The Passage

Living the high life in the Highlands

A celebrity endorsement never harms, as we all know, and back in 1873, there was no bigger name in Britain than Queen Victoria. So when the monarch and her entourage took an early autumn trip along the Caledonian Canal, in September of that year, it not only established this Highland waterway as a tourist attraction, it ensured that henceforth it would be known as the Royal Route.

A boat journey along the canal is, indeed, a regal, 62-mile glide, taking the traveller from Inverness southwards to Fort william, through four different lochs (Dochfour, Ness, Oich and Lochy), and past an array of mountains described as “considerable protruberances” by the celebrated author Doctor Samuel Johnson, when he visited the area in 1773 (accompanied, of course, by his biographer Boswell).

By the end of the 19th century, then, this part of the world had come to be seen as a slice of sightseeing heaven, but it hadn't started out that way, 100 years earlier. Initial thinking, circa 1800, was to create a workaday conduit, making use of this water-filled geological fault that ran diagonally down from north-east to south-west Scotland, and joining up the naturally-occurring lochs with lengths of artificial watercourse (only one-third of the canal's length is actually man-made).

Far from viewing the project as a means of boosting visitor numbers, the authorities intended that it should serve three, rather sterner purposes. First, as a commercial shipping lane, providing cargo-bearing vessels with a safer and quicker alternative to circumnavigating the perilous northern coast of Scotland. Instead of having to negotiate two shipwreck black spots (Pentland Firth in the north-east and Cape Wrath in the north-west), skippers could take a handy, little cut-through that would transport them from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea with no risk, and in less than half the time.

Secondly, the canal would fulfil a vital military role, providing secure and speeded-up passage to British warships and supply frigates, engaged in naval confrontation with our old enemy Napoleon. Thirdly, the construction of a canal would bring not just employment, but people, back to an area which had been denuded of population thanks to the notorious “Highland Clearances”, whereby humans had been forcibly removed, in order to make way for sheep (altogether more profitable).

It was with this three-fold brief in mind then, that the renowned, Dumfries-shire born engineer Thomas Telford paid a couple of visits to the Highlands, along with his colleague, James Jessop, in 1801 and again in 1802. Having already had success with his construction of the Ellesmere Canal, in Shropshire, and the re-building of London Bridge, he now came up with the idea of  creating a link between Inverness and Fort William. Which was easier said than done, as things turned out. Having got the go-ahead to construct the canal in 1803, Telford and Jessop estimated that it would take seven years to compete, and cost around £475,000.

However, problems with constructing the locks (unstable, muddy foundations) and worker absenteeism during the potato harvest and peat-cutting seasons, meant that work didn't finish until 1822, some12 years behind schedule and roughly £440,000 over budget. In the meantime, too, the world had moved on. With the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, in 1815, the military and strategic significance of the canal disappeared. What's more, the finished canal was now too small to accommodate the larger breed of steam-powered, iron hulled ships that had started to replace their wooden forbears. 

In short, the scheme was not a financial success. In fact, it is recorded that, throughout the course of one entire year (1839), just 544 vessels used the new waterway Enter, then, wearing a crown, the Caledonian Canal's royal saviour. The date was the  16th of September 1873, and the vessel which bore Queen Victoria from Banavie (at the Fort William end, in the shadow of Ben Nevis) to her disembarkation point at Dochgarroch, was the Glasgow-registered paddle steamer Gondolier.

It was a journey of just 52 miles, but the publicity resulting from this day-trip launched the Caledonian Canal as a tourist destination.  All of a sudden, a voyage through its waters took on the status of a sort of UK Grand Tour (the continental-Europe version having been curtailed by the Napoleonic Wars).

Before long, then, other travellers followed, including the celebrated explorer Jules Verne, who in 1880 is said to have piloted his yacht St Michel III along the canal, on a voyage  which also took in Ireland and the Baltic. Not surprisingly, the new breed of tourist wanted a level of comfort rather greater than that experienced by Messrs Johnson and Boswell, when they embarked on their  horseback tour of the area in 1773 (in the course of which, Boswell coined the word “equitation”). Instead of the comforts a monarch might expect, the pair of adventurers spent their nights in humble, not to say squalid lodgings, which in some cases they shared with mice and rats. One particularly humble home is described by Boswell, in this way: “It was a wretched little hovel, of earth only, I think, and for a window had just a hole which was stopped with a piece of turf ,which could be taken out to let in light. In the middle of the room (or space which we entered) was a fire of peat, the smoke going out at a hole in the roof. The woman who lived there had a pot upon it, with goat’s flesh boiling. She had at one end, under the same roof but divided with a kind of partition made of wands, a pen or fold in which we saw a good many kids.

“Mr Johnson would not hurt her delicacy by insisting to see her bedchamber, but I was of a more ardent curiosity, so I lighted a piece of paper and went into the place where the bed was. There was a little partition of wicker, rather more neatly done than the one for the fold, and close by the wall was a kind of bedstead of wood, with heath upon it for a bed. At the foot of it I saw some sort of blankets or covering rolled up in a heap. “The woman’s husband was a man of 80, and Mr Fraser of Balnain allows him to live in this hut and to keep 60 goats for taking care of his wood. He was then in the wood. They had five children, the oldest only thirteen. Two were gone to Inverness to buy meal. The rest were looking after the goats. She had four stacks of barley, twenty-four sheaves in each. They had a few fowls. They will live all the spring without meal upon milk and curd, etc., alone. What they get for their goats, kids, and hens maintains them. I did not observe how the children lay.

