The Caledonian Canal links the west of Scotland to the East, and makes it possible to navigate right through Scotland's Great Glen, between Fort William and Inverness. It is scenically spectacular along its whole length, surrounded as it is by Scotland's highest mountains and most beautiful scenery. It takes about 3 days to cruise from - say - east to west (or vice versa) through the lochs and the stretches of man-made canal that inter-connect with them.

The Caledonian Canal at Loch Lochy - photo by Steven Brown and reproduced by kind permission

The original canal was started in 1802 to plans produced by Thomas Telford the great engineer.  It was primarily designed as a building scheme to provide employment for thousands of impoverised Scots, who had been disposessed by the notorious Highland Clearances (when the rich Scottish Lords swept away their poor tenant farmers and crofters to provide more land for their sheep to graze...) When it was finished it provided a route for sea going vessels from west to east, so that they did not have to negotiate the long and dangerous coastal route round the far north of Scotland. 

Above Left: Ben Nevis and the Caledonian Canal - photo by Chuck Schubert and reproduced by kind permission
Above Right:
The canal at Banavie - photo by Colin Smith and reproduced by kind permission

The canal is sixty miles long, from Corpach near Fort William in the west to Inverness on the north east coast of Scotland, and it traverses through the Great Glen and Loch Ness. Even on the long stretches of open water you are never far away from sheltered moorings, and the short stretches of man made canal have only 10 locks for you to navigate, all of which are operated by lock-keepers.  In short, the Caledonian Canal offers you magnificent rugged scenery all around you, together with welcoming little towns and villages, and plenty of hotels and pubs with jetties and mooring places. The villages have well-stocked shops and the larger towns offer full services. Ben Nevis - Britain's highest mountain - overlooks the canal at Corpach and is always in view on the first section of the canal, and you can see Inverness Castle, and Drumnadrochit with the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition from the other end of the canal.

Neptune's Staircase is located just north of Fort William on the Corpach road and it marks the beginning of the Caledonian Canal. Most pleasure boats are not licensed to go on to the open sea beyond the canal basin at Corpach.  So, heading north east from Banavie, the canal passes through magnificent scenery which is totally dominated by the dark brooding north west escarpment of Ben Nevis only a few miles to the south of the canal. You see mountains  and magnificent forest scenery on all sides of the canal, as you sail towards the little village of Gairlochy, which is where the canal opens up to join the first of the three lochs, Loch Lochy. You will find jetties and moorings along the length of this loch , until you reach Laggan which you leave the loch and re-enter a stretch of man-made canal. having passed through Laggan locks. This takes you to the tree covered shores of Loch Oich, past Invergarry Castle and a power station and on to the villages of Aberchalder and Bridge of Oich.  You once again enter a man made stretch of canal through the locks at Cullochy and Kytra, all the while surrounded by magnificent mountain and forest scenery.

Above Left: The lock at Kytra, Above Right: The Caledonian Canal at Cullochy lock - both photos by Dominic Moore and reproduced by kind permission.

Beyond the lock at Kytra you reach another feat of engineering - the staircase locks at Fort Augustus, which lower you to the level of Loch Ness. Do not worry about these as they are all operated by the lock keeper! 

The canal at Fort Augustus - photo by Drumagye and reproduced by kind permission

Fort Augustus is well worth exploring as well as being an excellent place for an overnight stop on your journey. You can also visit the Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre here, which is an excellent place to find out more about the history and operation of this beautiful canal.

The locks at Fort Augustus - photo by "Margaret" and reproduved by kind permission

After you leave Fort Augustus you are on the start of your long journey on Loch Ness. On the great stretches of open water you are never too far from sheltered moorings, however, and you pass little villages like Foyers and Strone on Urquhart Bay and Drumnadrochit, before you reach the head of the loch at Lochend, just south of Inverness.  From here to the centre of Inverness the canal channel is man made and still passing through fascinating scenery.  Inverness is a splendid town, full of interest, with a castle and ancient cathedral.

Boats on Loch Ness - photo by David Saunders and reproduced by kind permission

You can equip yourself with ordnance survey maps before your journey, and if you visit Canal & River Trust website you can download their excellent Skipper's Guide to navigating on the Caledonian Canal, which shows among lots of things the safe anchorages on each of the lochs. Also, if you visit another excellent website (British Waterways Scotland)- you can obtain lots of useful information about the Caledonian Canal to help you to plan your journey.

I do hope that this brief introduction to one of Britain's most spectacular canals will awaken your interest and that you will come and try the Caledonian Canal for yourself.

Jeannette Briggs