The Caledonian Canal

The Caledonian Canal

Travel in the late 18th century was a hazardous undertaking, never more so than for those whose route involved a sea passage. In Scotland, especially, the offshore waters posed problems for navigators, and it was with this in mind that a canal linking the west coast to the east was proposed.

The government of the day provided funds for the construction of the “ Caledonian Canal ", a waterway from Fort William to Inverness, and the largest single construction project in the Highlands since the building of Fort George at Ardersier. Work began in 1803, with Thomas Telford as Chief Engineer. A gifted civil engineer with an impressive record, even Telford underestimated the cost and duration of the work, and the opening of the canal was delayed several times, finally taking place in October 1822.

The difficulties Telford had to contend with make the delays and costs easy to understand: the 60 miles of canal run through 38.5 miles of natural lochs (Dochfour, Ness , Oich and Lochy), linked by 21,5 miles of purpose-built waterway. The highest point of the journey, Loch Oich, is 106 feet above sea level, and 29 locks, 42 pairs of gates and 10 swing bridges are needed to raise craft to this level.

Even after the opening the canal continued to face difficulties. Shortcomings in the construction works soon became apparent, and maintenance was virtually continuous. The expected volume of traffic using the canal was never achieved, and so revenue never attained the levels projected. During the 19 th century several attempts were made to close the canal, as it was believed to be an unnecessary drain on the public purse, but it continued to operate nonetheless. In 1893 Macbraynes operated a steamer service between Inverness and Oban, but the pleasure cruisers on the canal and on Loch Ness itself had all been withdrawn by the 1930s, after the decline in business, which resulted from the Great War.

In 1962 the British Waterways Board assumed responsibility for the canal. Investing heavily, they undertook major repairs, including the mechanisation of all the lock gates, and prepared the canal for a change in patterns of use, which was soon to materialise.

Yachts and cruisers now sail the canal, with an increasing emphasis being placed on watersports and recreational sailing.