The Crinan Canal

“Och, I wouldn’t go out there if I was you. You are facing the Atlantic, it’s a long way out, and there are big Atlantic swells that will swamp your little boat. The wind has been blowing from the west for a week now, so the swells will have had plenty of time to build up. Far too dangerous!”

The Salty Sea-Dog sits back in his chair and surveys us as though we are silly school-children with a hare-brained scheme. A piece of pork pate has entrapped itself in his beard, and the right-hand side of his face is flecked with spots of white paint, all of which only seem to add to his authority on things maritime. His blue and white striped T-shirt helps a bit too.

We are sitting in the Seafood Bar of the Crinan Hotel tucking into our dinner after having just successfully transited the Crinan Canal. The Salty Sea-Dog and his partner are at the next table, and we have just made the possible mistake of telling them what our sailing plans are, namely to visit the Island of Colonsay. It was one of the islands we hadn’t visited previously, and probably undeservedly it had assumed an air of mystery in my mind.

The First Mate pricks up her ears. “Really?”

“Och, aye”, the Salty Seadog continues. “You need to go through the Corryvreckan, the third largest whirlpool in the world, and then cross a large expanse of huge swells which will pitch the boat up and down.” He is enjoying this. I wait for the inevitable “Thar be sea monsters too, oooh, aaarh”, but it doesn’t come.

The First Mate looks at me with a nervous look in her eyes. “I don’t think that I like the sound of that too much”, she says.

At least we are only in for a pitching and not a swamping now, I think. I almost mention that we have been through the Corryvreckan twice before, the first time in our tiny 17-footer, but it seems a bit like one-upmanship, so I keep quiet.

Ruby Tuesday tied up in the Crinan Basin, with the Crinan Hotel on the right.

We had left Ardrossan a few days earlier, headed across the Firth of Clyde and had anchored in Lamlash Bay for the night. The next morning, we had headed up the coast to Brodick for lunch, passing the Buddhist project on Holy Isle on the way. The project is the brain-child of a chap called Lama Yeshe, the Abbot of Samye Ling Monastery in Dumfriesshire, who bought the island with the idea of creating an ecologically sustainable community. Visitors can come to experience inner peace regardless of their religious background. From the small pier, a path lined with Tibetan stupas and flags leads up to a non-descript house surrounded by a stone wall. A solitary figure seemed to be meditating against the wall. We considered stopping to learn more, but unfortunately the water depth near the pier was too shallow for our draft, so we decided to push on for Brodick for lunch. Perhaps a place to visit another time.

The Buddhist Centre on Holy Isle, Lamlash Bay, Arran.

In Brodick, we had tied up to one of the visitor buoys and had rowed the dinghy ashore. The sun had come out and the wind had dropped, so we had a relaxing coffee, basking in the warmth.

Coffee at Brodick, Arran.

From Brodick, we had headed for East Loch Tarbert. The word ‘Tarbert’ comes from an old Norse word meaning ‘portage’, a place where boats or cargo could be hauled over the land from one part of the sea to another. Sure enough, East Loch Tarbert and West Loch Tarbert are separated by a narrow isthmus of land only 2 km wide, nearly cutting the Mull of Kintyre in two. The story goes that there was a Norse king called Magnus Barelegs who struck a deal with the King of Scotland at the time that he could have all the land on the west coast that he could take his boat round. Wanting the fertile land of the Kintyre peninsula, which apparently had the richest soil in the whole region, Magnus hatched a cunning plan to obtain possession of that too despite it not being an island. Getting his men to tow his longship over the land from West Loch Tarbert to East Loch Tarbert with him proudly standing in it and completing his ‘circumnavigation’ of Kintyre, he duly claimed his ‘island’ as his own, joking that it was “a bit of a drag” to get from West to East Loch Tarbert! Sense of humour, that lad!

Window cleaning in Tarbert.

After a couple of nights in Tarbert, we had then pushed on to the Crinan Canal. We had arrived at the entrance late in the evening after the office had closed and the staff had gone home, and had tied up in the sea-lock at the entrance. It had been almost low water and the dank walls of the lock prevented what little light there was from entering the boat, making it seem a long way to the top.

Tied up for the night in the Ardrishaig sea-lock at the start of the Crinan Canal.

