Crinan Canal History

The Crinan Canal is a waterway of great beauty and the towpath makes an excellent walk, because it is just 9 miles long it can easily be walked in a day (although a road runs alongside it the whole way for those who prefer a less energetic journey). It is situated in the Highlands of Scotland on the west side of Argyll.

It crosses a narrow stretch of land at the north of the Mull of Kintyre – the longest peninsula in Britain (unless you count Devon and Cornwall)! The Crinan Canal begins at Ardrishaig (grid ref NR 851850) on the shores of Loch Gilp (itself part of Lock Fyne). The canal is just 9 miles long, heading north west to Loch Crinan (NR 789944) which runs into the Atlantic.

1790
The Crinan Canal was promoted by a man named John Knox – not to be confused with the famous Scottish Presbyterian of 200 years earlier. He proposed a canal on the west side of Scotland which would cut out an 85 mile trip around the Mull of Kintyre. His planned route – which was to cut straight through the peninsula of Kintyre – was to be just 9 miles long. It was promoted as an extension to the Forth & Clyde Canal where by boats could use both waterways to travel from the north sea to the far west of Scotland. It was also seen as a way to make the west coast and Isles accessible to the markets of Glasgow.

The final route (as we know it today) was one of a number of ideas put forward in the early days. At first the idea had been to link East Loch Tarbert to West Loch Tarbert several miles down the coast, a route was surveyed by James Watt. In the end the decision was made to link Loch Gilp to Loch Crinan. Again Watt made a survey.

1791
The prospectors, headed by the Duke of Argyll, asked Scotsman John Rennie (the well known English canal engineer) to make a survey. He estimated a cost of £110,000 for a 9 mile route, 15 feet deep, built to accommodate sea-going sailing ships.

1793
An Act was obtained from Parliament though the canal’s route was still not finalised. Rennie’s original plan was not to build the route we see today but to take the canal to the north banks of Loch Crinan, alongside Duntroon Castle.

Later he changed his mind and brought the canal along the southern shore of Loch Crinan to what is now known as Crinan Basin.

1794
Work began in September though the short route was to take 16 years to complete. During construction the proprietors ran into money problems, rather than raise more money through a new Act they decided to borrow money from the Treasury and mortgage the canal. The Resident Engineers were James Hollingsworth and his father. Both were criticised heavily for their bad workmanship but the real problem was more likely the difficult terrain on which they had to build. The canal had to cross a mixture of soft peat moss, hard whinstone and needed to pass through a solid granite rock cutting.

1801
The Crinan Canal officially opened but it was not properly complete. The western end had not been built properly and was far too shallow, the canal was also badly built in other places due to cost cutting and it was constructed only to a depth of 10 feet despite Rennie’s recommendation of 15 feet. Rennie may also have been partly to blame for some of the problems, as with other canals which he built, he created an incredibly short summit level causing major water supply problems. The summit was only ¾ of a mile long with a flight of 4 huge locks at one side and 5 locks at the other!

1809
The canal breached resulting in the closure of the route. After more loans from the government the company repaired the damage and rebuilt some of the troublesome sections. They did not extend the summit level however, though they did create reservoirs to keep the canal topped up.

1811
One of the new reservoirs collapsed and the canal was closed again.

1813
Thomas Telford (who was then Engineer on the Caledonian Canal) was called in to survey the route. He found many faults and suggested numerous solutions. Eventually the canal was up and running and it provided the through-route to the western isles as intended. Among its main cargoes were whisky and salt.

1817
After 16 years of struggling with no sign of repaying their loan to the Treasury, the Crinan Canal Company were forced by the government to give up the running of their finances. Thus the Commissioners of the Caledonian Canal were placed in charge of running the business side of the waterway.

In the following years the canal did not do as well as expected. By this time “modern” ships were easily capable of travelling around the Mull without the difficulties that the ships of 20 years earlier had faced. Although the journey was longer in terms of miles, it was often shorter in terms of time and effort.

1822
Business picked up when the Caledonian Canal opened. This allowed boats to travel from Glasgow to the north east coast by heading west! First by travelling to the Crinan Canal and then up the coast to the Caledonian, which then took them right across the country to Inverness.

1839
A passenger service began to run daily along the canal. The service was part of a relay of steamers which carried holidaymakers from Glasgow to the isles or Highlands.

