The "Live-Anywhere" Boat - Cruise 2014, Part II, Oban to Wick
Updated August, 2014

Well-tended Gardens Above the Town

We spent 3 days in Oban. We re-provisioned and did a little maintenance on the boat. She had served us well and deserved a little attention, so we changed the main engine oil and changed out the troublesome pump clutch relay. We also did some walking ashore, around the town and up the hill to McCaig's Tower, a folly built in the late 19th century by a local notable who wanted to make a family memorial and also provide employment to local stonemasons during the slow winters.
Street in Oban

Oban is a pleasant town, built mostly on a hillside, with just enough flat plain below for a main street and a fewwharves. Since it is a tourist center, it has several restaurants, some of them quite good; we had an excellent fish lunch at a little place on the main street just a block away from the harbor.
Approach to McCaig's tower

I felt a little conflicted -- we needed to get on, Dougie had plans to fly back and join Gina in Florida, and we did want to get to Wick, our original destination, but we also felt somewhat that we had arrived, that the passage phase of the trip was over and the cruising could start, which meant taking one's time and enjoying the sights.

In any event, we decided to leave Oban after 3 days. On Monday the 4th we went ashore and took the ferry to town in the morning for last-minute supplies, and at 12:47 we dropped the mooring and headed up Loch Linnhe toward Corpach, where the Caledonian Canal begins, a trip of some 30 miles.

Oban is behind (and sheltered by) the Island of Mull, but Loch Linnhe is a long deep gash running northeast into the heart of the highlands. About 2/3 of the way along, the loch narrows briefly to about 150 yards, the "Corran Narrows." Here there is a ferry going back and forth, and of course the tide runs through at a pretty good rate.

The tide was against us as it happened, but was not a strong as it was reputed to be, and we passed through fine, with a slight delay caused by waiting for the ferry to cross our bows.


The View Through one of the "Windows"

Near the head of Loch Linnhe is the little city of Fort William, the site of one of three forts built by the English to control the Jacobite uprisings of the mid-18th century. It is a tourist center, like Oban, with the additional advantage of being close to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles.

We passed the Fort William waterfront by, however, and continued on to the tiny town of Corpach, where the canal begins. Right around 16:30 we negotiated the turn into the first lock (of 29), the Corpach Sea Lock, and by 16:35 were secured and shut down the engine.


Fancy House on the Hill, Oban

I climbed up the ladder set into the stone wall of the lock and went into the canal office to pay our passage dues (£342), which entitled us to one transit of the canal and gave us eight days to do it in. We were to discover that many people pay a a seasonal rate and leave their boats here, coming perhaps on weekends to putter along from one little town to another.

A couple of smaller sailboats joined us in the lock, and soon the gates closed behind us and we started to rise. The lift here is only 6 feet, but the highest part of the canal is 106 feet above sea level.

The construction of the Caledonian Canal was started in the very early 19th century, both as a way of providing work for some of the many displaced crofters, forced off their farms in the infamous "clearances," and to provide an alternate route for sailing ships that avoided the stormy and tumultuous Pentland Firth between the Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands.

It was designed by a Scottish civil engineer named Thomas Telford, who seems to have designed everything else in Britain as well. It was opened in 1822, but was never as profitable as had been hoped. Commercial ships were getting bigger, and even though the locks are 170 feet long, the canal is only 15 feet deep, so too small for some of the newer steel ships.


Yarn Bombing a Lamp Post, Oban

It seems to be successful as a tourist attraction, however, with many yachts passing through, as we are, and others who have come just for the trip, like the family in two tiny sailing skiffs we met in the Laggan Lock. There are also small cruise ships carrying people through stretches of the canal.

After our first night in the canal we moved immediately (at 8:00 in the morning) into the first of the eight locks that make up "Neptune's Staircase." Here one moves from one lock immediately into the next, rising 8 feet in each lock, or 64 feet total.


Carl Having Lunch on the Way up Loch Linnhe (BNP Photo)

As many boats as would fit were loaded into the first lock, and we would be more-or-less together with the same boats all the way athrough the canal.

In our group, along with some not-very-interesting sailboats, were Gaelic Rose, a converted fishing boat from Wick, of all places, that Dougie remembered from her fishing days, and Pride of Mother Sea, a ketch from the Netherlands that specializes in taking passengers on distillery cruises in Western Scotland. Gaelic Rose is now being run by a family who take groups on diving expeditions.


