Monday, October 16, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 3 - Questions in the House

Part 2 here.

After the First World War (I don't know the exact year: I've seen 1920 but also suggestions it was earlier), the mail routes from Oban to the islands were rearranged.

The Oban, Tobermory, Coll, Tiree and Bunessan run was abandoned and Coll & Tiree were added to the calls of the Castlebay & Lochboisdale steamer. The latter left Oban on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and now terminated at Lochboisdale and returned to Oban the following day via the same calls instead of continuing to Lochmaddy and Dunvegan and returning via Pooltiel, Bracadale (on the west coast of Skye) and the Small Isles: it was, in effect, a return to the pattern between 1886 and 1891. (North Uist and the Small Isles would henceforth be served by the Harris steamer which was also relocated from Portree to Mallaig and Kyle while calls on the west coast of Skye were abandoned.)

The Cygnet (II) at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 2nd ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The vessel employed on the Oban - Lochboisdale service - now known as "the Inner Isles Mail" - was the Cygnet (II) pictured above. She was a near sister of her immediate predecessor on the run, the Plover (III), which now operated "the Outer Isles Mail" from Mallaig and Kyle to Harris, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and the Small Isles. It's the angled derrick aft of the foremast visible in the pictures above and below which distinguishes the Cygnet from the Plover (whose derrick was attached to the foremast as you can see here):-

The Cygnet (II) approaching Gott Bay Pier, Tiree
      
The Cygnet came in for a fair bit of stick in the 1920s with questions even being asked in the House of Commons about her suitability: this one in 1925 is revealing:-

Mr Westwood [MP for Peebles] asked the Secretary for Scotland if he is aware of the primitive accommodation provided for passengers on the Royal Mail Steamship "Cygnet"; that there is only sheltered accommodation for about one dozen persons; and that passengers crossing from the mainland to the island of Barra are exposed to winds, waves, and rain; and, in view of the subsidy of £14,000 provided in the Scottish Estimates for the Hebridean steamer service, what action does he propose taking with a view to having this out-of-date canal boat service replaced by a suitable passenger service?

The Secretary for Scotland (Sir John Gilmour): I am informed that this vessel holds a passenger certificate issued by the Board of Trade, 66 first-class and 91 third-class passengers. Of this number the first-class passengers all have sheltered accommodation and shelter is available for 24 of the third-class passengers. I am informed that the owners are taking steps to improve the sheltered accommodation for third-class passengers. My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and I are at present examining generally the question of the Hebridean steamer services, including representations which have been made as to the vessels employed. 

Westwood's reference to the Cygnet being a "canal boat" shows he had been misinformed: it was the Cygnet (I) (1848-82) which had been designed to be able to pass through the Crinan Canal. In fact, in another parliamentary intervention (here), the MP even gets the canal wrong, referring to the Cygnet (II) having been built for service on the Forth & Clyde canal: she hadn't been built for any canal which all just goes to show there's nothing new about politicians pontificating about things they don't really know much about!

The Cygnet (II) at Oban

The mail contract was due for renewal in 1928 and the Government secured agreement from MacBrayne's to build two new ships, one for the Stornoway Mail service and the other for the Outer Isles Mail. The incumbent vessel on the latter route, the Plover (III), would replace the Cygnet on the Inner Isles Mail: despite the two being quasi-sisters, this was thought to be an improvement, perhaps because, unlike the Plover, the Cygnet had been built primarily as a cargo steamer and only adapted for passenger use after the War. In the longer term, MacBrayne's undertook to build a new ship for the Inner Isles Mail if they obtained the next mail contract in five years time. But if the Government was satisfied with that, Parliament wasn't: the House of Commons refused to ratify the contract and remitted the issue to a Select Committee to report (read the debate here).  The picture below is of the Plover so if she was considered an improvement on the Cygnet, it's perhaps understandable why she came in for such criticism!

On board the Plover (III) - I have it recorded I found this photo on Shipsnostalgia but can't now find it there to link a proper credit: if anyone recognises the picture as their's, please let me know so I can give due accreditation or remove it if preferred.

