Neptune's Staircase
Neptune's Staircase

Neptune's Staircase is a series of 8 locks on the Caledonian Canal at Banavie, near Fort William. The locks were designed by the famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford and made to handle a change in elevation of 64 feet (19.5m). It is the longest staircase lock in Britain at over a quarter-mile in length (447m) and takes boats about 90 minutes to navigate from top to bottom (or vice-versa).

The Staircase took 19 years to build, starting in 1803 and ending in 1822. Though Thomas Telford designed the Staircase and is credited with the Caledonian Canal itself, the original survey work was done by James Watt some three decades earlier.

The enormously expensive undertaking was intended to provide work at a time when poverty was rife in the Highlands and many residents were leaving to find work elsewhere.

Boats entering a Staircase lock
Boats entering a Staircase lock

What is a 'staircase lock'?

A staircase lock is defined as two or more adjacent locks where the upper gate of one lock also serves as the lower gate of the next.

Because of this interlocking design, once one boat has entered the staircase it is committed to going through all the locks and other boats have to wait the entire 90 minutes before the next boat can enter the staircase.

The original plan was to have the work finished in just seven years at a cost of £350,000 - a huge sum at the time. It actually took 17 years and cost a staggering £840,000.

Telford's design called for a depth of 20 feet (9m) but in the name of cutting costs, the actual finished depth was just 14 feet (roughly 4.5m). This cost-cutting proved shortsighted, as the shallow depth meant that the canal was unusable by most of the large ships being built when the canal was opened.

The locks were originally all hand-operated but have now been converted to operate on hydraulics. You can still see the plinths where the original capstans were anchored, but the capstans themselves have been removed.

Each lock gate weighs in at 22 tons. The weight means that a team of at least three lock-keepers are needed to keep Neptune's Staircase in operation.

Visitors watch boats navigating the Staircase
Visitors watch boats navigating the Staircase

Near Neptune's Staircase are the former lock-keepers' houses, known as Telford House East and Telford House West. The houses were built to provide housing for up to 30 workmen during construction of the lock and then after it was finished, to provide a residence for the team of lock-keepers needed to keep the Staircase operational.

Though they are named for Telford and said to be designed by him, there is no documentary evidence to support this. They were likely built around 1815.

The Caledonian Canal

The Caledonian Canal spans the Great Glen, linking Fort William to Inverness. It was designed by Telford to ease boat transport at a time when the Napoleonic Wars threatened British shipping. By travelling up the Canal boats could forego the dangerous trip around the north of Scotland.

To learn more about the canal, I suggest a visit to the excellent Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre in Fort Augustus.

Neptune's Staircase is on the popular Great Glen Way long-distance trail which, like the Caledonian Canal, links Fort William and Inverness.

Getting There

Neptune's Staircase is easily reached. It is signposted off the A830 (the Road to the Isles) at Corpach, just north of Fort William. There is a free parking area and you can walk along the Canal and watch boats as they traverse the locks. The locks are in the shadow of Ben Nevis and provide good views of the 'dark side' of the mountain.

About Neptune's Staircase
Address: Banavie, Fort William, Highlands, Scotland, PH33 7NG
Attraction Type: Landmark - Canal
Location: Well signposted off the A830 road to Mallaig at Banavie, three miles north of Fort William
Website: Neptune's Staircase
Location map
OS: NN116768
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


HeritageWe've 'tagged' this attraction information to help you find related historic attractions and learn more about major time periods mentioned.

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