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The Caledonian Canal

First planned by James Watt in 1773 and opened to shipping in 1822, the Caledonian Canal is chiefly used to-day by fishing vessels and tourist steamers. The canal is sixty miles long and extends from the Moray Firth on the east coast of Scotland to Loch Linnhe on the west coast


The paddle steamer Gondolier leaving Fort Augustus

HALF HER JOURNEY FINISHED. The paddle steamer Gondolier leaving Fort Augustus, which is situated at the head of Loch Ness and marks the mid-point of the canal. Ships from the direction of Fort William pass through a “staircase” of five locks to Loch Ness. The canal consists of four lakes - Lochs Lochy, Oich, Ness and Dochfour - linked by twenty-three miles of artificial waterway.

THE Highlands of Scotland are cut completely in two by Glen More, the Great Glen. This is a straight cleft, roughly seventy miles in length, running from Loch Linnhe, above the island of Lismore, in a north-easterly direction to the Beauly Firth by Inverness, on the North Sea coast. On the map the glen appears to be the result of a great cataclysm that may have taken place long before the Glacial Epoch.

If Nature had not made this unusual geological feature, a deep furrow running across the Highland plateau, the Caledonian Canal would certainly never have been built; for in the Great Glen lies a series of long, narrow lakes. Nearest to Inverness is Loch Dochfour, a small freshwater lake. This is separated from Loch Ness only by a narrow strip of water. Loch Ness is more

than twenty-two miles long and over 800 feet deep, with an average breadth of one mile. Loch Oich is shallow and a little under four miles long, while Loch Lochy is about ten miles long.

The straight, open length of the Great Glen appears to be favourable for the construction of a canal, particularly as the glen contains the four lochs which occupy more than half its length. At the northern end, however, Loch Ness is 50 feet above sea-level, at the southern end Loch Lochy is 93 feet and Loch Oich 105 feet above sea-level. The history of the canal, therefore, begins in the nineteenth century, when civil engineering had made sufficient progress to render its construction possible, but before railways or motor cars were thought of in the Highlands.

James Watt, the famous steam engineer, was the first man to make plans for the construction of the Caledonian Canal. The canal was intended to eliminate the long and dangerous passage through the Pentland Firth and round Cape Wrath, and to make possible a direct service of fast packets from Inverness to the Clyde. Ships were often delayed for months on the north coast of Scotland. In 1773 James Watt surveyed the glen and estimated the cost of the canal at £165,000. Nothing was done for twenty years. Then another survey was made by John Rennie, whose Waterloo Bridge, opened in London in 1817, was not dismantled until 1935. The Government took no action concerning the canal, however, until matters were suddenly brought to a head by the Napoleonic Wars.

The activities of French privateers against merchant ships gave rise to a number of ship canal schemes intended to protect unarmed vessels. The Caledonian Canal proposal came once more before the public eye. It was to be part of a much wider scheme for the “improvement” of the Central Highlands.

Thomas Telford, a friend of Watt, was called in, and with Jessop as consulting engineer he made a new survey of the route. Telford estimated the cost at not less than £500,000, but the urgency of the danger to merchant shipping made the Government accept his plans. The Caledonian Canal Commissioners were incorporated by an Act of 1803. Work was begun in the same year, with Telford as Engineer. The waterway was to allow for the passage, from coast to coast, of “a fully equipped 32-guns frigate laden with stores”. Docking facilities were to be provided at either end, and the docks of Clachnaharry, at the Inverness end, were to cover an area of more than thirty-two acres.

The Caledonian CanalThe canal was nineteen years in construction, and when it was ready for use, the cost had grown to almost double Telford’s estimate.

The Napoleonic scare was long past by the time of the opening, and only a fraction of the expected number of ships used the new short cut. Telford was bitterly disappointed, He died in 1834, and his great work fell into such disuse that in 1837 the Government nearly closed the canal indefinitely. In that fateful year, however, James Walker succeeded in inducing the Government to spend an additional £300,000 on improving, or rather completing, the work. The canal was closed for this purpose, and in 1847 it was reopened. In the following year, the Crinan Canal, on the west coast near Ardrishaig, came under the control of the Caledonian Canal Commissioners. The final cost has been reckoned at £1,311,270, although the scheme was originally abandoned because Watt’s estimate was considered too expensive.

The middle of the nineteenth century was the most prosperous time for the Caledonian Canal. In one year more than 500 ships sailed between Clachnaharry and Corpach “in an almost unbroken line”. Until the completion of the southern main line of the Highland Railway in 1865, the canal formed the only direct route for passengers and freight in bulk between Glasgow and Inverness. When the present system of railways in the Highlands was completed, there were still four steamers engaged on internal canal passenger traffic alone. No railway lines were built to follow the course of the canal throughout its length, although one line ran from Fort William to Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness.

There are no longer any passenger train services in the canal area. The MacBrayne paddle steamer Gondolier, 173 tons gross, carries tourists through the Great Glen every summer.

The canal itself is only four miles longer than a dead-straight line drawn between Corpach at the southern end of the glen and Clachnaharry at the northern end. Between banks the canal is 120 feet wide, with a constant depth of 20 feet, and a width at the bottom of 50 feet. It is therefore suitable for passenger and cargo vessels ranging up to 600 tons gross. Steamers of 1,000 tons have made the passage safely and without inconvenience. To prevent the water level in the relatively shallow Loch Oich from falling, a reservoir was built in the adjacent Glen Garry to feed the loch during dry spells.

A trip from end to end of the Caledonian Canal is an interesting experience. The steamer starts from Banavie Harbour, at the southern end of Loch Lochy. Cargo ships, however, enter the canal directly from the sea loch at Corpach.