Meanwhile, MacBrayne's intimated their intention to withdraw their services altogether from 31 October 1928 so the Select Committee brokered a deal whereby MacBrayne's would (in effect) be taken over and recapitalised by a joint venture between the LMS Railway Company and Coast Lines Ltd, one of Britain's biggest coastal shipping companies. A revised mail contract was drawn up (although by now, "mail contract" was little more than a fig leaf for public subsidy for what would nowadays be called "lifeline services") providing for a new ship for the Inner Isles Mail as well as the Outer Isles and Stornoway and this was approved by Parliament (although not until after a division on an amendment concerning the size and speed of the proposed Stornoway steamer: read the full debate here).

The ships built for the Outer and Inner Isles Mail services were the identical twin sisters Lochmor and Lochearn respectively which entered service in 1930.

The Lochearn at Castlebay - from 1929 to (I think) 1932 MacBrayne's ships bore a grey hull as seen here.

The characteristically starchy description of the Lochearn and her sister by Duckworth & Langmuir in "West Highland Steamers" is worth quoting in full:-

The two ships were built at Ardrossan, and in profile are different from anything we have dealt with so far. With straight stems, exceptionally ugly cruiser sterns, two masts, and single funnels, the vessels were quite imposing; but the tout ensemble is not pleasing, largely on account of the insufficient rake of masts and funnels and the form of the latter. Viewed from forward the ships look well; but as broadside and aft views are obtained, their aspect becomes progressively worse, until when seen from aft they are definitely ugly. This was rarely the case with the old ships. We have heard statements to the effect that the Lochearn and Lochmor are like a pair of models bought at a toy shop, and this is frankly not far from the truth with respect to their external appearance! The best way of making it impossible to ascertain what a ship looks like in the water is to go on board, and this is what the vast majority of passengers do because it is of interest only to a very few individuals of odd habits - like ourselves - to know how the vessel appears!

Having arrived on board a whole host of pleasant surprises is at hand - particularly if the traveller retains vivid memories of the older ships on the route - because without fear of contradiction it can truthfully be stated that the passenger accommodation in both classes, bearing in mind the size of the vessels, is very good.

Within the limits of a little over 500 tons a total of 400 passengers could be carried. This was the extreme permissible figure and of course berthing facilities for such a number are not possible. The first-class cabins provided are on two decks, and were very well laid out with really comfortable bunks, reading lamps, and both hot and cold running water. For a passage of one or at most two nights on board nothing more could be desired. We refrain deliberately from employing that overwrought and much abused word "luxury". It has been boiled to rags, and now means in travel literature anything or nothing.

The public rooms comprise a dining room with separate small tables, a lounge, and a smoking room, all tastefully and comfortably furnished. All this accommodation is amidships and was repeated on a plainer scale for third-class passengers aft. The latter accommodation is perhaps the more striking of the two as far as comparison with the old ships is concerned. All the sanitary arrangements and equipment are excellent. Another important and highly necessary feature is the provision of ample covered-in deck space, again for both classes of traveller. In these two ships passengers who have not already made their acquaintance will find a revelation awaiting them in travel to and from the Hebrides.


* * *

The Lochearn and the Lochmor are very difficult to tell apart except that the Lochearn's funnel was slightly taller. Both ships had their funnels shortened early in their careers - more than once, I think - but the Lochearn's remained taller each time. In the picture below of the two at Lochboisdale, the Lochearn is lying outside (on the right):-


To be continued ...
         

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Eoligarry revisited


Picture credit - Calum I MacLean


Back in 2010 (though it seems like yesterday!), I wrote a post about Eoligarry House on Barra. This was the incongrously large Georgian house pictured above built about 1790 and demolished in the 1970s which was briefly the residence of the MacNeils of Barra between when they vacated Kisimul Castle and when they sold the island in 1838. The house and surrounding farm were later sold to two brothers called MacGillivray around 1900 (their father having been the tenant since the 1840s) and they retained the house when the farm was acquired by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland in 1919 to be divided into crofts.

My reason for revisiting Eoligarry is that today I came across a description of it in the late 1930s in a book called "Hebridean Journey" by Halliday Sutherland available at Archive.org:-

At Eoligary are the ruins of an ancient chapel and an old burial ground, but near by was Eoligary House, a bleak, square building whose owner was the last of his race and the house the last of his possessions. His collection of stuffed birds had caused me to knock on the door, and the knocking echoed as it might have echoed from an empty house. The day was  warm and sunny, but as l stood on the doorstep I remembered the phantom listeners in Walter de la Mare’s poem:

“Hearkening in an air stilled and shaken
By the lonely traveller's call."