Driving through Corran Narrows (BNP Photo)

Both skippers were old hands at the canal, and we quickly worked out a routine that got us into and out of the locks quickly and without fuss, unlike some of the sailboats. In the groups of locks we put Barbara ashore to walk the lines through into the next lock, which sped things up.

Nowdays the lock gates are opened and closed by hydraulic rams, but at first they operated by chains that ran through holes in the lock walls to capstans with places for 8 bars, that were walked around by workmen.


The Lighthouse in Corran Narrows (BNP Photo)

Interestingly, all the bridges on the canal are low-level swing bridges instead of the more common lifting, or bascule, bridges. Apparently Telford thought that lifting bridges might foul the rigging of sailing vessels.

It took us 2-1/2 hours to get through the eight locks, and then we had a break of a few miles until we came to an (open) bridge and Gairlochy Lock. We were busy enough in this "reach," as the stretches of canal between locks are called, that we did not even notice the four aqueducts we passed over.


In the Corpach Sea Lock, Caledonian Canal (BNP Photo)

There was plenty of scenery, however, to keep us occupied; The Great Glen is both beautiful and steeped in history.

At Gairlochy, we had to wait for maybe 25 minutes because the lock was being used by a boat coming the other way, but soon we were through the lock and out into Loch Lochy, which sounds like a redundant name.

As we came out of the loch into another canal section, we came almost immediately to the Laggan Lock, and fortunately we were able to go right into it, although we did have to wait for a few other boats to load.


Paying Attention to the Lines as We Go Up (BNP Photo)

The surrounding country was very beautiful, and it was 15:40 before we were out of the lock, so I decided we had had enough for the day and elected to tie up in the basin just after the lock. This, the highest stretch on the canal, is farming country, with cows and sheep.

One very interesting boat followed us in the next locking or so and tied up ahead of us (we had already seen her in Oban): the Baltic Ketch KommandÝren, now converted to a yacht and serving as the flagship for a shipping company.


Through the Lock and Ready to Find a Pub - Ben Nevis in the Background (BNP Photo)


In Corpach Basin, First Night in the Caledonian Canal -- Gaelic Rose Ahead of Us

We spent some time talking with Malcolm Craig, the captain/owner, who is a Scottish history buff and keeps the boat in the Canal most of the summer. He argued that "Bonnie Prince" Charlie had listened to bad advice at Culloden, fighting in a bog instead of in a better spot. Charlie, he said, was muddle-headed and listened to sycophants instead of his few knowledgable advisers, but was "unfortunately charismatic." Scottish history is still alive here, and one could spend a long time learning it in detail and then following it on the land.

The next morning there was no point in getting an early start, since the Laggan Bridge was not allowed to open during rush hour, and in any case there was a large group of boats headed west coming through the next "staircase," at Fort Augustus. So we set off at 08:30, ran through the bridge and narrow Loch Oich, which is really more like a river, with lots of channel markers, and through the lock at Cullochy with no delays.


"Neptune's Staircase," A 'Flight' of 8 Locks in a Row

We did have to wait for a few minutes at the next lock, Kytra, for a boat coming the other way, but we were soon through and on to Fort Augustus, a little town on the site of an 18th century fort built to help control the Jacobite Rebellions.

Here we had to wait at the jetty "reserved for large craft" for about an hour while the west-bound group of boats (including a Dutch barge turned into a cruise ship) completed their ascent through the five locks.

Barbara took advantage of the wait to do a little shopping in the town, promising to catch up with us at one of the locks. She found the provisions she needed, and also stopped at a bake sale and bought a homemade "caraway cake" that turned out to be what we would call a pound-cake with caraway seeds in it. It was delicious.

Descending seems to be faster than ascending through locks, perhaps because the keepers can open the water gates wider when there is no boat in the lower basin, and we were secured in the first lock at 11:58 and ready to leave the last (fifth) lock at 12:50.


In the First Lock of the Staircase

We waited in the lock chamber for a few minutes while the swing bridge opened for us, and then we were off into Loch Ness.

We did not see "Nessie," but the loch is spectacular, with steeply sloping banks. The whole Great Glen is a fault line, and Loch Ness is 600+ feet deep in places, with deep water right up to the shores.

