The Crinan Canal starts at Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne, and ends nine miles away at Crinan on the Sound of Jura. It was designed to provide a quick link between the west coast and islands at one end and the Clyde Estuary at the other, and so avoid the long voyage around the south end of the Kintyre peninsula.
Work started on the canal in 1794 under John Rennie and it was opened in 1801: two years late, significantly over-budget, and not properly finished. Early problems with water levels and collapsing locks and reservoirs led to Thomas Telford being asked to redesign parts of of the canal in 1816. The locks were again reconstructed and deepened in the 1930s, and the canal became the responsibility of British Waterways in 1962. It is now looked after by Scottish Canals.
In the nine miles from Ardrishaig to Crinan there are 15 locks and the canal reaches a height of 65 feet above sea level. The summit reach of the canal is relatively short and every time a boat goes through the locks about 300,000 litres of water are used. No fewer than seven reservoirs feed the summit reach to try to ensure that the Crinan Canal does not run dry.
Every year two to three thousand vessels, mostly pleasure craft, use the canal. This is a far cry from the early days when the canal formed a vital link in Scotland's transport system. Until the coming of the railways the fastest way to travel between Glasgow and Inverness was by steamer using the Crinan Canal and the Caledonian Canal, usually calling at Oban en route.
The Crinan Canal's starting point is at Ardrishaig, a little under two miles south of Lochgilphead. After a basin and several locks the canal parallels the shore of Loch Gilp and the A83. It then skirts the western side of Lochgilphead before striking inland to cross the peninsula.
At Cairnbaan there are more locks and the attractive Cairnbaan Hotel and its restaurant. More locks at Dunardry mark the end of a summit reach that is less than a mile long. At Bellanoch the canal reaches the sea again, but does not yet join it. Instead it runs parallel to the shore of Loch Crinan.
Bellanoch is home to a large basin where craft are moored, and from here the canal continues along the shoreline to Crinan. Before it gets there, however, it is crossed at Crinan Bridge by a road bridge where the B831 peters to an end. On the opposite shore is Crinan Ferry. There has been no ferry here for forty years, but this is a quiet and attractive spot where you can enjoy the canal and the surrounding scenery to the full.
The canal enters Crinan along the shore from the east. Here it is locked into Crinan Harbour, one of the most attractive spots in Scotland. Boat users looking to spend time here can make use of the moorings in a side channel off the basin. This originally formed the sea lock until the current one was excavated in the 1930s.
Those wanting to follow the canal to its natural conclusion should take the sea lock into Loch Crinan. Then it's a simple left turn and you are into the north end of the Sound of Jura. The Crinan Canal is a relic of another age when travel was slower and the world much bigger. But it is an enjoyable and beautiful relic, set in wonderful scenery.