1848
The canal was taken over in full by the government and the Commissioners of the Caledonian Canal were put in charge of the whole canal.

Although there is no news of great success for the Crinan Canal over the next 100 years, there is also no reports of decline. Rival canals were proposed from time to time but nothing came of them. Railways were never a threat and the short cut, bypassing the long journey around Kintyre, continued to be used by passenger boats and small fishing vessels. Even WW1 does not appear to have caused any loss of usage.

1920
The Ministry of Transport took over the running of the canal from the Commissioners.

1930’s
After many years of very little maintenance, the government upgraded locks and bridges on the canal and made repairs to the bed and banks.

1940
During WW2 a prisoner of war camp was built alongside the canal near the summit level. Many of the POWs worked on the canal as well as in the local forests.

1948
The canal passed into the hands of the BTC and in the 1960’s to the BWB. By this time there was still quite a lot of commercial trade on the canal but the main bulk of users were holidaymakers, now on their own yachts and cruisers.

1972
It was announced that lock keepers were to be reduced in number and, for the first time, would not be available at every lock. The users of the yachts and pleasure cruisers made great objections to having their holidays ruined due to them having to work locks and bridges THEMSELVES!

2000
The Crinan Canal is now run by British Waterways and is still mainly used by yachts and pleasure craft though a small amount of commercial trade can still be seen using the canal for what it was built for – as a short cut across the Mull of Kintyre.

Crinan Canal Route

The Crinan Canal is a waterway of great beauty and the towpath makes an excellent walk, it is just 9 miles long so it can easily be walked in a day. The canal begins, facing west, at Ardrishaig (grid ref NR 851850) on the shores of Loch Gilp (itself part of Lock Fyne). The entrance is marked by a lighthouse which stands on a stone harbour. Across Loch Gilp the town of Lochgilphead can be seen and all around are huge hills. Although there are many islands in this area, the Crinan Canal crosses a peninsula on the mainland. Mull of Kintyre (which should not be confused with the island of Mull) is the longest peninsula in Britain – which, of course, is why the canal was built.

At Ardrishaig a sea lock takes boats into the canal. The A83 crosses over near the entrance on a swing bridge and it is possible to park on the main road just south of the bridge. The lock and bridge we see today are not original. The first sea lock was just to the north of the current one and slightly further inland. The main road used to cross right over the middle of the lock. The lock we see today was built further out into the harbour.

Immediately after the road bridge the canal enters Ardrishaig Basin. This is a rather small basin considering the size of craft which use the waterway. However, there is plenty of room to moor beyond the basin. There is a towpath along both banks of the canal virtually all the way to Crinan but at this point I would recommend taking the west/south side of the canal. From the towpath you will notice the remains of the original sea lock, now used as a mooring.

In the basin the canal bends north to run parallel to the main road. It climbs out of the basin and away from Ardrishaig through 3 more locks. In total there are 15 “ship” locks on the canal, they all have an old look about them with large chambers and huge beams. Despite their size, 13 of them are still hand operated. Beside the third lock at Ardrishaig is a picnic table. There is already a small road on the east bank and a similar road now appears on the west bank These roads are the original towpaths. Houses (new and old) line the banks, between them are glimpses of Loch Gilp and hills can be see as far as the eye can see.

At loch 4 a swing bridge links the two roads, like the locks it is also operated manually. It gives a great spectacle to the gongoozler (canal voyeur!) because it crosses the middle of the lock. Boat crews on the Crinan Canal are (in the main) unfamiliar with locks and canals, they are usually sailors or yachtsmen who really don’t want to be here at all! Because of this you can watch a delightful panic as they struggle to operated the huge locks and the bridge while cars build up on either side.

The town of Ardrishaig did not exist before the canal was built. The man who built the town (and also built Lochgilphead to the north) also had shares in the canal and was one of its original promoters. Unlike the canal, he made a fortune!

After about 2 miles the canal passes by Lochgilphead. On this stretch there is a normal towpath on the east side and a track on the other. Although the track is wide enough for single file traffic, it is not really suitable to drive along. The main road runs parallel, down below, to the east. Having said this, I chose to drive along the unsuitable lane until I arrived at Lochgilphead swing bridge (NR 855879). Here there is a bridge keepers cottage which (like all the others on the canal) is a pretty, white building. Beside the cottage is Lochgilphead Wharf which was built as part of the improvement scheme under the instruction of Thomas Telford.

