Caledonian Canal History

The original survey for a canal in the Highlands was made in 1726 by Captain Burt. He proposed a route linking Loch Linnhe on the west coast to the Moray Firth on the east via Glen More. Nothing was ever started.

Later James Watt surveyed a similar line though once again nothing was started. In 1875 John Knox said that a canal in the Highlands would enable shipping to avoid the dangerous north coast. (Knox built the Crinan Canal in western Scotland some 20 years later).

1800
The eventual canal was just one part of an over all scheme to bring northern Scotland into line with the rest of Britain. It was only half a century since the Jacobean wars and just a few decades earlier the last of the Highland Chieftains had been subdued. Development would create better communications, allow the Scots to see how the rest of Britain lived, help them to travel to new jobs and create new jobs within local areas. Roads, harbours and bridges were proposed and a coast to coast canal would bring trade to remote areas.

During this same period Napoleon was getting up a head of steam and war between Britain and France was looking inevitable once again. It was hoped that the Scots would not back the French if they had better living conditions. On top of this, a canal built to accommodate sea-going vessels would completely take away the need for merchant ships and the navy to travel around the north of Scotland through dangerous seas.

1801
William Jessop was brought in to survey the whole area with a view to creating the largest canal ever built.

His assistant, Thomas Telford, surveyed the roads, bridges, and harbours.

Jessop’s canal was to take large ships between Fort William on the west coast and Inverness on the north east coast.

It would need deep cuttings and huge lock flights though Jessop also proposed smaller locks for use by fishing boats and local traders.

The complete route was to be 60 miles long though only 21 miles were to be man made the rest of the route would use a number of lochs.

1803
The canal’s Act of Parliament was granted and the job of Chief Engineer, on what was to be known as the “Caledonian Canal”, was given to Thomas Telford with the more experienced William Jessop looking over him in the early stages. Resident engineers were employed at each end of the route.

At the western side John Telford (no relation to Thomas) was in charge, when he died in 1807 Alexander Easton (no relation to Shena) took over. At the eastern side the father and son team of Matthew and James Davison were in charge. Work began at each end of the route at the same time, heading towards a meeting point in the centre on the highest level. The locks and bridges on the canal were all made of iron which was cast in Derbyshire and North Wales. It is thought that one of the first cargoes to cross Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (around 1805) came from the iron works at Ruabon on route to the construction sites on the Caledonian Canal.

1811
A massive sea lock was created at the Eastern end on the Moray Firth. The sea level was very low so Telford had the canal built on an embankment which went out into the bay to meet the sea! Once the embankment was built it was left untouched for over 6 months while it settled! Telford gave the credit for the sea lock to his Resident Engineers, Matthew Davison, who had been with Telford virtually all the way through his career.

They had served their apprenticeships together at Langholm and Davison had been an assistant at Pontcysyllte. He is said to have been brilliant at his job though he did not think much of the Scottish Highlands. He had loved his work on Pontcysyllte and brought many of his Welsh workmen to the Highlands. Meanwhile, in the centre of the Highlands massive deep gorges were being created to cut a route straight through the hills. However, these cuttings took the longest time to build and caused many problems.

1816
Two of Telford’s top assistants, John Simpson and Matthew Davison, both died within a few months of each other. The loss of these experienced men left Telford with a much less affective team. This and pressure from the government to speed things up led to construction problems and lapses in efficiency.

1817
Years behind schedule the lock flight at Fort Augustus near the middle of the route was begun. The work was rushed and not done properly leading to the bottom lock completely collapsing.

1818
Other corners were also being cut due to orders from London. This led to big problems at Laggan Cutting where there were a number of land slips.

1819
The massive locks at Fort Augustus were almost complete. These were many times the size of any other locks in Britain but by now the machinery used was far advanced from the first locks built by Brindley over 50 years earlier. All the same, while machinery was getting larger and more sophisticated, the main work was still done by the Navvy with pick-axe and shovel. More than half the total cost of the canal was put down to labour. The most impressive lock flight was Neptune’s Staircase at Benavie which Telford’s great friend, Robert Southey the poet and writer, described as “the greatest work of its kind without comparison anywhere in the world” – though we don’t know how much of the world Southey had seen!