Soft shuffling steps answered my knocking, and an old bent woman let me in to a carpetless hall walled with cases of stuffed birds, and then into what once had been a dining-room. There was a mahogany table, chairs, a bare side-board, and stuffed birds in glass cases on the walls were the only decorations. There was no carpet in the room, and it must have been years since a fire had been lit in the empty grate, or windows had been opened, because the room smelt of mildew, damp, and dust. At last the owner of the house appeared, a tall, pallid, gaunt old man, who gave me a chair and drew one from the table for himself. I mentioned the stuffed birds, but in them he was no longer interested, because after his brother's death the best specimens had been given to the museum at Inverness. He talked incessantly of people and of times I had never known, and was petulant when I revealed my ignorance. His grievance was that no one ever came to see him, but from what I heard from the postman neither he nor his forebears had ever sought friendship in the days of their manhood. For one thing only was I grateful, namely that he neither offered me food nor drink in that house, and at the end of half an hour I rose and declared that I must leave him lest the postman returned without me. The old man asked me to call again, but as I left his decaying abode I knew that I would never return.

The old man who owned the house would have been the surviving MacGillivray brother. He died in 1939, very soon after his visit from Halliday Sutherland.

Eoligarry House in a cameo role in a film about Barra on the Moving Image Archive (at 8.32 and 8.44)
  

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 2 - Mail Steamers and U-boats

Part 1 here.

In April 1889, MacBrayne's took over the Oban to Coll, Tiree, Castlebay (Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist) mail contract from the Highland Fisheries Company which had operated it since it began in July 1886.

The first vessel MacBrayne's placed on the run was the screw steamer Clydesdale (I): like her HFC predecessors, she occasionally extended her voyages to St Kilda where she is seen below:-

The Clydesdale (I) - a scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited McIsaac & Riddle

The Oban-Islands mail route referred to in MacBrayne's 1889 "Summer Tours" handbook

In 1891, the mail runs from Oban to the islands were separated into two services: one ran to Tobermory, Castlebay and Lochboisdale and then continued to Lochmaddy and Dunvegan before returning to Oban through the night via Pooltiel and Bracadale on the west coast of Skye, Canna, Rum and Tobermory: this service operated six days a week employing two steamers, one going clockwise round these ports departing Oban Monday, Wednesday and Friday while another ran anti-clockwise on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Coll and Tiree, meanwhile, received their own thrice weekly service which also called at Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan and continued to Bunessan in Mull, returning to Oban via the same calls the following day. Both routes are shown on the map and timetable below:-

Mail routes from Oban 1891-1920

Oban mail steamers in 1894

The vessels employed on the Outer Isles service were at first the Flowerdale (MacBrayne's first twin screw steamer) partnered by the much smaller Staffa (III).

The Flowerdale at Tobermory

The Staffa (III) at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The Staffa was superseded in 1903 by the Lapwing (II) and, upon the Flowerdale being wrecked off Lismore in 1904, she was replaced by the Plover (III), a sister ship of the Lapwing's. The Lapwing was, in turn, replaced by another very similar ship, the Lochiel (II), in 1908 and the Plover and the Lochiel then served the Oban-Outer Isles route up till WWI.

The Plover (III) at Balmacara

The Lochiel (II) scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to J B MacGeorge's Collection

The Coll, Tiree and Bunessan route, meanwhile, was served first by the Fingal (II) and then, after 1909, the Dirk. By this time, the Bunessan service had been altered such that the Dirk was stationed at Tobermory rather than Oban: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she sailed to Coll, Tiree and Bunessan while on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays she sailed from Bunessan back to Tobermory via Oban, thus completing a anticlockwise circuit of Mull. (I don't know but assume the call at Kilchoan must have been transferred to the Outer Isles steamer.)

The Fingal (II) at Rothesay - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to A Ernest Glen

The Dirk at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The mail runs to the islands from Oban were naturally disrupted during WWI and two of the three ships working them - the Dirk and the Lochiel - were lost after having been requisitioned by the Admiralty.  But the third, the Plover, has the distinction of being the only vessel to have been attacked by an enemy while on service with MacBrayne's! According to Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers":-

On 29th July, 1918 while on the Oban to Castlebay run Plover was shelled by a German submarine when one hour past the "passage of Tiree". With one small gun at stern Plover started counter-attack. The master (Captain Neil MacDougall) decided to lower the two ship's boats with passengers; and the submarine submerged. Plover arrived at Barra at 7p.m. and the first boat at Rhum during the night. The other boat followed the route taken by Plover to Castlebay, arriving at dawn.

