March 28, 2022
The Caledonian Canal, the most beautiful of Scotland’s waterways, stretches 60 miles from Corpach near Fort William to Inverness.
The canal, beginning at the southern end, connects Lochs Lochy, Oich, Ness and Dochfour, and in doing so creates a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea.
This remarkable feat of engineering was designed to follow the line of Glen More nan Albin (Great Glen) a geological fault line created around 380 million years ago and filled with the cold waters of the retreating Ice Age.
Its construction in the early 19th century was set against a background of harsh economic conditions – with chronic unemployment, increasing emigration and war with France.
As part of a drive for improvement, the British Government planned a series of infrastructure projects in order to provide some desperately needed jobs. At its heart was the building of the Caledonian Canal.
But while appalling social conditions were certainly important reasons for the government to push ahead with the canal, there were other considerations too.
By avoiding the stormy waters through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath, the canal would allow safer passage for the Royal Navy and other shipping during a time of conflict.
Tasked by the government with designing and overseeing the project was one of Britain’s finest civil engineers – Thomas Telford, the son of a shepherd from Westerkirk, Langholm. Working with him was the often-overlooked consulting engineer William Jessop.
It’s an intriguing thought but it’s hard not to wonder whether any government minister was influenced by the words of Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer, often dubbed the Gaelic Nostradamus who, in the early part of the 17th century, predicted the building of a canal.
He said, “Strange as it may seem to you, time will come when full rigged ships will be seen sailing eastwards and westwards by the back of Tomnahurich” (near Inverness).
Although James Watt first surveyed the route in 1773, work under Telford began in 1803 and was expected to take around seven years to complete. It was 1822 before the canal finally opened for navigation.
Was the Brahan Seer’s message a prophecy fulfilled or mere Highland folklore?
Whatever the answer to that question, the world, by that time, had moved on. Britain and a coalition of nations had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and the Caledonian Canal became less important – to the government at least.
The Great Glen Way, part of the network of Scotland’s Great Trails is a long-distance footpath that follows part of the canal route.
There is no better way to explore this beautiful part of Scotland than by pulling on a pair of walking boots or cycle shoes. With the compass pointing north-east and the prevailing wind on your back – it’s the perfect way to get close to nature.
For something a little out of the ordinary the Great Glen Canoe Trail, Scotland’s first dedicated canoe trail, is an exciting alternative mode of transport. It’s a different perspective on the canal and a different set of aching muscles at journey’s end.
For those heading to Inverness, the starting point of the Great Glen Way is the Old Fort (An Gearasdan) in Fort William. Although later rebuilt in stone, it was first constructed in wood by Oliver Cromwell’s commander-in-chief, General George Monk in 1654. Now only a ruin, it has a less than glorious reputation – long associated with some of the darkest moments in Scotland’s history.
Fort William, a small town on the shores of Loch Linnhe, is unremarkable in many ways – functional rather than pretty. But it’s a thriving hub for outdoor enthusiasts and makes up for what it lacks in beauty by exuding a palpable spirit of adventure.
Fort William is also the gateway to Glen Nevis one of the loveliest of Scotland’s glens. For the enthusiastic walker the trail, with occasional alarmingly steep drops, runs through the dramatic Nevis Gorge to the mighty Steall Falls.
Rising above the falls is An Gearanach, one of Scotland’s 282 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet), and the first peak in the Ring of Steall.
The nearby Ben Nevis Distillery provides a welcome diversion and a very acceptable single malt at the end of a distillery tour.
For those interested in the history of Scotland’s distilleries – Ben Nevis has a back story second to none – what a list of characters have played their part. Among them, ‘Long John’ MacDonald the founder and Joseph Hobbs – whisky baron, cattle rancher, bootlegger during prohibition and much more. Colourful does not come close to describing him.
Interestingly Hobbs set up home in Inverlochy Castle, today one of Scotland’s most luxurious hotels, a mere three miles from Fort William. Queen Victoria who spent some days there said, “I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot.”
Also, within striking distance of Fort William, but still close to the canal, is the Clan Cameron Museum at Achnacarry.
Close by is one of the most photographed of all Scotland’s monuments – the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. A plaque reads, “In memory of the officers and men of the commandos who died in the Second World War 1939-1945. This country was their training ground.”
The initial sections of the Great Glen Way are low level and follow woodland trails and towpaths – it’s a gentle introduction.
Only a mile from the starting point you reach Banavie and the most impressive man-made feature of the canal – the Telford designed Neptune’s Staircase – a series of interconnected locks that raise the water level by 60 feet within only 500 yards.
The tree-lined path continues and the Clunes and South Laggan forests close in – the hills rise steeply in the background and the unmistakable shapes of Aonach Mòr and Ben Nevis stand proud. From the top of Britain’s highest mountain, the view over great swathes of Highland Scotland is simply breathtaking – on a clear day of course.
Around six miles from Clunes, along a single-track road on the north shores of Loch Arkaig lies Allt Mhuic a butterfly conservation reserve. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place to explore.
If the time is right the inquisitive Chequered Skipper, and the seemingly ever-hungry Pearl-bordered Fritillary may put in an appearance.
There are larger species for the keen-eyed naturalist to appreciate. Among them: otter, pine martin and the majestic golden eagle. For botanists, amateur and professional, several species of orchid, including the diminutive Lesser Twayblade, do well in the conditions.
Drumnadrochit at the head of Urquhart Bay might well be described, perhaps a little unfairly, simply as the centre of ‘Nessie related activities’. It is a pretty village with an abundance of visitor facilities catering for the summer hordes who arrive in the hope of seeing the elusive creature.
Many have claimed to have caught a glimpse of Nessie. Even St Columba was said to have had a monstrous sighting when he visited the area around AD 580.
Back on the Great Glen Way the canal continues past the ruins of Invergarry Castle and on to Fort Augustus and Drumnadrochit.
For many the simple joy of Fort Augustus is to stand on the towpath and watch the boats go through the flight of five locks that take the waiting yachts and small pleasure cruisers from the man-made section of the canal into Loch Ness.
Scotland’s best-known loch has a catchment area of nearly 700 square miles and holds more than all the lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales together.
One recent visitor described Fort Augustus as a, “lovely wee Scottish town.”
Around a mile north of Fort Augustus is Inchnacardoch Bay and the loch’s only island – Cherry Island (Eilean Muireach) – essentially just the remains of a late prehistoric crannog. It’s described by Historic Environment Scotland as a, “monument of national importance.” For the historical sleuth, there are tantalising indications of a much earlier time.
Urquhart Castle which sits on a rocky promontory overlooking Loch Ness was once the site of a vitrified fort, possibly of Dark Age vintage.
What remains of the castle today originated in the 13th century. It was occupied from around 1230 by Alan Durward, at one point Lord of Urquhart and Earl of Atholl and one of a family who served the king as ushers or doorwards.
This battle scared stronghold was often caught in the ebb and flow of Scotland’s political and religious upheavals. It played a prominent part in the Scottish Wars of Independence and the struggle between the Lords of the Isles and the Scottish crown.
In the final miles between Drumnadrochit and Inverness the trail winds through a varied landscape. From one mile to the next it uses the canal towpath, old military roads and the drove roads on which Highlanders once took their beasts to the great cattle tryst at Crieff – a familiar place to Rob Roy MacGregor.
But as the hills draw back and the forests give way to farming country and the clutter of city life, the final sea lock at Clachnaharry marks the end of a journey from coast to coast.
As a standalone destination, Inverness is a great place to explore. But it’s also a springboard to the far north-west of Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park and Speyside, Scotland’s biggest Scotch Whisky Region where there’s always a dram to be had.