It is a tight squeeze for the MV Lord of the Glens as she plies the Caledonian Canal out to the open sea. But, as Calum Macleod discovered, the vessel not only caters for tourists but is a home from home for the crew.
BEFORE he came to the Highlands, Brian Copeland would not have been able to name his dream job.
Yet now he has found it.
Though he has a home in Muir of Ord, for 10 months of the year Brian will not be found there. Instead, for much of that time, he can be found cruising through the Great Glen to the Hebrides and back aboard the MV Lord of the Glens, a 150ft mini cruise liner that is the floating equivalent of a four or five-star hotel.
“It has its moments, like any job, but I’m very lucky,” says Brian, who is hotel manager on board.
Over the last decade the Lord of the Glens has been a familiar sight along the Caledonian Canal, the west coast and the islands of the Inner Hebrides. The sleek vessel offers her passengers a taste of on-the-move luxury inspired by the golden-age travel of the Orient Express.
All the decks and rooms aboard the Lord of the Glens are named after famous Scots such as Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott and, most appropriately, Thomas Telford, the great engineer who designed the Caledonian Canal.
Yet despite these fine Caledonian names, and interior décor and cuisine inspired by the vessel’s Highland home, the Lord of the Glens had a previous incarnation in warmer climes.
Under the name Victoria, she took holidaymakers across the Med from her home port of Piraeus in Greece before the London-based Magna Carta Steamship Company decided to bring her to the Highlands.
These days her home port, to which she is registered, is Inverness and Brian points out that many of the ship’s suppliers are based in the Highland Capital.
“She’s bespoke-made for the canal,” skipper Athol Hitcham explains. “When her owner approached British Waterways, he asked what would be the biggest vessel you could have in the locks and they told him 150 feet.”
However, Athol admits that the lochs of the Caledonian Canal can be a very tight squeeze.
One of two captains of the Lord of the Glens, Athol alternates on a monthly basis with fellow skipper Robert Rait.
Originally from Tyneside – he owes his Scottish first name to his parents’ Perthshire honeymoon – he comes to the Lord of the Glens after a career spent on the open seas, including spells in the North Sea oil industry and with the Stena Line, Sea Containers and Canadian Pacific, among others, so getting in the train from Inverness to Newcastle makes a pleasant change from being paid off in Japan after a four-and-a-half-month voyage.
However, all Athol’s sea experience does not necessarily mean that captaining a vessel which plies inland waterways and coastal waters is an easier option.
“You certainly need a lot of concentration,” Athol admitted. “There are only two places on the entire canal where we can turn, Muirtown and the top of Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie. It certainly takes a fair bit of seamanship to do those manoeuvres. I have broken one window doing that, but fortunately we carry spares.”
Getting into those tight locks is also a challenge, not helped by the fact that the short distance between the bridge and jackstaff at the bow of the ship and the way the ship has now been built up at the back makes it difficult to judge the length, thus requiring crew members to peer over the side and relay to the skipper how close to collision the boat might be.
Tight places, however, are not the biggest potential hazard for the vessel, which is almost 35 feet across and has a 10ft draught.
“The wind is our worst enemy,” Athol says, recalling one voyage to the Isle of Rum where conditions made it difficult to get alongside the jetty.
Such circumstances are exceptional, and commanding the Lord of the Glens is usually – literally – plain sailing.
In fact, Athol is happy to state the Lord of the Glens is a fun vessel to command. “She’s a nice girl,” he says.
Though the Lord of the Glens is equipped with powerful V12 Cummins marine engines, the maximum speed she can reach in the canal is just six knots – any more and her wake would risk washing away the canal banks. Even in the open sea, the vessel maintains a speed limit of 10 knots. Though capable of 16, this burns up too much fuel to be sustainable for any length of time.
Passengers aboard the Lord of the Glens typically come from America, France, Germany and Switzerland, though the biggest group come from Britain – either England and Wales or the south of Scotland.
Brian, who has been with the Lord of the Glens for seven years, explains that the shorter trips tend to take place at the beginning and end of the season, which runs from March to November, with the longest voyages in midsummer when the weather is less unpredictable.
“It’s the only ship that does the canal and the open sea,” Brian said.
“To my mind, when you are doing the canal and sea voyage, you are seeing the best of both worlds. The other thing about the Lord of the Glens is that we never anchor off, so you see a different place every night.”
So passengers sailing from Inverness can leave their luxurious accommodation and go for a wander in Fort Augustus, Fort William, the islands of Skye and Rum or the village of Inverie on Knoydart, which may be part of the mainland but is inaccessible by road.
However, calling in at some of its more remote stopping-off spots can lead to something of a logistical challenge for the Lord of the Glens. Because of the vessel’s compact size, she can take only three days of supplies on any voyage.
“That makes it very interesting when we’re anchored in Kyle or Rum,” head chef Ian Beaton acknowledges.
It is a challenge the four-strong catering crew meet daily to ensure up to 54 passengers and 18 crew are adequately catered for.
The passengers’ diet is in keeping with what is to be expected from a Highland location, with venison, salmon, lamb and local fish, authentically prepared by Skyeman Ian; the legend is that he gets all his soup recipes from his mother.
The crew, though, may have some more exotic fare. With a multinational crew, including some from Asia, Ian and his team are called upon to make curries, providing a little home cooking for the ship’s exiles.
One other item of equipment aboard the Lord of the Glens deserves a mention. Though not equipped with sonar, she does have an echo locator which has been known to pick up some suitably ambiguous contacts as the vessel sails across Loch Ness.
“We sometimes see some very strange echoes,” Athol reveals. “But we can’t tell if they are a shoal of fish… or a very big fish.”
Pictures: Alasdair Allen
(The Inverness Courier)