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Sunday, June 27, 2010, in Oban, Scotland

 

Hi everyone. We’re in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. Last week, we were in Inverness, on the east coast, preparing to go through the Caledonian Canal.

Tides forced us to wake up rather early to make our entrance into the Caledonian Canal. We arrived at the first lock at about eight in the morning, and were greeted by a jolly, almost obsequious attendant who called everybody Manny. Jack wondered if he knew that Art was Jewish.

Scottish English has some quirks in language and accent that make it a delight to listen to. The whole tone of it is musical to begin with. Imagine someone you know (I’m picturing the actress Ashley Jensen, a favorite of mine) having an argument with you. You’d burst into a smile as soon as she raised her voice. Another thing: Scots have a personal pronoun that I don’t have. I����d say “I, me” and “she, her”, but I don’t have separate words for “you, you.” So I’d say “I told him to get it for me” or “She told him to get it for her��, but you’d say “You told him to get it for you.” Not in Scotland. There�����s a whole other word. It’s ye. Like an elf would say. As in “You told him to get it for ye.�� And I always want to obey, as though I’m hearing it from a wise clergyman, or Mr. Lundie advising Gene Kelly in Brigadoon ("You shouldna be too surprised, lad. I told ye when you love someone deeply, anythin' is possible. Even miracles.")

We docked at a marina just inside the first lock, and were able to spend another day in Inverness, at about the same distance from town as we’d been before. The next morning, we left for the fuel dock in the marina and Sammie lassoed the cleat from the boat on the first shot, surprising all of us, including herself, sort of like the docking equivalent of a hole in one. We fueled up, and waited to enter the first set of locks, called a “flight”, or “stairs.”

It’s no small task to transit this skinny canal across Scotland. It was originally built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, based on a design by Thomas Telford, who also designed the sister canal that transects Sweden. The first survey for the canal was conducted by none other than Scotsman James Watt, who made significant improvements to the steam engine only a few years later. You would also know him from his energetic measure, the watt.

The canal is sixty miles long, with about a third of its distance made up of lakes (or lochs), including Loch Ness. There are 29 locks, four aqueducts, and ten bridges. It was originally to enable sailing vessels to cross from one side of Scotland to the other without having to take the long and dangerous trip around its north tip.

The first thing that you notice is how small the locks are, considering that they were expected to handle the ships of the British navy at the time. Only about four boats of our size can be in the lock at the same time (the maximum boat dimensions are 150 feet in length and 35 feet in width.) But in the days when the canal was being planned, boats were wooden and without power. Ironically, Watt’s steam engine made it possible to build ships that were too big to make the transit. The steam-powered ships were also more capable of the trip around the top of Scotland. Furthermore, Napoleon, the driving force behind the canal’s naval strategy, had been defeated.

The locks (there is a lot of tongue-twisting when you construct sentences with “lock” and “lochhhh” in them) raise or lower the vessel because the water level changes across the canal’s distance. This is a complicated process.

First, we notify the canal that we’d like a position for transit. They tell us which side of the lock we’ll be on, and we put as many fenders as we can alongside the boat to keep the hull from pounding against the concrete. To go through a single lock, we get to our spot inside the lock and toss a line up to someone from the canal system, who wraps it around a cleat and tosses it back down to us. For the first half of the locks, we go up and up, and we go down and down after we reach the highest point.

We are more orchestrated for “flights” of multiple locks. With four people on deck, we can afford to have two crew members on shore. Jack and Sammie stay on land on the sides of the lock, while Art steers and I handle the bow. When we enter a lock, they each take a line and hook it to a cleat on shore. The lock door closes behind us and water starts to come in, rather fast. The water causes eddies in the lock, which is why we can’t just bob around in there, and why Art and I have to constantly pull in the line as we come up higher, closer to the cleat on shore, so that we don’t ram into any other boat in the lock or the far wall. When we’ve gained from the low entrance level to the higher departure level (often ten feet, but sometimes less), they open the gate in front of us and we motor to the next lock in line. Jack and Sammie, on shore, take our lines and walk them to the next lock, where they cleat them again and our process starts over. Jack has noticed that we’re using our guests for a job that is often given to a mule. Each lock in the stair takes about fifteen minutes to complete, surprisingly fast, but consuming quite a bit of time in the aggregate when there are several locks in a row. Because it’s an old canal, there are paths alongside much of its length, and it’s possible to walk or bike the length of it for recreation. There are support organizations that provide campsites and other assistance to people to take the plunge.

