Neptune's Staircase, Caledonian Canal
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: The longest staircase lock in Britain
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.
The original plan was to have the work finished in just 7 years at a cost of GBP 350,000 - a huge sum at the time. It actually took 17 years and cost a staggering GBP 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 3 lock-keepers are needed to keep Neptune's Staircase in operation.
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.
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, 3 miles north of Fort William
Website: Neptune's Staircase
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
Old Inverlochy Castle - 0.9 miles (Castle)
Road to the Isles - 1.9 miles (Countryside)
West Highland Museum - 2 miles (Museum)
Clan Cameron Museum - 7.7 miles (Museum)
Glen Coe - 12.5 miles (Countryside)
Glenfinnan Monument - 13.5 miles (Historic Building)
Glenfinnan Viaduct - 13.5 miles (Countryside)
Laggan Dam - 14.9 miles (Landmark)
Nearest Accommodation to Neptune's Staircase:
Nearby accommodation is calculated 'as the crow flies' from Neptune's Staircase. 'Nearest' may involve a long drive up and down glens or, if you are near the coast, may include a ferry ride! Please check the property map to make sure the location is right for you.