Downtown Inverness from the Ness Walk. Photo by Don Mankin

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I leaned back in my deck chair, basking in the sun and enjoying the warm breeze. Languorously I gazed at the lush Scottish scenery slowly slipping by.

Wait, what?! Sun? Warm breeze? Scotland?

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It was August and my wife, Katherine, and I were cruising down the Caledonian Canal from Inverness, through Loch Ness, to Fort William on a colorfully-painted, retrofitted barge during what passes for a heat wave in Scotland.

The Caledonian Canal was constructed in the early 19th century to connect the west coast of Scotland near Fort William to the east coast at Inverness on the Moray Firth. About a third of the 60-mile length of the canal is man-made; the rest runs through several lochs, including Loch Ness.

In addition to lochs, there are locks – 29 of them to raise the canal over 100 feet at its highest point. The canal is located along the Great Glen, a straight geological fault that runs through the highlands, featuring some of the most historic and beautiful scenery in Scotland.

The Ros Crana – the name of the red, green, and yellow barge operated by Caledonian Discovery – contains six cabins with private baths, a lounge, a dining area, and a spacious outdoor deck where I spent much of the week-long cruise.

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Exploring Inverness: River Walks and Old Towne

The Ros Crana, our home for 6 days. Photo by Don Mankin
The Ros Crana, our home for 6 days. Photo by Don Mankin

Our trip started in Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands. Inverness is a charming, walkable city featuring an Old Towne with historical buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th Centuries and the River Ness flowing through the heart of the city to Loch Ness, home of Nessie, the fabled monster.

For three days we wandered leisurely through Old Town and along the Ness Walk, a leafy promenade that lines the river on both banks. Along the flat, peaceful walk are stately houses, cafes, restaurants, a botanical garden, and the 19th Century Saint Andrew Cathedral.

A series of Victorian footbridges less than a mile from the city center led to a cluster of small, wooded islands in the middle of the river, then across to the other bank. On one of the islands, I sat on a fallen tree trunk that had been carved into an imagined likeness of “Nessie.” From my perch on the Nessie log, I hypnotically contemplated the rivulets on the shallow river as it flowed past.

Maybe it was the idyllic weather. I’ve wandered along many urban river promenades in my traveling life, but this one has to be one of my favorites.

Meandering through the winding streets, pedestrian promenades, courtyards, and alleyways of Old Town was almost as much fun. One of my favorite sights was the 18 Century Old High Church, the oldest church in Inverness with its graveyard overlooking the river.

Another highlight was Leakey’s Bookshop, Scotland’s largest secondhand bookstore. Set in an old church, its two floors contain over 100,000 volumes. If there is an organizing scheme for the rows and shelves of books, it wasn’t apparent to us. One could easily wander for hours among the musty tomes.

Through Lochs and Locks on the Caledonian Canal

Looking for Nessie in Loch Ness. Photo by Don Mankin
Looking for Nessie in Loch Ness. Photo by Don Mankin

After three days in Inverness, it was time to board the barge and begin our cruise. For the first couple of hours, the boat glided down the narrow canal, the gentle put-put of the engine and the tinkling of water flowing past the bow were the only sounds. Everyone sat on the deck, drinking beer or gin and tonics, soaking up the sun, and gazing at the lush emerald-green countryside.

We passed through several locks, the first of many. While the barge waited at the last lock of the day, we walked down the towpath to a spot where the Caledonian Canal and the River Ness meet and caught our first glimpse of the legendary Loch Ness in the distance.

For the next several days, we cruised, basked in the sun, and hiked. The hikes ranged from a few easy miles along the shore of a loch past a castle, to a more challenging trek up and down “Wee Hill,” which wasn’t anywhere near as “wee” as we expected.

We trudged through knee-high heather and pointy, shoulder-high gorse. Roots, weeds, and underbrush grabbed at our boots. When we finally reached the crest of the hill, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Loch Oich in the distance.

Other hikes included one up a gorge alongside plunging falls to a café at the top for ice cream and an easy stroll on shore to explore the ruins of Invergarry castle, a stronghold of the MacDonells of Glengarry, built in the 17th Century.

