back to article Lochs, rifle stocks and two EPIC sea gates: Thomas Telford's Highland waterway

The Highlands are home to spectacular hills and mountains. You'll also find dotted around some fairly unusual engineering projects that have endeavoured to conquer them. One of the oldest and most enduring of these grand projects is the Caledonian Canal, which cuts across 96km (60 miles) of Scotland from Inverness to Fort …

  1. graeme leggett

    "the canal had a specification larger than others in the country at that time: a width of 33.5m (109.9ft) at the surface and 15.2m (49.8ft) "

    Very prescient of Telford to set the specification out in metres all those years ago......

    1. frank ly Silver badge

      I'm sure the original specification was for 109.9ft and 49.8ft and the article has simply converted those specifications to SI units.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge


        Please keep to the original measures, and to the original precision: e.g. 35lbs ~= 16kg.

      2. Hollerithevo Silver badge



      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I rather suspect that the original specs were more likely to have been 110 feet and 50 feet exactly (since we all like round numbers), and have suffered from being converted back and forth too many times in various documents since then.

        Nevertheless, I'm glad that The Reg also quoted the measurements in metric, as, like most of the world's population, I'm not very familiar with imperial, and such measurements mean little to me and are hard to visualise..

    2. Your alien overlord - fear me

      It was in case the short arse (Napoleon) won :-)

    3. Mike Richards

      Why Telford never used the eminently more sensible brontosauri is a mystery lost to time.

      1. Blofeld's Cat

        "Why Telford never used the eminently more sensible brontosauri is a mystery lost to time."

        I believe it was to avoid NASA-like confusion with the local plesiosaurus unit.

    4. Adam 1 Silver badge

      You know the problems and collapses were simply due to the builders having never seen a London bus.

  2. Tom 7 Silver badge

    One small suggestion

    In between Loch Lochy Lochyface and Loch Oich Get Orf my Land one needs a distillery and or brewery to break the monotony of gobsmacking countryside hidden by various forms of water.

    1. Tinslave_the_Barelegged

      Re: One small suggestion

      > Loch Oich Get Orf my Land

      We have right-to-roam legislation in Scotland, so "Get Orf my Land" shouldn't be heard here., and if it is, can safely be ignored.

      Re the fear of monotony, it's not likely in the Great Glen as it is utterly stunning, but you could divert to Glen Roy to see the "parallel roads" that caused so much geological headscratching. I'd recommend the site for suggestions for roads less travelled.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: One small suggestion - dont use the road!

        The journey should be taken entirely by boat which can be slept on after using the right to roam and breaking records in local drinking and dining establishments, Anyone who drives up the Great Glen is missing out on a huge amount of fun,

    2. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Loch Lochy mcLochyface surely

      It is Scotland after all.

  3. Mage Silver badge

    Car, roads?

    I'd have thought going by boat is the way to do it?

    Very interesting.

    1. Detective Emil
      Thumb Up

      Re: Car, roads?

      If a satisfied, although considerably poorer, customer may be allowed a plug, try Caledonian Discovery. (A few) Other operators, both cheaper and even more expensive, are available.

    2. Dick

      Re: Car, roads?

      My first thought too! What kind of travel writer explores a fully functional canal by road? Very disappointing article :(

  4. Chazmon

    Do they lock the locks between the lochs overnight?

    Interesting article which slightly hurt my brain!

    1. Spanners Silver badge


      That only sounds right if you mispronounce "lochs" to sound the same as "locks".

    2. richardcox13


      But I've been at a lock-in and the Loch Inn.

      (Many years ago...)

    3. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Lochs, locks

      Perhaps the massive budget over-run was partly a result of confusion. "No, no, no! I told you to build a lock, not a loch."

  5. You aint sin me, roit

    Wellington might have a different view...

    "Napoleon was long gone, too – beaten twice over, forced to retreat from Russia and decisively beaten in Belgium in 1814"

    Alternate facts say the decisive Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815.

    1. Hollerithevo Silver badge

      Re: Wellington might have a different view...

      And your point is...? Does this bring jobs back to Belgium? Does it make Belgium great again? If not, you hate freedom and Belgium.

  6. smudge Silver badge

    Minimal disruption?

    Opening and closing in a remarkably quick fashion, the [Muirtown] bridge operates in such a way as to cause minimal disruption to the road it bears.

    Errr, no. Half-mile queues the length of Telford Street are the norm. Great article, though!

  7. DocJames


    Went through the Canal with my grandparents by boat, "helping" them. (Well, the second time I was 14 so probably did help; when I was 8 not so much.)

    GP placement at medical school was in Fort Augustus. Great fun doing rural medicine...

  8. Your alien overlord - fear me

    To think, 150 years after building the canal, Panama used the same dimensions (110 feet wide) for theirs, forever limited the US Navy to a specific size for their warships.

  9. GlenP Silver badge

    Been there...

