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Bill McAllister: Centuries of delay proved worth the wait in the end

By Bill McAllister

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Sunny weather over the weekend..Boats make there way along the Caledonian Canal...Picture: Gary Anthony..
Sunny weather over the weekend..Boats make there way along the Caledonian Canal...Picture: Gary Anthony..

A prophecy foretold it, but winds sweeping down the Great Glen almost left the idea of a Caledonian Canal stillborn.

The suggestion of such a project actually evolved over 200 years before Thomas Telford embarked on turning it into reality.

In the 17th century, engineers advocated linking the Beauly Firth and Loch Linnhe – and in 1620 the Brahan Seer had predicted full-rigged ships sailing past Tomnahurich.

In 1726 Captain Edward Burt vetoed a canal, fearing mountain winds would prevent safe navigation.

It was to help the ailing fishing industry, and bring cheaper corn to locals, that the commission handling forfeited Jacobite estates engaged Greenock man James Watt to investigate a canal. He reported in 1774 that a 10 feet wide passage was viable.

His blueprint was not acted upon but in 1801 the government, alarmed at French raiders attacking Navy ships in the Pentland Firth, asked Thomas Telford to review the concept.

Realising warships and trade vessels from Baltic and Scandinavian countries would require the canal to be deeper and wider than the Forth and Union Canal, he designed his waterway to link Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. In July 1803 Parliament granted £20,000 for “making an Inland Navigation from the western to the eastern sea, by Inverness and Fort William.”

The canal, finished 19 years later, was to cost a massive £910,000. The 29 locks were then the largest in the world – and labourers dug up over 300,000 tonnes of rock and soil, enough to be piled 25 metres deep on a space the size of a football pitch, to construct the locks.

Neptune’s Staircase, at Banavie, a pioneering series of eight locks, raised vessels 64 feet above sea level from 1811, with the Corpach Sea Lock opening the following year.

Muirtown Basin was excavated and carved out by late 1807 and in September 1809 the Courier reported that, due to the canal works, “the River Ness, opposite Ness Castle, has been completely removed from its bed, which is now in course of being further excavated as part of this magnificent undertaking”.

It added: “The grand chain of locks at Muirtown are nearly completed and the spacious wharf, destined to be the bustling scene of trade and commerce is now in an advanced state.”

Inverness Harbour’s income doubled between 1800 and 1807 as material and equipment for the canal arrived.

Telford’s resident engineer Matthew Davidson dug a huge trench west from the new basin, from Kinmylies to Loch Ness, using 500 men.

In 1808, at Torvean, canal workers uncovered an 18-inch long Pictish 33-link silver chain, now in the national museum in Edinburgh.

Telford’s team pushed from both directions, despite hard ground in grim winters. Technology helped, with Scotland’s first steam-driven dredger using 25 buckets on a 13-metre frame to scoop up rubble. Excavating over 90 tonnes an hour, it proved key.

In 1808, Telford designed and began building the Gotha Canal in Sweden and today at Clachnaharry is the sign indicating it is twinned with its Caledonian cousin.

Critics of the project began to think again as progress continued. Five locks at Fort Augustus and the building of Laggan Bridge were further milestones as master masons added their initials to the sandstone blocks on the canal bed.

The great venture was falling in to place. It was a fairy tale – and, as we shall see next week, the man behind Goldilocks and the Three Bears was there to hail Telford!

Sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.

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