The next morning, we were ready at 0830 for the staff, who had let us through the lock and into the Canal proper. We had been joined in the lock by another boat with four crew anxious to get through the Canal in a day to catch the tidal flow northwards on their way to the Outer Hebrides. Two other boats were already waiting in the Canal basin.

Unfortunately the Canal is losing money, and its management have been trying various schemes to try and cut costs. When we came through ten years previously, each lock was manned with a lock keeper who would operate the sluices and gates, grab the ropes and hook them around the bollards, and all the crew were required to do was to control the ropes, never needing to leave the boat. Since then the lock-keepers have been reduced in number, and assistance through the locks was outsourced to seasonal workers paid not very much. At first this was compulsory and not included in the fees, but there was such controversy about this, that now hiring a ‘pilot’ is arbitrary, but costs £60. The Scottish in us made us decide to do it ourselves, albeit finding a companion boat with an amiable crew to go with, which we were lucky enough to do.

After a couple of locks, we had fallen into an easy rhythm together – we would enter the lock first to be opposite the port-side ladder, the other boat would come in next to be opposite the ladder on the other side, one of us would climb the ladder, take the ropes and hook them over the bollards on each side, then walk ahead to the next lock, open the sluices, and eventually the gates. The remaining four would then control the ropes to keep the boats straight as the water rose or fell in the lock. No real need for a pilot!

On the way through the Crinan Canal.
Making sure the boats don’t touch!

As we were in no hurry, we had decided to stay overnight in Cairnbaan and visit the Neolithic rock art. After a good cup of tea to revive us, we had set off up a small path behind Cairnbaan hotel that led to the Neolithic rock carvings. They had not been too not difficult to find – a fence had been built around some outcrops of rock on which the ‘petroglyphs’ had been carved out. Although there are a number of variations on a theme, these carvings, dating from about 4000 BC, generally consist of a central shallow depression, the ‘cup’, surrounded by several concentric rings. Some of them have radial grooves going out from the centre. No-one really knows what they were for, but they probably had some kind of religious significance, as they are often near burial mounds, on standing stones, or else on outcrops that have great views out over the surrounding countryside. Some people think that they might have been boundary markers between different territories, while more fanciful ideas say that they may have been records of a chief’s sexual conquests, or they might have been used in sacrifices and the cup was to hold blood, although as many of them are on steeply sloping slabs this doesn’t seem likely.

Neolithic rock art at Cairnbaan.

These ones certainly have a great view over the valley of Kilmartin, and we had sat for a time taking it in, listening to the wind in the pine trees behind us, and trying to imagine what those long-forgotten carvers of the enigmatic symbols were trying to depict.

I recalled a book I had read over the winter, ‘Inside the Neolithic Mind’, by David Lewis-Williams, in which he describes the symbols found in many Neolithic tombs in Europe. He hypothesises that spirals and concentric circles are hard-wired into our neurological system to represent tunnels or passages into the underworld and are activated by altered mind-states such as might happen when in a trance or under the influence of hallucinogenic substances. I wonder if these ancient carvers could have been high on the magic mushrooms or had a barley beer too many and carved out what they had imagined they had seen on regaining consciousness? We’ll probably never know, but it’s as good as any of the other fanciful theories.

View out over the Crinan Canal from the Cairnbaan neolithic rock art site.

The next morning we had continued on through the remaining seven locks, by mid-afternoon reaching the Crinan Basin where we had been given a berth near the coffee shop.

The last lock into the Crinan Basin.

It had been warm and sunny, so we had relaxed and celebrated our successful transit of the Canal with a cup of coffee and cream scone each as we watched the other boats entering the sea lock and into the sea. That would be us tomorrow hopefully.

Coffee and scones at the Crinan Basin.

Back in the Seafood Bar of the Crinan Hotel, the Salty Sea-Dog and his partner are telling us about his hobby of restoring old boats. They are living in his current project just outside in the basin – an beautiful old wooden ketch built back in the 1950s which we had passed on the way into the locks. He had bought it on an impulse and had spend the last four years and a lot of money restoring her to her former glory. Today he had been painting, some of which had ended up on his face. So far he had not been sailing in her, but he did have another wooden boat which he kept in Las Palmas and did sail.

“He loves his boats, he does”, says his partner, as she alliteratively picks the piece of pork pate from his beard.

They finish their coffees, pay their bill, bid their farewells to us and leave.

“We are definitely not going to Colonsay tomorrow”, says the First Mate after they have gone.

I eat my after-dinner mint and change the subject.

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