'The doubters, the grumblers, the prophets and the sneerers, were all put to silence" – so reported the Inverness Courier in October 1822, upon completion of Thomas Telford's Caledonian Canal. The waterway transformed Scotland's geography, said the newspaper, when "the Western joined to the Eastern Sea".
Northern Scotland does not have a monopoly on magnificent scenery in Britain. But with the added asset of the canal, the Great Glen offers a unique combination of a spectacular location, an engineering masterpiece and an artery for adventure. The steely surface of the UK's greatest artificial waterway reflects towering pines and verdant meadows, rare animals and birdlife, plus a wealth of human history.
Two centuries ago, before the railway age, work began on a wide, deep channel connecting the west coast of Scotland with the east; it took 21 years to complete. The Caledonian Canal stretches for 60 miles along the Great Glen, the "rift valley" that forms the boundary between the Grampians and the West Highlands. It begins in Fort William below the towering bulk of Ben Nevis and aims for Inverness, where it sneaks beneath the Highland Railway just before meeting a sea lock on the shore of the Moray Firth. In between, the canal carves through an extraordinary range of terrain, from fen to forest and marshland to mountains.
You do not require the mechanical nous of Thomas Telford to work out that the Great Glen is a good location in which to build a canal. A map will do. It reveals the results of a tectonic tear about 350 million years ago, later carved into a U-shaped valley by a glacier 20,000 years ago – creating a natural communications route. The first formal route was General Wade's Military Road, begun in 1725 and intended to help subdue the Highlanders after the Jacobite rebellion, followed a century later by the Caledonian Canal. The waterway relies on natural thoroughfares for more than half of its distance because it includes a series of lochs that follow the fault line: Lochy, Oich and the most impressive of all, Loch Ness, comprising the biggest volume of fresh water in Britain.
The Caledonian Canal was devised as a job-creation scheme. The aim was to revive the Highlands after the devastation caused by the Clearances, when landowners evicted peasants to facilitate sheep farming. Faced with the prospect of further depopulation, and the need for a safe link between the east and west coasts of Scotland, the government in London appointed 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 80 feet to the sea of Loch Linnie.
The original purpose was to provide a short cut for trawlers and cargo ships seeking to avoid the long and treacherous voyage round the north of Scotland. Telford also envisaged a military role for the canal, offering shipping a protected transit across Scotland. In both the First and Second World Wars, the Caledonian Canal was invaluable in providing a safe navigation, but before and since it has struggled to find a useful role. Only three years after it opened, the world's first passenger railway began in North-east England, signalling the beginning of the end of the canal era.
But in the 21st century the Caledonian Canal has found a role, offering a serene escape from modern life amid some of the rawest nature surviving in Britain, linking lochs by means of locks. The canal is decorated by manmade relics, including the ruins of Urquhart and Invergarry castles, and has a modern legend: there are still deadly serious seekers after the Loch Ness monster.
The big dig
To learn more about the Great Glen and the canal, the place to start is Fort Augustus. Barracks were built here after the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715. The building was subsequently taken over by Benedictine monks; their abbey has now been converted into apartments. Fort Augustus is where the flight of locks lifts pleasure craft (and the odd working vessel) towards the watershed, the invisible division between west and east Scotland. The Caledonian Canal Visitor Centre, in a converted lock-keeper's cottage halfway down the flight on the northern side, provides valuable background.
For a sense of the heroic engineering involved, head south-west on a thinly travelled stretch of the canal through "Laggan Avenue", one of the most difficult parts of the whole waterway. It required massive effort to build the banks, pictured, that today blend so naturally with the surroundings.
A little further south-west, Moy Bridge is almost unchanged since it was built in 1820. Like all the bridges along the Caledonian Canal, it swings to allow maritime traffic through. Today, the same equipment and practice prevails as two centuries ago: a man winches one half open, then hops into a boat to row across and open the other.
Further still towards the sea, you can walk right underneath the Caledonian Canal at the Shengain Aqueduct. This three-arch structure carries the canal over a fast-flowing stream – with arches so wide you could (and the locals do) drive a car through.
Getting there and staying there
The Caledonian Canal has excellent connections with the rest of Britain. Reaching either end by road is a joyful journey on its own. The A82 from Glasgow to Fort William (continuing the length of the Great Glen to Inverness) passes through Glencoe, while the A9 from Edinburgh to Inverness swerves through majestic landscapes.
Even better are the railways, with the West Highland Line across Rannoch Moor to Fort William trumping the main line to Inverness over Drumochter Pass. Call 08457 48 49 50 for schedules; First ScotRail ( scotrail.co.uk) has bargain Advance tickets and offers "Bargain Berths" from £19 to £49 each way for Caledonian Sleeper trains from London. Any night (except Saturday) you can drift off at Euston and wake up as you approach Fort William or Inverness.
The latter also has the main airport serving the Caledonian Canal, with flights from Gatwick, Luton and a range of provincial airports. And after a train, plane or automobile, the Caledonian Canal provides the perfect means to slow down and be amazed.