I assume the thinking behind not picking the passengers back up from the boats was that they would be safer there than on board the Plover if the submarine returned to the attack, the Germans being more interested in destroying our ships than our civilians. But anyway, that's all I've ever been able to discover about this episode - I'm surprised it's not better known, the subject of books, films etc. a la Whisky Galore, the Scarp Rocket Post etc.         

After the war, the Islands mail services were radically restructured again but I'll continue the story in a subsequent post.

The Plover (III) leaving Castlebay - picture credit Calum I Maclean

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 1 - Steamships and Crofters' Wars


The Inner Isles Mail



Following on from last year's post about the Outer Isles Mail, I can hardly now avoid writing about the Inner Isles Mail, the rather misleading - since it, too, sailed to the Outer Hebrides - name for the mail steamer service which ran from Oban to Tobermory, Coll, Tiree, Castlebay (Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist) until 1974 when Coll & Tiree and Barra & South Uist got their own separate car ferry services.

Before the 1880s, the Uists and Barra were served only by weekly cargo steamers from Glasgow operated by Messrs McCallum and Orme (separate businesses until amalgamated in 1929) and with their mail being delivered by a daily sailing packet from Dunvegan to Lochmaddy. Coll & Tiree were in a similar position, their mail packet sailing from Tobermory. Improved links to the new railhead at Oban opened in 1880 to speed up the mail (a letter from the mainland to Castlebay took six days via Dunvegan) and facilitate the export of fresh fish were therefore amongst the recommendations of the Napier Commission which enquired into crofting in 1883 so, in 1886, the Post Office was prevailed upon to breach its normal rule that developments in the postal service must be self financing and award a contract for the carriage of the mail by steamship from Oban: this mail contract would, in effect, subsidise the otherwise unprofitable carriage of perishable goods and passengers on the same vessel.

Hence in July 1886, the mail contractors, the Highland Fisheries Company of Oban, commenced a service from Oban to Tobermory, Coll, Tiree, Castlebay & Lochboisdale. Departure was at 07.30 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with the steamer being back in Oban the following afternoon. The vessel employed was the Trojan. I can't find a picture of her and don't even know if she was a paddle or a screw steamer so I'm going to have to illustrate this post with pictures of other ships which at least give an idea of the sorts of vessel sailing out of Oban to the islands at the time:-

SS Hebridean - picture credit Bideford Buzz

But if we don't know what the Trojan looked like, some details of her inaugural run survive due to her tangential involvement in a saga ongoing at the time, the "Tiree Crofters War".

A number of radical Land Leaguers had raided - that is illegally occupied with a view to dividing into crofts for themselves - Greenhill Farm on Tiree and it had been resolved that the messenger at arms (similar to a sheriff's officer: Scottish equivalent of a bailiff) charged with serving notices of eviction on the raiders in order to restore the rightful tenant of the farm to his possession be accompanied by twenty commissionaires (retired soldiers) and twenty police constables. This posse had intended to charter John McCallum's Hebridean (pictured above: the predecessor to his better known Hebrides (I)) to take them to Tiree but McCallum declined the business: he was perhaps mindful of a threat allegedly made to the skipper of another vessel trading to Tiree that, if he landed any officers of the law on the island, he would not be able to take them off again because his ship would be sunk! But a Mr MacLaughlin, fishcurer of Glasgow and owner of a fleet of fishing steamers, had no such qualms: he dispatched his ship, the Nigel, to Oban and it sailed for Tiree with the posse in the small hours of the morning of Wednesday 21 July 1886. A few hours later, the Trojan sailed on her inaugural mail run to Coll, Tiree, Castlebay & Lochboisdale.

Radical crofters on Skye in 1884

The situation on Tiree was the talk of Oban. The town was agog to know how the officers of the law had been received - would there be a confrontation or resistance? But in the days before radio or telephone (an extension of telegraph services had also been recommended by the Napier Commission but it had not reached Tiree yet) there would be no news of events on the island until the Trojan returned to Oban the following afternoon.