From the embankment which the canal runs along, it is possible to look down on the County Town of Argyll. Lochgilphead is a popular holiday resort with a nice sea front along the head of Loch Gilp. The best way to reach the canal at Lochgilphead is from the A816/A83 roundabout. Immediately south of the roundabout a lane climbs steeply up to the bridge.

The canal soon turns north west and meanders away from the main road (now the A816) for a while. Again there are towpaths on both sides though it is now the east side which is best defined (and popular with walkers). Some of this section was rebuilt at one stage because the original line was unstable. Parts of the old course can be seen from the towpath.

Within a couple of miles of Lochgilphead the canal reaches the Cairnbaan Lock Flight (NR 838907) on the B841. These 4 locks take the canal to its summit level. In the recent past the locks have been described as “fashionable” – though I’m not really sure what that means! The first lock is alongside Cairnbaan Hotel which was built at the same time as the waterway. Once again the road used to cross the middle of the lock – gate posts mark the route of the original road and the “ramp” which lifted vehicles onto the former swing bridge can still be seen alongside the lock. The new swing bridge is immediately above the lock, a BW employee operates it, the barriers and the traffic lights. A pretty bungalow with a nice garden looks down on the lock from the south bank.

The next 3 locks come at 200 yard intervals. On the north bank is a dead end lane which gives access to the houses of Cairnbaan, all of which line the canal. On the south side is the B841, a relatively quiet road which also has a number of pretty cottages on it. There are also a line of distinctive white terraced cottages on each side. I don’t know when they were built but there are similar lines of houses at Ardrishaig.

Beside the top lock is a Post Office (also the local general store) on the north side and a bus stop on the south. Yes – bus stops are so rare up here that they warrant a mention! It is possible to park on the B841 or right alongside the locks.

The summit level has been described as “wild canal country” but also “breathtaking” and “beautiful”. Steep wooded hills run alongside the canal but it is not isolated because the B841 continues to run right alongside. The canal’s owners probably thought the summit level’s best description was “short – very short”. Within just 1,200 yards the summit ends and the drop down to the western side begins. There are two water feeders running into the summit. These bring water down from reservoirs high up in the hills to the south. Alongside the western end of the summit is a large pond (which you can walk around) which is used to store water.

Alongside the summit level (to the south) there is a new housing estate. These homes are built on (or very close to) the sites of two former communities of very different types. Originally a small crofters village was situated here. Crofters were families who owned (or rented) small plots of land around their homes which they would use as farm or grazing land. There is a very interesting open air museum, Auchindrain Township, on the A83 between Lochgilphead and Iveraray, which recreates a Crofters community.

The second community who lived close to the summit level were (mostly Italian) Prisoners Of War during WW2. Although these men were “prisoners” this was not Colditz! The men from the camp often worked on the canal and for the Forestry Commission.

The best view of all this is from a specially made view point on a short road which quickly climbs up above the B841 (NR 830907). There are parking places and picnic tables looking down onto the canal and out towards the west. In the distance you can see Crinan Wood Hill and it is possible to make out Crinan Ferry Swing Bridge which crosses the canal some 4 miles west of the summit level. I found the Crinan Canal summit level to be “beautiful” and I must admit the best possible description, as you stand at the view point, looking out towards the sea, is – “breathtaking”.

I have read that “from the top of the 5 Dunardry Locks (NR 830908) the sea can be seen down below in the distance”. This, in fact, is not quite true although it can be seen from the view point mentioned above. Just about all you can see from the top lock is thickly wooded hills. Beside the lock is the site of the covered dock which was once home to the steamer, Linnet, which took holidaymakers along the canal on their way to the isles from Glasgow.

Once again the locks are equally spaced about 200 yards apart. Unlike the Cairnbaan flight, these locks have wide pools between each of them – built to store water. By the time you reach the second lock the canal has curved slightly and you can now see for miles ahead of you. Down below are the remaining 3 locks, beyond them is Bellenoch road bridge (2 miles) and Loch Crinan. Beyond that is Crinan Ferry Bridge (4 miles) and it’s bridge keepers cottage. Towering above is Crinan Wood Hill which blocks out the sea, which lies beyond it.

