In the first of a series previewing summer cruise options outside the CalMac/Waverley sphere, Rob Beale explores the various possibilities on Loch Lomond, and looks forward to the day when the sound of paddles will once again reverberate round its shores.
As a navigator of inland waterways, I have a particular interest in the services that have criss-crossed the lochs of Scotland — linking remote settlements to railheads, as vital parts in a circular tour, or just to show visitors the sights.
I’ve taken trips on every loch with a regular service: Lochs Ness, Shiel, Etive, Katrine, Lomond, Leven and the Lake of Menteith. I’m afraid I’m too young to have had the pleasure of a trip on Lochs Awe, Eck, Tay, and Earn, although I still research and read whatever I can on the subject. That same ‘age problem’ also meant I was never able to enjoy the pleasures of travelling along Loch Lomond on a paddle steamer – although the steam part can be experienced on Loch Katrine (or Coniston Water, nearer to my home in the Lake District).
In 2009 the Waterbus Review recommended the introduction of more services along the lakes and lochs in Cumbria and Scotland. On Lake Windermere, where I work, we introduced a dedicated bike-boat, and sailings to a shore-side caravan park. On Loch Lomond the main operators Cruise Loch Lomond (of Tarbet) and Sweeney’s Cruises (of Balloch) were invited to provide point-to-point sailings rather than just circular cruises. The first year of the newly branded Loch Lomond Waterbus was 2010. Since then I have enjoyed at least one day annually – sometimes as many as four – cruising on the Loch.
Now it is once again possible to sail from Inversnaid to Balloch following the route of the old paddle steamers and Countess Fiona. At Inversnaid, Luss and Balmaha the waterbus services use the old steamer piers. A few highlights of my Loch Lomond travels follow.
My brother, my dog and I caught the train to Ardlui in 2011 and then travelled across to the West Highland Way on Vixen. We had a leisurely stroll down to Inversnaid before boarding Cruise Loch Lomond’s Lomond Chieftain to Tarbet. A lovely evening’s camping followed, right near the pier watching the boats come and go. Cruise Loch Lomond have a rather large fleet, and Tarbet pier is not the biggest. When not in use their vessels are left at moorings in Tarbet Bay — possibly the only inland fleet to do so.
Next morning we were up bright and early aboard Lomond Princess for the stunning Tarbet to Balmaha sailing via Rowardennan and Luss — in my view the prettiest part of the loch, where the scenery changes from fjord-like to a wide expanse dotted with beautiful islands full of wildlife and history. To indulge in a spot of both, we headed across to Inchcailloch from Balmaha on Margaret. Instantly steep, Inchcailloch sits on the Highland fault line, and rises out of the loch like one of the Faroe Islands. A climb to the summit is well worth it for one of the best views in southern Scotland. You can stand up there and picture Prince Edward heading north from Luss on a balmy afternoon in the summer of 1953, whilst Maid of the Loch would be heading for Balloch.
We descended to the pier via the old church and spooky graveyard, and caught Margaret back to Balmaha inner harbour — then the short walk to the steamer pier for our final vessel of that trip. Lomond Duchess, owned by Sweeney’s Cruises, conveyed us back to Balloch on a route that has now been discontinued from the waterbus timetable.
It took two days, but we managed to recreate something of the past by zig-zagging from Ardlui to Balloch following the steamer routes. Yes, the vessels are not as aesthetically pleasing as the old paddle steamers, but for me the vessels have a certain charm.
In later years I followed different itineraries covering every route on the loch. In 2012 I did a triangle from Balloch to Luss, Luss to Balmaha and Balmaha to Balloch. A highlight of that was Glen Falloch on the final sailing that day — she was once on Windermere as Wynander.
From Balmaha Macfarlane’s operate the Royal Mail service to a number of the islands: Inchfad, Inchcruin, Inchtavannach and Inchmurrin. On the occasion I was on board, there were two other passengers and unfortunately no post for any island apart from Inchmurrin, the largest, where you can have time ashore for lunch and a pint at the island’s only pub before heading back to Balmaha along the fault line.
That trip concluded at Tarbet by way of Lomond Duchess from Balmaha to Luss, and Lomond Warrior from Luss via Rowardennan. Heading north at that part of the loch made me think the best way to enjoy Loch Lomond is to travel the length of it from south to north, crossing from the lowlands to the highlands. I was reminded of a quote in a guide to Windermere from 1843 by James Gibson. Windermere also has a lowland southern basin and a more mountainous north basin. The quote goes:
“The Lake which is … a splendid sheet of water, and shrouded on each margin with thick and rich foliage, out of which, here and there a mansion rears its lofty head, or the smoke of a cottage is seen… while at the head, stands in lofty grandeur, and in full view, the high-towering ornaments of High-street, Kirkstone, Fair-field, and Helvellyn, which, in the early part of the season, are frequently covered with snow: to be able to picture the beauty, the grandeur, the loveliness, which on all sides presents itself, would require skill and comprehension very far surpassing any ever possessed by the writer; indeed, no one was ever able to give even a faint idea of the scene, and nothing but a personal visit can give it.”
Perhaps my favourite time on the loch was last summer on our family holiday. We spent a couple of days at Balloch and enjoyed a trip on Fencer from Loch Lomond Shores (the visitor centre at Balloch) to Inchcailloch with time ashore. We also sailed again on Glen Falloch, this time from Balloch to Balmaha, but the best trip was from Luss. On board Lomond Warrior we sailed on the Capercaillie cruise, which also goes to Inchcailloch but on a meandering route through the narrows between Inchtavannach and Inchconnachan, round Inchcruin and past Ellanderroch. On the return, after going round Torrinch, a heading is made for Inchgalbraith with its old castle that almost covers it, before reaching Luss via the west side of Inchtavannach. It is one trip I’ll definitely do again, but people like us usually do them again, and again, and again!
Oh for a time machine! To meander up Loch Awe en route to Oban, or sail down Loch Shiel on MacBrayne’s circular tour…. I would certainly have enjoyed a sail along the canal between Ardlui and Inverarnan and was really looking forward to a trip on Loch Tay until the Spirit of the Tay project collapsed (see below*). It’s a good job I wasn’t born 80 years ago, as I would constantly be out and about, experiencing the variety of sailings from Stranraer to Stornoway and from Kilchoan to Kenmore. My wife for one certainly would not be too impressed!
Is it too much to dream that one day Clyde Marine will operate a weekly sailing to a pontoon at Arrochar and the Three Lochs Cruise could be renewed? For now it seems Loch Lomond’s sailings are thriving, and I hope other people take the opportunity to experience a cruise on the loch.
Hopefully, once Maid of the Loch has been returned to operation, I will be able to do it with the regular thump of the paddles beneath my feet, the ‘ding-ding’ from the ship’s telegraph and the sound of the compound diagonal engines providing the beat to it all.
Sweeney’s Cruise Company operates cruises on Loch Lomond throughout the year. Cruise Loch Lomond operates a full schedule in summer but a limited service in winter months. For information about Maid of the Loch, contact the Loch Lomond Steamship Company.
* The tourist experience returns to Loch Tay this summer with cruises on board Iolaire organised by Kenmore-based Loch Tay Safaris.
If you have enjoyed reading Rob Beale’s ‘Linking the Loch’, you may wish to catch up with our other posts at News & Reports.