Building the Caledonian Canal

Neptune's Staircase, Caledonian Canal, with Ben Nevis Photo: Kees Brooshooft
Neptune’s Staircase, Caledonian Canal, with Ben Nevis Photo: Kees Brooshooft

Originally cut to link Scotland’s east and west coasts by men with an eye to trade, the Caledonian Canal remains a masterpiece of engineering and design. It may also be seen as early ‘social engineering’, encouraging would-be emigrants to remain in the Highlands. Linking Inverness on the North Sea east coast with Fort William on the west, the Canal provides both a short cut and potentially safer route for vessels avoiding the treacherous Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath on the north coast of Scotland.

Its an interesting journey, the Caledonian Canal, linking the lochs of the Great Glen: Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour to provide safe passage between the east and west coasts of Scotland. Relatively short artificial canals join these long, deep, inland waters, providing safe passage through spectacular mountain scenery and guaranteeing a water supply however many times the locks are emptied and refilled!

For many vessels today, and when it was originally built, the Canal provides a preferable route to the treacherous Pentland Firth, Cape Wrath and the northerly coast of Scotland.

William Jessop and Thomas Telford embarked on this massive project in 1803, engaging over 1500 unskilled farmers to dig the canal by hand. Running over time and budget, the Canal wasn’t opened until 1822 and only completed 25 years later in 1847. At more than 50 yards (46m) long, the Caledonian locks were huge by early 19th century standards, many arranged in so-called ‘staircases’, where locks are interconnected to form a ‘flight’.

Neptune’s Staircase, the massive eight-lock flight at Banavie, pictured here, offers a breathtaking scene with Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest peak at 1344 m (just over 4,000 feet), clearly visible on a good day. Along its 60-mile length are 29 locks, four aqueducts, eight road bridges and two rail bridges with 22 miles of hand-dug canal linking the lochs.

Among its original intended users were the herring fishing fleets who followed the fish on their annual migrations from the Outer Hebrides, down the east coasts of Scotland and England. Even in its early days, there was also potential for tourism. Holidaymakers from as far south as Glasgow would sail down the Clyde and Crinan Canal, up the west coast and through the Caledonian Canal to Inverness. Queen Victoria enjoyed this passage, which became known as the ‘Royal Route’.

With the arrival of steamships, more capable of sailing ’round the top’, the Canal was never a commercial success, but remained open, relying on the tourist trade. Mechanised in the 1960s, modern users benefit from hydraulics to operate the locks and bridges. Moy Bridge, near Gairlochy, is the only remaining cast-iron bridge, hand-operated with the bridge keeper rowing across the canal to open each side.

Today, the Canal sees over 1000 yachts and cruisers annually, many from overseas, join barges, fishing boats, holiday hire boats, hotel boats, trip boats and even a floating pub as they ply the Caledonian Canal waters.

Passing along the Canal, Scotland’s history calls from the hills and shores. The 17th century ruined castle on Loch Oich, burned by Government troops after the battle of Culloden in 1746, was once the stronghold of the Clan MacDonnell. The wooded glen leading to Loch Arkaig is steeped in Jacobite legend after Prince Charlie escaped along its ‘dark mile’ after the Battle of Culloden, and of course, everyone has heard the tales of the Loch Ness monster, lurking in the depths of this beautiful loch. At the end of the Loch, once one of Scotland’s largest castles, Urquhart Castle remains standing proudly on the loch-side as an impressive stronghold, despite its ruinous state.

Scottich Canals
Caledonian Canal