The Bridge Keeper’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Bridge Keeper’s Tale

by Mark Bowman

Mark Bowman
Mark Bowman

My wife and I had been coming to the Great Glen area for a long time and then, a few years ago, I was offered a job working on the Caledonian Canal. I grabbed the offer and became a Bridge and Lock Keeper for the middle section of the Canal. This meant that I could be called on to operate either one of the bridges or one of the locks on the stretch of Canal between Loch Ness and Loch Lochy. As one of the tourist brochures says: ‘Canals are clever – they can climb up and down hills!’ This is done, of course, by using locks which form ‘steps’ up and down the waterway.

The Caledonian Canal, which opened in 1822, combines 38 miles of four Scottish lochs (Lochy, Oich, Ness and Dochfour) with 22 miles of man-made waterway. The Canal uses the lowland route along Scotland’s famous Great Glen. It’s original purpose was to provide a safe passage for naval and sailing ships that wanted to avoid the dangerous waters of Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath to the north of Scotland.

I loved my job as a Bridge and Lock Keeper. In all there are six road and two railway swing bridges throughout the full length of the Canal and they work like this. When a ship or boat is approaching a bridge, the lock keeper at the previous lock will phone the man on the bridge to warn him that a boat is coming. The bridge keeper can then swing the bridge open to let the boat pass but that, of course, means that the roadway is temporarily cut in two and cars are held up on either side.

Every ‘station’ (i.e., bridge and lock) is manned during the summer from 8.00 am until 6.00 pm and so the system is very expensive in terms of manpower. Some people say ‘Surely there’s a more efficient and up-to-date way of operating than having men waiting in their cabins in case a ship happens to come along?’

The answer is that, in busy times, if boat operators could open the road bridges themselves, whenever they wished, there would be a constant opening and closing of the bridge and this would understandably cause great anger among motorists. However, if the operation is controlled by the bridge keeper, he can use his discretion, wait for a few minutes and then allow a number of boats to go through at a single opening.

We get all sorts of boat traffic along the Canal. As we are so wide and deep, ocean ships can use the waterway and earlier this summer some of the craft from the Tall Ships Race came through after a rally at Greenock. They looked splendid with all their rigging. They were a lot different from the power boats that passed through a few years ago during the Round Britain Power Boat Race. They had to abide by the 6 mph speed limit when they were on the man-made Canal sections of the waterway but there is no speed limit on the four lochs and, if I remember correctly, it only took them about eleven minutes to do the 23 miles along Loch Ness.

Bridge of Oich
Bridge of Oich

There is still a little commercial traffic on the Canal. This morning, in fact, two fishing boats passed through and last year there were some trials carried out to see if it could be economical to move timber along the waterway instead of transporting it by road.

However, as you can imagine, most of today’s traffic is tourist traffic and there are two kinds of pleasure craft. Firstly, there are the motor cruisers hired from one of the two Boat Hire Companies that are based at Laggan and at Inverness. Each of these companies owns about 30 boats. Secondly, there are the privately owned boats and these are mainly yachts. Some of these come from Norway and Sweden; Germany and the Netherlands. I’ve also seen yachts from Australia and New Zealand. So these are pretty sophisticated ocean-going vessels.

Just occasionally we see a millionaire’s luxury motor yacht and a couple of years ago we even had one of the Scandinavian Kings come sailing on the Canal. I understand his crew were quite worried when he insisted on taking control of the vessel as it went through one of the locks. Fortunately, he only wanted a brief touch of the wheel for a few seconds – just to say that he had sailed the ship himself – before he gave it back to his experts.

Sometimes people question whether the grant given by the Scottish Government for the maintenance of the Canal is worthwhile. I think the answer must be a cautious ‘Yes’ because the Caledonian Canal is one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions and the industries and services that are linked to it provide jobs and bring welcome money into the area. And, if I’m perfectly honest, the Tea Room business my wife and I run at one of the most picturesque sites on the Canal would almost certainly collapse if the Canal were to shut down!