Banks of the Caledonian Canal

A walk alongside – and underneath – Thomas Telford's masterpiece of civil engineering.




4.5 miles (7.2kms)

100ft (30m)
1hr 45min

About the walk

The first survey for a coast-to-coast canal was made in 1767 by James Watt, the steam engine inventor, in the aftermath of Culloden. The Commissioners of Forfeited Estates had land aplenty, and a canal fitted in with their plans of bringing the Highlands into the industrialised world.

War footing

But it was the Napoleonic War that finally sent the men with the wheelbarrows up to Fort William in 1803. Despite the fact that nature had already provided 38 miles (61km) of the route, the canal was still a tremendous feat of civil engineering. Roughly 200 million wheelbarrow loads of earth were shifted over the next 19 years. Each of its 29 locks was designed to accommodate the width and length of a 40-gun frigate of Nelson’s navy, four aqueducts let streams and rivers pass below the waterway, and there was a dam on Loch Lochy and diversion of the rivers Oich and Lochy. Loch Oich needed to be deepened, and for this task a steam dredger had to be not just built, but invented and designed. And before a single turf was shifted, the first essential, a brewery, was required to supply the thousands of thirsty navvies.

Thomas Telford

For this great enterprise, only one name was seriously considered: Thomas Telford. Scotland has a tradition of self-made men, but even here Telford’s beginnings were unusually unhopeful. His destitute mother raised her boy supported by neighbours and by casual work as a milkmaid. Apprenticed to a stonemason, Telford worked on a new bridge for his home town of Langholm, while educating himself in Burns, Milton and chemistry from books lent by the local gentry. The poet laureate Robert Southey referred to him as ‘Pontifex Maximus’, the Biggest Bridge-builder. As well as the old-style stone, Telford became a master of two entirely new techniques – the cast-iron arch and the first suspension bridges. While working on the Caledonian Canal, he was also building 600 miles (nearly 1,000km) of new roads and enlarging most of Scotland’s harbours.

Waterways for the future

Even Telford’s masonry crumbles eventually, and after a century of neglect, the canal at the end of the 1900s was on the verge of closure. In 1996 the government promised £20 million for a complete refurbishment: ‘Canals have a great future’. And for those without boats, the tow path has been resurfaced as a cycleway from coast to coast, with a new National Trail, the Great Glen Way, running in parallel.


Walk directions

Go down past Corpach Station to the canal and cross the sea lock that separates salt water from fresh water. Follow the canal (on your left) up past another lock, where a path on the right has a blue cycle path sign and a Great Glen Way marker. It passes under tall sycamores to the shore. Follow the shoreline path past a football pitch and then turn left, across damp grass to the end of a back street. A path ahead leads up a wooded bank to the tow path. 

Turn right along the tow path, for 0.5 miles (800m). Just before the Banavie swing bridge, a path down to the right has a Great Glen Way marker. Follow the street ahead to a level crossing, then turn left towards the other swing bridge, the one with the road on it.

Just before the bridge, turn right at signs for the Great Glen Way and continue along the tow path to Neptune's Staircase. The fanciful name was given to the locks by Telford himself. The 60ft (18m) of ascent alongside the eight locks is the serious uphill part of this walk, but more serious for boats of course. It takes about 90 minutes to work through the system. As each lock fills, slow roiling currents come up from underneath, like bath water emptying but in reverse, and as each empties, water forced under pressure into the banks emerges from the masonry in little fountains.

A gate ends the basin above the locks. About 200yds (183m) later, a grey gate on the right leads to a muddy woodland; ignore this one. Just 220yds (201m) later the canal crosses a little wooded valley, with a black fence on the right. Now comes a second grey gate. Go through, to a track turning back sharp right and descending to ford a small stream.

On the right, the stream passes right under the canal in an arched tunnel, and alongside is a second tunnel which provides a walkers' way to the other side. Water from the canal drips into the tunnel, which has a fairly spooky atmosphere – try not to think of the large boats sailing directly over your head! At the tunnel's end, a track runs up to join the canal's northern tow path. Turn right, back down the tow path. After passing Neptune's Staircase, cross the A830 to a level crossing without warning lights. Continue along the right-hand tow path. After a mile (1.6km) the tow path track leads back to the Corpach double lock.

Additional information

Wide tow paths

Banks of wide canal, shore of tidal loch

Sensible dogs off lead on tow path

OS Explorer 392 Ben Nevis & Fort William

Kilmallie Hall, Corpach

Kilmallie Hall, at start of walk

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About the area

Discover Highland

Apart from the Orkneys and the Shetlands, Highland is Scotland’s northernmost county. Probably its most famous feature is the mysterious and evocative Loch Ness, allegedly home to an ancient monster that has embedded itself in the world’s modern mythology, and the region’s tourist industry. Monster or no, Loch Ness is beautiful and it contains more water than all the lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales put together. The loch is 24 miles long, one mile wide and 750 feet deep, making it one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Europe. 

At the very tip of the Highlands is John o’ Groats, said to be named after a Dutchman, Jan de Groot, who lived here in the early 16th century and operated a ferry service across the stormy Pentland Firth to Orkney. In fact, the real northernmost point of the British mainland is Dunnet Head, whose great cliffs rise imposingly above the Pentland Firth some two miles further north than John o’ Groats.

The Isle of Skye is the largest and best known of the Inner Hebrides. Its name is Norse, meaning ‘isle of clouds’, and the southwestern part of the island has some of the heaviest rainfall on the whole of the British coast. Despite this, it’s the most visited of all the islands of the Inner Hebrides. It’s dominated from every view by the high peaks of the Cuillins, which were only conquered towards the end of the 19th century. 

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