The village of Adrishaig is not Scotland's prettiest, despite the opportunities afforded by a location beside Loch Gilp. Close to the village's southern end, the A83 main road crosses a bridge that is probably noticed by only a few of those driving along the road. And even those who notice the bridge might well be unaware that as they drive over it they are crossing the eastern end of the Crinan Canal. The Crinan Canal is a nine mile long shortcut between the Firth of Clyde, of which Loch Gilp is an offshoot of an offshoot, and western Scottish waters, into which it emerges at Crinan, opposite the northern end of the Isle of Jura.
Even those who take the trouble to explore the length of a canal whose beauty belies its eastern end, probably gain very little understanding of the challenges faced by those who built it. As we've already said, it is nine miles long, and if you drive the roads that run closely parallel to it, the landscape appears fairly level. Appearances can be deceptive. Just about every aspect of the planning, building and continuous repair and repeated refurbishment of the Crinan Canal was fraught with difficulties, both natural and self-inflicted by those responsible for it. As a result the story of the canal is a remarkably interesting one, and this is the story told in "The Crinan Canal" by Marian Pallister. Superbly researched and beautifully written for a non-technical readership, we are presented with the story of remarkable achievement in the face of adverse circumstances. And of some truly human failings.
In the modern world we are quite used to infrastructure projects that are oversold and which underdeliver. It is common to hear about construction works that take far longer than planned, run into every conceivable problem, cost far more than forecast, and deliver far less for their investors than promised. Yet with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia it is easy to imagine that these sorts of problems are by-products of the hugely complex modern world in which we live, and that there was a time in the past when the giants of engineering always got things right. Anyone who believed that, in the face of such obvious evidence to the contrary as the collapse of the first Tay railway bridge, should read Marian Pallister's excellent book. As should, of course, anyone with an interest in the history of Argyll, or of the story of the canal itself. In many ways you can think of the Crinan Canal as the canal equivalent of the later Tay rail bridge. The major difference, of course, is that canals can fail with less fatal consequences than bridges.
The reader is introduced to the reasons for the development of the canal, and the circumstances that meant that the wrong route was probably chosen for it. A starring role in the story goes to James Paterson, a man who had to go to England to see what a canal looked like before taking up his post as resident engineer to the project; a man who seemed to have an unhappy knack for making wrong decisions; and a man arrogant enough to repeatedly dismiss advice from those who actually knew what they were talking about. He also became a man desperate enough to try to blame everyone but himself for the series of problems and failures over a period of years that meant that the Crinan Canal never realised anything like the returns that might have reasonably been expected of it: still less the flights of fancy which induced successive waves of investors to part with their money. Some books are easy to forget once read. This isn't one of them. It is the definitive story of the Crinan Canal, and will be of lasting value because of that, and it also has some fascinating wider lessons to offer.