A small, red-funnelled ship shimmers in her own reflection at a canal-side berth about a mile from the centre of the Highland capital city of Inverness. The canal is the famed Caledonian Canal – the defining element of a magnificent coast to coast waterway linking a series of majestic lochs, of which the largest and most famous is Loch Ness.
This berth is the departure point for the Reflection and Discovery cruise to Loch Ness operated by Jacobite Cruises, a Highland institution that operates a small fleet on these magical waters to the delight and wonder of an international clientele. The ship is the Jacobite Queen, the company's well-appointed flagship.
The Jacobite wharf is up no blighted urban backstreet. It is a spic and span platform with a neat whitewashed booking office set in a picturesque verdant landscape. Flanked by a golf course to the west and playing fields to the east, the prospect is surrounded in the middle distance by hills and woods.
At this point the canal is crossed by Tomnahurich Swing Bridge carrying the A82 Inverness to Fort William trunk road. This road layout will be altered radically in the near future and the Jacobite wharf will have to be relocated when the proposed Inverness West Link road is built. Meantime, however, we can enjoy the pleasant surroundings as they have existed for many years.
Just to the north of the Tomnahurich Bridge rises the steep wooded flank of Tomnahurich itself: the name means fairy hill of the yews. To the south the canal and Loch Ness beckon, but we must await the departure time of our good ship. She departs from Tomnahurich Bridge every summer day at ten and two and we have elected for the morning cruise.
By about quarter to ten, individuals and small groups have appeared. Cameras click, fingers point, smiles abound. Those with pre-booked and web-booked tickets start to board; others make their purchase at the booking office. The tempo increases as the City Sightseeing bus arrives from the city centre with the final complement for this morning's cruise.
Ten o'clock; the gangway is withdrawn, somewhere in the bowels of the ship the engine rumbles, we cast off, the propeller stirs the glassy water and we're under way. As we leave the wharf behind, the canal curves along the edge of the steep wooded protrusion of Torvean hill.
On the opposite eastern bank we find the waterway is now running parallel with the fast flowing River Ness, but we are at a higher level giving us a view beyond the river of firstly the city's leafy southern suburbs, then its wooded rural hinterland. These views confirm, if confirmation is needed, that Inverness is a green and agreeable city. This is a good point at which to explore the ship.
With her squat red, black-topped funnel Jacobite Queen has the smart business-like appearance of a liner or mail steamer of the Art Deco period, only in miniature. It would be no surprise to find Agatha Christie's dapper detective Hercule Poirot among the ship's company and indeed Jacobite Queen has carried many a distinguished passenger including Her Royal Highness Princess Anne.
Today our companions are a typical mix of travellers from many countries, young and old, of many walks of life. There are locals too on board who have sailed on the Queen or her sisters many times and with good reason never tire of doing so. Romance and fellowship are in the air.
Those two young lovers are in their own dreamland; reserved city types have lost their reserve and converse animatedly with complete strangers – strangers no more; friends reminisce about good times past and contemplate good times to come. The combination of water, a good ship and Highland magic on travellers is remarkable.
Jacobite Queen is perfect for her purpose. The top deck is open for all-round vision, with a scatter of wooden seats; a favourite location for photographers. How many millions of snaps have been taken from there? At the forward end are the bridge and wheelhouse, off-limits to us ordinary mortals.
Naturally, Jacobite Queen is equipped with a proper traditional spoked wooden ship's wheel resplendent with brass hub. At the wheel is our skipper who knows the waterway and its quirks like the back of his hand – probably better. We are in good and experienced hands.
At the after end of the top deck is a companionway (stairway) down to the main deck. At this level the open stern is another favourite and usually sheltered perch. Here one can contemplate the passing of time and be mesmerised by the receding wash. Amidships is a spacious heated observation saloon with ample seating and large panoramic windows for viewing the passing scene.
Beyond the saloon is the open foredeck from which we can enjoy a breeze and the look-out for the route ahead. Below the main deck is a well-stocked bar serving a range of drinks and snacks. Yes, she is a fine friendly wee ship served by a competent and courteous crew. What better way to travel.
But now the ship has slowed. We have reached Dochgarroch Lock. This is where the water level of the canal is adjusted to that of the river and ultimately of Loch Ness itself. The fascinating aspect of Dochgarroch is the variety of craft moored there, from small locally owned day boats to luxurious ocean yachts en-route perhaps to or from Scandinavia.
Inevitably, too, we encounter the waterway's ubiquitous hire cruisers, for Dochgarroch is a popular watering hole. Dochgarroch is also the location of Jacobite Cruises' new head office and departure point for Jacobite's Contemplation and Enchantment cruises.
Loch Ness with Jacobite
A history of cruising on Loch Ness
By Roy Pedersen
First published in Scotland in 2007
Second revised edition 2015
available in these languages