Monuments, myths and marvels – the Caledonian Canal

“The doubters, the grumblers, the prophets and the sneerers, were all put to silence” – Inverness Courier, October 1822

First opened on October 23rd 1822, the Caledonian Canal, Scotland’s longest inland waterway, is an utterly audacious feat of engineering. Running from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east, the canal carves through an extraordinary range of terrain, from fen to forest and marshland to mountains, as it follows the course of the Great Glen – the rift valley that provides the waterway with much of its breathtaking mountain scenery.

On paper, the proposal was madness – hewing a course through the heart of the Highlands, taking in the mighty sea lochs of Oich, Lochy and Ness and some of the most mountainous terrain in the country, to create the longest inland waterway ever built in Britain. It was a mammoth undertaking, considered by many to be beyond the skills of even the renowned civil engineer Thomas Telford.

However, with mass unemployment following the Highland Clearances and thousands of disillusioned, desolate clansmen leaving Scotland to seek employment each year, an epic engineering project – bringing jobs, income and vibrancy, and creating a new route for trade – was seen as a panacea for the ails of the region.

In 1803, Parliament passed an act commissioning Telford to take on the project and, with a seven year work plan and a £474,000 budget (the equivalent of around £15 million today), he set to his monumental task.

The canal’s workforce of around 1,500 Highlanders, rugged men renowned as much for their love of whisky as their work ethic, dug the channels of the waterway by hand while skilled masons carved its colossal locks. Averaging 52 metres long and 10 metres deep, the locks were the largest ever constructed – vast chambers designed to hold the vessels of the coastal fishing fleet and British Navy, at the time still engaged in the Napoleonic Wars.

More than 300,000 tonnes of earth and stone was hewn from the heart of the Great Glen to construct the canal’s 29 locks – enough to cover a full-sized football pitch with a pile of rubble 25 metres high. However, from the moment the first shovel met the hard, unyielding earth of the Highlands, it was clear that the project’s doubters, detractors and naysayers may have had a point…

In 1822, 12 years over schedule and at a cost of more than £900,000 (almost double the original budget and the equivalent of £29 million today), the Caledonian Canal opened to navigation. Despite the turbulent tale of its construction, the canal transformed the Great Glen from an increasingly isolated yet epic landscape to a key driver in the Highlands economy.

Today, the canal is used in ways Telford could never have imagined. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the canal’s towpaths and water each year to follow in the footsteps of the Gods at Neptune’s Staircase, the longest lock flight in Britain; sail through the shadow of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK; or go monster hunting on the waters of iconic Loch Ness.

The Caledonian Canal is a unique example of Scotland’s built heritage, an economically-vital vital tourism destination, and a tribute to the transformational power of civil engineering.

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