While Telford was pressing ahead with this pioneering and prodigious civil engineering activity, a Helensburgh hotelier, Henry Bell, unleashed a revolutionary transport innovation – steam navigation.
In 1812, Bell conceived of and operated Europe’s first commercial steamboat, Comet, on the Clyde. Bell was an odd mixture: ingenious, visionary and persuasive but ever in debt, somewhat tactless and an atrocious speller – in so many ways the archetypal inventor.
Comet was soon outclassed on the Clyde by rivals who swiftly improved on Bell’s design. Undaunted, Bell transferred Comet to the Firth of Forth. However, in 1819 she was returned to the west coast and lengthened to inaugurate a service from Glasgow to Fort William via the Crinan Canal – the very first west highland steamer.
Of course, as construction of the Caledonian Canal progressed, Henry Bell’s sights were on a through sea route to Inverness and in May 1820 he is recorded as “making arrangements for a boat from Inverness to Fort Augustus and a carriage from there to Fort William”.
On the opening of the eastern part of the canal in 1820, the steamer Stirling Castle, which had recently been acquired, was transferred from the Forth to ply between Inverness and Fort Augustus – the first Loch Ness steamer.
It is interesting to note that among the registered owners of the vessel are Henry Bell himself with 4/64th share and Thomas Telford with 2/64th, thus it seems the two great innovators knew each other quite well.
On 13 December of that same year, Comet was wrecked at the Dorus Mòr near Craignish, Argyll. A second Comet was built and running on the Fort William station by July 1821. It was this vessel, under the command of Captain Robert Bain, which made the first eastbound sea-to-sea passage of the Caledonian Canal upon its opening throughout on 28 November 1822. The return trip was commenced on the following day.
The two-ship venture offering a regular through steamboat service between Inverness and Glasgow went well, for the Glasgow Courier reported in November 1823 that: “The Loch Ness Steam Boat has this season been so successful as to pay off all debts and divide 12½ percent.”
Unfortunately, this good fortune was not to prevail. Comet (II) was run down and sunk by another steamer on the Clyde in October 1825 with considerable loss of life and, in January 1828, Stirling Castle also foundered in a gale in Loch Linnhe. In this latter case, a butler to the Laird of Moidart was drowned and Colonel Alasdair Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry, died that evening as a result of injuries sustained.
It is an irony that Colonel Macdonell had earlier campaigned against the canal and “smoking steam-vessels” damaging his privacy. For all his protest, Mac Mhic Alasdair, as Macdonell was known in Gaelic, had made some £14,000 out of the canal from sale of land and timber.
A celebrated portrait by Raeburn, of this “last of the chiefs”, hangs in the national Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. His passing marked the end of the old order of chief and clan and the arrival of a new era in which roads, canal and steamboats permitted swift movement of people and goods. This allowed the development of a modern economy based on trade and tourism and the integration for the first time of the Highlands with the rest of Scotland.
The losses of Comet (II) and Stirling Castle were made good by the purchase of other steamers, namely Highland Chieftain and Ben Nevis, to maintain a weekly service between Inverness and Glasgow. Bell’s involvement in the business diminished due no doubt to ill health and financial difficulties but other entrepreneurs took up the management.
The Inverness service was now one of a number of new steamboat routes operating between Glasgow and the Highlands and from time to time ships employed on these routes were switched to serve Inverness. Such vessels included Maid of Morven, acquired in 1827 and advertised as sailing from Glasgow every Thursday for Oban and Inverness, and from Inverness every Monday for Oban and Glasgow.
Two further steamers Staffa and Inverness were acquired in 1832, both serving at times on the Inverness route. In 1834–35 Inverness sailings were extended to Cromarty, Invergordon and Burghead. A competitive service from Liverpool to Inverness was also inaugurated in 1834 with the steamer Glenalbyn.
In 1835, Inverness and other steamers Rob Roy and Helen MacGregor were taken over by Glasgow ship-owner George Burns and by 1836 Maid of Morven, Staffa and another vessel Highlander were in the hands of the celebrated marine engineer Robert Napier who added Brenda to his fleet a year later.
By 1838 Messrs Thomson & McConnell of Glasgow assumed management of Napier’s vessels and from 1839 Messrs Burns and Thomson & McConnell instituted joint workings.This consolidation enabled the development of an integrated network of steamer routes and summer excursions serving the West Highlands and Inverness. Interconnecting “swift steamers”, for passengers and their luggage only, now linked Glasgow with Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne, from thence by horse-drawn track boat through the Crinan Canal to Crinan with an onward connection to Oban and points beyond including Corpach and a further connection to Inverness.
While the steamer services were a success, the Caledonian Canal was not generating the level of revenue to its owners that had been hoped. A major issue was inadequate depth of water for the larger class of sailing vessels. There had also been a series of flooding crises at times of heavy rain.
To remedy matters, the canal was closed in sections between 1844 and 1847 to enable deepening and other improvements to be carried out with a cash injection from the Treasury at a cost of a further £228,000. This work must have occasioned serious disruption to through services but towards the end of that programme of works, with the middle sections open again for traffic, two rival operators appeared on the canal.
In 1846, William Ainslie, a Fort William coaching operator, introduced his steamboat Glencoe between Gairlochy at the southern end of Loch Lochy and Dochgarroch, a few miles south-west of Inverness, in conjunction with his coaches from Fort William. In the same year, the Glasgow Castle Steam Packet Company placed their two-year-old steamer Edinburgh Castle on the canal to oppose the Glencoe.
These ships between them inaugurated a pattern that was to last for nearly a century. That was a daily (or thrice weekly at quieter times) “swift steamer” link (not actually all that swift in view of the time taken to negotiate locks) linking with the chain of other swift steamer routes from Corpach to Glasgow, albeit with coach connections temporarily substituted for those sections of the canal still under redevelopment.
The ships are each also of particular interest because a photograph discovered in 1982 in Fort Augustus, dating from the late 1840s, almost certainly features Glencoe lying at Fort Augustus facing south – probably the oldest surviving photograph of any Scottish paddle steamer. The Edinburgh Castle is notable as eventually serving on the canal for a record eighty-one years.
With the canal open again for through traffic from 1 May 1847, now with a water depth of 16 feet, Prince Albert passed along it on the steam yacht Fairy, afterwards attending the Northern Meeting Ball in Inverness to a rapturous reception.
Of more commercial concern, the outmoded Rob Roy and Helen MacGregor were replaced in 1848 by two new, if odd-looking, iron sister ships Cygnet and Lapwing on the Glasgow–Inverness route via the Crinan and Caledonian Canals. As the locks of the Crinan Canal are much smaller than those of the Caledonian these ships were limited to a length of about 80 feet.
They were scheduled to depart Glasgow at 12 noon on Mondays and Fridays and Inverness at 6 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These vessels did not have it all their own way as Alexander Ainslie, presumably a relation of William, put his Maid of Lorn on the Glasgow–Inverness route in competition.
Loch Ness with Jacobite
A history of cruising on Loch Ness
By Roy Pedersen
First published in Scotland in 2007
Second revised edition 2015
available in these languages