The idea of joining the Scottish and North Seas is very old. There were many economic and commercial benefits to such a navigable route crossing the country from East to West. However, it was during the 18th century that there were feasible plans to develop the already existing waterways. During the second half of this century, the political, social and economic context of the Scottish Highlands was very difficult. Several Scottish risings resulted in the British government enacting harsh sanctions against the population and local lords. Thus, these regions of Scotland became increasingly poorer, especially since many people sought a better life elsewhere, either in the British Isles or in other lands. There were discussions about the benefits of improving navigation as it would help traders, and anglers, and ease supplying the region with cereals and other necessary goods. Until then, boats wishing to go from one side of Scotland to the other had to navigate North through Cape Wrath. This was a dangerous journey, not only because of navigation issues but also because there often were French ships lurking near the Scottish coasts.
In 1773, James Watt made interesting plans for the canal. There already was a suitable route to follow, along the Ness River and the surrounding lakes located in the Great Glen (a geological fault, in part responsible for the gorgeous landscape). Except for the Ness River and Loch Oich, which would have to be made deeper, the other lakes could already handle all types of ships. With the work of Watt and others that followed, the plans for the Caledonian Canal were deemed good enough to start building it. In 1803, an Act of Parliament ordered the building to start. It was the responsibility of Scottish engineer Thomas Telford who was very skilled in architecting waterway infrastructures, tunnels and roads. The war with Napoleon and the need to give the Navy a better fighting chance by providing safety was decisive in this decision, even more so than the demand to provide work to several thousand people or improve their lives. The construction was supposed to take only seven years, but the canal was not completed before 1822, after many difficulties and setbacks.
The canal has several notable infrastructures: the Corpach double lock, which was rebuilt in 1847 after its collapse, and the 180 metres long Neptune staircase near Fort William, with its 8 locks, are two of the many interesting engineering sights on the Caledonian canal. It is an interesting mixture of natural and man-made infrastructures. If the Caledonian was constructed mostly for commercial and military needs, it did not take long to realize that it was not as used as expected. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Navy was once more master of the European seas and commercial boats did not navigate on it as much as anticipated. Yet, the canal’s main asset for its future, its beauty, was already working. The canal was welcoming tourists almost as soon as tourism expanded. In 1873, Queen Victoria herself cruised on the Caledonian. It still retained its commercial use, however, and during the First World War, the canal was an important strategic edifice since boats could avoid the dangers posed by the German Navy.
Today, both commercial and leisure navigation flourish on the canal. To the north lies the city of Inverness, the gateway to the North Sea. Then, the River Ness, meandering through the mountainous landscape of the Great Glen, and the lochs Ness, Oich and Lochy. The Caledonian canal offers many surprises as one explores this ancient land sculpted by nature’s work over millennia, and populated by the traditions and folklore of the Scottish Highlands.
- Kloareg, B. (2022), « L’Ecosse d’une mer à l’autre », pp. 40-47.
- « Caledonian Canal - Heritage » in Scottish Canals [Online].