The towpaths of the Caledonian Canal will be ready to welcome even more boots and bikes this spring thanks to more than £1 million of investment to improve the popular routes – the biggest path project ever undertaken on the waterway.
The works will improve more than 20 kilometres of towpaths along the canal, which sits at the heart of many rural Highland communities and forms a key part of the Great Glen Way Walking Route and the National Cycling Network. The project is part of a larger £3.4 million Scotland-wide scheme to improve the towpath network, which already attracts around 22 million visits per year from everyone from long distance runners and commuting cyclists to daily dog walkers.
Undertaken by Scottish Canals and funded by its partners Sustrans Scotland, SITA Trust and the Scottish Government’s Future Transport Fund and various local authorities and organisations, the project will deliver the ‘Dochgarroch Loop’ – a circular route between Inverness’ Tomnahurich Bridge and Dochgarroch; improved towpaths between Inverness and Fort William; and at the gateway to the Caledonian Canal at Muirtown Basin. The works will also mark a major step towards the completion of the Caledonia Way cycle route, which will eventually link Campbeltown in Argyll and Bute to Inverness along an epic 228-mile pathway.
Richard Millar, Director of Heritage, Enterprise and Sustainability at Scottish Canals, said: “The towpaths of Scotland’s canals are busier than ever and play a vital role at the heart of the communities they run through. They’re increasingly significant destinations for leisure, exercise and commuting and this project will open up access to them and provide a safe, all-weather surface everyone can use and enjoy.
“From the iconic locks of Neptune’s Staircase to the majesty of Loch Ness and the breathtaking scenery of the Great Glen, the Caledonian Canal has no shortage of incredible destinations to visit and the towpaths offer the perfect routes to explore all it has to offer. The paths also sit at the heart of many of the Highlands’ rural communities and provide safe, traffic-free links that are a vital resource for the people of those towns and villages.
“We are hugely grateful to Sustrans and our partners for supporting these important works and I am sure that the improved access offered by these upgraded paths will see even more people enjoy the rich heritage, wildlife and green space offered by the Caledonian Canal.”
The towpaths of Scotland’s 220-kilometre-long canal system are a vital part of sustainable transport charity Sustrans’ National Cycle Network and connect to more than 800 kilometres of pathways across the country. The Network provides long-distance cycling opportunities, but also important community links to encourage everyday journeys to be made sustainably.
With a 300% increase in usage over the last decade, the towpaths provide safe, off-road travel and recreation for all ages and abilities. Over the past five years Scottish Canals, Sustrans, local authorities and other organisations have jointly invested more than £8 million upgrading Scotland’s towpaths, creating important links between rural communities and vital active travel arteries in some of the nation’s busiest cities.
John Lauder, National Director of Sustrans Scotland, said: “In Scotland we have an action plan with a vision for 10% of trips to be made by bike by 2020. We were delighted to contribute Community Links funding towards upgrading the towpaths along the Caledonian Canal as we think that this greatly help towards achieving this vision. The towpaths provide a great facility for short everyday trips such as commuting to work, getting to and from the shops, and going to school.
“Furthermore, they are a great leisure resource, with many of them forming part of the National Cycle Network. This year marks the 20th birthday of the Network and we are delighted that these sections will be upgraded for everybody to enjoy.”
With almost a million Scots living within two miles of a canal, the towpaths also play an important role in the health of the nation. A recent report estimates that the benefits of the 4 million miles-worth of additional physical activity carried out on Scotland’s waterways save the NHS more than £6 million per year.
The Caledonian is the largest of the Scottish canals, linking lochs Oich, Ness, Lochy and Dochfour over a distance of 60 miles along the line of the awe-inspiring Great Glen. The canal, completed in 1822, was built to provide a safe passage for ships travelling from the North Sea to the Atlantic coast, avoiding the long and dangerous journey through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath.
Today the canal is used primarily for leisure, attracting vessels from all over the world as well as paddlers, walkers and cyclists keen to experience the natural beauty and history of the Great Glen and Scottish Highlands. The towpaths of the Caledonian also form a key part of the Great Glen Way long distance route.
The Great Glen Way, which runs between Fort William and Inverness and closely follows the line of the Caledonian Canal, will also see a step-up thanks to the project. Suited to all levels of walker, for the less experienced the Way offers the perfect introduction to long distance walking, being for the most part low-level and following mainly towpaths and woodland tracks. However, there are some tougher sections suitable for those more at home marching up Munros or challenging themselves on Corbetts.