Cycling and Sailing in Scotland – Caledonian Canal

Cycling and Sailing in Scotland – Caledonian Canal

This post was updated on August 31st, 2018

Wednesday August 23, 2017

Tony notices that it is always the same order in which we are getting up to the deck in the morning. Today is no difference. It is still an hour before breakfast and mere two hours before we start our new cycling tour, but I enjoy the slow start of the day.

Today I will be able to choose from two different routes. I can either go the shorter one, toward a special surprise and back to the boat. Or I can take the long way, going to the surprise and from there back to the ship via Spean Bridge. The choice is an easy one. The weather is beautiful today, and my legs do not show any signs of fatigue, so I am going to take the long route.

The Caledonian Canal – a brief history

We start by cycling along the Caledonian Canal. It was commissioned in the late 1700s to offer a safer, and shorter sailing route to sailing around the northern end of the Scottish mainland.
The canal avoids the difficult current and wind patterns of Pentland Firth and Came Wrath. Instead, it cuts through from Inverness to Fort William. The canal consists of 29 locks spread over its total length of 22 miles. It opened for traffic after just 12 years of construction in 1822. Already in 1843, the canal had to be closed as the locks in Corpach had partly collapsed due to material defects. The repairs took another six years.

The Caledonian Canal also played a significant role in WWI, when the British fleet used it to avoid the German Navy patrols along the northern Scottish coastline.
In 1960 hydraulic capstans replaced the original man-powered ones to run the locks and bridges. From 1995 to 2005 the canal closed for necessary restorations and has since been used again for commerce and leisure.
With a bike path on its southern side, it gives us the perfect route to cycle. No cars to avoid, only nature to enjoy.

The Jacobite Express

After about a mile of cycling, we reach the first stop along today’s route. It turns out that our guides timed our departure with the schedule of the Jacobite Express’s arrival in Banavie. So we are taking some time to get into the best possible place to take photos of the steam train.

A brief history of the Jacobite Express

The Jacobite is a K1 locomotive built in 1949 by the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow, based on a design by Arthur Peppercorn. The fundamentals of this design date back to 1920. The K1 is the third variant of the original 2 cylinders 2-6-0 loco, classified as a K2 by LNER. Its successor, the K4 was a 3 cylinder version. Further modifications to the K4 by Edward Thompson and Arthur Peppercorn lead to the K1, of which this 62005 is the only one that survived.

The Jacobite rebellion

The Name of the train derived from the political movement of the Jacobites from the late 17s and 18s century. The movement has its roots in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir, and King Jacob VI of Scotland became King James I of Great Britain.

A Scottish King on the English throne

When his son Charles I inherited the throne in 1625, he tried to reform the Scottish church after the example of the English Anglican church, much to the dislike of the Scottish people. This church reformation attempt started an armed conflict in 1640, as the Stuarts seemed to have abandoned their roots. But Scotland and England were still sovereign states under the same King.
After the English Civil War the monarchy was reinstalled, but in 1685 King Charles II died heirless. His brother James II, a converted Catholic, took the throne, much to the dislike of the English who did not want a “popish” King. After three years his rule was overthrown by the parliament in the advantage of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. Queen Mary ruled until 1702, while King James II fled to France, where he uphold his claim to the throne until his death in 1701. Those who supported King James II’s claim were known as Jacobites.

The Union between England and Scotland

After the death of Queen Mary, her sister Queen Anne took the crown and in 1707 formed the Union between Scotland and England under one monarch and Parliament, dissolving the Scottish Parliament and transferring all power to London instead. Queen Anne died heirless in 1714, leaving the throne to King George I, the first of the Hanoverians and with this ending the reign of the Stuarts, much to the dislike of both Scottish and English people as neither wanted to be ruled by a foreigner. In the meantime, James II’s son wasn’t pleased about the succession on the English throne either.

First uprising

Supporting the 1715 uprising he traveled to Scotland, but before his arrival, the rebellion got defeated in the Battle of Preston. The Jacobite cause had suffered a setback but it had not come to an end.

Battle of Culloden

Under James II’s grandson, Prince Charles Edward Stuart – or Bonnie Prince Charlie – the Jacobite uprising gathered support again, eventually leading to the Battle of Culloden (Am Blàr Chùil Lodair) in June 1746. The Jacobites lost the war, and Prince Charles Edward Stuart had to flee from Scotland back to France.
As a result of this uprising kilts and tartans were forbidden and the Scottish clan system lost to history. First with Queen Victoria’s visit to Scotland, a mere 150 years later, the kilts and tartans became legal again.