Our trip took us through Loch Ness, where we all stood on monster watch. Nessie, as the legendary monster is named, first appeared to Saint Columba in the seventh century. I’m such a skeptic. Not only do I believe that there is no Loch Ness monster; I have my doubts about Saint Columba as well. In any case, the monster got a good deal more attention in 1933 when several visitors reported seeing a large animal on land, and interest was heightened in 1934 when someone produced the shadowy photograph that is the most familiar image of the beast. The photo was discredited and its author confessed on his deathbed to the hoax, but the local tourist council is happy to end every brochure with murky questions and admonitions to bring your camera, because you never know.

We did get to see an actual sight during our transit of Loch Ness, the Urquhart Castle (pronounced Erket, for the most part). We anchored just off the dock that was too small for us and barely deep enough for our inflatable, and dinghied ashore.

The predecessor to this castle might well have been visited by Saint Columba (and for all I know, Nessie), but it came to prominence when the land was granted to the Durward family in 1229. Suffice it to say that the castle changed hands many times over the centuries, taken by the crown and then back by the locals, taken by rival tribes but not held, and finally destroyed on purpose during the Jacobite uprisings.

The visitor center gave an informative introduction in the form of a short film and the best part was the drama they created. We all took our seats in the small auditorium and the lights were lowered. The film, with English and Japanese subtitles to accommodate a tour group and those of us who are not familiar with native cadences, was eight minutes long and covered the history of the castle. When the film ended, the lights stayed off as the screen rolled up like a window shade against a large curtain that spanned the room. As soon as the screen was up, the curtain split open and we all were facing the expanse of the ruined castle against the backdrop of Loch Ness. It was stunning. Then we all left the auditorium to explore the castle on our own.

By the end of the day, we docked at one of the pontoons that are provided for the convenience of boats transiting the canal, at Fort Augustus. Its claim to fame is that a canal flight bisects the tiny town. Thus, there is a ratio of something like more than one restaurant per resident, and we wasted no time in visiting two of the seven candidates in our first several hours.

Here’s something that Art finds engaging about the places we’ve been. In the US, when you order something that needs a special utensil, the utensil is generally brought to you with the dish, such as a spoon with soup, or just before the dish, such as a steak knife. Here, you arrive at a restaurant and the table is set, as expected, with a fork, knife and spoon surrounding each plate. Then you order your meal. The server goes into the kitchen to deliver the order, and returns with new utensils, rearranging them around you as if they’d known your order in advance of your arrival.

There isn’t much to Fort Augustus. It swells with tourists in the summer, and most of them must while away the day wandering up and down the main street alongside the canal. It’s a moving tableau of boats. We decided to go through the five-lock flight in the morning and spend half a day in town, then continue our journey. The plan was to finish the first half of the locks, notable because you travel up, up, up for a dozen or so locks, and the rest of the trip is literally downhill. It’s even downhill in the metaphorical sense, because it’s much easier to tie to the cleat onshore when it’s under you then trying to lasso it above your head.

Our lock had three sailboats in it, coincidentally all three with American flags. In the early morning, we went through without any difficulty with the assistance of our crew, and tied up on a pontoon on the far side of the flight. A bagpipe player serenaded the strolling canal-watchers with his case open. We were told by a shop owner that he’d provided the entertainment for Madonna’s wedding to Guy Ritchie in the Scottish Highlands. Ever the skeptic, I wondered why Madonna, possibly the most famous entertainer on the planet, didn’t have someone in her stable who doesn’t earn his living out on the street.

I had overly high expectations for the visitor center, a modest building alongside the canal. Twenty percent of the small room was devoted to brochures for excursions and products, and about two-thirds of the remainder was retail space for souvenirs. I asked the cashier to clarify a note I’d seen on Wikipedia, and she was unable to provide an answer to me until she referred to a crinkled two-page timeline, double-spaced, about the building of the canal. I myself, a canal scholar for well more than a day, had already memorized most of the entries on that cheat sheet. We got back to the boat after our ten-minute visit and were on our way.

There are convenience pontoons all along the course of the canal, many of which are in otherwise uninhabited areas. They’re free to use, and it really isn’t possible to transit the canal without stopping overnight at least twice. The locks operate on a business day schedule, and sometimes there are delays if the lock fills with boats that arrived before you did. Schools aren’t out yet in Scotland, and the canal is relatively quiet, but we got shut out of the last lock we’d expected to go through. We stayed overnight and used the opportunity to watch a DVD after dinner. Even our television’s boosted antenna on our masthead couldn’t pick up any local stations.

Our next leg was across Loch Oich (oychhhhh), appropriately. It’s impossible to say that without sounding like Lou Jacobi.

