This flight of eight locks lies at the western end of the Caledonian Canal. Through the Great Glen, the canal links Corpach (near Fort William) on the west coast and Inverness, in the east, a distance of 60 miles (100 km). It is the longest staircase lock on any British canal.
An engineering marvel in its day, it was masterminded by renowned engineer Thomas Telford. Construction of the entire canal spanned nearly two decades (1803-1822). The staircase itself was complete by 1811. The canal isn’t continuous, rather a chain of links between three large lochs and several rivers in the Glen.
The canal was intended to provide a safe shipping route between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, avoiding the treacherous Pentland Firth to the north. The staircase took vessels up the 64 feet (20 metres) from Corpach at sea level to the canal. Vessels enter each lock through massive gates which are closed to fill the lock with water, lifting the vessels. Later the gates open to release the water.
Originally the gates were operated by hand-powered capstans, each with four poles parallel to the ground. It took vessels at least half a day to negotiate the staircase. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the locks were mechanised, cutting the transit time to 90 minutes.
The canal was substantially improved during a 10-year restoration programme completed in 2005. It is now very popular with small cruisers, ocean-going yachts and the occasional fishing vessel crossing between the North Sea and the Atlantic – thus fulfilling its original purpose.