In a word yes, thanks to the perseverance of some of Scotland's finest engineers and a lot of digging!
The towpath of the Crinan canal is lined with triangular markers reassuring ramblers that they are on the right track. Eight miles from Ardrishaig flagging feet will find their way onto the shores of the Sound of Jura on the western edge of mainland Scotland. The concrete curves cast into the top of each stone hint at the humps and hills of the Knapdale nature reserve from where the canal has drawn its water supply for over two hundred years.
Melting of minds
A melting pot of Scotland’s greatest engineering minds led to the canal’s construction during the late seventeen hundreds. James Watt, no less, took time out from his busy schedule developing steam engines to survey the route from Crinan to Ardrishaig in 1771 before letting his prodigiously clever design engineer, and fellow Bolton and Watt colleague, John Rennie, go to work on the project. Unfortunately the everyday, nitty-gritty decision making fell to James Paterson who made a series of errors requiring the timely intervention of Thomas Telford to put things right. Which, of course, he did.
Ardrishaig harbour is as good a place as any to begin this walk. I should add that there is no particular reason to attempt the full route in one go, particularly if you have parked the car here. Don't miss the John Smith Memorial Garden dedicated to the Labour Party leader and son of the village. It's a beautiful setting looking out over Loch Gilp. The eight mile return trip to Cairnbaan is plenty for a day’s hike, especially if you break it up with a pie and a pint at the Cairnbaan Hotel. A very handyhalfway hostelry.
Eggs and coffee
Before setting off though, take some time to stroll to the end of the breakwater protecting the harbour. It gives great views up to Lochgilphead and out over the beautiful expanse of water that is Loch Gilp and Loch Fyne beyond. Visiting yachts (including that of Queen Victoria back in 1847) tie-up alongside here before gaining admission to the canal through its sea lock and the circular basin beyond. It is also worth breaking off to pop into the iconic Egg Shed for a souvenir. Now, grab a takeaway coffee from its neighbour the Steamer Terminal and get walking.
As you leave the harbour keep a wary eye on the opposite bank for spooky apparitions said to stalk the site once occupied by the Kilduskland Chapel; a casualty of the canal’s construction. Some might say that their appearance had more to do with the nearby Ardrishaig whisky distillery which drew from the peaty waters of the Still Loch in the hills above. Or maybe it is just the twinkle of the solar powered lights set into the path to keep you on the straight and narrow on fading winter afternoons.
Up ahead, beyond the first four locks and the manicured turf of the bowling green, ‘Miller’s Bridge’ crosses the canal. It is the third of seven bridges spanning the waterway. Back in the 1870s William Miller was tasked with swinging it into action when the Clyde ‘puffers’ chugged up laden with their cargoes of Lanarkshire coal. Headed for the Hebrides, their skippers would gladly offer a bucket or two in exchange for bridge duties and garden-grown vegetables.
Summit or nothing?
From a walker’s perspective the route feels flat with barely a trace of an incline to trouble your calf muscles. However, the contour lines on OS Explorer 358 say otherwise. A series of eight locks do the legwork raising the canal to the giddy heights of 64 feet (20 metres) above sea level at the Cairnbaan ‘summit’ before seven more descend gently to the western entrance at Crinan.
Beyond Miller’s Bridge the canal sweeps in a north westerly arc in parallel with the Oban road (A816) before parting company for the village of Cairnbaan. The route from Lochgilphead to Oban was an ancient coach track marked by the occasional standing (or fallen) stone such as the so-called ‘Stane Alane’ near the tiny settlement of Achnabreck to the east of the canal. The landscape here is pockmarked with Iron Age duns; evidence of much older settlement. The geometric curves of their carved petroglyphs are preserved in the rocks close by hinting at a society determined to etch themselves into the very fabric of their surroundings.
Keep walking. Mute swans drift by. Look out for bullfinches gorging voraciously upon the seed heads and buds of the varied plant life edging the towpath. They seem unperturbed by walkers and boats and may permit you a close-up of their flamboyant plumage if you approach with care. Meadowsweet and viper’s bugloss attract peacock butterflies to the canal-side in the summer months. Black-faced redstarts bob amongst the bank-side flora making the most of the bounty of insects on offer. The blue and orange flash of a kingfisher is a sure sign of the exceptionally clean water quality. Break the spell these beautiful birds have cast upon you and continue toward the cluster of locks and cottages ahead.
Cairnbaan is a natural stopping point and was used as a drover's halt in days gone by. Stop yourself from succumbing to the temptation of a tipple from the hotel bar and make the effort to scramble through the pines to the open, higher ground above. Thoughtfully placed posts, each emblazoned with directional arrows, point the way. Catch your breath at the top and marvel at some of Europe’s oldest rock art. It seems that our ancestors just couldn’t resist the supine slabs of bedrock proliferating this hilltop high above Kilmartin Glen. Like modern-day graffiti artists confronted with a blank, concrete canvass they felt compelled to leave their mark. Run your fingers around the concentric circles chipped out by their quartz hammers five thousand years ago and let your imagination do the rest.
Escape from Cairnbaan
You have earned that drink. Relax and watch the activity as yachts and pleasure cruisers take turns to negotiate the locks and swing bridge in front of you. From here locks five, six, seven and eight, each attended by a whitewashed lock keeper’s cottage, raise the canal to its highest point just a few hundred yards west of the hotel. The slopes above were once home to the wartime nissen huts of Cairnbaan camp. Italian prisoners of war were incarcerated here in scenic solitude during the second world war. Some escaped but they say that little effort was put into finding them as the landscape and midges would probably be enough to defeat their efforts and send them scuttling back behind bars.
A couple of kilometres down the towpath lies Loch a Bharain, a two hundred year old freshwater reservoir lining the north bank. It is home to the Mid Argyll Radio Sailing Club and forms part of the River Add nature trail. It is one of a number of reservoirs performing the important function of keeping the canal topped up. This filling process hit a bit of a hiccup in 1859 when Loch Cham, another canal feeder situated in the hills above, breached its banks sending torrents of mud and boulders into the Cairnbaan summit section blocking it and damaging the adjacent locks.
You have reached Dunardry where five locks in quick succession lower the canal by a few feet in readiness for the last push to the sea. It is all downhill from here. To the north the vast expanse of the Móine Mhór national nature reserve reveals its wild beauty. This raised bog habitat is home to wintering hen harriers and specialist carnivorous plant species such as the round-leaved sundew. Keep an eye out for osprey fishing in the River Add as it snakes its way toward the tidal flats fringing Loch Crinan. At Islandadd Bridge look back over your shoulder for a distant view of Dunadd Fort; ancient seat of the Gaelic kings of Dál Riata rising out of the marsh and mirk.
You are on the home straight. Bellanoch’s yacht basin plays host to visiting pleasure craft who snuggle up against the pontoons of its purpose built marina. It is an idyllic setting. The canal seems to slice through the surroundings. The bare, jagged rocks on the opposite bank have been softened by two centuries of verdant vegetation gradually upholstering their rough edges.
A mile or so further on the red and white stripes of Crinan’s ‘pepperpot’ navigational light, looking for all the world like a miniature lighthouse, herald the end of the canal and the beginning of the open sea. The tiny islands of Eilean na Cille and Garbh Rèisa mark the northern end of the Sound of Jura. Scarba sits serenely behind them and on a clear day Mull’s distant mountain peaks loom moodily on the horizon. It is a spectacular end to Scotland’s most beautiful shortcut.
© Robin Redfern 2021