In mid-morning, we went over the midpoint of our transit and our subsequent locks would start out high and end up lower, a much easier operation than tossing lines into the sky. We shared one lock with a power boat chartered by an older couple, he on the steering and she on the bow handling lines. This isn’t an unusual sight in itself, but this particular picture was enhanced by the woman’s attire, a flowing knee-length skirt and a cardigan sweater. It was as if she’d stepped away from her watercress sandwich to handle the lines.

The lock at Loch Lochy proved to be quite un-Lochy for us indeed. We got in last, and three other vessels were already tied on. Somehow we tied on and got the stern inside before the gates closed behind us. We’d been fortunate to have many of the locks to ourselves with lots of dock space to use to tie up.

Each lock is surrounded by concrete docks. But the docks aren’t all parallel to the water; the back of the lock slants up to the level of the higher lock next in line. The hooks to which we tie, then, are very high if our stern is at the back of the lock, which happens only when we don’t have the lock to ourselves. One problem with that is that you need very long lines to span from the high dock to the water, and then to the lower water as you sink inside the lock. As you sink, you let out the line to accommodate the greater distance between you and the hook. That wasn’t our problem. Our problem was that the hook we used was perpendicular to the cleat on our boat. As we sank, the wrap underneath the line prevented us from letting it out. The water was leaving us and we were being hoisted out of the water by just two lines on our cleats. Furthermore, through a marginal judgment of the dock keeper, our bow line was on the same hook, and on top of the small sailboat in front of us. As our bow line got tight, we trapped the other boat as well, and he, too, was pulled out of the water. Since we were only tied on the port side of the boat, we began to lean to the right, and almost kissed the top of the mast of the sailboat on the other side of the lock. Lots of shouting by those of us sinking in the lock got the keeper’s attention, and he reversed the pumps and filled the lock back up until we could sort out all of our lines. At one point, our boat was at an angle that looked like twenty degrees or more. We learned how strong our cleats and the braided lines are. Amazingly, the hull of the boat never got less than about a foot from the concrete sides of the lock. Our second attempt worked, and we all tiptoed out of the lock, realizing what an adventure this canal trip could be.

Then we came to the best part of the whole canal, the eight steps down near Fort William called Neptune’s Staircase. We shared the locks with a single sailboat, had lots of attention from the lock keeper, and marveled how fast each lock emptied. It was as if someone just pulled a plug from under the lock and water just poured into the next lock down. We could watch the water level fall against the concrete dock. It was like riding a very slow roller coaster.

To add to the experience, the large mountain Ben Nevis was in sight the entire time, with bits of snow on the top. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles, attracting about 100,000 ascents annually. Climbers especially like the 700 meter (2300 foot) cliffs of the north face, and it’s also quite popular for ice climbing. They call it “The Ben”.

Just after the last lock, the lock wall opened, as well as the highway bridge and a railroad bridge behind it, and we motored to a pontoon for the evening. We rose early the next morning and took the first opportunity to go through the double lock and single lock that led us out of the canal. On our way out, we passed the sailboats of the Three Peaks Yacht Race. Each team consists of two runners and three sailing crew. They begin the race on the boats in Wales, and sail to a Welsh mountain, where the runners race to the top and back down to the boat. Then they all sail off to England, where the runners cycle to the foot of another mountain and run to the top. The last stop is the end of the Caledonian Canal at Fort William, where they run to the top of Ben Nevis. Not surprisingly, the race is sponsored by PowerBar..

Finally, we’d reached the other end of the canal. It was time to sail, at least as soon as the wind came up. It sure didn’t feel like summertime outside the protection of the dodger. The landscape was gorgeous, a spectrum of green against rolling hills. The mist settled down in the crevices, magically. You could imagine Brigadoon under there. Jack called it "Scottish sunshine.” You couldn’t see the sun or any of the sky.

The winds picked up and we began to heel over. There���������s an indefinable point at which I go from mildly uncomfortable with the angle of heel, to terrified and crazy-eyed. At this point, I tell Art in a calm and entreating manner that it might be nice to reef the sail and reduce the amount of wind pushing us over. But for some reason, it sounds to others like I’m shrieking and impatient. Imagine that. In any case, Art told Jack that I’m part of the electronics on the boat, the “reef meter”.

Though items did fly about the cabin, as they often do when we have a spirited sail, the rest of the day went well. Art and Jack stayed by the helm, enjoying the whoosh of water flying by us, and Sammie and I stayed warm under the dodger. Tacking through the Sound of Mull allowed us to continue to sail even when the winds weren’t cooperating. We arrived in Tobermory about two hours earlier than we’d anticipated, even though we didn’t get the help from the current that we’d planned. There isn’t much of a dock in Tobermory’s harbor, but the town provides an abundance of visitor moorings, and we picked one up and settled in.