Across the fourth lock (NR 828908) is a unique old bridge. It is wound back and forth along tracks which enable it to slide away from the canal. Once again the bridge is situated across the centre of the lock. Originally there was a swing bridge here but it kept getting damaged due to the lock sides not being level with each other. The road which the bridge carries is a narrow track which leads to some canalside bungalows and a couple of caravans. Each of the Dunardry Locks has its own lock cottage. Some of these are built with just one storey on the road side but two storeys on the canal side. At the sliding bridge there are also some other small cottages – all of these buildings are bright white.

The towpath on this section is only on the north bank though the B841 is so close on the south that it can be walked as a towpath just as easily. There is parking available close to each of the locks.

Past the bottom lock there is a short stretch of winding canal leading to the delightful village of Bellanoch (NR 804924). It is a tiny place, squeezed alongside the canal. There is a garage here (but it doesn’t sell petrol), a post office and a number of small, white cottages. Behind the village (south) are cliffs leading up to the wooded hills beyond. Across the canal, to the north, the scene has opened up. The land is flat across Moine Mhor and in the far distance are huge mountains.

Also in the village are two bridges. The first is a canal swing bridge while the second crosses the small river which runs into the head of Loch Crinan. The lock itself is immediately to the west.

The towpath now runs along a narrow strip between the canal and Loch Crinan – which is situated along the north side of the canal. Within a few hundred yards the canal widens out into a huge pool that forms Bellanoch Bay (NR 797926). This is a natural lagoon where sea-going yachts are often moored. Around the bay are a small number of buildings including the former Bellanoch schoolhouse. BW have recently erected a toilet block next to the moorings. All of this is on the south side of the canal and cannot be reached from the towpath, you have to walk (or drive) along the narrow road heading west out of Bellanoch towards Crinan.

By far the best view of the bay is from the grounds of a little white chapel which stands on the steep hills about 400 yards behind the bay to the south (NR 796924). This is reached on the B8025 road (heading south towards Loch Sween). If you are on foot, prepare for a steep climb! From the chapel you can look down onto Bellanoch Bay and Loch Crinan. It is easy now to see how the bay was once part of the loch, the canal towpath now forming a thin causeway between the to waters. In the distance, across Loch Crinan is the north side of Crinan Ferry, and much further in the distance is Duntroon Castle.

Beyond the bay the canal continues to run alongside the Crinan road for about 800 yards, but suddenly the waterway takes a sharp right turn (NR 791933) to the north and begins to curve around Crinan Wood Hill to Crinan Ferry Bridge. From now on, the canal is squeezed into a narrow cutting between granite rock hills on one side and Loch Crinan on the other. Shortly after the bend (when I was here) an old-style gypsy caravan stands on the west bank – brightly decorated. Close by, what appears to be a white wooden hut stands in the canal. This is now used as a dwelling but it was once used by the army and was situated between locks 3 and 4 at Ardrishaig. It sank one day when a large boat pushed ice into. It was later refloated and moved to Crinan Ferry Bridge. I’m not sure how apt its name is however – it’s called The Ark.

Immediately north is Crinan Ferry Bridge (NR 793937). I may be wrong, but I believe the place known as Crinan Ferry is actually on the far side of Loch Crinan. This is the narrowest point on the loch. Here it is little more than 400 yards across though it is much wider to the west and the east of the crossing point. The ferry stopped running many years ago. The canal bridge is a swing bridge similar to those we’ve already passed. And like the others, it has its own white cottage alongside. This one has a pretty garden and looks over Lock Crinan. There are 4 ways to reach this point on the canal. The first is via the towpath from the east – the entry point being some 2 miles away at Bellanoch swing bridge. The second is along the towpath form the west – Crinan Basin is about 1,200 yards away. The third is over the top of Crinan Hill (more about this later). The fourth is via the road which leads off the Bellanoch to Crinan road and ends at the bridge. On some maps this is marked as a B-road though it has not been a “main” road since the ferry stopped running decades ago. Likewise, most maps (including modern day CD Roms) show the road continuing along the north east side of the canal though this is just a narrow track (the towpath).