In the morning, a snippet came with the MacBrayne's mail steamer from Tobermory, the Pioneer (I) - the Nigel had lain overnight at Tobermory. The tensions were such that, apparently, the MacBrayne crew didn't dare even speak to the Nigel's but it nevertheless emerged that she had landed the posse on Tiree but, there being no pier on the island in these days, an easterly gale prevented her lying off so she had retired to the shelter of Tobermory.

MacBrayne's Pioneer (I) at Corpach

So it appeared that the posse had landed on Tiree without incident but details of their reception at Greenhill Farm would have to await the arrival of the Trojan later in the day.

The Highland Fisheries Company's agent in Oban, Mr Blackie, had informed the Scotsman's correspondent that she was due at 4.00pm but due to the unseasonable weather she was half an hour late. A crowd had gathered on the pier and they assailed her master, Captain Mackechnie, on the bridge with questions before the steamer was even berthed: "Officers driven back by the islanders" the captain shouted back, a reply which appears to have stunned the crowd.

Thus was the Trojan greeted with more interest than might have been expected for the inaugural arrival of a new transport service. And the news she brought was rather more dramatic than the usual contents of the bags of mail she had been provided to carry. It turned out, however, that no violence had been offered by the islanders but rather the posse had deemed it prudent to withdraw to Scarinish Inn in the face of an apparently threatening crowd of about 300 at Greenhill. The authorities responded by dispatching a much larger force of 250 marines and 60 police and commssionaires the following week. This achieved service of the writs in something approaching a party atmosphere but eight islanders involved in the original confrontation were arrested. They were subsequently convicted of mobbing and rioting and deforcement (obstructing sheriff's officers in the course of their duty) and received sentences of four to six months in Calton Gaol: this was considered a lenient sentence in light of the absence of violence. Greenhill Farm was eventually legally divided into 18 crofts by the Land Court in 1912 (plan of that here - scroll down) and today the farmhouse - out of which its lawful tenant's furniture had been flung and its keys detained by Land Leaguers in 1886 - is advertised as a luxury holiday home on Airbnb.

Greenhill Farmhouse

Back from that little digression into the crofting history of Tiree, less dramatically but more in keeping with the purposes for which the mail service was instituted, it was recorded (here) that the Highland Fisheries Company was purchasing fresh cockles at the Trojan's ports of call, developing the market for them and helping alleviate poverty on Barra.

The Trojan was succeeded on the run in 1888 by the screw steamer Electric (she occasionally extended her trips to St Kilda) but the HFC didn't retain the mail contract for long: in circumstances I don't know (if anyone does, leave a comment), it was handed over to MacBrayne's in April 1889. I'll continue that story in the next post.

Note - most of my information for this post came from transcripts of contemporary reports in the Scotsman you can read here.

OS One inch map of Tiree, 1895 
                 

Friday, June 16, 2017

"A Scotch job"? - the Caledonian Canal


Neptune's Staircase at Banavie
Today, it's regarded as a national treasure: a jewel in the built heritage crown worthy of millennial and lottery largesse. But in the 1820s the Caledonian Canal was the Edinburgh Trams of its day - over budget, behind schedule and nowhere near living up to original expectations. At least the capital's trams have never posed a danger to anybody but in the 1830s there was a risk that, due to poor workmanship, the Caledonian Canal could have caused flash flooding with the potential for massive damage to property and loss of life: the canal was under such a dark cloud that decommissioning the whole thing was seriously considered.

I hadn't planned to write about the Caledonian Canal. It's one of these things that's just so sort of big and ubquitous (like St Kilda and the Waverley) that I'm not as interested in it as I should be. But the discovery that the canal has a chequered past piqued my interest. And it shows there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to Government prevarication over large engineering projects (think third runway at Heathrow) or trying to get things done on the cheap via privatisation. This is the story.

The Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus - Copyright Canmore

The earliest mention of a canal through the Great Glen seems to have been in the 1730s when Edward Burt, an army officer stationed at Inverness and author of "Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London", mentioned "several projects" for a canal (Letter XXVI). In 1773, the Trustees of the Forfeited Estates (properties confiscated from people involved in the Jacobite Risings) commissioned a survey from James Watt who at the time was earning a living in civil engineering while waiting for his groundbreaking inventions in the field of steam engineering to bear fruit. Watt reported favourably but the idea was not taken up. Nor was anything done following a further survey in 1793 by the designer of the Crinan Canal, John Rennie, for the British Fisheries Society (which had established the villages of Tobermory and Ullapool). It was not until Thomas Telford's report of 1803 described in my last post that the Caledonian Canal was at last progressed and work commenced the following year.


