Connecting two largely disused waterways the Falkirk Wheel, the largest ‘functional sculpture’ you are likely to see anywhere, is the world’s only rotating boat lift. Opened in May 2002 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations the wheel connects the Union Canal with the Forth and Clyde Canal, both once used extensively for commercial purposes.
Situated pretty much half way between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and part of the Millennium Link project, this 35 metre (115 feet) diameter wheel lifts boats 24 metres (79 feet) from the lower canal up to a pair of locks leading on to the higher canal and re-establishes a link between Glasgow and Edinburgh which was severed in the 1930s due to disuse and industrial development.
You may wonder why was the Falkirk Wheel built? Not only was the wheel built to reconnect Scotland’s two major cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the much-valued leisure resource of a recreational waterway, it was also built to be a major tourist attraction and today the Falkirk Wheel is one of Scotland’s busiest attractions boasting a state-of-the-art visitor centre with a Falkirk Wheel gift shop and café.
The visitor centre is free to enter and, over a coffee, you can simply sit and admire the effortless ease with which the Falkirk Wheel boat lift rotates the combined weight of water and boat (some 500 tonnes on each side) from one level to the other using no more electricity than it would take to boil a few kettles of water – which speaks volumes about the efficient design of the boat lift.
Whilst many visitors will be happy to merely watch this remarkable structure in action the real thrills come from trying it out for yourself. Departing from right in front of the visitor centre, and lasting about an hour for the full ascent and descent experience, boat trips on the Falkirk Wheel are very popular with some 400,000 people visiting the wheel every year and about 1.3 million visitors in total have taken a boat ride since the wheel opened.
If you are spending any amount of time in central Scotland this is one tourist attraction and impressive feat of engineering you really must visit. The site is fully accessible for visitors with mobility problems. It is wheelchair friendly and wheelchairs or mobility scooters can be taken on the boat trip. Designed to last 120 years the Falkirk Wheel will be ready and waiting for you when you decide to take your ride on the world’s only rotating boat lift!
Want to see Scotland from a different perspective? How about hiring a motor cruiser for a leisurely cruise across the country? Opened in 1822 the Caledonian Canal runs from Fort William on the west coast to Inverness on the east coast stretching for some 60 miles (97 km) from one side of Scotland to the other and a cruise along its length is a magnificent way to see some of the best of Scotland’s scenery for the Highlands provide a backdrop of incredible beauty for your cruising holiday in Scotland.
Only about a third of the canal is man-made, the rest consists of four lochs – Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour. These four lochs and the entire length of the canal lie within the Great Glen, a geological fault in the Earth’s crust which pretty much cuts Scotland in half diagonally from south-west to north-east. The canal (which is actually a Scheduled Ancient Monument) was built as a way for small boats to get from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean without going all the way up and around the top of Scotland thus facilitating commerce between the two coasts.
Because it’s an inshore waterway the canal never really gets rough – certainly not as rough as the sea can get – no matter what the weather and this makes it ideal for beginners who have never contemplated cruising on a motor boat before and fancy a chance to be the skipper of their own motor cruiser.
There are several companies which offer charter boats for canal boat hire on the Caledonian Canal and they all operate in a similar way. You can choose from one of the many four-berth cruisers all the way up to 10-berth boats with dual steering positions – one on the upper deck for sunny days and one in the cabin for those not-so-sunny days.
All the Caledonian canal boat charter companies offer training before they let you loose on the canal and I don’t mean a quick ‘this lever does this and this lever does that’ run through. Everything on board will be explained to you, and your tutor will spend as much time as you feel is necessary for you to be comfortable with running the cruiser including lessons on berthing at a pontoon, how to refuel, how to top up your water supply, etc., and what to do in an emergency.
