Thursday, 30 April 2009

A hearty breakfast before we tackled Neptunes Staircase.

Locks on the <span class=Caledonian Canal in Fort Augustus" style="border: medium none ; display: block;" width="200" height="162">Image via Wikipedia

The only time we ever got holidays from the fishing was when the boat tied up for its annual overhaul which included painting from mast tops to keel, engine completely overhauled, life raft sent away to get checked, compass checked and a stability test, all of which could take anything from four to six weeks depending whether there were any snags or not. As the boat had been built in Sandhaven just outside Fraserburgh, we always took her back there to get the work done, knowing it was being left in the capable and familiar hands of the men who built her also it was cheaper in these days to take her from the west coast where we fished to the east coast rather than use one of the local boatyards. This meant clearing the decks of all the fishing gear, leaving everything as clear and clean as possible for the workmen before we started one of the most scenic sea journeys you could ever imagine, up the west coast of Scotland, through the Caledonian Canal and down the Moray Firth to Fraserburgh. Sometimes we would sail through the Crinnan Canal to avoid the Mull of Kintyre where treacherous seas can be whipped up with the strong tides when the wind blows from the wrong direction, but either way the scenery is breathtaking.
The first year I had the pleasure of this journey we sailed through the Crinnan Canal with its small wooden locks that were manually operated (and still are to this day) and at every lock it was the crew who had to go through the procedures of opening and closing the gates and slooshes (the opening on the gates to let the water out or in) until we got to the sea lock that took us out into the north end of the Sound of Jura where the tides ripped through the narrow channels of the Western Isles. The scenery on both sides of the Crinnan Canal was stunning and as this was the first time I had sailed through a canal I had a lot to ponder as we sailed through even more beautiful panoramic scenes made up of these almost deserted islands of which were many as we made our way to Corpach and the sea locks of the Caledonian Canal.
As this was the mid sixties most of the locks and bridges were still manually operated but with renovation taking place a few of the smaller groups of locks had hydraulics fitted making it much easier and quicker to proceed through; the sea locks being one of the first to get it installed.
We had arrived in time to get through the sea lock and into the canal just before the lock keeper finished for the night so we tied up and had a good supper and a good sleep before the journey through to the east coast in the morning.
We awoke at 6 am. to a glorious morning with Ben Nevis standing out in the sunrise with the dark shadows in its gullies making it look like the menacing mountain I had always pictured when thinking of our highest peak. The air from the sea mingled with the aromas of grass and bracken drifting across the canal in a hazy early morning mist was the most fragrant clean air you could ever wish to inhale and what better smell to add and capture memories with than the bacon being cooked for our breakfast before we tackled Neptune's Staircase, the next and longest group of locks in the canal and all manually operated. We were going up each lock we went through and it was every man to his station, with two of the crew and skipper on board to manage the ropes and manoeuvre forward whenever the lock filled with water and the gates opened, with a gang of canal workers pushing four poles that were fixed into a capstan (one on each side of the canal) to open and close the gates and two men on each gate for the slooshes. All in all about twelve lock operators plus the five crewmen from the boat and an hour and a half later we were finally at the top but the view was stunning as we looked back to see the canal winding down to the sea lock, out as far as Fort William and the picturesque shores of Loch Linnhe and of course Ben Nevis towering on our left. (One man now does the job that used to take twelve since hydraulics have been fitted and although the time to go through has been cut it is not by much.)
The next obstacle was a road bridge that opened in two halves and as we approached and blew the foghorn, to let the keeper know of our arrival the first half was already swinging across and a couple of cars had been stopped to let us through. Once the first half was opened the keeper got into a boat, which I can only describe as home-made because it looked like a wooden box with a sharp piece added to the front to cut through the water and a couple of oars to take him the short journey to the other side where he then opened the other half (by means of a ratchet and handle.) He waved us through and wished us a safe passage and it took me all my time to stop myself from wishing him a safe passage back to the other side in his home-made craft that had less chance of surviving than we did even though it only crossed a narrow part of the canal.
The canal was full of characters like that and as we carried on through small lochs and canal sections, going up higher with each lock we came to until we reached the first series of locks at Fort Augustus that was the beginning of our descent and would take us out into the notorious Loch Ness. With us descending, and these locks and one bridge being hydraulic making things easier for us I jumped ashore to get some fresh rolls and a bottle of whisky from some of the various shops that lined the banking, but as I was being served the shopkeeper told me to look out for the monster, when sailing through the loch and thinking he was joking I sort of sniggered until I saw the look of scorn on his face. All the locals are sure there is a monster in the loch and you dare not mock them as I realised so I listened as he told me to put the sounder on in case we passed over it, and how deep the loch was etc. until I saw the boat in the last lock which gave me the excuse to leave but not before I bought a soft toy that was supposed to look like the monster.
(Who was I to argue, if that's what they thought then so be it.)
It takes two hours to sail through the loch hence the bottle of whisky so me and one of the crew had a few drams before going up to give my uncle (the skipper) a break and let him have a couple of libations while we carried on to the next set of locks at the far end of the loch.
I took the wheel and looked out the wheelhouse window onto the loch where a gentle ripple hit our bow as we ploughed onwards through the soft breeze until, all of a sudden my heart leapt into my mouth as out the corner of my eye I saw this shape like I had never seen before skimming through the water leaving a trail behind it as it crossed the loch about half a mile in front of us.
Could THIS be the "famous monster" I was witnessing on my first passage through Loch Ness I thought as I peered harder, heart thumping as I reached for the binoculars, but NAH! on closer inspection it was nothing other than the "FAMOUS GROUSE" and the discussion I had with the shopkeeper that made my imagination turn this speedboat into the elusive monster. Once my heart and imagination settled down we all had a good laugh when I relayed the sighting to the crew but we did have the sounder on and as we approached the deep water near Urquhart Castle a large strange mark (I hate to admit it but it was for all the world the shape of a monster) came on that was not a shoal of fish so my uncle took the readings of it so we could go over the same place we were recording now on the way back.
We were brought back to normal with the approaching locks, and our continual descent to the sea locks at Inverness on the east coast where we had to spend a couple of hours waiting for the tide to come until, in the early evening we were released into the Moray Firth with the swell of the sea to contend with again. It was rough compared to the calm waters of the canal but as we were hitting the seas shoulder on, the rest of the passage to Fraserburgh was fine, arriving early in the morning just in time for fresh butteries (sort of hard flat roll with a more yeasty taste) and a cup of tea from one of the huts at the top of the pier that catered to the array of harbour workers that thronged the place.
The train journey back home is a story for another day, but we did go over the same piece of ground when we sailed back through the loch once the overhaul was completed and where we recorded the monster looking object, nothing was to be seen making it all the more mysterious, and the tales of the locals more intriguing. Years later when scientists were searching for the elusive monster they were asking every boat that sailed through the loch to put their sounders on and report any strange object they came across but by this time our monster recording had been destroyed, (much to my regret) although the mystic of the real monster will go on forever.
It might be a strange recording or it might be a rookie fisherman with a touch of whisky inside him that spots it but something will always turn up to keep the legend alive especially nearing summer when the tourist are about. (Whoops I hope the shopkeeper at Fort Augustus is not reading this.)

Top picture is a view of Loch Ness.
Middle is a picture of Urquhart Castle with what could be the monster?
Bottom is the locks at Fort Augustus.


  1. Another excellent read. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Great post! Talking about the things of the sea really makes your writings come alive. I really like the passion you tell it with. Have a great day!

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  4. Oh LOL the Grouse on the water! Lovely story.

  5. Great post-- I enjoyed reading.