Cycling along the Caledonian Canal

After the train has passed toward Mallaig, we are continuing our cycling tour along the Caledonian Canal.
Only a few miles into the ride I am spotting La Grace, a replica of a Brigg class sailboat from the 1800s.

La Grace in the Caledonian Channel
La Greace in the Caledonian Canal

Vili, our Croatian guide, is once more patient enough to wait for me to finish taking photographs. Not that I could have gotten lost on this path toward Gairlochy where the next official break is taking place. We are crossing over to the other side of the Canal to reach our surprise break point. By now most of us have a clue what the surprise is about.

Still, we enjoy the break at Eas Chia-aig, or as the English say The Kraig Waterfall. Though it is no higher than 20 feet, it is a beautiful viewpoint. Almost more attractive than the waterfall is the route back to the Canal along the shoreline of Loch Aircaig.

The long road ahead

Soon we are saying our goodbyes to those of the group who are choosing to have a short cycling tour today. But I am sticking to my choice. I want to go to Spean Bridge and am taking the long route, even though this means I have to endure another climb. It turns out by far not as hard as the climb we had to undertake on our way to Tobermory.
Never believe a guide if they tell you about the weather forecast or route descriptions. Until proven differently, the weather forecast will always be perfect for cycling, and the route descriptions depend on the guide’s goal. Sometimes they describe a route far harder than it is, this when they want you to use the backup car or the shorter way. Sometimes they will not tell you how hard it really is going to be. The later especially when you have no other choice but to get across the mountain on the bike. Today seems to be no different from that rule. The description of the first hill of the more prolonged route made it look so hard when the Tobermory hills, which we all did two days ago, were longer and steeper.

Spean Bridge

The Commando Memorial, overlooking the Commando Training grounds where soldiers trained for combats in WWII offers an excellent view toward Beinn Bhan. From here it is only a shorter downhill ride to Spean Bridge where we are taking our lunch. Unfortunately, first after lunch, our guide tells us that the service we received from the restaurant wasn’t as excellent as usual. This because they were about to close and we had someone in the group taking far too many breaks. Oh yes, he is hinting at me. When I address it, telling him all he needed to do was to let me know that we were on a schedule to reach lunch in time and to ask me if I could not make more photos stops, he tells me that it is my holiday and I can take as many images as I want. So why the fuss then? Besides, it would also not have been a problem for me not to have the lunch break and have everybody else go ahead but of course, it is too late for that now.

The route after lunch is not as spectacular as I would have expected it to be from the guides’ descriptions. But still, it is an enjoyable ride as soon as we can leave the main road.

So far our sights of wildlife have been few, restricted to some dolphins while sailing toward Salen two days ago and some sheep along the road. But now we are surprised to find a Highland cow in the middle of the road, trotting along.

Broken bikes

We are within the last few miles of today’s bike ride when destiny hits us again. The flat on the first day and the broken chain on the second haven’t been enough. Another puncture for one of the rental bikes. Some bike exchanges later everybody is back on the bike, except for the guide waiting for spare parts.

Finding the way

Now we have to follow the somewhat cryptic descriptions of how to get back to the boat. They are so hard for us to interpret that we are all confused at the very first intersection. Are we to go straight, or did he mean for us to turn left? Our maps don’t tell us enough to make a choice. Unfortunately, my GPS isn’t of much help either. I tried plotting all routes into my GPS from the information on the website, but this one I never was able to figure out. It would have been nice to get the maps before starting the tour. Yes, after another confirmation from the guide, who is still close by, we are going to take the left path after all.
But here we are wondering if we will be able to find the way back to the boat or if we will get lost. Most of the time the puzzle is solvable with the help of road signs. Until we get entirely stuck and uncertain of which road to follow. Two young boys, whom we met along the way turn out to be excellent guides pointing us in the right direction again. And this despite the fact that a guide once told me never to ask the locals but always to call the guide. We would not have been able to describe where we are so how to ask a guide, who is not with us, which road to take? Nope, asking the locals is always fun, though you might end up using a different route altogether.

The Flying Dutchman is attacked

Soon we are back at the Caledonian Canal. La Grace has just reached The Flying Dutchman and is firing its cannons at our boat when I arrive at the scene. Well, the barrels weren’t loaded, and they aren’t trying to enter The Flying Dutchman forcefully. Watching though is fun.

If you liked this post, you might also like the other stories from my Cycling and sailing in Scotland adventure:

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