Cruising The Caledonian Canal

Caledonian Canal

The majority of the canals in the UK were not designed for use by sailing boats, but the Caledonian Canal in Scotland is different. It connects the Scottish east coast at Inverness with the west coast near Fort William, linking lochs Ness, Oich and Lochy and is the largest of the Scottish canals. It was originally intended to provide a safe passage for wooden sailing ships travelling between the north east of Scotland and the south west, avoiding the long and dangerous north coast route via Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth. It was also intended to provide much-needed employment for the depressed Highland region, which had been decimated by the Highland Clearances of the 18th century. Many of the local residents had emigrated or moved to the Scottish Lowlands after being deprived of their jobs, their homes and their culture.

Some History

The engineer for the Caledonian project was the famous canal builder Thomas Telford with help from William Jessop. They were asked in 1803 to survey, design and build the new waterway. It was expected to be completed in seven years and to cost around £474,000. In reality it took twelve years longer, opening in 1822, at a cost of £910,000. This might seem strange considering that only one third of the entire canal is man-made, the remainder being made up of lochs along the Great Glen, but there were problems because of the remoteness of the location, the amount of mud encountered at the site of the sea lock at the eastern end, the difficult and variable ground through which the canal was cut and the size of the lochs (the largest built at that time). There were also problems with the local workmen, forcing Telford to bring in Irish navvies to help. So much for the vision of providing work for the locals. It is estimated, however, that round 3,000 local people were employed in its construction.

The canal runs for 60 miles (97 km), with 29 locks (including Neptune’s Rise, a staircase of 8 at Banavie), 4 aqueducts and 10 bridges. In an effort to save costs, the draught had to be reduced from the intended 20 feet to 15 feet, but in the meantime shipbuilding had advanced and most of the steam-powered, iron-hulled ships were too big to use the canal. The threat to shipping posed by Napoleon (when the canal was started), was now gone, with his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, so the Royal Navy had no use for the canal either. Defects in materials and lock collapses lead to the canal being closed for repairs and digging out to increase depth, between 1843 and 1847. This did not result in the expected commercial success, but the stunning and dramatic scenery along the route of the canal was promoting it as a tourist attraction. When Queen Victoria took a trip along it in 1873 the publicity resulted in a huge increase in visitors to the region and the arrival of the railways brought even more tourists as train links were scheduled to connect with steamboat services.

During the First World War commercial traffic increased as components for the construction of mines were shipped through the canal to Inverness on their way from America and fishing boats used it to avoid the routes round the north of Scotland. In 1962 British Waterways took over ownership and improvements were made including mechanisation of locks. By the 1990s many of the lock walls were bulging and needed repair. With an estimated budget of £60 million and no Government funding, the Waterways put into place a repair plan to drain separate sections each winter and use stainless steel rods to tie the double-skinned lock walls together. Over 25,000 tonnes of grout were injected into the lock structures, probably making them stronger than they were originally. Nowadays the canal is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and attracts over half a million visitors each year who can cruise on the waterway, walk and cycle along its towpaths, fish, or study the abundant wild life along its shores.

Boating On The Canal

Because of the versatility of the canal you can bring your own boat, charter a cruiser or a yacht, take day-trips, or stay on a hotel boat. With short stretches of man-made canal linking the spectacular Scottish lochs, it is a wonderful location for a holiday and unlike any other waterway in the UK. It normally takes a minimum of two and a half days to transit the canal, but you should take your time, to make the most of visiting the numerous attractions, watching the wildlife and experiencing sailing around the lochs.

The canal operates from 09.00 till 16.00 in winter, Monday to Friday and 08.30 till 18.00 in summer, 7 days a week. Some of the locks and bridges are closed during lunch time and some main road bridges and rail bridges are closed to canal traffic at busy times. The sea locks at either end also have tidal restrictions in addition to the normal operating hours.

The Route

Starting from the south west at Banavie near Fort William you first negotiate up Neptune’s Staircase of 8 locks which have a height of 19.5 metres and take about 90 minutes to pass through. Near Banavie is the ruined Tor Castle, once occupied by the Cameron clan. At Gairlochy there is a set of two more locks, raising the level of the canal by about 10 feet to enter Loch Lochy. It is also the site of the famous Commando Memorial with its three gigantic bronze figures which overlook the Great Glen.

Loch Lochy is a large freshwater loch, the third deepest loch in Scotland. It is reputedly the home of “Lizzie” a three-humped plesiosaur-like creature similar to the famed Loch Ness monster. At the northern end of the loch are the Laggan Locks, an upward flight of two locks and nearby is the site of a clan battle named the Battle of the Shirts, which took place in 1544.

A very short stretch of canal leads to Loch Oich, the smallest loch in the Caledonian system and the highest point, 106 feet above sea level. It is ironical that the summit pound is in fact the smallest loch. Presumably it is well fed by the water from higher ground. Overlooking it are the ruins of Invergarry Castle, once the seat of the influential MacDonnell Chiefs of Glengarry. It was burned down twice in the 18th century and is known for giving shelter to Prince Charles Edward, (Bonnie Prince Charlie). Invergarry itself is a historical and pretty little village.

Following another short stretch of canal and descending the Cullochy and the Kytra locks, you come to Fort Augustus with its Benedictine Abbey, followed by the 23 mile long Loch Ness. The cruising time for the loch is around 3 hours. Famous for being the home of “Nessie” the Loch Ness monster, the loch is the second largest in surface area of the Scottish lochs but the largest in volume, because of its great depth.

The water visibility is exceptionally low due to the high peat content in the surrounding soil, giving some credibility to the legends of sightings of the great monster hiding in its murky depths. In 1987 there was a search of Loch Ness, named Operation Deepscan, which used sonar equipment to try to locate the monster, but it was inconclusive. The village of Drumnadrochit is the centre of the Loch Ness Monster industry and nearby is the magnificent Urquhart Castle, once one of Scotland’s largest and still impressive in spite of its ruinous state. Just one more lock leads down to the final canal section before the town of Inverness. With its magnificent castle, its cathedral, excursions to the beautiful Ness Islands and the historic Culloden Battlefield, it makes a fitting end to a spectacular cruising route across some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland.

Author – Dee White

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