The canal was started in 1803 to plans produced by Thomas Telford following survey work by James Watt thirty years earlier. It was the biggest of the building schemes undertaken by the Government to provide work and stem the flood of emigration from the Highlands. The huge scale of the work and the shortage of skilled engineers meant that the seven year schedule and £350,000 budget always looked optimistic. It was: by the time the canal finally opened in 1822 it had taken 17 years and cost £840,000. And instead of the 20 foot depth in Telford's plans, the canal when it initially opened was only 14 feet deep, too shallow for many of the increasingly large ships being built at the time.
Unsurprisingly, the canal did not initially prove successful. A second phase of construction was undertaken between 1844 and 1847. What emerged from this was, finally, the canal originally proposed by Telford.
Once finished, the Caledonian Canal provided the long hoped-for route between eastern and western Scotland. This allowed mariners to avoid the long and often hazardous route round the west of Scotland and through the Pentland Firth. The irony was that by the time the canal was finally complete, steam ships could make the passage around Scotland much more easily than the sailing ships in whose era it was designed. Nonetheless, until the railway reached Inverness the quickest way from there to Glasgow was by steamer via the Caledonian and Crinan Canals, probably calling at Oban en route.
Of its 60 mile length, 38 miles are along Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, with the remaining 22 miles being through canals proper. The biggest problem faced by the designers and builders was one of level; and along the length of the canal there are no fewer than 29 locks.
There are many ways to see and enjoy the Caledonian Canal. You could, of course, sail through it, and there are also opportunities to sail on or along parts of it from Inverness, Fort Augustus, and Drumnadrochit in particular.
You can also visit and marvel at the canal without risk of getting your feet wet. The most impressive single engineering feat on the Canal lies north of Fort William, where you will see Neptune's Staircase signposted off the A830 Mallaig road just before Corpach. This is a ladder of eight locks that raises vessels to a height of 70 feet above sea level over a distance of 500 yards. Following a vessel through the locks is an ideal way to understand how this deceptively simple process works.
Be warned, though, if you are visiting on a clear day, it is difficult to pay complete attention to the locks as this is also one of the best viewpoints available for the dark north west side of Ben Nevis, and its 2000 foot cliffs are an enthralling distraction. Nearby the canal emerges into the end of Loch Linnhe at Corpach, where there is an interesting canal basin.
aus: undiscovered scotland