“She asked us to sit down and take a dram. I saw one chair. She said she was as happy as any woman in Scotland. She could hardly speak any English, just detached words. Mr Johnson was pleased at seeing for the first time such a state of human life. She asked for snuff. It is her luxury. She uses a great deal. We had none, but gave her sixpence apiece. She then brought out her whisky bottle. I tasted it, and Joseph and our guides had some. So I gave her sixpence more.” Fast-forward to the 21st century, of course, and, a trip to this part of the world  involves not sinking down into the depths of deprivation, but cruising along in the lap of luxury. Not aboard the the vessel which bore Queen Victoria, however. At the end of its working life on the Caledonian Canal, the steam ship Gondolier rendered one final service to King and Country, when, in 1939, it was deliberately sunk near the Orkney Islands, in order to form a barrier against German ships attempting to attack the Allied naval base at Scapa Flow.

But while one lovely, old vessel now resides beneath the waves, another beautiful new boat has risen up to replace it. For in August 2000, the Caledonian Canal witnessed the arrival of the most lavishly-appointed craft ever to have cruised its waters: the Lord of the Glens. Constructed by Spanish craftsmen to exacting standards, both in terms of visual impact and technical capability, this aristocrat of the water is blessed with propulsion systems which enable it, on the one hand, to cope with the rigours of the open sea, and at the same time navigate the intricate confines of the Caledonian Canal. And “confines” is the right word. The first test any vessel on this stretch of water  must face, is whether it can fit inside the 36 locks along its banks. Each lock has a maximum dimension of 150 feet in length and 34 feet in width, with a depth of no more than 12 feet. What's more, due to the meandering nature of the waterway, dual propulsion systems and bow-thrusters are required to be controlled not only from the bridge but also from the side-wings of the vessel. This is so that the Master can manoeuvre the ship both into the impossibly tight locks and around the many tortuous bends.So much for the science. When it comes to aesthetics, it's the royal yacht Britannia that comes mind: witness the “Mauritius” deep blue hull, complemented by the all-round golden band and eagle motifs, plus the brilliant white superstructure.

Inside, too, the decor does not scream modern, urban chic, but embraces a classical, timeless style that is in sympathy with the lovely landscape outside.. On stepping aboard, the weary traveller is greeted by a sumptuous, even colonial look: rich, hardwood finishes offset by cream panelling, very much reminiscent of the ancien deluxe British Pullman carriage As for the boat's fixtures, fittings and furnishings, they come not  from 21st century conveyor belts, but are individually-chosen, historic pieces sometimes originating from the grand, steam-train expresses and ocean liners of yesteryear Of special note are the original 1929 “Riviera” armchairs (PLM Orient Express), the hand-painted David Roberts lithographs, the light-fittings from the liners SS France and Nord Norge, plus restaurant chairs, overhead glass panelling, deck furniture from the RMS Windsor Castle, and lovely brass friezes from the RMS Kenya Castle.

Look around you, and there are fascinating, scale models of locomotives and ocean going ships. Look downwards, and underfoot you'll find plush carpeting by Brinton’s, along with hardwood flooring into which compass motifs have been skilfully inlaid. Guests on the Lord of the Glens step aboard at the Reception level, location not just for the Robert Louis Stevenson restaurant and the six top-deck State Cabins, but also the bridge, where you are free to wander and chat to the mariners on duty (all the officers are Brits, all the crew members European). A short flight of stairs then brings guests to the splendid Upper Deck and the David Livingstone lounge bar, again richly decorated in hardwood finishes. Cleverly, this  is   divided into an aft area, for drinking and relaxing area, as well as a stern-facing viewing deck. There is also a forward area, reserved for quieter contemplation through the all-round panoramic windows; in or out, though, the weather can't spoil your day, for when the temperature is hot, there is air-conditioning, and when it's cold, there's toasty-warm, built-in heating.

In all, there are 27 State Cabins spread over three decks, all facing outwards (no views of corridors), and all named after well known Scots (the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the painter David Roberts, and, of course, Thomas Telford himself). Each cabin boasts rich hardwood finishes, plush carpeting, dressing table, stool, wardrobe, internal telephone, satellite TV and en-suite facilities with shower, WC and washbasin. All of them have heating and air-conditioning, and while the top and middle-deck cabins have a picture window, their lower-deck counterparts have two portholes each. Meals are freshly prepared on board, by a loyal and long serving brigade of chefs, using locally sourced produce, and nowhere is this more evident than in the sumptuous Scottish breakfast served each morning.

This is not mass-market, production-line tourism, but tailor-made travel of the old-fashioned variety. Unlike the standard, modern-day ocean cruise, the maximum number of passengers is 54, rather than 2.054, and emphasis is not on speed, but on style. At all times, progress is serene-to-steady, rather than rushed, which means the view through the windows remains beautiful, rather than blurred. And even when the Lord of the Glens does put into harbour, be it for you to amble round the shops at Fort Augustus, or  to explore the marvel that is Neptune's Staircase (a flight of eight successive locks at the Fort William end of the canal), you are not so much an invading force, as a group of handpicked invitees. In short, then, you are travelling on a Lord, and you feel like a King or Queen.

Ship Crest

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Lord of the Glens, Kintail House, Carleton New Road, Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 2DE. Telephone: 01756 704740