After the castle, we walked through the woods along the shoreline, then stopped for tea and scones at the Glengarry Castle Hotel, an elegant 19th-century baronial mansion, now a hotel, that could pass for a castle anywhere else in the world.

Katherine hikes through heather on the way down Wee Hill. Photo by Don Mankin
Katherine hikes through heather on the way down “Wee Hill”. Photo by Don Mankin

My favorite hike was up a gentle slope overlooking Loch Lochy to the estate of the Cameron Clan in Achnacarry. Besides being the historical home of such luminaries as former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, and the movie director of Terminator, The Titanic, and Avatar, James Cameron, it was also the training site for WWII commandos from Britain, the US, and other allied nations.

More of a leisurely walk than a hike, it was the most serene of all the hikes we took. It was just Katherine and I, plus another couple, so the peaceful walk unfolded at our own pace.

The scenery was bucolic, the views of the bay and our colorful barge at anchor were sublime, and the weather was balmy and bright. The easy path took us past flocks of grazing sheep, the Clan Cameron Castle, a small clan museum, and an old, rustic church.

A sailboat, stand-up paddle boards, bikes, and canoes were also available on board for use by the guests. Most every day, many of the guests rode bikes along the canal path, meeting up with the barge at the next dock or lock.

We passed on the bikes but went for an easy paddle one afternoon in a canoe along the shore. Another afternoon, Katherine and our guide, Bryony, paddled down the canal while I stayed on board to catch up on my notes.

A Transcendent Moment

Rainbow on Loch Oich. Photo by Don Mankin
Rainbow on Loch Oich. Photo by Don Mankin

This was a trip filled with memorable moments, but nothing matched the after-dinner light show on the fourth day of the cruise. We were anchored in a secluded corner of Loch Oich, just offshore the castle ruins. There was little else around us, other than water, trees, sky, and a couple of other boats. The slanting rays of the setting sun, filtered through patches of mist, turned the emerald hills to gold.

As we were finishing our dinner, we spotted a rainbow through the windows of the dining cabin. We rushed outside with our cameras to capture the most incredible rainbow I have ever seen. With a full 180-degree arch and brilliant sun breaks illuminating the rainbow, ground, and puffs of mist, it was a spectacular symphony of vivid color. All chatter stopped. We stood hushed, enthralled by the scene.

Then Bryony, sitting on the roof of the wheelhouse, began to play a wistful tune on a recorder, followed by Martin, our skipper, playing a traditional Scottish tune on a tin whistle. A sweet sound of music to accompany a long moment of breathtaking beauty.

In the words of one of the guests, “I think we found God.”

I have had a few truly transcendent moments in my many years of travel – mountain gorillas in Uganda, whales in Alaska, and the stark beauty and stillness of Antarctica, among others. This moment ranked up there with the best.

Full rainbow on Loch Oich. Photo by Don Mankin
Full rainbow on Loch Oich. Photo by Don Mankin

If you go:

Contact Caledonian Discovery, our hosts for the canal cruise, for more information.

Visit the Culloden battlefield Visitor Centre just outside of Inverness. This was the last pitched battle between the Jacobites, seeking to restore the Stuarts to the British throne, and government troops, under the leadership of the Duke of Cumberland. In less than an hour 1600 soldiers were slain, most of them Jacobites.

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Author Bio: Don is an award-winning travel writer who specializes in writing about transformational travel and adventure travel for 60+ travelers. After a 40+ year career as an organizational psychologist, consultant, and academic, he transitioned to travel writing with the publication of his National Geographic book, Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: Fifty Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (with Shannon Stowell, 2008). The Wall Street Journal called this book, “ One of the best travel books to cross our desk this year…A wonderful – and inspiring – read.”

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  1. Thank you Don for another delightful trip where I could feel as if I was with you and Katherine. Fondly your cousin Billie

  2. We were delighted to host Don Mankin on our cruise through the Great Glen last year and I loved reading his account of the trip. I’ve been skippering cruises for Caledonian-Discovery here on the Caledonian Canal for over 25 years now and the evening of the rainbow on Loch Oich was one of the most spectacular. Such a privilege to share that with you and everyone Don and many thanks for your stories.