A version of this article first appeared on April 5, 2017 in The Times and The Herald
By Nick Drainey
Tourist boats are to return to Loch Tay nearly 70 years after steamers last took day trippers across the waters, amid the mountains of HighlandPerthshire.
The Earl of Breadalbane created the Loch Tay Steam Boat Company which sailed between Killin and Kenmore via Ardeonaig, Lawers, Ardtalnaig and Fearnan in 1882. But the last steamer, the Queen of the Lake, stopped sailing in 1949 because it was losing money when the Royal Mail stopped using the boats and improved roads were built on the back of a growth in car ownership. The branch lines to Aberfeldy and Killin which brought day-trippers from Edinburgh and Glasgow to the steamer then closed in 1965.
Now, the tradition of pleasure trips is now restarting with Loch Tay Safaris’ Iolaire, a purpose-built 12-seater rib based at Kenmore. It is the latest in a list of activities including trips across moorland and mountain to watch wildlife, gold panning, and a red deer park run by Donald and Julie Riddell of Highland Safaris. The couple are marking 25 years in business this year, tapping into the trend for widlife tourism.
Both have roots in the Kenmore and Glen Lyon area stretching back over a century and have tapped into their knowledge of the history and wildlife to build their business.
The Loch Tay Safaris boat was named Iolaire – Gaelic for eagle – because it is the same name as a steam powered yacht belonging to Donald’s great-grandfather. Sir Donald Currie founded the Union Castle Shipping Line and was a well-known philanthropist and naturalist who owned estates in and around Glen Lyon.
The original Iolaire was commissioned to detect and destroy mines off the west of Scotland as the horrors and misery of the First World War reached their peak.
The new boat will take in sights such as an Iron Age Crannog and the Sybilla’s Island, where the 12th century queen, wife of Alexander King of Scots, is said by some to be buried.
It will also cross the deepest part of the loch, below the Munro of Ben Lawers. In these 150m waters there is said to lie an ancient Kelpie, who historically was fed boats to provide boats safe passage.
Donald, 58, was born in Glasgow but his family owned an estate in Glen Lyon which he visited every summer as a boy. He moved to the area in the late 1970s and took up farming before moving into tourism. Julie, 52, was born and bred in the area and her family farmed Mains of Taymouth, just down the road from her current home, before diversifying it into a holiday park, self-catering and a golf course.
Julie says their local knowledge means tourists get both wildlife and heritage information. She said: “This whole area is our lives and for generations it is very much in our blood. All the characters that we both grew up with were able to tell us stories of what it was like from the turn of the century onwards – I wish I had had a microphone.
“My father is 86 and is the oldest indigenous Kenmore resident. He can remember sitting in the steamer in the late 1930s with his mum having tea and he was looking over the side.
“Now, Dad goes off on his disabled scooter and he looks out for people to tell them about Taymouth Castle and how it was a Polish hospital during World War Two. He feels really privileged but I feel really privileged because it is a beautiful area and it is a wonderful thing sharing your passion with visitors.”
Highland Safaris began in 1992 from simple evening walks organised by Donald after a day farming.
He says: “I have always had a deep love for the outdoors and we met on a badger watching safari. We got married and the idea had been formulating but it was very much a hobby.”
Donald and Julie realised it could be a full time business which has been growing ever since, including the new boat.
Donald adds: “TV programmes have brought the outdoors into people’s living rooms and they want to get an experience of that but they want to do it in a safe way.”