You will be supplied with charts of the canal, and their use will be explained to you but don’t worry, if you can read a road map you will have no problem reading a chart. Once you are confident with everything then it’s time to explore the canal! There are 29 locks on the canal all of which are manned by a lock keeper so all you have to do to safely navigate a lock is follow their instructions. You are free to roam up and down the entire length of the canal from Banavie just outside Fort William to the Muirtown Basin Marina just outside Inverness. Chartered boats are not allowed beyond either of these limits.
Sights To See Along The Caledonian Canal
Once you start to explore the canal what can you expect to see? You can expect to see sights like ancient castles, quiet towns, cosy lochside pubs and restaurants and to hear the sound of bagpipes drifting over the water and, of course, you can expect to see some magnificent scenery along the way. Since you are in complete control of where and when you cruise on the canal you will have the opportunity to take a whisky distillery tour or a tour of an historic castle. You can indulge yourself in fishing, wildlife and bird-watching all from the comfort of your cruiser and there are many other activities available along the length of the canal and, if you choose to traverse Loch Ness, you never know what you might spot! It’s entirely your choice as to what you do – you could even find a quiet spot to tie-up your cruiser and simply enjoy the peace and quiet for a few days.
Those stretches of the canal which connect the four lochs together can be quite narrow and during the height of the season it gets quite busy. You must be prepared to meet oncoming traffic which could be anything from a cruiser the same size as yours to surprisingly big cruise boats and barges carrying dozens of passengers to small sailing yachts and even canoes. The rule when passing oncoming traffic is ‘keep to the right’ ie: when passing oncoming traffic they must be on your left. These narrow stretches of canal widen into the broad, open waters of the lochs where navigation is easy.
Boat decks and pontoon surfaces can be slippery when wet so suitable footwear must be worn. Highland lochs are cold, even during the height of summer, so try very hard not to fall overboard! Your cruiser will be equipped with a lifejacket for every person on board and it’s a good idea to wear one whilst you are on deck. Be aware that lifejackets MUST be worn whilst negotiating locks – if anyone on deck isn’t wearing a lifejacket then the boat won’t be allowed into the lock. Your tutor will demonstrate how to properly wear a lifejacket.
Unfortunately, cruisers aren’t really suitable for disabled persons or those with mobility problems. Internal stairways are steep and simply getting on and off a boat can be problematic. Young children should be supervised at all times and should definitely wear lifejackets whilst on deck – including getting on and off a boat.
There is a speed limit on the narrow sections of the canal of five knots for all craft. That’s about a brisk walking pace. There is no speed limit on the open lochs but your cruiser won’t go much faster than that anyway so take your time and enjoy the scenery.
There are plenty of berthing points along the canal especially close to the locks. Not all berthing points are equipped with fueling or watering points but the larger ones are. Shore power (240v) is also available at some berthing points.
You may need to run your cruiser’s engine whilst berthed to make sure the batteries are topped up but please do not run engines after 9 pm or before 7 am and do keep noise to a minimum late in the evening – there are many residential properties close to the canal and, of course, there will be other boats berthed close to you so be a good neighbour and keep the noise to a minimum.
If you have ever wondered what it is like going through the locks on a boat, as the water goes down and the lock gates swing open, watch this speeded up video of navigating the locks.
If you’re not impressed by the thought of captaining your own cruise boat then you could try one of the several cruise companies which offer cruises on larger boats on the canal. This is a great way to see the canal and experience the sights and sounds along the way without having to lift a finger! Whichever option you choose I’m sure you will have a great time motor cruising on the Caledonian Canal.
Located at the western end of the Great Glen at the head of Loch Linnhe Fort William is often known as ‘The Outdoor Capital of Scotland’ because of its excellent position as a base for outdoor activities. With a population of about 11,000 this highland town is never quiet! Summer or winter thousands of tourists arrive in the area, many of them seeking adventure on the hills and mountains which surround the town.
And what a collection of fine mountains there are! Ben Nevis (4413 ft/1345 m), the UK’s highest mountain, towers over the town – so close in fact that to get a decent view of it one has to travel a couple of miles outside of the town!
