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Seeing Scotland — by canoe

by
27 January 2017

Dixe Wills finds action, adventure, tranquillity, and spirituality, as he paddles across Scotland

Adventure: paddling past Castle Urquhart, Loch Ness

Adventure: paddling past Castle Urquhart, Loch Ness

“LET’s raft up,” the call comes, across the loch, from one of my friends. With a bit of manoeuvring, our five Canadian canoes are steered abreast to form a giant quintamaran, tenuously held together by hands and feet.

Then someone produces the flysheet of a tent as a makeshift sail, and, after a little trial and error, our fledgling vessel is transformed into a mighty sailing ship, tearing down the loch at a rate of knots several times faster than our paddling speed.

We hoot with delight as the sylvan shoreline races by. The sky is a perfect dome of blue above our heads, and the waves beneath our keels propel us on to ever more heart-pounding speeds.

We are paddling (most of the time) across Scotland. Although that may sound like the sort of undertaking that takes months of planning, and some inspired map-work, we have two allies: the Great Glen, and Thomas Telford.

The former is the bold slash across Scotland, a 62-mile fault-line formed more than 400 million years ago when the Laurentia and Baltica tectonic plates collided; and the latter is the brilliant civil engineer whose Caledonian Canal opened in 1822, joining up all the lochs and rivers along the glen to form a single, continuous waterway across mainland Scotland, from Corpach (in the west) to Inverness (in the east).

 

ADVISED a few days before our trip that the prevailing westerly wind was, in fact, blowing from the east for our entire five-day adventure, we modified our plans and set off from Inverness, paddling westward. We loaded tents, spare clothes, and food into watertight barrels provided with our canoes, and camped among the trees on the shore, building a fire on the beach to cook our dinner.

We are following in the tracks of countless others through the ages who used this natural highway across the Highlands. Something of a false friend to the Scots, the Great Glen twice played a part in putting down Jacobite rebellions, allowing the English to race up and down it between the three forts — George, Augustus, and William — built along its length.

We are going it alone, but it is possible to pick a five-day guided traverse. And, in addition to a few shoreside campsites, it is also possible to hire a key to civilisation in the form of lavatories and showers along the way, reserved exclusively for canal-users.

Fort Augustus, now a reasonably comely village, not only marks the glen’s mid-point but is also the only big settlement along the way. We dutifully tie up our canoes, and order a pub lunch amid a throng of early summer tourists.

But, after the splendour of two days of brooding lochs, forested hills, bare mountains, surprisingly gentle rivers, and canals whose only demand on us is the occasional “portage” of our canoes around a lock, this lurch back into the “world as fashioned by humans” somehow jars.

We are thus not unduly unhappy to press on down the River Oich, and be swallowed up into the valley again.

 

THE Great Glen offers more than a simple escape into nature, however. It is considered by some to be a “thin place”, where the veil between this world and the next is particularly diaphanous. It is a designation that it shares with places such as Iona.

There is something undeniably transcendent about floating peaceably through the very heart of the glen. It is as if one is passing along a narrow no man’s water between two competing landscapes: on the southern side rise the solidly European Grampians, while the Highlands to the north are actually a lost splinter of the Americas (if they had not calved off from Laurentia, they would now be forming part of the Appalachian chain). Impressive though they are, these mountains have been laid low; they are mere stumps of the beasts they once were, rivals in height to the mighty Himalayas.

By contrast, it is the depths that truly affect us. For two days, we paddle along Loch Ness, whose murky bed is so far below us that there is more water in that loch than in all the lakes of England and Wales put together. Even Castle Urquhart, the reliably photogenic fortress on the northern shore, seems to pull back from the edge of the water for fear of sliding into oblivion below.

On our last day, it occurs to us that we might slide into oblivion ourselves (though, in fairness to our lifejackets, such a fate is never really on the cards). The wind, in squeezing itself between the hills flanking Loch Lochy, is blowing with such force that waves buffet our suddenly diminutive canoes, spraying their spindrift over us as we attempt to navigate our way to the haven of the canal.

But even this alarum no more than briefly ruffles the sense of tranquillity that descended on our group almost as soon as we left the rattle and hum of Inverness. And, as we paddle lazily along the last few miles of the Caledonian Canal beneath the shadow of Ben Nevis, we muse on the evenings spent around the fire, miles from anywhere, hidden from the world, safe within the comforting embrace of Scotland’s greatest natural wonder.

 

Travel details
Trains to Banavie (the western start/end point) and Inverness are provided by Scotrail (phone 0344 811 0141; scotrail.co.uk; ). Canadian-canoe hire by Boots N Paddles from £144 for five days, or fully guided five-day trips, £395 per person (phone 0845 6125567; boots-n-paddles.co.uk). A key to various lavatories and showers kept exclusively for canal-users can be hired from the Canal Office in Inverness (phone 01463 725500), or Corpach (phone 01397 772249), for £10pp. There are also a few basic shoreside campsites reserved for paddlers (phone 01463 725500; www.greatglencanoetrail.info). Alternatively, Secret Adventures is offering an all-inclusive five-day Canoe Across Scotland trip for £525 pp (phone 0203 287 7986; https://secretadventures.org/secret/canoe-across-scotland/).

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