Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 63 - A Beautiful Shipping Shortcut

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

A Beautiful Shipping Shortcut

Ann Stewart follows the Crinan Canal

We stopped for a while to watch the yachts leave the canal for the freedom of the western seas and to look across Loch Crinan to Duntrune Castle and the islands and mountains to the north west. Set on the western edge of Argyll, the Crinan Canal cuts through the top of the Mull of Kintyre, (made famous by Paul McCartney’s song of that name), the largest peninsula in Scotland. Locally the canal is known as the beautiful shipping shortcut. The canal follows the route west from Ardrishaig on Loch Gilp to Crinan and Loch Crinan joining the Sound of Jura with access to the north, west and the islands. With strong westerly gales coming in off the Atlantic, the sail around the Mull has always been a treacherous one and many ships, and lives, have been lost along its rocky coast.

With the opening of the canal in 1801, steamers and the locally named Clyde Puffers, (small cargo vessels), could make easier and quicker passage from Glasgow to the Western Isles, Oban, Fort William, and eventually Inverness through the Caledonian Canal. This short nine miles of canal cuts out more than one hundred miles of dangerous seas and makes a great shortcut for sailors and towpath walk for visitors.

Crinan is a busy village and the basin is filled not only with yachts but small fishing vessels that ply for scallop and crab in the western approaches.

Here we also find the Clyde Puffer Vital Spark, and were told that it was the star of the BBC television programme Para Handy taken from the books by Neil Munro. The canal once rang to the puff, puff sounds of these little workboats as they carried everything from mail to cattle to the outlying islands and northern villages. These little cargo vessels were once the mainstay of the canal industry here but have now been replaced with approximately 3,000 or so pleasure craft that use the canal each year.

As we leave Crinan and take the path to Bellanoch the landscape changes. Hewn through tough granite rock this was the most difficult part to build. On one side of the canal, stark, bare rocks are overhung by wooded hillside, passing yachts taking care not to get too close to the jagged edges. On the other side of the towpath is the estuary of the River Add leading to the ancient rock and fortress of the Scots.

Dunadd rises out of the Moine Mhor (the Great Moss), a huge lump of rock on which the Scotti set up a fortress in around 500AD. For the next 500 years it was a centre for trade and where craftsmen worked in metal to make tools and jewellery in bronze, silver and gold. There is an interesting footprint carved into the stone at the summit.

Some say that during the inauguration of a new king, his bare foot was placed in the stone joining him to Scotland. Others, with a Cinderella type tale, say that if your foot fits the carving you could be the next king of Scotland. A somewhat dubious claim!

Arriving at Bellanoch Marina, a large area of mooring just off the canal, we find it filled with a variety of sea-going boats and noticed the difference between the rugged landscape, the shapes of the old refurbished cottages and the sleek lines of the yachts. It was almost as if someone had dropped an area of 21st century technology into an 18th century landscape.

Apart from the occasional sound of a boat engine, the sounds are mostly that of nature: buzzing insects, birdsong and the call of the oystercatchers on the nearby shore.

Walking on towards Dunardy, we pass Lock 9.

Just opposite on the south bank there is some new housing built on the site of a crofting community called Diall. This was the scene of a nasty murder when one of the residents, Elizabeth MacKinnon, was found dead in 1803. Her half naked body was found by the canal with, they say, her feet in the water. Following the trial, her husband, Duncan McArthur, was found guilty and hanged at the crime scene on the canal bank a year later.

There were many morbidly curious enough to visit the site much to the annoyance of the other tenants.

Reaching Dunardy, we are now at the highest point. It is a great place to stop and look at the picturesque reservoir; one of seven on the canal.

You may be lucky enough to see an elegant heron fishing or moorhens swimming among the reeds, the yellow and red on their beaks catching your eye.

This is also a great place to watch the yachts go through the locks. Up until 1972 there was a lockkeeper for every lock and bridge. Protests at their loss at the time came to nothing as, with the drop in commercial traffic, the expense was unsustainable. Although the bridges are mechanised, 13 of the locks are still operated by hand and the users of the yachts and pleasure cruisers have to work them themselves although everyone we met seemed to know what they were doing and most had obviously been through this way before.

One elderly gentleman told us how, as a boy, he remembered the yachts being pulled through the canal with horses. Being fully powered by sail at the time, it was the only way to get them through. He also remembers a lady, who having missed the last horse of the day, set her grandson to steer the boat and pulled it through herself.

The path then continues to Cairnbaan where a hotel offers a splendid place to stop for lunch whether on foot or by boat. There is a signpost leading to the rear of the hotel and it is worth taking a short detour here as the reward is well worth the effort.

The path climbs steeply through trees to reach the open hillside above giving views back down to the sweep of the canal that are about to travel. A little further on lie the famous Cairnbaan rock carvings; as series of huge flat natural slabs heavily decorated with prehistoric cup-and-ring markings. No one knows what these marking signify but it is such a treat to touch the stone on which our neolithic ancestors left their mark.

Back on the towpath and we head towards Miller’s Bridge and Oakfield Cottage. The path here follows above the site of the Old Chapel of Kilduskland and here there have been tales of ghostly figures of the White Friars of Kilduskland who are said to have been seen “gliding silently to and fro” in the vicinity of their now long vanished monastic foundations.

Fortunately we saw none.

Finally, pass behind Ardrishaig, cross over the swing bridge on the A83 (Campbeltown Road) and head towards the lighthouse at the end of the breakwater. Loch Gilp is calm today, but in rough weather the lighthouse is necessary to allow sailors to line up their boats with the entrance to the canal and start the journey through the beautiful shipping shortcut.

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue