The Caledonian Canal runs for 60 miles along the Great Glen, the natural fault-line that forms the boundary between the Grampians and the West Highlands. The canal begins in Fort William and heads to Inverness, where it meets the sea at the Beauly Firth. Only one third of the entire length is man-made, the rest being formed by Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour.
The Caledonian Canal was devised as a way of providing much-needed employment for the people of the Highlands in the 19th century. The area was suffering as a result of the Highland Clearances, which had deprived many of their homes and jobs and many people were choosing to emigrate to Canada or to the Scottish lowlands. It was hoped jobs created by the big engineering scheme would halt the depopulation. The canal would also provide a safer passage for wooden sailing ships from the north east of Scotland to the south west, avoiding the route around the north coast via Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth.
The government in London appointed Thomas Telford to engineer the required 22 miles of artificial channel. He devised a flight of five locks at Fort Augustus at the south-west end of Loch Ness, and an eight-lock ladder near Fort William, known as Neptune’s Staircase, where the water level drops 24m (80 feet) to the sea of Loch Linnie. The canal took 17 years to build and was opened in 1822.
Although the northern section of the canal from Inverness to Loch Dochgarroch is less spectacular and less visited by tourists it provides a lovely rural walking/running/cycling route starting in the city centre.
I started today’s run from Clachnaharry where the end of the canal juts out into the Beauly Firth. The canal here is sited on mudflats and to take the canal into sufficient depth of water — 6.1m was the required water depth over the lock sill at ordinary neap tides — it had to be contained within twin artificial embankments stretching 366m out over the flats. The lock keeper’s cottages are sited on the embankment too. A friend lives in on of the two cottages and some times when I’ve visited it has been an unnerving experience driving out here. When the high tide has been combined with stormy condition, the road has high water lapping against the edge on both sides.
Shortly after the sea lock the canal is crossed by the first of three bridges, in this case the railway swing bridge. As I approached I had to slow briefly while a short sprinter train passed. Past the railway bridge the canal widens to the Muirtown Basin where there were several residential boats moored and one or two summer seasonal tourist boats.
After crossing Muirtown swing bridge, I came to Muirtown locks which consist of four locks (thus 5 pairs of lock gates) that lift the boats up about 10 metres and this is about the only ascent on this run – such a pleasant change from my usual hilly routes!
Beyond this flight of locks even more tourist boats were moored including a fleet of cabin cruisers which are very popular hires for week-long cruises on Loch Ness.
After crossing a second road swing bridge, both of which can cause quite a hold-up of traffic in the summer when boats pass through several times a day, the canal towpath becomes more rural in character. Here the towpath runs between the canal on the right, and the river at a lower level on the left.
The canal towpath was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday morning and I only met another couple of runners and several dog walkers. I suppose most serious runners were resting ahead of tomorrow’s Inverness Half Marathon. Members of the local rowing club were out on the water in what I think are double sculls.
Scottish Waterways Trust are working to enhance the canalside environment and are currently undertaking a project to plant 3000 native trees along the canal throughout the Great Glen. I didn’t see any newly planted trees in this section of the canal, but the canal and river banks are both lined with trees and shrubs most of their length.
The canal follows an obvious natural fault across the Highlands, and has felt several earth tremors. The worst of these minor quakes was in 1901 and was centred on Dochgarroch; it left a half-inch wide crack running along the towpath for a distance of 600m.
About 10 Km from the start the canal reaches the tiny hamlet of Dochgarroch where there is another set of locks. This is a very picturesque spot with lots of private boats and usually much activity in the summer. Dochgarroch Lock is the first lock the cruise boat skippers will come to go after picking up their hire boats in Inverness and the lock keeper here is kept busy helping these novices.
I continued on beyond the lock for another few hundred metres until reaching the start of Loch Dochfour. The path disappears at this point, so I soon turned around as my lift home had arrived. Distance = a nice round 10km.
All photos except the last one were taken on previous visits to the canal (with thanks to Craig for the top two).