In the morning, a spot opened up on the only dock that could accommodate us, and we rushed in and tied up. Tobermory’s name is derived from the Gaelic for “Mary’s well”, which has to do with a local well and the Virgin Mary, and doesn’t have anything to do with Mary’s health. The harbor is lined with brightly painted buildings, begging to be photographed. Beyond that, there’s not much to the town, and very little more to the entire island of Mull. A day in town is a walk from one end to the other, and then a later walk from one end to the other, and little else.

Tobermory is the home of the single malt Scotch distillery of the same name, and we took a tour of the sturdy old factory alongside the harbor. They make whisky from two sorts of grain, with very different aromas and resulting in very different beverages. We followed our guide around the facility, and saw the liquid become bubbly and milky as it was processed from one cauldron to another. The process is straightforward, but I listened carefully after she took us first to the mill room where they mill the malt, and I thought she’d called it the mailroom, and couldn’t figure out why she didn’t want us to take photos. The end of the tour (and most certainly the most popular event) enabled us to sample a dram of our choice of spirit. We tried them both. I’m not qualified to be a single malt critic, but the sip from the second, peaty version (and mine was quite small) set my head on fire.

One thing I’ve noticed all over Scotland, and in England for that matter, is that our language isn’t as common as all that. In virtually every sentence of every conversation, there’s a word or two that I understand, but wouldn’t have used. Of course, there are all those words like “loo” for “toilet”, or “book” instead of “make a reservation”. But it isn’t just word substitutions. For example, at the café for lunch, I was discussing the delicious scallops they harvest in Tobermory. Instead of the hard muscle that we need to remove from our scallops, these scallops have a billowy orange bubble that softly enhances the flavor of the meat. Our server referred to it as the “wee orange bit.” Complicating matters, we had two meals out that day. Lunch was at the Posh Nosh, and dinner was at the Mish Dish. I thought I’d fallen into a parallel universe made of the Mikado.

We left Tobermory and sailed as soon as we cleared the harbor. This day was another heel-over sail, but this time, down the Sound of Mull, we tacked relentlessly back and forth. So if we were making eight knots through the water with a little lift from the current, we were still making quite a bit less speed against our destination, because we weren’t pointing anywhere near it. We arrived in mid-afternoon at an anchorage called Loch Aline, and negotiated a strategy to take the dinghy ashore. This wasn’t as easy as it might be in other places.

Loch Aline, like everywhere else in this area, has steep tidal changes. There’s a concrete dock where we could tie up the dinghy, but it’s submerged about half the time, so it’s mainly a slimy terrarium of seaweed. Sammie had to run her hands along its gross surface just to locate a cleat for us to tie up. Then we had to worry about our return to the boat. We couldn’t stay ashore too long. If the tide went out and left our dinghy on land, we’d be unable to move it, and would have to wait six to twelve hours before it would be afloat again.

There are two sites of interest in the Loch Aline sound. One is Kinlochaline Castle, a twelfth-century fortress at the head of the harbor, abandoned in around 1690. Made of ten-foot-thick sandstone, it’s 43 feet by 34 feet and four stories tall. It is also called Caisteal an Ime, Scottish Gaelic for “castle of butter”, because the builder was reportedly paid in butter equal to the volume of the castle.

Another structure at the harbor head is the Ardtornish Estate, once known for its garden, now a bed and breakfast, and ruins of the related Ardtornish Castle, overrun with mossy growth since its 17th-century abandonment. We chose to walk to a place that was recommended to us, a dry creek locals call “Fossil Creek”, where you can find fossilized remains in the bed. We spent a few minutes doing a scavenger hunt, wondering if what we were finding was the real thing. I found a fossilized bug on the surface of a stone, but then I rubbed the stone, and the bug fell off. We found shell indentations, but for all we knew, they were from last week. Jack and Sammie collected some that looked a bit more promising. There was sheep’s wool tangled around the scrub, and it felt oily and soft when we pulled it off. And then we walked back to the dinghy to avoid being grounded on the desolate coast at low tide.

The next day’s sail was a repeat performance, with strong winds in front of us, scrambling around below decks to compensate for the heel, and a fast trip to Oban. When we arrived, the few dockside spaces that could accommodate us were full. We picked up a mooring and took the dinghy to shore.

We’re still having temperatures in the 60s (upper teens Celsius), and a little sprinkling every day, but it isn’t holding us back. Hope you’re all having fun.

Love, Karen (and Art)