About two miles east of Fort William is Aonach Mòr (4006 ft/1221 m) where you will find the Nevis Range ski area which is well worth of visit even if you don’t ski since there is a gondola lift which operates all year round and is the easiest way to ascend the mountain.
Both of these mountains (and many others in the area) are known as ‘Munros’ – a term which is used to describe mountains in Scotland which are over 3000 ft/914 m. Ben Nevis has an abandoned weather observatory on its summit and the observations taken there in bygone days were important for our understanding of Scottish mountain weather and Aonach Mòr has played host to The Mountain Bike World Cup for several years in a row. Climbing the Munros is almost a national sport in Scotland and, since there are 282 of them there are plenty to choose from.
There are many adventures to be had in the great outdoors in the area from hillwalking to rock climbing, ice climbing, kayaking, wildlife spotting (on land and sea), fishing, diving, off-road driving and motorcycling, boat hire and more and all of these can be indulged in by yourself (provided you have the necessary equipment and expertise of course) or under the supervision of one of the various guided tours available in the area.
Fort William is also one end of two well-known long-distance walking routes – the West Highland Way, a 95-mile long route which has its other end in the town of Milngavie, near Glasgow, and the Great Glen Way, a 78-mile long walking/cycling route whose other end is the city of Inverness, on the east coast of Scotland. Many hundreds of people travel one or other of these routes every year.
For those whose interests don’t lean towards outdoor activities Fort William still has much to offer. The gaelic name for Fort William is An Gearasdan which means ‘The Fort’ and many local people still refer to it by that name today and the remains of the original fort are still worth a visit. This was built by the English in an attempt to pacify the clans during the turbulent period of the various Jacobite rebellions which culminated in the Scottish army’s defeat at Culloden in 1746. In the town’s High Street the West Highland Museum is a great place to go to find out more of the history of the town and surrounding area.
Scotland’s ‘national drink’ and its most famous export, whisky, is represented in the town by the Ben Nevis distillery and no visit to the area would be complete without a tour of the distillery followed by a visit to the distillery shop and a tasting of the product itself, whose gaelic name is uisge beatha – the ‘water of life’. The huge water pipes which supply the distillery with pure, clean, highland water, can be seen running down the side of Ben Nevis. There are many pubs and hotels in the town and surrounding area which will supply visitors with a good variety of Scotch whiskies – so don’t be shy, sample a few!
Fort William lies at the western end of the Great Glen, a huge gash in the land running between Inverness on the east coast and the town of Corpach, close to Fort William, in the west. Within this gigantic trench lies the Caledonian Canal – a fully-navigable series of lochs and connecting channels which offer an easy way for small boats to pass from the north sea to the sea loch of Loch Linnhe and thence into the Atlantic Ocean. It is possible to hire a small cruiser and sail up and down the Caledonian Canal. There are several locks to negotiate along the length of the canal but none are difficult and the lock-keepers are on hand to help.
The surrounding area offers spectacular views of mountains, lochs and rivers as well as some fascinating history and, if you chose wisely, you will be treated to the finest Scottish cuisine available in one of the several former castles (yes, that’s right, castles) which dot the area and are now hotels. Some of them take a little trouble to find but a visit to Fort William and the surrounding area will reward you with sights and experiences (and tastes) which will live in your memory for a long time.
Want to know more? Then take a look at these websites:
Fort William is also the starting point for Britain’s only scheduled steam train, The Jacobite, which runs along the West Highland Line to the port of Mallaig from where a ferry can be had to Eilean a’ Cheò, the Misty Isle, better known as the Isle of Skye. This luxurious train passes over the Glenfinnan viaduct, a spectacular 21-span curved viaduct near the head of Loch Shiel which will be familiar to any ‘Harry Potter’ fan. This 41-mile heritage train journey is not to be missed but book early – understandably, it’s very popular!
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