1820
Thomas Telford left the Caledonian Canal and moved on to other things. Whether he left due to disillusionment or simply because all of his work was done is unclear but there is no doubt that the canal was not being built as originally planned. For instance, the canal and the locks were not made deep enough to take the large ships for which it was originally commissioned – fishing boats were the largest vessels which would be able to navigate the whole route, Jessop had planned smaller side locks for small craft but they had never been built. The government were under constant attack over the time and cost of the work which were both many times more than Jessop’s original estimate.

1822
After almost 20 years the Caledonian Canal was complete. However, it was never the success which had been forecast. The French wars had long since ended so the route was not needed by the navy. The canal had taken so long to build that it was already inadequate for the modern steam ships. The deep cuttings on the canal often became wind tunnels and the lochs were often as choppy as any sea. Worst of all was Laggan Cutting, which cut deeply into the Highland landscape, it had taken a lot longer to complete than had been expected and still wasn’t fully finished when the canal opened. In the end part of it was rushed and was poorly constructed which led to problems soon after opening.This led to the closure of that part of the canal and meant there was no through-route for many years. Commercial use of the canal for local trade proved to be very small and an expected wood trade from the highland forests never materialised.

1839
After only 17 years of very low usage the government had the whole route re-surveyed by James Walker. He found that the amount of ships using the canal was only 2½% of that using the much longer route round the north coast. This was despite the canal being built specifically to cut out the long sea route. He also reported that the whole route needed deepening and that steam tugs should be employed to pull sailing ships through the cuttings during difficult winds. It was said that the canal would be cheaper to close than to continue with its low usage.

1840
Three years of surveys and reports began at the end of which the government decided it would be best to upgrade the canal rather than abandon it.

1843
Just 20 years after the original canal had opened rebuilding and modernising work was done on the whole route to allow it to take larger ships. The canal through-route was closed during this time and the canal was eventually reopened in 1847. However, by this time railways were well on the way and the canal was never a great commercial success.

1918
Almost one hundred years after the canal opened it was suddenly busier than at any other time. Unfortunately this was not due to an upturn in trade but due to WW1. Mines were brought across the Atlantic from America to Fort William and then shipped along the canal to U.S. Naval Base 18 which was situated at Inverness. The mines were then taken out into the North Sea to form a blockade against German submarines. Of course this was a short lived period of activity and did nothing to gain any profits for the waterway.

1922
The running of the canal changed hands from the Caledonian Commissioners to the Ministry Of Transport. A plan was put forward to deepen and widen the canal to “ship canal” proportions. This was also to include lowering the summit level and cutting out Neptune’s Staircase which had always been something of a bottleneck. Thankfully (from a present day tourism point of view) the government were struggling economically after the war and nothing was ever done.

1960’s
With the canal now under the control of the British Waterways Board it was modernised in some areas. All the locks and numerous swing bridges were mechanised and the basins along the route were enlarged.In the main this was done to accommodate trade from a new £20 million pulp mill run by Wiggins Teape & Co.

Since this time, although some trade still continues, the main bulk of boats on the canal have been pleasure craft. Sailing boats and large pleasure cruisers travel its full length, many of the vessels having come across the North Sea from Scandinavia. Local trip boats and hotel boats also make good use the route

1996
Early in the year the towpath at Fort Augustus lock flight was closed to walkers because a massive hole had appeared in the ground beside one of the locks. Tests were undertaken on all the locks on the canal and major weaknesses were found. The cost of repair emphasised the lack of cash that BW had for emergency work. Although the damage at Fort Augustus was repaired the other weaknesses have not yet been attended to. There have been great discussions recently on how viable such a huge waterway really is and whether it has a future. The route remains open today though it is heavily subsidised by the government.

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Caledonian Canal Route

At the eastern end of the Caledonian Canal is the embankment which runs into the Moray Firth. At the end of the embankment is the sea lock with another lock at the on-shore end. A large basin was constructed at Inverness and the four large Muirtown Locks (built in a staircase) lift the canal 32 feet. In total there are 29 locks capable of taking boats of 150 feet in length. Hire boats are not allowed onto the Muirtown Locks but the first hire base is only a few hundred yards away. All holiday makers head south west.

Above Inverness is a 3 mile stretch which follows the course of the River Ness and then runs into Loch Dochfor which in turn runs into Loch Ness. This monstrous loch runs south westward for 24 miles to Fort Augustus, in parts it is over 800 feet deep (deeper than the North Sea) but it is a little known fact that it is part of a canal route. On its west bank is the interesting ruins of Urquhart Castle and the lock is surrounded by huge mountains.

