It rained overnight and was still raining when we woke this morning. That was no surprise since it had been forecast to rain all day but we did wonder how it would affect our plan to cruise Loch Shiel. We were booked, though not paid, and had no alternatives in mind so it was going to happen regardless.
We showered, ate breakfast, and prepared for our day out. We hoped the boat would have sufficient cover to keep us dry but packed umbrellas and jackets as insurance. Soon after 8:30 am we were on the road with me driving again since it was no more than about 20 minutes each way to our departure point at Glenfinnan and there seemed little point in changing drivers for that.
The Loch Shiel cruise had been on our itinerary since we first started planning our time in Scotland. Charles had suggested it as an option and mentioned that it was operated by his brother, Jim, out of Glenfinnan, just 20 km away by road. That is an easy drive on good road, mostly along the shore of Loch Eil. We had stopped at Glenfinnan with Charles and Cathy in 1998 to view the monument to the Jacobite uprising. It is now probably better known as the site of a rail viaduct that features in a Harry Potter film. We arrived in good time and were ready when the MV Sileas moved from its anchorage to the dock where we boarded.
There was light rain falling as we boarded and the mountains surrounding Loch Shiel were shrouded in low cloud. It seemed unpromising weather for a cruise but there was sheltered seating on the boat and blankets for those who might need them. Majella sat in the middle of the sheltered area but I chose a seat near the rear where I could stand for an unobstructed view with my camera. Despite the clouds, mist, and drizzle it looked as though there would be plenty to see as we cruised almost 30 km down the loch to Acharacle and back over the next 6 hours or so.
Along the way Jim offered helpful commentary about the geology, history before and after human arrival, industry, and wildlife along the loch. His commentary was delivered in measured tones at a relaxed pace and only as there was something to note rather than as a constant stream. He was obviously practised at it and had enough to provide some variety between the outward trip and our return. His passion for the loch and its surrounds was evident.
The Glenfinnan end of Loch Shiel is enclosed on both sides by steep mountains but the topography at the Acharacle end is lower and flatter. The loch is filled with fresh water and is up to 150 metres deep in places with an outlet to the sea via the River Shiel at the Acharacle end. Jim told us that the loch had risen up to a metre in recent weeks as a consequence of rain. The general wetness of the area was evident in the waterfalls that streamed down from the mountains on either side and the lush green of the slopes.
Industry around the loch has varied over the centuries. At times there were small farms with cultivated areas for crops including potatos but mostly it was sheep and cattle. They have now been mostly removed to allow for some regeneration of natural forest but red deer impede that by grazing on the saplings. Natural forest has mostly been removed in two main waves, first by charcoal burning for the iron smelting industry and later by taking of timber for trenches in the 1914-18 war. There are now plantation forests of pines introduced from Canada on the slopes and some salmon farming in the loch.
Jim did his best to show us wildlife along the way but, being wild, the animals and birds were not always cooperative. The golden eagles did not appear but we did see one of the reintroduced white-tailed eagles. These birds have a wing span of up to 8 ft and the one we saw obliged us by doing a short glide from one roost to another. On the way down we missed seeing red deer that disappeared over a ridge and thought they may have reappeared in the venison burgers we had for lunch in the Loch Shiel Hotel at Acharacle. The deer were more cooperative on the way back with a small herd appearing on the hillside. We thought we were seeing them but they were a long way off and hard to see against the background.
Other features of the loch included a number of small islands. A couple of small rocky isles provided a refuge from humans and animals for a few Scots Pines which were once the dominant form of vegetation in the area. Saint Finan’s Isle, or the Green Isle, was used by the 7th century Irish saint as a base for spreading Christianity in the area. It has been used as a burial place ever since and according to Jim may have thousands buried there.
We reached the far end of the loch at Acharacle at about noon. Jim advised that he would be leaving for the return journey at 1:15 pm and described the options for lunch. The Loch Shiel Hotel was nearest so we walked the 100 m or so and ate there. We both opted for burgers which were available with beef, pork, minted lamb, or venison. We chose venison with rosé for Majella and a pint of Besthaven Best for me. Majella wanted cappucino which the hotel did not offer so we walked to the nearby café which was too busy for the few minutes we had left and she had to settle for Nescafé from the bakery next door. We made it back to the boat just in time to leave.
Although we had left Glenfinnan in cloud, mist and rain, the rain had not persisted for long and patches of blue sky had appeared as we traveled down the loch. The improved weather persisted as we cruised back up the loch and we enjoyed the sunshine that eased the effect of the cool breeze that continued to blow. We arrived back at Glenfinnan in vastly different conditions from those that had prevailed when we left.
We noted the crowds gathered near the Glenfinnan memorial and information centre. Most of them appeared to be Harry Potter fans, with many positioned above the viaduct for a view of the steam train as it crossed. We avoided the crowd and drove back to Fort William to rest. After a substantial lunch we did not need much dinner and made do with some salad, cheese and bread followed by strawberries with creme fraiche.