It wasn't just local traffic (e.g. fishing boats passing between Moray Firth ports and the fishing grounds off the west coast) the Caledonian Canal was planned to accommodate. Not only did international traffic (sailing ships in these days, of course) between the Baltic and ports in the north west of the British Isles such as Liverpool, Dublin, Glasgow and Belfast have to run the gauntlet of the Pentland Firth between Caithness and Orkney with its contrary winds and ferocious tidal currents, so too in the pre-railway era did any load bigger than could be slung over the backs of a train of pack horses which had to be moved from coast to coast within Great Britain - a cargo of Ballachulish slate for Dunbar, for instance, or salt from Liverpool to Banff. The Forth & Clyde Canal had opened in 1790 but, crucially, it was not big enough to accommodate sea-going vessels: cargoes had to be trans-shipped into canal barges (known as "lighters": later in the 19th century these were equipped with steam engines and began to sail outside the canal known as "puffers") with consequent delay and expense. But the Caledonian Canal was conceived on an altogether grander scale to allow the largest sea-going vessels through. When work began in 1804, Telford estimated it would take seven years and cost £475,000 to complete.

By the time seven years had passed, in 1811, the canal was still a long way from complete. In fact, the central section, from Loch Ness to Loch Lochy, hadn't even been started yet so it was hardly a surprise it was still unfinished two years later when the estimate of £475,000 was exceeded. In fairness, the cost of labour and materials had soared during the first decade of the 19th century due to the Napoleonic Wars but it's probably also the case that there just wasn't enough practical experience of such large projects to be able to estimate them accurately. There were also formidable engineering challenges of which it will suffice to mention just one - the sea lock at Clachnaharry where the canal enters the Beauly Firth at Inverness pictured below.



The sea lock had to be placed so far out from the natural shoreline to find deep enough water because the bed of the firth deepened at such a shallow angle. As the embankments out from the shore towards the site of the sea lock were being built, they were discovered to be sinking under their own weight into the soft mud of the seabed: how on earth would it support the weight of the masonry of the lock itself? The solution hit upon was to carry earth out from the shore and pile it up in a mound where the lock would go. The stone for building the lock was then piled on top of this mound and it was left to settle and find its natural level. This proved only partially successful, however, for it was discovered some years after the lock had been built that it had sunk by 18 inches! The only saving grace was it had all sunk at the same rate so at least there was no distortion or cracks in the structure.

In 1822, now 11 years behind schedule and with nearly twice the original estimate having already been spent, the locks were mostly all finished but there was still much work to be done on the canal itself to achieve the planned depth of 20 feet to accommodate the largest seagoing ships. In some places this involved further excavation while in others it involved the expensive process of "puddling", that is, lining the banks with waterproof clay to prevent the water leaking out through porous soil. With the canal already being denounced by its detractors as "a Scotch job" (job in the archaic sense of a dodgy political deal: pork barreling we'd call it nowadays), Parliament was exasperated to be told it was going to take another £37,000 to finish, exclusive of unquantified claims from landowners for land take and damage to amenity etc. With the return of peace after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, some of the factors which had led to the canal being sanctioned at public expense (employing potential cannon fodder to prevent it from emigrating and protecting shipping from enemy attack) had disappeared. Faced by calls to abandon it altogether, the legislature sanctioned only another £25,000 to complete the canal to a depth of just 12 feet rather than the 20 feet originally planned. And so, in this attenuated state, the Caledonian Canal finally opened for traffic from sea to sea in October 1822.

Key locations on the Caledonian Canal


But still the haemorrhage of public money continued. Attracting only a tiny fraction of the anticpated traffic (in 1838 it was estimated the canal was attracting only a fortieth of the traffic going "northabouts" through the Pentland Firth), it couldn't even cover its maintenance costs. And it wasn't long before the canal works began to deteriorate due to the skimped workmanship carried out in the latter phases of construction in a desperate attempt to keep costs down.