    We did most of it by boat (except the ends where hire boats aren't permitted) a few years ago. Fantastic scenery and we had glorious weather, too good in fact as there wasn't enough wind for sailing most of the time.

    One downside is that as the bridges and locks are all keeper controlled you are stuck with their timings, if they decide lunch is at 12:30 it doesn't matter if you arrive at 12:28, you're gonna have to wait.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Been there...

      I did quite a bit of the canal with friends a few years back in the tail end of October. We 'parked' up at the pay and display harbour next to Urquhart Castle for the night. Such a cold and clear autumn night with an awe inspiring view of the milky way as all light pollution is blocked by the steep sides of the loch and the shadow of the hill upon which the castle is stood..

  10. Franco Silver badge

    Another interesting article.

    If you are in the UK, it's well worth checking out Channel 4's series "Great Canal Journeys" presented by Timothy West and Prunella Scales and available on demand on All4. They cruise the Caledonian in one episode, and the Crinan in the next.

  11. Natalie Gritpants

    Don't forget the official name of Loch Lochy

    is Lochy McLochface

  12. rosbif73

    Great article - shame about the copyediting

    ... and the ill-advised use of metric units

    1. Spanners Silver badge

      Re: Great article - shame about the copyediting

      The Imperial units are useful for historical content and authenticity but modern units are useful for those of us under 80 so that we know how bit things are.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Great article - shame about the copyediting

        "The Imperial units are useful for historical content"

        Don't be silly. Scotland, like the rest of the UK (at the the time of writing), still uses miles on road signs! Even 5 year olds know what miles are and barely understand kilometres! (though are probably more at home with metres than feet)

        1. Long John Brass Silver badge

          Re: Great article - shame about the copyediting

          Don't be silly. Scotland, like the rest of the UK (at the the time of writing), still uses miles on road signs! Even 5 year olds know what miles are and barely understand kilometres!

          An utterly bollocks argument; Most people have very little idea of what an mile or kilometre actually is, they do however understand time. When you look at a map and the distance is 80miles and the speed limit is 40/mph then the distance is two hours. Not much changes is you use metric EG: the distance is 200km and the speed limit it 100/kmh then the distance is two hours

          I remember the same stupid arguments being made when I was a kid and NZ moved from Miles to Kilometres. It's utterly irrelevant, once the road signs & maps are converted and the Speedo on the car upgraded then the "understanding" for how far away something is, is exactly the same.

          Now get the hell off my bloody lawn

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Great article - shame about the copyediting

            Journey time may be the most useful factor, but everyone knows how long a metre is, and that 100 of them make up the distance between hectometre posts that some delightfully sensible countries have alongside their roads, and 10 of those make a kilometre. Easy-peasy, and very visualisable (and a very good indicator of progress if you are cycling or on horseback).

            A mile is, umm, err, how many feet, yards, whatevers, again?

      2. Ian Mason

        Re: Great article - shame about the copyediting

        "The Imperial units are useful for historical content and authenticity but modern units are useful for those of us under 80 so that we know how bit things are."

        Ah, so you're the idiot I was stuck behind doing 40 kph in a 40mph limit today.

  13. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

    When it was finally opened in 1822, the canal was more than a decade late and the budget had doubled.

    Defining the model that we use for government projects today - Telford truly was ahead of his time.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Only 6 years late and only double the budget? Lightweight!!!!

  14. x 7

    shoot the subeditor (again)

    " and it saw development of steam dredger - rare machine in Scotland at that time "

    what kind of English is that

    "the canal had a specification larger than others in the country at that time: a width of 33.5m (109.9ft) at the surface and 15.2m (49.8ft) at the bottom."

    yet later you say

    "the 29 gates it needed were then the world’s largest at 55m (180.4ft) long, 12.1m (39.6ft) wide and between 7.7m (25.2ft) and 6m (19.6ft) in depth."

    while from Wiki

    "Maximum boat beam 35 ft 0 in (10.7 m)"

    Looks like someone has got feet and metres mixed up

    "Thomas Telford was the project’s principal engineers......" Telford is plural???

    "– and took nearly twice as long as forecast – 12 years rather than the initially calculated seven"

    from wiki

    "Date of act 1803 Date completed 1822"

    I make that 19 years: i.e. it took an EXTRA 12 years

    "Scotland, never mind Britain, have may locks - but few like this one. What’s more, following its course is easy."

    Following the course of the lock? Surely following the course of the canal?

    1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      Not forgetting...

      "The son of a shepherd who died before he was born" could be construed to mean the shepherd died before he (the shepherd) was born...

    2. smudge Silver badge

      Looks like someone has got feet and metres mixed up

      No, smartarse. Much of the canal - eg the bit between Tomnahurich and Loch Ness - IS 100 feet wide. The locks are narrower.

  15. Rob G

    I remember...

