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How to cruise the Caledonian Canal

How to cruise the Caledonian Canal

We spent a week cruising the Caledonian Canal and discovered a rather special (and fun!) way to spend a holiday. Ready to cast off? Here’s how to cruise the Caledonian Canal.

Stretching the length of Scotland’s spectacular Great Glen, the 62 mile Caledonian Canal sails coast to coast beneath the mighty Ben Nevis, through the maelstrom of the Fort Augustus Locks, across the huge expanse of Loch Ness up to Inverness, taking in some of Scotland’s most special scenery along the way.

Things to know before you sail the Caledonian Canal

The Caledonian Canal is a 62-mile waterway that connects the east and west coast of Scotland. The canal is navigable by both sailing boats, cruise barges, seafaring vessels and your boat for the week – a motor cruiser

The Caledonian Canal is made up of man-made canal sections, 29 locks and four lochs, including Loch Ness. A loch and a lock might sound the same, but they are very different. Loch is Scottish for lake – and locks are man-made structures designed to take boats up and down steep sections of the canal

Caledonian Canal boat hire

Your boat will need a ‘skipper’ and ‘crew’. On the canal, everyone gets hands-on to learn about the ropes, moorings and navigating the lochs and locks. You don’t need a license to drive a cruiser on the Caledonian Cana

Your hire boat company on the Caledonian Canal will give you a lesson on how to drive your cruiser and you will be provided with a Caledonian Canal Skippers Guide and a detailed cruising map as to where you can sail, the speeds you can go and the operation of the lochs and bridges. Don’t be scared to ask questions, the operatives are very nice

All the locks and bridges are operated by Scottish Canals. The canal is open from dawn to dusk, with no cruising at night. The locks and bridges are in operation from 8.30 am and 5.30 pm (8 am – 6 pm in the summer) and close for 1 hour between 12 and 2 pm so that the Scottish Canals operatives can have their lunch break

Scottish Canals will provide you with a key to their shower facilities at Dochgarroch Lock, Fort Augustus, Laggan Locks, Gairlochy and Banavie.

Caledonian Canal Boat Hire

HIRE YOUR CRUISER – Our Caledonian Canal boat hire was with West Highland Sailing who are based at Laggan Locks, which is located between Fort Augustus and Fort William – perfectly situated to explore both ends of the Caledonian Canal.

Don’t follow your Sat Nav to ‘Laggan Locks’ as you will end up on the wrong side of the canal. West Highland Sailing base is accessed off a single track road on the other side of the Laggan Swing Bridge. If you are travelling from the south, cross the Swing Bridge and then take the first left.

HOW LONG? We cruised the Caledonian Canal on a 7-day trip, but you can also do a 3-4 day trip from Laggan Locks by sailing either to Fort William or Inverness and back.

GUIDE PRICE? £1200 for a 4 berth cruiser with two bedrooms for a week in September. The price included fuel, bedding, towels, moorings (apart from at Drumnadrochit which is an additional £10 per night) and use of Scottish Canals facilities.

Sailing the Caledonian Canal Itinerary

Gairlochy Caledonian Canal

DAY 1 – Sail to Fort William

All aboard! Let’s go.

  • SAIL – Starting at Laggan Locks, cruise south to Fort William via the dramatic Loch Lochy. Navigate your first set of locks at Gairlochy at the picturesque Moy Swing Bridge – look out for the mighty Ben Nevis to your left. Sailing time of 4 hours, including navigating the locks.
  • MOOR UP – At the top of the Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie. If you can’t make it to Fort William (the swing bridge closes at around 5-6 pm) Gairlochy is your closest mooring, although it is remote so make sure you have supplies for the evening on board just in case!
  • EAT & DRINK – Fort William is a 1-hour walk or a short taxi ride (about £7) from Banavie. There are lots of options for dinner, I recommend the Grog & Gruel which serves real ale in a lively atmosphere, with good food in the restaurant upstairs. Worth booking in advance.

Day 2 – Explore Fort William and Glen Nevis

The Caledonian Canal is only 60 miles long so you don’t need to spend your whole time on the water! Spend the day exploring Fort William and Glen Nevis before sailing to Gairlochy for the night.  

Things to do in Fort William – Feeling energetic? The Caledonian Canal sails right past the Nevis Range, home to the UK’s highest mountain. The climb up Ben Nevis via the Pony Track will take between 5-8 hours. Celebrate with a drink after your climb at the Nevis Inn.

If you don’t fancy climbing the Ben, explore Glen Nevis instead – a walk to the Steal Falls and the Nevis Gorge will take around 2 hours. Don’t forget to visit the 8 locks of Neptune’s Staircase, built by Thomas Telford, it is the longest staircase lock in Britain.

  • SAIL – Back to Gairlochy through the swing bridge and Gairlochy Locks. Sailing time – 1 hour including Moy Swing Bridge and locks.
  • MOOR UP – Gairlochy locks where there are Scottish Canals facilities.
  • EAT & DRINK – Self-cater on the boat under the stars, Gairlochy is a beautifully quiet spot to spend the evening after a night out in Fort William.