To be close to the canal action, yet also comfortable in chic surroundings, an excellent location is The Lovat – a hotel on the site of the original fort in Fort Augustus (01456 459250; thelovat.com). It combines Victorian baronial with chic contemporary, and throws in free Wi-Fi. Last-minute doubles cost as little as £70, including a traditional Scottish breakfast, though this is for the modern annexe; prices for the main building are higher. Nearby, Morag's Lodge is an independent hostel (01320 366289; moragslodge.com) with dorm beds for £18 and family rooms from £59).
There is also scope for wild (or, officially, "informal") camping at several venues along the canal. At Kytra, for example, up to six people in three tents can stay a night without formality – so long as they are travelling by "boat, boot or bike".
The canal is best enjoyed from a vessel. For a century, sightseeing boats have plied the Caledonian Canal and the lochs it connects. Jacobite Cruises of Inverness (01463 233999; jacobite.co.uk) continues that tradition, with tours ranging from a one-hour introduction to Loch Ness (£11.50) to a six-hour trip (£39).
Other vessels offer the opportunity to sleep aboard on a gentle journey from one end of the canal to the other, taking up to a week. Fingal of Caledonia (01397 772167; fingal-cruising.com) is a Belgian barge converted to a floating adventure centre. Besides comfortable en-suite cabins and a galley providing three fabulous meals a day, the vessel carries bikes, windsurfers, kayaks and plenty of maps that allow passengers to make full use of the adventure possibilities on board. Instruction is provided as required and hikes, kayak trips and bike rides are led by experts.
Demand for this summer is very strong and most cruises are booked up, but there is still some availability between June and October. I paid £395 for a four-day mini-cruise last month, but a typical figure for a week is £775. An upmarket alternative is provided by the modern and spacious Lord of the Glens, a 27-cabin river cruise vessel (020-7328 1123; magnacarta.bz) that includes the Caledonian Canal on a one-week "Heart of the Highlands" itinerary from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, also visiting Skye and Iona. The price of about £1,500 is based on two sharing (single supplement 60 per cent) and includes all meals and excursions.
If you prefer to choose your own pace, Inverness-based Caley Cruisers (01463 236328; caleycruisers.com) has a wide range of motor cruisers. The cheapest week costs £512, rising to £2,142 for "Balmoral" class, sleeping six and offering frills from power showers to a full-size fridge. "Boating on the Caledonian Canal is different from other inland cruising areas," warns the firm. "A certain amount of physical activity is involved when locking and berthing. Therefore, we require that you have a minimum of two reasonably fit and active adult crew members in your party."
Two wheels or two feet?
While it may seem perverse to follow the course of a waterway on dry land, the Caledonian Canal provides an ideal cross-section through the North of Scotland.
It helps cyclists and walkers to negotiate some of the trickier parts of the Great Glen Cycle Route and Great Glen Way long-distance walking trail – a 73-mile route that makes full use of the canal's periphery, and constitutes a good five-or six-day walk.
You could comfortably cycle in a couple of days, with Fort Augustus providing the obvious stopover. Cyclists will be grateful for the horizontal respite the banks provide between bursts of climbs and descents. The prevailing wind is south-westerly, making Fort William the natural place to start a journey. But be warned that the Great Glen's strange geography means that, when it isn't blowing from the South-west, it is likely to be a vigorous north-easterly.
Plenty of specialist tours help you get a close up on the flora and fauna of the area. Great Glen Wildlife (01856 761604; greatglenwildlife.co.uk, which is curiously based in Orkney) has a wildflower tour in June, also looking at birds and butterflies, based in Farr, about 10 miles to the South-east of Loch Ness. The price of £720 for five days includes transfers from Inverness, accommodation and guiding. It also offers a bird and mammal tour in December.
Looking for Nessie
As far back as the sixth century, St Columba was said to have had a close encounter with a creature from the depths of Loch Ness. But the current curiosity about the Loch Ness monster began in the 1930s. Shortly after the main road along the northern shore was completed in 1934, a photograph was published apparently showing a head and long neck emerging from the dark waters. A myth was born and with it a thriving Loch Ness monster industry.
Steve Feltham earns a living from it, making caricature models of "Nessie" for sale to passing tourists. But the proceeds go to his serious search for the creature, which began in June 1991. This summer, he celebrates 20 years of living in a camper van on the shores of Loch Ness, in the car park of the Dores Inn, looking South-west along the length of Loch Ness.
"It's always been my passion, this great mystery," he says. "At the age of 28, I decided not to compromise, and get here full time. I know what I do doesn't appeal to everybody but I'm not trying to make everybody happy – I'm trying to make me happy. I'm still optimistic. When I arrived I thought plesiosaurs lived in here, but I don't anymore. I think whatever population of animals we are trying to identify, we're probably looking for the last few now that the population have dwindled running at the same speed as the sighting has dropped off.
"I know the odds as every year goes by get harder and harder and stacked higher and higher against me."