Matters came to a head in December 1837 when one of the locks at Fort Augustus collapsed. The beleaguered Canal Commissioners reported this to the Treasury in London along with their concerns about the potential for a far more serious accident due to the state of the canal south of  Loch Lochy. On the stretch known as the Banavie Reach between the lock at Gairlochy at the south west end of Loch Lochy and the top of the flight of eight locks at Banavie known as Neptune's Staircase, there were several culverts (acqueducts) carrying the canal over streams coming down off the hills to the west. The condition of these culverts was giving cause for concern: if any of them collapsed, the threat was not just that all the water in the Banavie Reach would flood out (which was bad enough) but that, due to the defective masonry they were mounted on, the gates of the lock at Gairlochy, deprived of the counterweight of the water in the canal below them, would not be able to hold back Loch Lochy (the level of which had been raised by 12 feet during the course of construction of the canal). If these gates failed, the waters of the loch would gush out in a torrent which would not stop until the loch had drained down by 27 feet (i.e. the vertical distance between the level of Loch Lochy in a flood and the bed of the canal below), a release of about 13 million cubic metres of water with the potential to cause immense damage and, possibly, loss of life.

One of the troublesome culverts on the Banavie reach

The Treasury responded to these concerns by commissioning Thomas Telford's successor as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, James Walker, to report on both the works immediately necessary to make the canal safe and those desirable to make it viable in the longer term. In the short term, Walker recommended the insertion of a second lock at Gairlochy and work to improve run-off from Loch Oich costing a total of £17,000. To make the canal viable in the longer term, he recommended that it be deepened to 17 feet (he didn't consider the originally planned 20 feet worth the extra cost), principally by additional excavation and puddling (waterproofing) to prevent the water in the canal leaking away at the rate of nearly 700 cubic metres a minute as it did from the Muirtown Reach: with various other works, including radical surgery on some of the locks, this was all estimated to cost £104,490.

Walker's report was referred to a select committee of the House of Commons. By now the question was whether to complete the canal in accordance with Walker's recommendations or abandon it altogether: patching it up to enable it to limp along attracting such a tiny fraction of its potential traffic was no longer an option. After hearing that the cost of demolishing the canal could be almost as much as completing it, the Committee reported in August 1839 that it had no hesitation in recommending that the canal be completed to 17 feet depth in accordance with James Walker's report. This was despite the fact that, due to further deterioration of the canal works in the interim and in light of the history of consistent under-estimation of costs associated with the Caledonian Canal, Walker had advised the committee to be prepared for a total outlay of up to £200,000.

A ship being towed along Loch Oich by its own boat in 1836

You can read the Select Committee Report here. James Walker's Report is Appendix 1 and also worth reading is a report on the canal and its history by its resident engineer, George May, which is Appendix 3. They all highlight another huge problem with the Caledonian Canal, greater even, perhaps, than its inadequate depth and collapsing masonry: the three lochs - Ness, Oich and Lochy - which make up nearly two thirds of its length. The feature which appeared to make construction of the canal feasible by nature having already built so much of its length was actually its greatest weakness in the age of sail. This was because the wind blows either up or down the Great Glen but never across it: a sailing ship can't sail into the wind and a tow path to enable one to be towed upwind by horses can't be built along the shore of a loch as it can along the banks of artificial cuttings. Ships entering the canal, therefore, regularly had to wait for weeks for a fair wind completely negativing any time advantage over sailing "northabouts" through the Pentland Firth. This syndrome had been apparent even to Edward Burt back in the 1730s ("would render the navigation so precarious that hardly anybody would venture on it" he said) and it's something of a puzzle why it eluded Thomas Telford but, fortunately, by the 1830s technological progress had intervened to provide a solution: steam tugs. These would enable a sailing ship to pass through the canal in just three days, even against an adverse wind, a considerable saving on the passage "northabouts". Provision of steam tugs, therefore, formed a key part of Walker's recommendations.

