Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle Cruises
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Loch Ness with Jacobite

A history of cruising on Loch Ness

Loch Ness - cruise on the loch

Through the lock we leave Dochgarroch behind and we reach a weir at which the canal and river become one to widen into sylvan Loch Dochfour. Our ship proceeds purposefully. The sky is blue, the sun shines and both banks are alive with bird-song. To starboard (our right hand side) sits Dochfour House with its manicured policies backed by the craggy ridge of Cnoc na Gaoithe – the windy hill.

To port (left) the bank is low lying and wooded, abounding in interesting wildlife including red squirrels and roe deer. This scene epitomises the sweet intimate appeal of cruising inland waters. As we contemplate our good fortune, the loch winds and narrows at Bona with its lighthouse, at one time the smallest manned lighthouse in the country and now a comfortable holiday let.

This project was undertaken by a partnership between Scottish Canals, Historic Scotland and the Vivat Trust, whose aim is to restore and secure the long-term future of a number of important canal-side heritage properties into productive use.

Nessie - the Loch Ness Monster

We now shoot out into the altogether grander panorama of Loch Ness. As freshwater lakes go, Loch Ness is among the world's most renowned; perhaps even the most famous of all. Twenty-two and a half miles long, steep sided, not much more than a mile wide and very, very deep, its dark waters hold an ancient mystery; known to the Gaels of old as the each uisge, or water horse and now familiarly known as Nessie – the Loch Ness Monster.

The first recorded appearance of Nessie was the occasion in the sixth century when St Columba confronted the monster while on his way to visit the Pictish King Brude at Inverness. Evangelist though he was, Columba was a hard man with a loud voice and it seems the monster retreated from the great man's wrath with its tail between its legs!

In truth Nessie is a shy creature rarely seen in clear sunny weather. But who knows, today we may be in luck. Of course, there is much more to Loch Ness than Nessie.

Even before Columba's time when older gods prevailed, Loch Ness-side was for a while the home of the two great lovers – the beauteous Deirdre (of the Sorrows) and the noble and handsome warrior Naois son of Uisnech.

Although betrothed to Connachar King of Ulster, Deirdre's love for Naois was all conquering and the pair fled from Erin (Ireland) to Alba (Scotland) where they dwelt in a tower by the side of Loch Ness. There, according to the legend, Naois could kill the salmon of the torrent from his own door, and the deer of the grey gorge from his window, and they were happy.

Alas, Connachar resolved to take Deirdre away by the sword and in due course Naois and his brothers were killed. Such were Deirdre's bitter tears of grief that she vowed to share Naois' grave. Indeed when the grave was dug she jumped into it and lay down by Naois, dead by his side.

The king ordered Deirdre's body to be raised from out the grave and to be buried at a distance. After this was done, fir shoots grew out of the graves of Deirdre and of Naois and the two shoots united in a knot, so strong was their love. Dùn Deardail (Deirdre's fort), a prominent hill on the southern side of the loch, immortalises Deirdre's name.

It is to be hoped that lovers young and old on board Jacobite Queen today will have an easier destiny than that of Deirdre and Naois, but we can console ourselves that it was Loch Ness that gave them their happy time.

Famous and romantic Urquhart Castle

A few minutes into the loch proper and on our left we pass Aldourie Castle – a pink harled fairy confection, all ogee turrets and cupolas. The castle was restored by Roger Tempest as a five-star exclusive-use venue to which Jacobite supply vessels for private charters.

And then after another mile, at Tor Point, the loch widens to its full width to reveal Dores Bay in which nestles the trim village of Dores, at one time a calling point for the old Loch Ness mail steamers. Ahead of us stretches the full majestic length of Loch Ness. The loch is so long that from our level the far southern end is below the horizon.

Words do no justice to the prospect before us – the water, the sky, the steep wooded banks, the rocky crags beyond and the distant dome of Meall Fuar-mhonaidh (the lump on the cold moor) frame the composition but as light and reflection vary with time of day, season and weather conditions the whole mood of the loch changes.

The drama of winter snow and shafts of sun through a leaden sky is an awe-inspiring never-to-be-forgotten sight but today the sky is blue and the loch is like a mirror.

As we progress, we pass to our right the be-flagged Clansman Hotel with its small harbour. This is the departure point for a series of shorter Jacobite cruises on Jacobite Queen's modern sister vessels. There are of course coach connections between Inverness and the Clansman Harbour.

We skirt the steep-sided northern shore which forms the curving flank of Meall na h-Eilrig (hill of the deer-trap) which in due course opens out into Urquhart Bay. Dead ahead, marking the far end of Urquhart Bay, lies Loch Ness's most famous and romantic landmark, and our destination – Urquhart Castle.

What could be more quintessentially Scottish than this ruined castle perched on a craggy headland commanding the loch from all directions?

As a defensive site Urquhart probably dates back to the Iron Age and possibly earlier, but its history as a medieval fortress is recorded from the thirteenth century. The castle witnessed much bloody conflict. It featured in the Scots' struggle for independence, ultimately coming under the sway of Robert the Bruce.

Over the next four centuries, control of Urquhart Castle was vested in succession with the Durwards, Macdonald Lords of the Isles and the Grants. By the end of the seventeenth century, with the defeat and exile of the last reigning Stewart King, James VII of Scotland (II of England), the castle was blown up and abandoned in a ruinous state. It is now in the hands of Historic Scotland.

Jacobite Queen approaches the castle pier, lines are thrown and we berth right in the shadow of the castle. Time to go ashore. There is much to see, the castle itself is of course the main interest and visitors are free to explore its still extensive works and tower. Close to the pier is a reconstructed trebuchet or siege engine.

The Historic Scotland visitor centre, cunningly set into the hillside, contains an interpretation area and audio-visual presentation that tells the full story. There is also an excellent café, shop with local crafts and toilets and naturally stunning views of the loch and castle from the visitor centre veranda.

We have the option of returning to Inverness on Jacobite Queen, and the return journey offers a different perspective from the outward one, or we can go back by Jacobite coach.

Jacobite offer a range of tours and cruises summer and winter, from the one-hour "Jacobite Inspiration" boat trip on Loch Ness from the Clansman Harbour to view Urquhart Castle, to the six and a half hour "Jacobite Passion" tour that includes a cruise on Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal and visits to Urquhart Castle, the monster exhibition at Loch Ness 2000 to discover what lies behind the legend, and the Late Neolithic chambered Corrimony Cairns and stone circle dating from about 2,000 BC.

Loch Ness with Jacobite
A history of cruising on Loch Ness
By Roy Pedersen
"For Robbie"
First published in Scotland in 2007
Second revised edition 2015

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