Creeping through the Crinan Canal

Summary: East Loch Tarbert to Crinan Basin. 17.5 miles in 9 hours and 35 minutes. Certainly our lowest average speed for the trip so far.

Heading through the Crinan Canal

The prettiest short cut in Scotland” is how the Crinan Canal is billed. Pretty it certainly is, short – more debateable. Yes it does cut off a hundred or so miles round the Mull of Kintyre, but quick – no! With an average speed of less than 2 knots today, it was a slow passage. We started just before 7am from Tarbert and motored the 11 miles up Loch Fyne to Ardrishaig. There we had to wait for an hour or so for the tide to come in as we had arrived at low water. The water restrictions in force on the canal meant that they didn’t want to release too much water, so they asked us to wait. However, around 09.50 they let us in any way as they had mis-read the tide tables. So, our transit through the canal started around 10am.

Between 10.00 and 16.25 we pottered through the canal and 12 locks and 7 bridges later stopped in the small basin just before Lock 14. It was a lovely journey and certainly a complete contrast to everything we have done so far. Motoring through the canal with the banks and trees just metres away was at times slightly daunting, but nevertheless satisfying. We spent much of the time going through the locks with another east coast boat and CA member – Poppy of Orwell and also a small Scottish gaff rigger based apparently on a Falmouth working boat with the skipper wearing a very neat Tam o’Shanter.

The Crinan Canal was originally planned in 1793 and after various problems raising finance first opened in 1801. The original engineer and designer was John Rennie, but various problems with the canal meant that it had to be partly redesigned in 1816 by Thomas Telford. The worst of these problems was in 1811 when a violent storm caused the banks of the main reservoir to burst, leading to millions of gallons of water being spread all over the place wrecking locks, roads and scattering rocks and mud everywhere. Though the canal struggled to succeed commercially, it received a boost when in 1847 when Queen Victoria and her family sailed through. Steamer operators quickly billed it the ‘Royal Route‘ and within a decade 44,000 passengers a year were arriving at Ardrishaig. Nothing changes!

The aim of the canal was to provide a safe route for commercial sailing vessels and later Clyde Puffers through to the Western isles, allowing them to avoid the treacherous waters around the Mull of Kintyre. The Clyde Puffers were a maximum length of 66 foot to allow them to use the canal and were the ‘Stobart’ trucks of their day – taking whisky from the islands to Glasgow and bringing back coal and other supplies.

These days the canal is just used by leisure craft and around 3,000 boats a year make the passage through the canal. The towpath is also popular with walkers and cyclists and is part of the National Cycle Network route number 78 linking Campbeltown, Oban, Fort William and Inverness.

See the Crinan photo gallery for more pictures of the canal transit.

Charmary locking through the Crinan Canal