Locks and Bridges

I wrote recently of the dreams that are attached to boats and every time we cruise the length of the Caledonian Canal it amuses me how constrained this journey is and yet the common perception of our life aboard is one of freedom. There are so many locks and bridges, each only opens if it is within Scottish Canals’ working hours and only if each lock keeper is contacted first on the radio. There is freedom, but the freedom is mostly in a more subtle way than is usually understood; moving the boat along the lochs and canals is a freeing experience governed by wind and weather, by crew and by deadlines that are mostly weeks away, not hours away. I often don’t have a use for wallet or keys for days.

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Going up the locks is a slow process and the locks at Fort Augustus are very performative and sociable; people walk up the towpath and peer into your boat and ask lots of questions. Still the best observation in 7 years is ‘what are you?’, said after following our progress up the entire flight of locks over a period of one and a quarter hours. The man who asked this had peered into the windows seeing onto the companion way to the upper deck which shows floor to ceiling book shelves – a travelling library maybe? He then looked at the saloon and all the ex restaurant space with table numbers still listed and a bar with menu board – a cafe maybe? But the crew were wearing boiler suits, one cowboy hat and stubble, the skipper a woman, a dog asleep on the deck amongst flower pots, wearing a life jacket, so the boat fits no known category. I could not answer his question; what are we?

Adrian and Mark shared the steering up Fort Augustus locks after much persuasion. Adrian, conditioned by my feminism, has a fierce desire to facilitate as many as possible tourist photos of a large steel boat driven by a woman. Instead I enjoyed the foredeck work, using the foreward warp to stop the bow swinging out with the turbulence of tons of water rushing down the staircase of locks. Since the boat is over a hundred tonnes all the weight is controlled by friction through the bollards and cleats, a bystander said I looked very strong. They refused to believe that my climbing muscles were not controlling the movement of the boat; they could see my strong hands and arms. Another asked about the age and purpose of the boat and we had a great conversation about the islands on the West coast of Canada where he was from and I have always wished to travel. A glass blower knew Adrian and took her lunch hour following us up the locks, the lock keepers were asking our destination that evening and chatting about Sail Caledonia (we are acting as a support boat for this race in two weeks time). I found out that Linda (the lock keeper at Kytra lock, the next along the canal) was expecting us there for the night and that her elderly labrador was still alive; this is how news travels along the canal. Star, our boat dog is the same age as Linda’s dog and gets a lot more chat from her than the humans aboard.

The other thing that controls our movement through the Great Glen is the quantity of road bridges that span the canal. Each of these must open and close within a highly specific time; cars have priority in our culture and boats must hurry through, to keep delays on the road to a minimum. Sometimes this is more difficult than it sounds; the bridges are narrow and often have either a strong wind channeling through this constriction or many boats from both directions trying to fill that small allotted time for the bridge swinging.

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Loch Oich is the watershed (the highest point on the Great Glen) so the locks from Laggan onwards are ‘staircases’ down, not up. The turbulence is less, but the sensation is strange; the landscape disappears, steep walls rear up shedding water from small holes in glossy wet stone.

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This image is of Gairlochy lock, Ben Nevis dwarfed suddenly as we sink, disappearing behind the lock, small in comparison to a woman and dog walking.

Adrian misjudges his timing to jump back aboard from the high walls and has to run beyond the road bridge to rejoin the boat further on; the wind is fierce suddenly as it channels through the deep lock trench and I have difficulty picking him up from the pontoons designed for small boats, trying not to crush the structure as the wind skids the shallow draft barge sideways.

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