Caledonian Canal

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The Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness

The Caledonian Canal cuts through the Great Glen in several sections between the lochs to connect the Atlantic coast at Corpach near Fort William with the North Sea coast at Inverness through the Great Glen. Except for the southernmost 4½ miles in Argyllshire, it is wholly within Inverness-shire.

The canal was built in the early nineteenth century by engineer Thomas Telford, and is a sister canal of the Göta Canal in Sweden, also constructed by Telford.


The canal runs some 62 miles from north-east to south-west. Only one third of the entire length of the route, 22 miles, is man-made, the rest being formed by Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, and Loch Lochy.[1] The route takes advantage of the Great Glen, a geological fault in the Earth's crust which has created a straight-line glen through the Highlands from coast to coast.

There are in the course of the canal:


The Dochgarroch Lock
Locks at Fort Augustus
Loch Lochy
Gairlochy Bottom Lock
Corpach sea lock
A boat near Loch Linnhe
Lord of the Glens leaving Corpach Sea Lock

The canal was conceived as a way of providing much-needed employment to the Highland region. The area was depressed as a result of the Highland Clearances, which had deprived many of their homes and jobs. Many were emigrating to Canada or to the Scottish lowlands. The canal would also provide a safer passage for wooden sailing ships, avoiding the stormy route around the north coast by Cape Wrath and the tidal rips of the Pentland Firth.[2]

The first survey for a canal was carried out by James Watt in 1773, but it was the Caledonian Canal Commission that paved the way for the actual construction.[3] On 27 July 1803, an Act of Parliament was passed to authorise the project,[4] and the canal engineer Thomas Telford was asked to survey, design and build the waterway. Telford worked with William Jessop on the survey, and the two men oversaw the construction until Jessop died in 1814.[2] The design was expected to take seven years to complete, and to cost £474,000, to be funded by the Government, but both estimates were inadequate.[3]

Because of the remoteness of the location, construction was started at both ends, so that completed sections could be used to bring in the materials for the middle sections. At Corpach, near Fort William, the entrance lock was built on rock, but at the other end, there were 56 feet of mud below the proposed site of the sea lock. Rock was tipped on top of the mud and was allowed to settle for six months before construction could begin. The ground through which the canal was cut was variable, and further difficulties were experienced with the construction of the locks, the largest ever built at the time. There were also problems with the labour force, with high levels of absence, particularly during and after the potato harvest and the peat cutting season. This led to Telford bringing in Irish navvies, to manage the shortfall, which led to further criticism, since one of the main aims of the project was to reduce unemployment in the Highlands.[3]

The canal finally opened in 1822, having taken an extra 12 years to complete, and cost £910,000. Over 3,000 local people had been employed in its construction,[5] but the draught had been reduced from 20 feet to 15 feet, in an effort to save costs. In the meantime, shipbuilding had advanced, with the introduction of steam-powered iron-hulled ships, many of which were now too big to use the canal. The navy did not need to use the canal either, as Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the perceived threat to shipping when the canal was started was now gone.[3]


Before long, defects in some of the materials used became apparent, and part of Corpach double lock collapsed in 1843. This led to a decision to close the canal, to allow repairs to be carried out, and the depth was increased to 18 feet at the same time.[3] The work was designed by Telford's associate, James Walker and completed by 1847,[2] but not all of the traffic expected to return to using the canal did so. Commercially, the venture was not a success, but the dramatic scenery through which it passes led to it becoming a tourist attraction. Queen Victoria took a trip along it in 1873, and the publicity surrounding the trip resulted in a large increase in people visiting the region and wanting to travel on the canal. Even the arrival of the railways at Fort William, Fort Augustus and Inverness did little to harm the canal, as trains were scheduled to connect with steamboat services.[3]

There was an upsurge in commercial traffic during the First World War when components for the construction of mines were shipped through the canal on their way to Inverness from America, and fishing boats used it to avoid the route around the north of Great Britain. Ownership passed to the Ministry of Transport in 1920, and then to British Waterways in 1962. Improvements were made, with the locks being mechanised between 1964 and 1969. By 1990, the canal was in obvious need of restoration, with lock walls bulging, and it was estimated that repairs would cost £60 million. With no prospect of the Government funding this, British Waterways devised a repair plan, and between 1995 and 2005, sections of the canal were drained each winter. Stainless steel rods were used to tie the double-skinned lock walls together, and over 25,000 tonnes of grout were injected into the lock structures. All of the lock gates were replaced, and the result was a canal where the structures are probably in a better condition than they have ever been.[3]

The canal is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and attracts over half a million visitors each year. British Waterways, who work with the local council and the Scottish Forestry Commission through the Great Glen Ways Initiative, are hoping to increase this number to over 1 million by 2012.[3] There are many ways for tourists to enjoy the canal, whether it is taking part in the Great Glen Rally, cycling along the tow-paths, or cruising on hotel barges.


  1. Scottish Canals - Caledonia Canal history
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 McKnight (1981)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Hayward (2007)
  4. Priestley (1831)
  5. Cumberlidge (2009)


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Caledonian Canal)
The Great Glen, Inverness-shire, west to east

Donegal Bay • Lough Foyle

Loch Linnhe • Caledonian Canal • Loch Lochy • Loch Oich • Loch Ness • River Ness

Moray Firth