Robert Cleary assesses the appeal of one of Scotland’s oldest tourist destinations.
I recently went to the Trossachs to sample the pleasures of a trip on Loch Katrine. Surrounded by wooded mountains, the freshwater loch has been a popular leisure destination for a century and a half, its reputation depending as much on its beautiful scenery, best viewed from its small fleet of loch steamers, as on its romantic historical associations.
This is where the outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor was born, where Queen Victoria built a holiday house and where Sir Walter Scott set his 1810 poem Lady of the Lake and his 1818 novel Rob Roy. Those associations have long been perpetuated by the names borne by ships on Loch Katrine.
I reached Trossachs Pier in time to witness the motor vessel Lady of the Lake leave with a reasonable load on her 1330 return sailing to Stronachlachar, before having a modestly priced lunch at the pierside Brenachoile Restaurant, which is under the management of the Winnock Hotel, Drymen.
The veteran steamship Sir Walter Scott, dating from 1899, arrived back at 1400 having given a one-hour cruise on the loch. Her earlier morning sailing had departed at 1030 for Stronachlachar, returning at 1230. This sailing is particularly popular with cyclists who disembark at Stronachlachar and cycle the eight miles back down the side of the loch.
The ‘Sir Walter’ — the only surviving screw steamer in regular passenger service in Scotland — is still driven by her original 1898 triple expansion steam engine, supplied by Matthew Paul & Co of Dumbarton, though 2007 marked the last year of her use of coal as fuel. During a rebuild the following winter, two Cochran Wee Chieftain boilers were installed: these run on bio-fuel, a kinder environmental option that helps to preserve Glasgow’s water source and the beautiful environment of Loch Katrine. The steamship uses around 300 litres of this fuel on a daily basis.
As part of the rebuild a new covered lounge was incorporated on the promenade deck. This provides excellent heated accommodation which, as I discovered during the leisurely cruise to Stronachlachar, is absolutely necessary in the windy expanses of the loch. The downside is that it totally spoils her appearance as a classic steamer.
Blankets are available for additional warmth on the open deck: even in summer it was cold sailing against the wind. The bar/cafeteria on the lower deck aft was removed during her refurbishment and a smaller servery was constructed within the new lounge. This allows passengers to be served either under cover or from the outside deck.
One of the stewardesses provides an onboard photography service as a souvenir (for a cost) of your cruise — a strange development in the age of digital photography and selfies, when passengers can readily take photographs for themselves without having to pay for a professional photo.
Sir Walter Scott depends very much on coach traffic for her regular custom. While I was there, two coach-loads disembarked at 1400 and another group joined the 1430 sailing. However, one of the crew mentioned that traffic numbers had declined in 2016, with fewer coaches. The operating company has the option of using the smaller Lady of the Lake instead of the veteran steamship if numbers are lower than expected.
The fare structure on Loch Katrine seems to me rather more expensive than Waverley considering the limited facilities on board the ships. An adult return to Stronachlachar is £16.00 on Sir Walter Scott and £14.00 on Lady of the Lake. The one-hour cruises cost £13.00 and £11.00 respectively.
On Sundays until August 28 Sir Walter Scott’s 1600 cruise has live music on board to suit all tastes. On Saturday 13 and Sunday 14 August the operating company is celebrating Sir Walter Scott’s birthday: there will be an opportunity to ‘meet’ the great poet, playwright and novelist and hear about his life.
Later in the season, Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 September have been deemed a Victoriana Weekend when passengers can ‘meet’ Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and discover how Loch Katrine became the water supply for the city of Glasgow.
These themed events add colour to the running of the steamer and should prove popular attractions.
Cycle hire is available from Katrinewheelz and there is also a gift shop on land with a good variety of reasonably priced products. Parking is priced at a rate comparable with similar sites.
In all there is plenty to do at Loch Katrine for individual travellers, families and those who like their leisure to contain some physical activity. Given the loch’s proximity to Glasgow and Sir Walter Scott’s historic status, it also has an enduring appeal to ship enthusiasts.
Copyright photos by Steamship Sir Walter Scott Limited are reproduced with permission.