Day 3 – Sail from Gairlochy to Fort Augustus

  • SAIL – Day 3 is spent on the water sailing from Gairlochy to Fort Augustus. Sail up Loch Lochy, through Laggan Locks, along the tree-lined Laggan Avenue, through Laggan Swing Bridge, up Loch Oich, through the Aberchalder Swing Bridge, Cullochy Lock, and Kyrta Lock before reaching Fort Augustus. Phew! Sailing time including the lock and lochs, around 6 hours.
  • STAY –  The pretty village of Fort Augustus sits around halfway up the 62-mile glen’ and is a rather busy little place, filled with people enjoying loch cruises and watching the boats going through the flight of five canal locks to Loch Ness. There are Scottish Canals moorings at both the top and bottom of the Fort Augustus locks.
  • EAT & DRINKThe Lock Inn does great pub grub (fab fish & chips and mac & cheese!) and serves real ale.
Gairlochy Caledonian Canal

Day 4 – Fort Augustus Locks and Loch Ness

The mighty Loch Ness is your next destination, but first, you have to navigate the Fort Augustus Locks. The trip through the locks will take around 90 minutes and there are signs at the top and bottom of the locks telling you of the time of the next unlocking. Let the Scottish Canals operatives know you want to sail in the morning and they will give you instructions.

A tip from us – follow the instructions from Scottish Canals carefully and pay attention – it is not as easy as it looks! My video above shows the locks in operation.

  • SAIL – A full day out on Loch Ness, with stopping points include the Falls of Foyers, Urquhart Castle and the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre. Sailing time 3 hours including the Fort Augustus locks.
  • STAY –  Drumnadrochit (Urquhart Bay Harbour) there is an additional charge of £10 for the night. It is a 15-minute walk up into the village for restaurants and pubs.
  • EAT & DRINK – Real ale and traditional food is served at the Benleva Hotel in Drumnadrochit. You will need a taxi back to the Harbour (about £10) there is only one local taxi so make sure she is available.

TIP – Before you head out onto Loch Ness, Cruise Loch Ness run RIB trips up to Urquhart Castle – travelling at 35 mph you scoot up the loch, stopping occasionally to wildlife spot, it is a completely different way to see the loch than from your cruiser and brilliant fun.

TOP TIP – Port and cheese are essential while you cruise up Loch Ness.

Day 5 – Discover the capital of the Highlands – Inverness

  • SAIL – Leaving Drumnadrochit sail up the end of Loch Ness, up Loch Dochfour and through the Dochgarroch Lock to Inverness.
  • STAY –  The closest mooring to Inverness is the Tomnahurich Swing Bridge –  a 20-minute walk or taxi into the centre of Inverness. Additional moorings are available at Dochgarroch Lock and the Seaport Marina.
  • EAT – The Black Isle Brewery Bar serves up their range of organic beers accompanied by delicious pizzas. The Castle pub serves a huge range of beer overlooking the river.

Things to do in Inverness – visit the Culloden Battlefield, walk along the River Ness, discover Leakey’s Bookshop, and walk to the end of the canal where it meets to Beauly Firth to spot dolphins.

Urquhart Castle

Day 6 – Sail the length of Loch Ness

Cruise back from Inverness to Fort Augustus down the entire length of the mighty Loch Ness. Moor up at the bottom of the Fort Augustus locks for the night – around 5 hours of sailing.

Day 7 – Fort Augustus to Laggan Locks

  • SAIL –  spend the morning navigating the Fort Augustus locks (around 1 hour) before leisurely sailing back through Kytra, Cullochy and Laggan Locks to Loch Oich.
  • STAY – West Highland Sailing base at Laggan Locks
  • EAT – Dine on the quirky Eagle Barge which is moored up at Laggan Locks. Pub grub is served in the bar and a full menu in the restaurant. The barge is tiny and requires advance booking. I suggest booking for your last night well in advance!

When is the best time to sail the Caledonian Canal?

We cruised in September and had a great week of weather. Spring and Autumn often have the best weather in Scotland – and in June there is plenty of daylight for sitting out on your boat. Sailing on Loch Ness in winter is not for the faint of heart, as cruisers can be a little chilly, and the lochs rough if the wind picks up!

Our top canal boating tips

  • List item
  • Learn the ropes! Always pass the rope beneath the safety bars on the bow and stern of the boat – this means the boat will be more secure.
  • When ‘walking’ the lochs at Fort Augustus have the strongest person at the back and the ‘control’ at the front. It is much harder to get the back of the boat moving and keep it steady in moving water in the locks.
  • Be prepared to moor up before a bridge or lock to await it opening, someone coming the other way, or for more boats to go through together. There are pontoons right before the locks for you to wait at.
  • Watch out for the large trip boats on Loch Ness – they can cause quite a swell when they pass!
  • Consider wearing a lifejacket at all times – although you must wear them in the locks. While the wind can get up on the lochs, the Caledonian Canal is very safe, but you will need to watch out for other boat users – and your own crew’s bad driving!
  • There is no need to speed. You could sail the whole canal in 3 days – so with a week’s trip, you have plenty of time. The speed limit is 5 knots but to check your speed look at your bow wave – it should not be splashing on the canal banks.
Caledonian Canal

Finally, don’t forget to have fun! Cruising the Caledonian Canal is a unique Scotland holiday you will never forget.

Love, from Scotland x

Sailing the Caledonian Canal – Press Play!