    ...Sitting in traffic in front of the Tomnahurich swing bridge in Inverness for a good 10 minutes of my driving test (I passed).

  16. Alistair Silver badge

    If and When I (ever) retire

    I've my eyes on a nice little 2 master with pacific hull. 'glass on oak and if the for sale tag (I've seen her change hands 4 times in the last 22 years) is to be believed was keeled in the late '50s. Many upgrades and touchups in her lifetime - I'm quite sure she'll fit - and I've a mind to find the oddball waterways throughout the planet and give them all a cruise. I'll add this one to the list.

    <Hmm. Need a (here comes the boom) icon.>

  17. bed

    Or you can walk the great glen

    Had the author the time and/or money a boat journey is the best way of appreciating the canal. There is also the Great Glen Long Distance Path which, mostly, takes you along the canal side from Corpach to Fort Augustus then high up the south west side of Loch Ness to Inverness.

  18. Korev Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Not slouching

    Trainees would arrive at Spean Bridge railway station following a 12-plus hour journey and step off for a 11km march uphill to the castle (that is still standing, but closed to the public) while carrying 15.87kg (35lbs) of equipment.

    Anyone who failed to make the march within 60 minutes was immediately returned to their unit

    That's quite some pace for someone with a heavy pack!

    1. Ian Mason

      Re: Not slouching

      My Father was one of those. In action they would carry packs up to 60 lbs so 35 lbs was light relief. They arrived at the 60lb limit by sending a bunch of lads out on a forced march across the Highlands and staging an unexpected unarmed combat drill at the end. They kept piling on the weight and doing it again with another bunch of mugs until they got to the point where the lads were no good in a fight at the end of the forced march and settled on a few pounds less.

      How do I know this? My Father was the Lance Sergeant shouting at them as they had the punch-up at the end of the march. The fool managed to get himself shot in North Africa relatively early in the Commando's war activities so actually spent much of the 2nd World War in the West Highlands as a Commando unarmed combat instructor (A fact I never fail to mention to anybody who looks like they might one day want to pick a fight with me, it's been an unfailingly successful deterrent) and fell in love with the place. Thus many family holidays were spent there in what to the teenage me was magnificently wild, but stunning dull, surroundings. I've since done my penance for thinking that about the Highlands by walking the West Highland Way and stopping off at Spean Bridge and tipping my hat to the lads on the Commando Memorial.

  19. Korev Silver badge

    Love these articles

    I love El Reg's geek's guides, thank you for publishing them.

    A pint for the author please ->

  20. DougS Silver badge

    There are no longer any Loch Ness monster sightings

    Because they built him a way to escape!

  21. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    My honeymoon...

    ....started in a hotel by Loch Lomand, then another in Fort William, and finally in Inverness over two weeks. Wifey still thinks it was romantic with lots of wonderful scenery and and has no idea about all the wonderful engineering I experienced over those two weeks.

    (The nights were energetic too! but didn't involve engineering!

  22. Paul Cooper

    A real user!

    I used the Caledonian Canal for its intended purpose last April - I brought my boat through when taking it from the Clyde to a marina near Walton on the Naze. The complete passage from the Clyde to Walton was a bit of an epic ; we took 3 weeks (including rest days and the days when we decided the weather forecast was too bad!). We didn't use the other scenic canal - the Crinan Canal, while a very pleasant and scenic route is ridiculously expensive for what you get. Also, from most of the Clyde, it doesn't give a time advantage, so we went round the Mull of Kintyre.

    The Caledonian Canal was very interesting, and we spent nearly a week on its waters, entering at Corpach and leaving at Clachnaharry, where the Clachnaharry Inn provides an excellent pint and a decent meal. Going up and down the staircases of locks was awe-inspiring, and even a little vertigo inducing when looking down a flight from the top! As a user of the canal, the only real inconvenience was that movement on the canal is prohibited after about 5.30 pm, and the last obstacle (the swing bridge carrying the road below the Muirtown locks) can't be used for about 2 hours before the canal shuts down for the night because rush hour traffic takes priority. Sadly the mooring above the Muirtown locks doesn't have much in the way of facilities, and at that time of the year we valued the availability of mains electricity!

  23. Gobhicks

    668: The Neighbour of the Beast

    Great article about a great subject. Having opted for the southern B852 route along Loch Ness, though, could perhaps have made time to give us an update on the state of Boleskine House after the fire?

  24. David Glasgow

    De-metrification of previously metrified imperial specifications

    Introduces error, and is a slur on the genius. The canal was designed to be 110 feet wide and 20 feet deep. NOW you can add metric equivalents in parentheses if needed.

    Because it matters.

  25. ColonelClaw

    "As work on the canal got under way, it soon became apparent that Telford’s estimates of both time and money were dreadfully optimistic."

    In modern parlance, I guess that makes Telford the equivalent of Longhorn-era Bill Gates?

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