By in Holidays

Cruise your way across Scotland

Motor boating on the Caledonian Canal

Want to see Scotland from a different perspective?

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 (from Fort William at the head of Loch Linnhe to Inverness)

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 a motor cruiser.

There are several companies which offer charter boats 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 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 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 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 or these limits.

Berthing at Banavie by BillKasman, on Flickr
" Berthing at Banavie " ( Public Domain ) by BillKasman


So now you’re on your way. What can you expect to see? From the canal you will see ancient castles, quiet towns, cosy lochside pubs and restaurants and hear the sound of bagpipes drifting over the water. 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. If you choose to traverse Loch Ness, well, you never know what you might spot!

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 to 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 at times. Young children should be supervised at all times and should definitely wear lifejackets whilst on deck - including getting on and off a boat.

Four-berth cruiser by BillKasman, on Flickr
" Four-berth cruiser " ( Public Domain ) by BillKasman


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 those at the larger villages will be. 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’re not impressed by the thought of captaining your own cruise boat then you could try one of the several cruise lines 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 the lift a finger!

Whichever option you choose I’m sure you will have a great time motor cruising on the Caledonian Canal.

One of the bigger boats by BillKasman, on Flickr
" One of the bigger boats " ( Public Domain ) by BillKasman


There are several commercial cruising companies which operate on the Caledonian Canal both chartering boats for self-skippering and offering cruises on larger craft. It’s a case of whatever you are inclined to do and I’m not going to recommend any particular company or style of cruising. If you search the web for ‘Cruising the Caledonian Canal’ you will find a good selection. I will, however, direct you to UNDISCOVERED SCOTLAND webpage on the canal which is full of useful information and SCOTTISH CANALS webpage on the Caledonian Canal which is also very helpful.


This short video will give you a flavour of cruising on the Caledonian Canal: CRUISING THE CALEDONIAN CANAL

Image Credit » Kasman

You will need an account to comment - feel free to register or login.


VinceSummers wrote on December 4, 2017, 11:31 AM

Bonnie Scotland! Funny you and I posted within 3 minutes of each other. It would be lovely to see Scotland. I wonder how "modern events" are treating Scotland? Terrorist activity? Political intrigues? Natural disasters?

MegL wrote on December 4, 2017, 1:52 PM

That sounds like a great way to see a lot of Scotland and a lot of its geology too! Love the photographs.

Ruby3881 wrote on December 4, 2017, 3:46 PM

I've never thought of cruising through Scotland until now, but it does seem like a fun way to see the country!

Kasman wrote on December 4, 2017, 4:00 PM

Just boring old Scotland, I'm afraid!

Kasman wrote on December 4, 2017, 4:01 PM

It's certainly an exciting way to travel across Scotland.

Kasman wrote on December 4, 2017, 4:02 PM

It's very popular and steering a boat isn't as hard as you might imagine it to be - even if it doesn't have brakes emoticon :smile:

LynLomasi wrote on December 4, 2017, 4:11 PM

Wow, very detailed post. That sounds like so much fun! If I ever get to go there, I will remember this.

Kasman wrote on December 4, 2017, 4:15 PM

LynLomasi You will be made most welcome and I would be happy to act as your guide - at very reasonable rates, of course

Last Edited: December 4, 2017, 4:16 PM

lookatdesktop wrote on December 5, 2017, 1:44 PM

You are a natural born seaman.

melody23 wrote on December 6, 2017, 5:18 PM

We stayed in a lodge on Loch Oich for my last birthday and it was lovely, apart from the typical Scottish weather - actually this was only the second time in my memory that the weather was rubbish on my birthday, the other was my 21st ten years before where I distinctly remember standing outside a local restaurant watching a boat that had for some reason decided not to come into the harbour despite the rubbish weather sink and float again. of course it wasn't really doing this, its an optical illusion that can be created by a really rough sea where it actually looks like the whole boat becomes submerged before resurfacing as if by magic a few seconds later

Kasman wrote on December 6, 2017, 6:30 PM

It doesn't get that bad on the canal but the rain is never far away!

maxeen wrote on December 7, 2017, 7:47 AM

Thanks,very enjoyable information.We often think we may do this be never get around to it. I was surprised to learn of all the lock-keepers still engaged.Nice video.

Kasman wrote on December 8, 2017, 3:14 PM

The canal can be very busy at times. If the lock keepers weren't there to direct everyone there would be chaos at the locks.