Near the eastern end are the ruins of huge Urquhart Castle, and one of our chores was to dodge the tour boats and bare-boat chartered motorboats coming out to visit the site. The canal is full of these small "hire-cruisers," as they are called. There are two or three companies that rent them, and they seem to be very popular. We could see that it would make a great family vacation, chugging along the canal and stopping here or there for walks or other activities. With our Caribbean experiences, we worried a little about their skills, but they generally seemed to manage all right.


Tower at the Western end of Loch Lochy


Former Lockkeeper's Cottage, Laggan

At the northeast end of Loch Ness, the little town of Bona Ferry marks the entrance into the last section of the canal proper. We called the Dochgarroch Lock on the VHF, and were urged to come along as fast as we could, as there was a westbound boat about to arrive. We said we did not want to be booked for speeding, and the keeper chuckled and said, "I take your point, but do the best you can," so we did speed up a little and were able to drive right into the lock, which was open and ready for us.
Sailing Skiffs in the Laggan Lock Chamber


Moored in the Laggan Lock Basin


The Baltic Ketch KommandÝren


Not All of the Canal is this Wooded (BNP Photo)

We did have to wait a little later for the Tomnahurich Bridge. Many of these bridges carry main roads, and they are not allowed to open during rush hour. We were just too late, and so had to wait until 17:35, when the bridge could open again.

Fifteen minutes later we were tied up at the head of the Muirtown flight of locks, the last big set of locks on the eastern end of the canal. We inquired our way to a pub and found that it was run by a retired Army captain who was very good company and interested in our boat and voyage.


A Dutch Barge Turned Cruise Ship

After a pleasant interlude and a couple of pints we went back to the boat for our usual good dinner.

The next morning, we started up at 08:30 and slid into the first of the Muirtown Locks. By 9:42 we were on our way again, but fifteen minutes later we were alongside in the Clachnaharry Works Lock, followed by our friends in Pride of Mother Sea and a couple of small sailboats. The railroad bridge right after the lock was open when we were ready to leave, and the lock keeper urged us to hurry, since a train was due, and the bridge would close soon.

We made it through, as did several of the following boats, and at 10:19 were stopped in the sea lock, the last barrier before Moray Firth and the North Sea.

Leaving the lock was a little complicated, as there was a workboat broken down in the approach from the sea side, and the tide was running very strongly, but we made it out without incident.

Moray Firth is quite wide, but full of sandbanks, so the course to sea is fairly involved, but with the tide behind us we covered it quickly, at 9 to 10 knots since leaving the lock.


The Flight of Locks at Fort Augustus

At 12:15 we ran between Chanonry Point and Fort George and were clear of the inner part of Moray Firth.

Our course to Wick led generally northeast, past Cromarty, past Tarbat Ness, past the old lighthouse at Clyth Ness. At Clyth Ness we diverted from the direct course to pass nearer the coast at Lybster so that Dougie's family could see us from their house.


In the First Fort Augustus Lock - with Pride of Mother Sea

As we came by South Head, a group waved to us and we sounded the horn for them. We heard from Dougie that a welcoming committee was being arranged, and as we negotiated the labyrinthine entrance to Wick Harbour and headed to the T-Head we could see a group on the float, and then a piper started up with "Scotland the Brave!" We had certainly not expected to be piped in, but it was very nice. And so we ceremonially arrived at Wick, our original destination, on Thursday, August 7th.
Looking Down the Locks, Fort Augustus


Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness

Wick is a very pleasant small city, although not as prosperous as it used to be. It was a center of the herring industry in the 19th century, and we have seen pictures showing that one could inded "walk across the harbor on the boats."

The harbor is in a river mouth but entirely man-made, designed, of course, by Thomas Telford. The entrance involves negotiating over-lapping breakwaters and requires some sharp turns, but once inside it is very quiet.


Street Along the Canal, in Clachnaharry

The marina, with its system of floats, is quite new and in very good condition, with a mixture of local boats and transients cruising along the coast. The harbor is also home to several inshore fishing boats and is a port for larger vessels as well.

When we arrived we noticed several wind turbine blades stacked in various places around the harbor, and while we were there a smallish (100 meter) ship came in and unloaded the components for some windmill towers.


In the Clachnaharry Works Lock - Only One More to Go

It turns out that there are two land-based wind-farm projects going up in the vicinity, and a large development is planned for offshore. When the tower pieces were trucked out, the police blocked off parts of the center of town, since the specialized heavy trucks required all the road to get around some of the tight corners.
The Kessock Bridge, Over the Moray Firth


Chanonry Light, Moray firth


Hoisting Scottish Flags


Our Welcoming Committee, With the Piper Moved to the Boat


Just after Arriving in Wick Harbour, With Alexander, the Piper

Two days after we arrived, the local pipe band put on their regular evening show in the central square; the Wick RLBS Pipe Band turns out to be a very polished organization that has won several awards and tours widely in Europe. Our piper, Alexander, is a member and we were glad to see him marching by with the others.