As the canal leaves Crinan Ferry Bridge its course is very narrow (considering the size of the vessels that use it). It is often only just wide enough for one boat at a time. Sharp cliffs and trees on the banks make navigation a cautious affair. The tree covered cliffs continue around a long left bend which brings the route to Crinan Basin. Just before reaching the basin an old steamer is moored on the canal (or at least it was when I was here). Its name is Vital Spark which is the name of the book and numerous TV dramas featuring Captain Para Handy. Vital Spark is the steamer (or “puffer”) which gives the story its name. Whether the boat now moored on the canal was used in one of the TV productions – I’m afraid I don’t know?

Crinan Basin (NR 789944) has two locks, the top one was cut out of the granite rock which is all around. The picturesque basin really is a “basin”. It is surrounded by hills on three sides and by the sea on the fourth. There are usually yachts moored above the basin, waiting to pass through the locks. This is the point where the canal passenger steamer used to dock to drop off the holidaymakers bound for the isles, Oban and Inverness.

In the basin there are always lots of boats of every shape and size (mostly large fishing boats). To the north is the sea and the entrance of Loch Crinan. Between the sea and the basin are a group of white buildings, some still used as houses. Round the back of the buildings is the quay on the edge of Loch Crinan where the holidaymakers used to catch the sea-going steamers. To the left of this, alongside the sea wall, is a small red and white lighthouse which used to guide ships into the basin. Alongside this is the original sea lock (now used for moorings), next to that is the current day sea lock and.facing the lock – looking down from the west – is Crinan Hotel. This has had a number of incarnations over the years but the original building was built at the same time as the canal.

Along the western edge of the basin is a cafe (there are public toilets on the road behind). On the south side is a fairly large car park while high up above is Crinan Wood Hill. Anybody who has ever seen a photograph of Crinan Basin has probably seen the view from the top of Crinan Wood Hill. It is a steep climb to the top, there are no steps, the path can be slippy and at the top there is no “official” view point. You have to perch on the cliff top! Not the sort of thing I would recommend on a wild, windy, wet day – but that is exactly how it was when I (and my wife) went up there! But for a manic gongoozler it was well worth it. For the wife – less so. The view of the basin is great and you can also see out across Loch Crinan to Duntroon Castle and across the Sound of Jura to the isle of Jura itself. It is possible to walk right across Crinan Wood (a designated walk – leaflets available). This eventually brings you back down to canal level at Crinan Ferry Bridge.

I visited the Crinan Canal for the first time in May 2000. In the past I’ve seen virtually every canal in England and Wales and the Caledonian in Scotland. There are many spectacular views to be had and interesting things to be seen all around the canal systems of Britain, but none compare the Crinan Canal. It truly is, spectacular!

Access Points

Ardrishaig (grid ref NR 851850), on the A83 between Lochgilphead and Tarbert. Park on the main street or just south of the canal bridge.
Lochgilphead swing bridge (NR 855879), reached from the A816/A83 roundabout. Immediately south of the roundabout a lane climbs steeply up to the bridge. Although it is possible to park at the bridge it is best to park in the town (800 yards).
Cairnbaan Lock Flight (NR 838907), on the B841, just west of the junction with the A816. There is a pub with a car park alongside the bottom lock and a rough car park next door to it for non-patrons. There are parking spaces beside each of the other 3 locks.
Summit Level, (NR 830907), there is a specially made view point on a short road which quickly climbs up above the B841. There are parking spaces and picnic tables looking down on the canal and far beyond.
Dunardry Locks (NR 830908), there are parking spaces on the B841 beside each of the locks.
Bellanoch (NR 804924), limited room for parking in this tight little settlement but you can usually find a space close to the bridge.
Bellanoch Bay (NR 797926), on the road from Bellanoch to Crinan (you can’t miss it)! There is a BW car park at the moorings.
Crinan Ferry Bridge (NR 793937), reached from the Bellanoch to Crinan road. Turn right into a tree covered lane which is signposted as a dead end. The lane looks uninviting though it was once the main road to Crinan Ferry. It ends at the canal.. You can drive across the bridge and park in the BW provided spaces.
Crinan Basin (NR 789944), reached at very end of the Bellanoch to Crinan road. In the settlement of Crinan is a fork in the road. Straight ahead leads to Crinan Harbour (worth visiting – there a boat trips out to the isles) while the right fork leads up hill further into Crinan. There is another fork, take the left road over the hill and down the other side. This loops right around to Crinan Basin where there is a public car park.