander, and Harry Potter, so it’s definitely a place you want to visit. There are the possibilities to do so by a tour from your barge as it is docked in Corpach or from a boat trip from Loch Linnhe.
Whilst in Corpach, make your way into the center of town and visit Treasures of the Earth, a private exhibition of crystals, gemstones, and fossils.
The barge cruise ends in Corpach/Fort William, and you are taken back to Inverness by road. Inverness is located at the mouth of the River Ness where it flows into the Beauly Firth. Whilst there you can have another “Highlands by water” experience by going onto one of several boat tours to see the Inverness cityscape including the castle that is the setting of a portion of Macbeth, or watching dolphins.
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