Not on the Caledonian Canal but the most famous steam tug of all - that depicted in Turner's 1839 classic "The Fighting Temeraire"

The Government's response to the Select Committee report was to try to privatise the canal: an Act of Parliament passed in August 1840 authorised it to lease the canal for up to 99 years at a peppercorn rent to a private operator who would undertake the improvements. But there were no takers and, before committing another six figures of taxpayers' money, the Government decided it wanted to hear the opinion of a mariner (as opposed to a civil engineer) on the vital question of whether, if the canal were completed to Walker's specifications, it would actually be used. The task was entrusted to Arctic explorer Captain Sir Edward Parry, RN. As well as inspecting the canal itself, Parry covered 1,600 miles visiting ports from Liverpool round to Hull gathering evidence from over 100 merchants, ship owners and seafarers. He submitted his report in January 1842. You can read it here. Noting the canal's present "wretched state of inefficiency", the man who had braved polar winters in pursuit of the North West Passage echoed Burt by observing: "I could not help wondering not that so few had ever availed themselves of this navigation, but that any had ever been bold enough to attempt it".

That said, Parry's conclusion was that, if duly improved (principally by deepening to 17 feet, the provision of steam tugs and various other improvements listed in Appendix 118 to his report), the Caledonian Canal would provide a quicker, safer and therefore cheaper passage than going "northabouts": Parry reckoned on an average saving of nine and a half days and - taking into account factors such as lower insurance - a financial saving of the order of £40 (about £4,000 in today's money) per passage for a 300 ton ship even if the canal dues were doubled. This being so, he believed it would be used by a large proportion of the ships going through the Pentland Firth and perhaps even by some going from west to east by the English Channel.

The Government appointed another Select Committee to consider Parry's report. This reported in May 1842 by endorsing the 1839 Committee's conclusion that the works on the canal should be proceded with. But then, in the winter of 1843 while the Government continued to dither, the long anticipated disaster at Loch Lochy was avoided by the merest stroke of good fortune. In January, a portion of masonry at the lower lock gates at Gairlochy failed during a storm. Fortunately, the upper gates held but urgent repairs had to be undertaken in atrocious conditions involving building a temporary dam across the canal to hold the loch back (which at its highest reached 2' 6" above the level of the lock gates) while work was carried out on the lock. The work was completed in February leaving the lock in a sounder condition than it had been for many years. Which was just as well because in March, one of the culverts on the Banavie Reach collapsed and all the water in the reach emptied out. If that had happened before the Gairlochy lock had been strengthened, it would almost certainly have failed with catastrophic results.

Plan from the Canal Commissioners' 16th Report (1819) showing the vulnerable lock at the foot of Loch Lochy. The canal occupied the bed of the River Lochy which was redirected into an artificial cut draining into the River Spean.

The scare appears to have galvanised the Government into action for in August 1843 it at last gave the go ahead to complete the canal and a contract was let for £136,089 to carry out the improvements recommended by James Walker over a period of three years. Work began in September and, this time, was completed only seven months behind schedule (and a mere £22,500 over budget) and the Caledonian Canal reopened from sea to sea, complete with two steam tugs (with another two on order) on 1 May 1847.

But it was too late. Despite some promising early signs, the canal never captured the volume of trade it had been designed to accommodate. The reason again was steam power which, from being the canal's saviour in the shape of steam tugs, soon became its enemy attacking it on two fronts. Firstly, from their beginnings in 1812 through the second quarter of the 19th century, steamships had been confined to niche short range applications (such as tugs and ferries) while cargos and long distances continued to be the domain of the sailing ship: this was simply because ships of typical early 19th century size couldn't carry enough coal to take a heavy load very far. But that changed in the second half of the century with the advent of larger, iron steamships, too big for even the Caledonian Canal's generously sized locks and for whom a passage northabouts through the Pentland Firth held no fears anyway. Secondly, the rise of the railway from the 1840s took away much of the coast to coast trade. (Parry had actually considered the issue of railways in his report but concluded they didn't pose a threat to the canal. He was proved wrong.) And so the canal's traffic came to be confined largely to fishing boats and smaller, local coasters. In 1860, another attempt at privatisation failed while in 1868 the costs of decommissioning were looked into by the engineer later to be responsible for the Forth Bridge, Sir John Fowler, and estimated at a £1,000,000 (about a Billion Pounds in today's money). "Practically obsolete" was how witnesses described the canal to a 1906-09 Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways which refused to endorse any public expenditure on schemes to enlarge it. Whether or not it was a "Scotch job", the Caledonian Canal was destined always to be a white elephant.

An early 20th century proposal for enlarging the canal superimposed on an actual cross section. Unsurprisingly, it was not taken up.