The southern entrance of the canal is situated in the angle formed by the junction of Loch Eil and the upper part of Loch Linnhe. In the south-east towers the partly rounded and partly precipitous mass of Ben Nevis, which rises directly from sea-level to a height of 4,406 feet. Ben Nevis is a great brown and green massif, speckled with deep blue shadows and slashed with a few pure-white snowdrifts even in the height of summer. Westward, the straight line of Loch Eil stretches into the rugged hills about Glen Finnan. Ahead are the stern inner portals of the Great Glen.

A special sea-lock, which allows for the ebb and flow of the tide, brings the canal into the salt waters of Loch Linnhe. The canal begins with a straight 1¼-miles cut from Corpach. A swing bridge carries the West Highland Railway across it. Then comes the most spectacular feature of the canal. This is the world-famous series of eight locks, one above the other, by which the canal climbs to a level of 64 feet. “Neptune’s Staircase” was the name Telford gave to these locks, and they have been so called ever since. In modern times, “Neptune’s Staircase” has been far eclipsed by the great locks on the Panama Canal and elsewhere, but it is still imposing. The locks are each 170 feet long and 40 feet wide. At the top of “Neptune’s Staircase” is the harbour of Banavie, which has a special railway station connected with the Fort William line by a short branch.

From Banavie there follows a cut 6⅛ miles in length to Gairlochy, where there are two more locks. Thus the canal reaches the first of the chain of lakes that it connects. The level ol Loch Lochy has been raised 12 feet by damming the River Lochy and diverting the outflow into the River Spean. Several mountain streams, which threatened to interfere with the canal, pass under it in culverts between Banavie and Gairlochy. The fertile valley of the Lochy is in the centre of ancient Lochaber, a district whose history has been rich and eventful.

The Caledonian Canal

THE CALEDONIAN CANAL is almost straight throughout its length and was the only direct route between Glasgow and Inverness for passengers and freight in bulk until 1865. In that year the southern main line of the Highland Railway - now the London, Midland and Scottish Railway - was completed.

The passage of Loch Lochy, as that of Loch Ness, is always a thing to be remembered. The glen may be smiling in sunshine, grim in storm and squall, or weird and sinister under curtains of misty rain.

Loch Lochy and Loch Oich are connected by a cut only 1 mile 65 chains in length. It contains two more locks, one to allow for the “climb” to the canal’s summit level on Loch Oich, and the other a regulator to allow for Loch Oich’s periodic rise and fall. Loch Oich, being small and shallow, is more drastically affected by a sudden spate than are the great deeps of Loch Lochy and Loch Ness. Loch Oich is a lovely sheet of water, set with several islets. On a rocky promontory stands Glengarry Castle, now only an empty shell.

Early Paddle Steamers

At the northern end of Loch Oich comes another cut, beginning with Cullochy Lock near Aberchalder. This stretch is 5 miles 35 chains long, with locks at Cullochy (Aberchalder), Kyltra and Fort Augustus. At Fort Augustus there is another “staircase” of five locks, bringing the canal down to the level of Loch Ness. Apart from its mountain setting, Fort Augustus is most notable for its wonderful Benedictine Monastery, on the site of the fort founded by General Wade in 1729.

Loch Ness is remarkable for its great depth and the fact that it has never been known to freeze. Soundings show it to be 150 fathoms deep, a depth exceeded in Scotland only by Loch Morar, and by only a few lakes on the European Continent. Loch Ness, with its long, mountainous sides, is a superb stretch of water. On the southern side, roughly halfway up its length, is the pier and village of Foyers, famous for its waterfalls. At Foyers, too, are the works belonging to the British Aluminium Company, connected with the loch by a short private railway line. All the heavy equipment in the works, and the locomotive, were brought by steamer through the Caledonian Canal, the only practicable means of transport.

There is a small cut from Loch Ness to Loch Dochfour where there is a regulating lock and a special escape for salmon fry. The final cut from Loch Dochfour to Clachnaharry and the open waters of the Beauly Firth is 6 miles 35 chains in length, with a series of four locks going down at Muirtown. At Clachnaharry the canal is carried for 400 yards out into the Firth between artificial embank-ments, because of inshore shallowness. The canal finishes as it began, with a spacious sea-lock and another swing bridge carrying a railway line. There are in all twenty-eight locks on the Caledonian Canal.

Two interesting old steamships have for years been associated with the passenger service between Banavie and Inverness. The paddle steamer Glengarry was one of the first steam vessels to ply on the canal. She began her long career in 1844, when she was built by Smith and Rodger primarily for the Clyde services, and was named the Edinburgh Castle. In 1875 she was bought into

the Hutcheson-David MacBrayne fleet, and her name was changed to the Glengarry. She plied between Inverness and Fort Augustus and became an old and well-tried favourite. She won fame as the oldest steamer in the world, and it was not until 1928 that she was at last broken up at Inverness. From first to last she was propelled by the same single-cylinder steeple engine.

The paddle steamer Gondolier was built specially for the Caledonian Canal service in 1866. She is an iron-hulled steamer of 173 tons gross, driven by a two-cylinder oscillating engine, and still maintains a tri-weekly summer service between Banavie and Inverness. By using the short rail-transfer between Fort William and Banavie, it is still possible to make a two-days’ journey from the Clyde to the Beauly Firth, passing through some of the finest scenery in the world.

AN INVERNESS DRIFTER, the Invernairne, passing through the locks at Inverness

AN INVERNESS DRIFTER, the Invernairne, passing through the locks at Inverness. The vessel, which belongs to the Moray Firth Fishing Fleet, is on the first stage of her sixty miles’ journey through the canal. She is bound for the fishing grounds off the west coast of Scotland where she will make Oban her base and harbour.

You can read more on “Britain’s Canal System”, “The Kiel Canal” and “The Manchester Ship Canal” on this website.