Walking with Jan McDonald on 21 August 2010

Crinan Canal

I am walking with my former tutor (now friend) from the University of Glasgow, Jan McDonald. Jan is an influential figure in my life, a woman who has witnessed me move through various stages, from a 17 year old undergraduate, to a PhD student, to a lecturer. I am grateful to have been taught by Jan, though sorry that I never got the chance to work with her.

Jan proposed a canal walk, any canal walk, no more than 5 miles. (Jan’s daughter Katie advises me just to tell her mum it’s 5 miles however long it actually is, because in reality she can walk much further). I think Jan had anticipated one of the canal walks local to Glasgow, but since it has been left to me, I take the opportunity to visit and share one of my favourite spots – the Crinan Canal in Mid Argyll. Jan likes canals, the water contained but flowing; deep and clear. I do too. Like shorelines, you cannot lose your way on a canal towpath.

The canal, opened in 1801, allows boats to travel from the Sound of Jura and Loch Fyne (cutting out the Mull of Kintyre). On the drive up, I’m a bit worried that we’ve left it too late in the year. The kids in Scotland have returned to school, the leaves are already turning and the rain clouds ahead look a bit ominous. (Jan wisely – and rightly – reminds me that the weather here changes from one minute to the next.)

We set off from Cairnbaan – Lock 6 – at just after 11.15am. Anxious to arrive at our destination by lunchtime, and not entirely sure how long it will take us to walk the route, we forgo a coffee at the hotel (once a Drovers Inn). Stepping out of the car, it begins to pour, but as soon as we start to walk beside the water the sun shines down on us. It’s hot enough to divest top layers. The bright houses lining the side of the canal are basking in the late summer sun too. A boat with a Greek name passes us by, gently, quietly. We wave – boat etiquette? In fact, Jan’s husband Ian has a boat, and for many years now they have been taking to the water. Though Jan tends to dismiss these boating adventures, it is clear she doth protest a little too much, for as boats pass us or we them, Jan passes knowing comments. She also shares her knowledge of boat etiquette. When resident on a boat, you should fly your flag; when not on board, you shouldn’t. When in another country, you should not only fly the flag of your country, but also that of the one you are visiting.

After a short walk, we’re at Lock 7. A woman has her back to it, trying to push it shut, her small kids valiantly trying to do the same on the other side. The man of the boat sails through. His job looks a bit easier. The road gives way to a footpath. Though late August, the wild flowers are still blooming along the canal’s edge: tall, rosebay willowherbs, swathes of thistles, bluest cornflowers, fiery orange montbretia, the muggy smell of late-season bracken. Resting on the footpath, always just a step ahead of us, lots of Peacock butterflies, their underwings looking dark when closed together on the vertical plane, vibrant orange when open, with two violet eye shapes on each wing.

As we are walking along, Jan recalls her first visit to Crinan, with friends, many years ago (one of whom was the Scottish artist Claire Barclay, though then she was a mere 1 year old baby). Jan and Ian were driving their snazzy yellow MG, but its exhaust fell off and so they had to drive home with their windows open. Memorably, they also tried to tune into the car radio as this was the night of the first moon landing. Our canal walk, though seemingly linear and straight forward, stretches across and connects time and place (2010-1969; Crinan-Moon; personal-global).

At the next Lock, Dunardry, we pass by the small, pine circled Loch a Baharain. A few more boats are sailing through here, their residents sipping chilled glasses of white wine – how civilised. On the calm of today, it’s hard to imagine this being a major route of travel (by 1854 some 33,000 passengers sailed along it).

Beyond Dunardry we reach the Moine Mhor National Nature reserve, “The Great Moss”. The dragonfly on the reserve’s wooden sign is no overstatement as Jan spots a huge, blue dragonfly overtaking us. At Bellanoch basin numerous boats are moored beside the impressive, grey-stone Bellanoch house. Above sits a small, picture-book white church. Our view opens out onto Loch Crinan, and from there to the Atlantic. A little further on, in stark contrast to the mansion, we pass an old fashioned horse-drawn wooden caravan – an artist’s studio. Its bright colours match the vibrant garden, the steps of which descend right down to the canal side. Next to it, a small wooden bungalow seems to float on a pond of reeds. At Crinan Bridge, we reach the whitewashed cottage I fantasise about living in, its garden brimming with flowers, every inch of space used – flower pots even line the tops of the garden walls. Across the sea loch, the rather foreboding Duntrune Castle comes into view.

Our arrival at Crinan is marked by the red and white striped lighthouse that looks like it might belong to a crazy golf course. Lock 14 is the last lock. Having kept up a steady pace (both of walking and talking), we’ve reached our destination – the Crinan Hotel – bang on lunch time (1pm). The reason this is one of my favourite places in the world is because of the view from here, which looks out onto the Atlantic Ocean; an expansive vista studded with small islands that provide texture, depth, colours, contours. The sea below me is glass clear. We eat a delicious lunch outside in the warm sun (scallops, smoked fish).

Though I‘ve bent the rules a bit by choosing this walk, I had envisaged a perfect match between this particular canal and a very sophisticated friend. Crinan Canal, resident to an abundance of flowers, glorious views and sleek yachts, with a hotel of fine reputation at its end, is by all accounts a glamorous place to take a stroll.

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