Enjoying the majestic Caledonian Canal

Following a natural geological fault line, it was way back in 1773 that James Watt first surveyed the route that would eventually become the Caledonian Canal. Allowing access from the Atlantic and Loch Linnhe, and stretching from Fort William to Inverness, it was to provide safe shipping out into the North Sea. This offered an alternative to the dangerous route north through the Pentland Firth and around the treacherous waters of Cape Wrath. However, it was a full 30 years later that parliament legislated for its construction. The task of surveying and building it was then given to Thomas Telford and William Jessop.

Together with its four lochs, this stunning waterway is over 60 miles long. The man-made canal forms 22 miles of this, and features 29 locks. It was eventually opened in 1822 at a cost of more than £900,000. Two decades later, substantial repair work was needed in places. Exactly a century on from the first survey, Queen Victoria sailed the canal, and it was used for naval vessels during the first world war. Move into the 1930s and we find paddle steamers taking visitors along the Great Glen. Major restoration projects took place in the decade from 1995, leaving the canal as the amazing attraction it is today, with between 250,000 and 330,000 tourists visiting the area each year. Together with its four lochs, this stunning waterway is over 60 miles long.

The man-made canal forms 22 miles of this, and features 29 locks. It was eventually opened in 1822 at a cost of more than £900,000. Two decades later, substantial repair work was needed in places. Exactly a century on from the first survey, Queen Victoria sailed the canal, and it was used for naval vessels during the first world war. Move into the 1930s and we find paddle steamers taking visitors along the Great Glen. Major restoration projects took place in the decade from 1995, leaving the canal as the amazing attraction it is today, with between 250,000 and 330,000 tourists visiting the area each year.

If you’re taking to the water

Whether you want to be on the water itself, or to simply enjoy the sights, there are a wide range of activities to be enjoyed. Boating is an obvious starting point. The short man-made sections lead you into four stunning Scottish lochs, namely Dochfour, Ness, Oich and Lochy. If you are travelling its full length, you can also count off the four aqueducts, 10 bridges and 29 locks that are part of this massive construct. Of course, some folk bring their own boat onto the canal, others look to hire a cruiser or charter a yacht. If this is you, it’s recommended that you allow two and a half days at least to make the entire journey.Another option is to stay on a hotel boat or barge. Perhaps you’d simply like to enjoy one of the available day trip excursions.

Many folk take a cruise on the Lord of the Glens which can handle both this inland waterway and the open sea. The Scottish Highlander or Fingal of Caledonia are among the barges offering another sedate and stylish cruising holiday option. Should you wish to find yourself closer to the water, then The Great Glen Canoe Trail might float your boat! More than 4,000 paddlers can be found on the waters of the Caledonian Canal each year. The full three to five day trail is really only for the more experienced, and it always pays to register with Scottish Canals to gain up-to-the-minute route and safety information. If you are using a dingy or unpowered craft, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to disembark and pull your craft through the many locks by rope.

Another option is to stay on a hotel boat or barge. Perhaps you’d simply like to enjoy one of the available day trip excursions. Many folk take a cruise on the Lord of the Glens which can handle both this inland waterway and the open sea. The Scottish Highlander or Fingal of Caledonia are among the barges offering another sedate and stylish cruising holiday option. Should you wish to find yourself closer to the water, then The Great Glen Canoe Trail might float your boat! More than 4,000 paddlers can be found on the waters of the Caledonian Canal each year. The full three to five day trail is really only for the more experienced, and it always pays to register with Scottish Canals to gain up-to-the-minute route and safety information. If you are using a dingy or unpowered craft, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to disembark and pull your craft through the many locks by rope.

If time with rod and line appeals

If you are a fan of fishing, then the canal’s lochs are excellent places to find both sea trout and Scottish salmon. You might also hook a pike, eel or lamprey on the end of your line. On the man-made sections, no permit is needed if you are fishing for brown trout or other freshwater fish. Permits are required if you want to fish any of the lochs and nearby rivers.

Exercising on wheels or on foot

The choices are there, whether you are keen on hiking the entire length of the route, simply enjoying a lively jog or leisurely walk, maybe even taking the time to climb Ben Nevis (which oversees the entrance to the Caledonian Canal at Corpach). The Great Glen Way route covers 73 miles from a Fort William starting point, using both the canal towpaths and stunning forest tracks. Alternatively, the South Ness Trail starts near Fort Augustus and heads towards Inverness for 28 miles. You might be an energetic mountain-biker – if so, you’ll know that Fort William is the greatest of locations to enjoy downhill trails and so much more. For the more sedate of cyclists, National Cycle Route 78, The Caledonia Way, incorporates the 66 miles from Fort William to Inverness, using towpaths, forest trails and minor roads. There are various bike hire outlets in the area.

Neptune’s Staircase

Of the many locks along the length of the Caledonian Canal, perhaps the most famous, and well worth an inspection, is the group of eight known as Neptune’s Staircase. This is the longest example of a staircase lock system in the whole of Britain. You’ll find it at Banavie, close to Fort William and just north of Loch Linnhe. Boats take about 90 minutes to pass through, and each of the lock gates weighs in at 22 tons. After completing the climb, a boat will be 64 feet further above sea level than when they arrived.

Places to see as you progress the canal

There are many stunning views of both Ben Nevis and the high peaks of the Grey Corries to be enjoyed as you make a journey along the side of the Caledonian Canal. If you wish, there are also key points to stop awhile. One of the sights that might have you pause and admire would be the ruined 13th century Inverlochy Castle, not far from Fort William. It was built around 1270, and is known as an enceinte castle, that is one with the protection of a curtain wall around it. You may also enjoy finding the time to discover more about this amazing feat of engineering by visiting the revamped Caledonian Canal Visitor Centre at Fort Augustus. It’s also a useful place if you’d like to book some activities such as rafting or canyoning. Towards the northern end, another dramatic history will unfold before you if you visit Urquhart Castle at Drumnadrochit. The Grant Tower, five stories high, provides stunning views across Loch Ness.

The real beauty of visiting Fort William and the Caledonian Canal

In this most glorious of locations, a friendly and helpful welcome always awaits you. Match this to the kind of break you want, from one packed full of activities to simply taking the chance to meander and chill. History will settle around you as much as you want it to and fun will be what you choose it to be. The Caledonian Canal provides both the backdrop and the location for a truly memorable visit. A major part of your pleasure will surely be in an unexpected wildlife sighting or just in that unplanned and unforgettable moment.