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The Crinan Canal

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Crinan Canal
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The Crinan Canal

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The Crinan Canal

Crinan Canal - the Shipping Short Cut The Crinan Canal. Work on the Crinan Canal commenced in 1794 but the project was beset by financial and engineering problems and quickly had to be baled out by the Government. After this uncertain start the structural difficulties were addressed and traffic levels gradually increased. In 1847 Queen Victoria travelled along the canal on her way to a holiday in the Highlands, and following her patronage it became part of what tourist promoters billed as 'The Royal Route'. The short but scenic canal has been popular with tourists ever since, and as commercial traffic dwindled in the first half of the twentieth century yachts and pleasure cruisers replaced fishing boats and puffers. The route of the canal from Crinan to Ardrishaig is illustrated in a collection of pictures that feature both canal life and some of the small communities that once lay alongside it.

The Crinan Canal. An enabling Act of 1793 authorised the building of a nine-mile canal from Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne to Loch Crinan on the west coast. This would allow vessels to avoid having to negotiate the treacherous passage around the Mull of Kintyre and also save about two days' sailing. The Duke of Argyll formed a company with the intention of using local labour and stimulating the economy of the area. Construction of the canal began in 1794, but the project was plagued with problems.  Many subscribers defaulted, the local work force had to be augmented by soldiers released from duty, and money and materials were in short supply. Eleven years later the canal had still not been completed, yet an abortive attempt was made to open it.

A flood destroyed a sizeable portion of one bank and a detour had to be dug, and it was not until 1809 that the canal was officially declared complete. However, just to say something is finished does not always mean it works!
Problems continued and in 1816 Thomas Telford, who had engineered the Caledonian Canal, was brought in to help. He made a thorough inspection and suggested a long list of repairs and construction alterations that were carried out efficiently. In November 1817 Telford pronounced the canal to be satisfactory. Apart from the enlargement of the basins at both ends and of the sea locks by various dredgings (and a few water lay-bys'), the canal has changed little since it was first opened. It is supplied from reservoirs that lie in the hills west of the summit of Dunardry. Upwards of a quarter of a million gallons go out to Loch Crinan each time vessels pass through the canal at low water. Occasionally (very occasionally - this is the west of Scotland), a severe drought will force a temporary closure.

Although the canal is 12ft deep, only vessels drawing 9y2ft or less can go through. There is also a limit of 20ft for beams and of 80ft for a vessel's length. Passage through the canal takes 3 to 5 hours, depending on traffic. At one bridge a yachtsman sent his son to see about a delay. The boy shouted: The lock-keeper will be out when he finishes his tea!'

A notable canal user was Queen Victoria, who came in 1847. An extravagant article in the Argyllshire Advertiser (popularly known as The Squeak') said:  'It was a beautiful morning when the Royal party came through - regular Queen's weather. When the Royal barge turned the first corner a throng of thousands saw it towed by six gaily caparisoned horses. Their riders, proud men ever after, were conspicuous in velvet caps, scarlet coats and white corduroy breeches, a dress in which they were allowed to disport themselves all season.'

Following Victoria's trip, travel agents in southern Scotland promoted travel to the Western Isles through the Crinan Canal. By the 1850s more than 40,000 passengers a year were using what was opportunistically dubbed the Royal Route to the Highlands. The fare through the canal was about five pence, but many travellers opted to save their money and walk the nine miles. In the late 1800s many fishing boats of the Loch Fyne herring fleet took the route through the canal at the end of the season to seek new grounds farther north. In the first half of this century the canal was used by trading vessels, including the well-known Clyde puffers..

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