Alexander, Our Piper


The Wick Waterfront, With a Broad Mixture of Uses


Wind Turbine Blades on the Wharf


Lybster Harbour - A Man-made Harbor Typical for this Coast

Dougie's brother had kindly lent him a car to use while we were in Wick, so the day after we arrived we went for a little tour; we saw some prehistoric cairns, and Lybster Harbour, another of the man-made harbors on this coast, where Dougie's father, "Canadian Jock," had kept his lobster boat. This is a bold coast, with high cliffs everywhere except for a little plain area around river mouths, and all the harbors are artificial.
Lobster Traps in Lybster Harbour

These days there is a trend toward small one-man lobster boats, and we happened to see a friend of Dougie's family bringing his boat in while we were at Lybster.

He counted his lobsters out into a form of car that was new to us; plastic tubs with holes in them that hang from the quayside by ropes. A net with a drawstring to purse it up closes the top of the tub, and of course the rope has to be long enough to allow for the 12- to 13-foot tides. Once we noticed these in Lybster, we saw them everywhere.


A Small Lobster Boat Coming In

There is a small museum at Lybster Harbour, devoted mainly to the fishing industry, and we enjoyed walking through it.

We went inland from Lybster to visit some neolithic cairns, elaborate piles of stones about 5,000 years old. These are ancient burial sites, and Barbara crept in to explore the insides.


Counting Out Lobsters (BNP Photo)

The entrance-way is very low, and one has to crawl in, but then the roof rises and one can stand in a little chamber with two big unshaped standing stones left and right to mark the doorway. Through the doorway there is a high, suddenly bright, chamber with a hole in the roof for light, and three big flat stones erect lining the walls. Here is where most of the ancient skeletons were found; apparently the hope was that one went from death into light.


A Traditional Fishing Boat, Built for a Museum

The ground around the cairns is boggy, with great stands of heather.

There are peat bogs all over this area, and some energetic people still cut peat out by hand and stack squares of it to dry. Most people have given the practice up, however, because it is such hard work, and because other alternatives (particularly oil or gas) are now available.


Barbara Photographing a Stand of Heather

Dougie's family used to cut their own peat for the winter, but his father (at 80) now buys cordwood from the Forestry Commission and fits and splits it for their stove. This in addition to planting and tending a very large vegetable garden and producing industrial quantities of wonderful fudge. He says he is retired.
A Cairn, South of Wick

We had lunch at a cafe at the head of the Whaligoe Steps, a a flight of some 300 steps down to a tiny cove, where fish were carried up in baskets before the days of artificial harbors.

The food was unexpectedly good; I had a dish of hummus with a hot flat bread, and it turns out that the owner (or at least the cook) comes from Malta, which maybe explains the mixture of Levantine and Italian cooking.


Inside the Cairn (BNP Photo)

We went to Dougie's family house for dinner; his mother, Margaret, made us a delicious dinner, centered on a pork roast, and capped by a dessert of meringues with local raspberries and cream, and her home-baked shortbread.

We were well-stuffed when Dougie took us back to the boat.


Whaligoe Steps - Fish Were Carried Up These Steps in Baskets


Barbara Alongside at Wick, With Pulteneytown in the Background

We stayed through the weekend, walking around the town and enjoying the moments when it was not raining.

We were a little puzzled by the uniform series of buildings on our side of the harbor, but the simple explanation is that an earl named Pulteney commissioned Thomas Telford (who else) to design what we might call a development called "Pulteneytown" on the south shore of the river to house workers who arrived to work in the herring boom of the 19th century.

A highlight of our stay was an invitation by Tony Sinclair, of the Wick Heritage Center, to have a look around their museum-ship, the restored fishing boat Isabella Fortuna. She has a dipping-lug rig and an elegant old Kelvin engine, that Tony started up and ran briefly for us.


The Kelvin Engine of the Museum Ship Isabella Fortuna (BNP Photo)


In the Foc'sle of Isabella (BNP Photo)


More Wind Turbine Blades




To see our track in Google Earth click:
here for the trip from Oban to Wick.



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