The Caledonian Canal opened on the 30th of October, 1822.
The Caledonian Canal is more than a canal. It is a combination of twenty-three miles of man-made canal and four navigable lochs, which together form a unique inland navigation that connects the western and eastern seawaters of Scotland. The Caledonian Canal slices a fraction over sixty miles through the Great Glen via those four lochs – Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour. It connects Loch Linnhe and the Atlantic Ocean to Inverness and the North Sea. In effect, you could claim that all land northwest of the Caledonian Canal is an island. A journey along the Canal offers splendid views of outstanding and unspoilt Highland wildlife and scenery, regardless of whether you’re heading north east or south west. You gotta go there and come back. The Caledonian is a spectacular masterpiece of canal engineering, which is on a grand scale incomparable with anywhere else in Britain and is considered to be one of the greatest waterways of the world. You might think a paltry twenty-three miles is nothing to get worked up about, but the canal portions and the locks, in particular, demonstrate some amazing feats of engineering. The massive eight-flight combination lock at Banavie, known as Neptune's Staircase, is indeed “little short of breathtaking”.
Work on the canal began in 1803 to plans produced by Thomas Telford following survey work that had been carried out by James Watt thirty years earlier. It was built by Telford, who was assisted by William Jessop until that man’s untimely death and both men must take great credit for the end result. Its original purpose was twofold. Its maritime raison d'être was to provide a safer passage for wooden sailing ships and other vessels instead of the treacherous Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath route around the north coast. It was also conceived by the Government of the day as a means of providing much needed employment to the Highland region, which had become depressed as a result of the Highland Clearances and the resultant emigration to the north American Continent.
Telford’s plans meant that it was destined to become a spectacular feat of engineering and the huge scale of the work, coupled with a shortage of skilled engineers, meant that the seven-year schedule and £350,000 budget was always optimistic. By the time the canal opened on the 30th of October, 1822, it had taken over twice as long and cost over twice as much; at seventeen years and £840,000. In 1822, instead of Telford’s planned twenty-foot depth, the canal was only fourteen feet deep, which made it too shallow for many of the increasingly large ships being built at the time. However, a second phase of construction was undertaken by James Walker, Telford’s associate, and twenty-five years later, in 1847, the Caledonian Canal was finally complete in accordance with Telford’s original blueprint. Well, almost; the depth had been increased to eighteen feet.
It Caledonian Canal commences at the Corpach Basin, in the tideway of Loch Eil, at the north end of Loch Linnhe, near Fort William, at the foot of the celebrated Ben, Nevis o’ that Ilk. From its source, its course rushes north-eastward in an almost arrow-straight direction through Loch Lochy, Loch Ness, and Loch Doughfour to Clacknacarry Basin in Loch Beauly. There, it enters the Murray Firth on the west side of the Highland Capital City of Inverness. Its total length is sixty miles and a half, of which twenty-three miles and eight chains were artificially formed by Telford and his cronies. The remaining thirty-seven miles, three furlongs and two chains are natural locks or lakes, which have been made navigable. There are twenty-eight locks along the navigation; twelve between Loch Eil and Loch Lochy; two more to the summit level at Loch Oich; seven between there and Fort Augustus, at the west end of Loch Ness; and a further seven from the east end of Loch Ness to the sea at Loch Beauly, where the summit level is only ninety-one feet above low water. The majority of the locks are more than 50 yards (46m) long and the ‘staircase’ of eight locks at Banavie, which raises vessels to a height of 70 feet above sea level, spans a distance of 500 yards as the top gates of one lock form the bottom gates of the next.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the length of time it took to construct, initially the canal did not prove successful. The irony was that by the time the canal was finally complete, steamships could make the passage around Scotland much more easily than the sailing ships for which it was designed. In the era of steamships, the canal’s role was diminished and it never became a huge commercial success. It has survived in large part due to its importance to the Highland economy. Nowadays, the Caledonian Canal is owned and operated by British Waterways and it “is positively buzzing with vessels”. It is popular with cruisers, yachts and small naval vessels, eager to avoid the longer way round, and also with tourists from all over the world who come to make a voyage through the legendary lochs.
The Great Glen runs as a fault-line, not only through the landscape, but through Scottish culture and heritage. The land on either side of the Caledonian Canal has been fought over for centuries and has been the scene of countless battles. If you are taking a tourist trip to Lochaber and the Great Glen and intend taking a cruise along the Caledonian Canal, look out for these landmarks: the ‘Well of the Seven Heads’, which is a monument to an act of treachery and vengeance involving the McDonnells of Keppoch; the ruined, 17th Invergarry Castle, a stronghold of Clan MacDonnell, which was destroyed by Government troops after the battle of Culloden; the ‘Dark Mile’, leading to Loch Arkaig, along which Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped; and the ruins of Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness, which witnessed many a bloody conflict throughout its five hundred year history as a medieval fortress.