At Fort Augustus there are 5 large locks which take the canal up to the level of the River Oich. Fort Augustus is an absolute must for any canal fan. At the entrance from the southern end of Loch Ness into the canal is a beautiful Benedictine Abbey followed by old buildings lining each side of the canal. The town is named after a fort built during the Jacobite uprisings. At the bottom lock is a large swing bridge with another bridge crossing the River Oich just a few yards away. The huge lock flight strides up the hillside with shops and houses on either side.

Above Fort Augustus the canal runs parallel to the River Oich for 4 miles into Loch Oich. This loch, on the summit level of the canal, had to be deepened when the canal was built because it was too shallow to take large ships. From the far side of Loch Oich the route continues south westerly for 5 miles through the impressive Laggan Cutting to Loch Lochy. On route, just to the north of the swing bridge at Laggan, is a monument on the road side showing the site of the “Well of the Seven Heads”. The well can still be seen below and – so the story goes – this was the place where one Clan washed the heads of 7 men who had recently upset them. The heads, of course, were not attached to the bodies by this stage and after a wash and combing they were presented to the Chief. This was thought to be just a story until recent years when the bones of 7 headless bodies were dug up near by!

Two regulating locks were built at Laggan where the canal runs into Loch Lochy, these were built on the site of the famous “Battle of the Shirts” – a fight between rival Clans on a day that was so hot that they stopped the battling to allow each other to remove clothing in order to stay cool – well… you wouldn’t want your opponents to feel uncomfortable before you slaughtered them would you? Being the sensible types that these Scots were they decided to remove their kilts and fight in just there shirts! Like the rest of the canal, Laggan Locks are well worth visiting, you can even go into the canal side pub which is more canal side than most as its actually on a boat.

It is 11 miles from one end of Loch Lochy to the other. At the southern end is a beautiful settlement called Gairlochy. As well as the many newer houses there is an original white bow-fronted canal house built by Thomas Telford which stands back from the canal between the two Loch Lochy Locks(!). You can go inside the house as it is now used as a tea room. Also between the locks is a swing bridge and all around the high mountains, which have never been far away, are now closing in.

The canal runs alongside the River Lochy for 8 miles towards the mighty Neptune’s Staircase. Half way there it crosses the River Loy on a 3 arched aqueduct. This part of the canal was endangered by floods and over-spills due to the amount of water which could flow down from the high mountains so sluices and culverts were built to combat the problem. To the east is the largest mountain on the canal – in fact its the largest mountain in Britain – Ben Nevis (4,406 feet). I was here on a day which began wet and cloudy but as the sun began to shine, the clouds lifted and bit by bit more and more of the mountain came into view until I could see snow at the very top.

The massive flight of 8 ship locks that make up Neptune’s Staircase are near Benavie, just north of Fort William. This really is a mighty staircase – like nothing anywhere else in Britain. Today each lock is mechanised but until recently they were worked via large capstans which had to be turned dozens of times to operate each lock. These were placed in a position that allowed operators to walk round and round pushing the capstan as they did so and thus opening or closing the gates and paddles. The top of the flight is the best place on the canal for viewing Ben Nevis, money-in-the-slot telescopes are provided. At the top of the lock flight is a basin which is the most southerly point that hire boats are allowed to go. At the basin is a canal shop and a small museum in what was once a saw mill. Half way down the flight is another large white bow-fronted canal house. Close by are the remains of the original main road which crossed over the canal in the middle of the flight. All that remains of the swing bridge is its approach ramp on the east side. At the bottom of the flight is the newer road swing bridge with a railway swing bridge directly alongside. About a mile further south is the end of the canal at Corpach. There is a staircase of two locks here and then some white canal buildings around a wharf and a green (which looks like it may once have been a large basin?).The buildings include the BW office and a lighthouse. The final lock is a sea lock which is a mighty 203 feet long. It was cut out of natural rock and takes the canal into Loch Linnhe which isn’t actually a loch in the normal sense as it runs past Fort William into the Firth of Lorn which in turn runs into the open sea. From Corpach it is possible to look right across Lock Linnhe (a distance of about 2 miles) to the town of Fort William standing at the foot of Ben Nevis.