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IWA in Scotland


The principal navigable inland waterways of Scotland are under the care of Scottish Canals as navigation authority. Scottish Canals is still a trading arm of British Waterways and is a quango sitting under the Scottish Government. The waterways divide more or less into two halves: the Highland Canals and the Lowland Canals.

In the north, the Caledonian Canal is a fraction over 59 miles long, while the Crinan Canal is just nine miles and, cutting across the Kintyre Peninsular, saves blue-water boats an exposed 130-mile excursion around the Mull of Kintyre.

The Forth & Clyde and Union Canals total 63 miles, again forming two equal halves. To these distances can be added 2½ miles for the Glasgow Branch of the Forth & Clyde Canal, together with what remains of the unnavigable Monkland Canal (once 12¼ miles long, connecting the coalfields around Airdrie with its customers in Glasgow, and the towpath now a local amenity).

In fact, the IWA Inland Waterways Directory – – identifies a total of 720 miles of inland waterways in Scotland, of which 660 are navigable. With Scottish Canals responsible for around 150 miles, the remaining waterways are managed by 16 diverse navigation authorities.

Unlike their Lowland counterparts abandoned during the 1960s, both Highland Canals have been in continuous use since their completion: the Crinan in 1809 and the Caley (as it is affectionately known locally) in 1822.


Once the domain of Clyde Puffers, fishing boats and passenger steamers, the Crinan Canal today plays host to the occasional workboat and to yachts from all over Europe and beyond. Its 15 locks and seven moveable bridges are self-operated by their crew, although it is possible to engage the services of ‘pilots’ to assist: a rôle that would have been fulfilled by ‘hobblers’ on waterways south of the border.


The eastern end of the canal joins Loch Gilp (a modest inlet on the west coast of Loch Fyne) at the small port of Ardrishaig, established to support the 19th century herring fishery, and now an important outlet for local timber. In 2017 part of the pier collapsed, threatening the timber-based economy.  IWA campaigned for its repair, ultimately helping to persuade Transport Scotland to part with £1.7 million to return it to use 18 months later.

The Caledonian Canal stretches from Fort William on Scotland’s west coast, north east to Inverness and the Beauly Firth, following a geological fault line – torn by tectonic plates moving against each other some 380 million years ago and known as the Great Glen. There is barely a total of 20 miles of man-made canal, constructed to connect three existing lochs, sitting in an already accommodating alignment!

However, this relatively short section of waterway necessitated the building of 29 locks and 11 moveable bridges, including two for the railway. To ease traffic congestion in Inverness, a twelfth has recently been added.

This is a navigation with ship-carrying capabilities having locks 150’ long and 35’ wide. Fresh water draught is given as 13’ 6” and air draught for inland passage is 115’. The Kessock Bridge, spanning the Beauly Firth beyond the canal mouth, effectively reduces this to 89’ 9”. Transport Scotland has been generous with capital grants in recent years, which has allowed the navigation authority to start playing catch up with maintenance arrears on both Highland Canals but commercial traffic is limited and the Caley’s true potential is very far from being realised.

The interconnected Forth & Clyde and Union Canals were reopened in 2002, supported by a £100 million National Lottery funded Millennium grant. The Falkirk Wheel, replacing the 11 locks that had originally joined the two waterways, is the undoubted jewel in the crown of the restoration and, as the only rotating boat lift in the world, is justifiably one of Scotland’s foremost tourist attractions.

A shortfall of £18 million in the total estimated sum required to fully complete the restoration meant that shortcuts were taken and reclaimed materials were sometimes used in place of new. Whilst this means that many lock gates, for instance, are now due for replacement it doesn’t explain why key targets, underpinning the rationale for reopening these two waterways, have never been met.

Amongst other things, it was projected that there would be a total of 600 boats across the two canals and that the Forth & Clyde would resume its role as a transit canal, connecting the two eponymous firths, with upwards of 300 passages a year. Twenty years later, the reality is that there are half that number of boats moored on the two navigations – and from a high of around 200 transits per year, soon after the reopening, numbers have steadily declined and are now into single figures.

Despite both canals being upgraded from Remainder Waterways to Cruiseways in 2014, things have not run entirely smoothly in the second decade following restoration and on several occasions IWA has had to step in to support local campaigning groups.

Without attempting to model the outcomes, Scottish Canals proposed installing a fixed pod in one of the two gondolas of the Falkirk Wheel, to give visitors the chance to undergo a rotation without the need to embark on one of the trip boats that also provide the experience.  It was obvious from the start that at busy times, especially weekends when a significant number of the hire boat fleet based at the foot of the wheel set out for Edinburgh, with one pod permanently out of commission, there would be a traffic jam, with hirers quite unable to maintain their schedule: something that IWA didn’t hesitate to point out!

This was followed by closure of the canals through lift bridge failures which, at one point, peaked at a total of six: two requiring considerable expenditure to remediate, putting the future of the navigation of the Forth & Clyde in serious jeopardy. Local stakeholders formed an alliance under the banner of Keep Canals Alive of which IWA became a pivotal member.

This was followed in short order by a moorings price review (Scottish Canals has a virtual monopoly of all the moorings available on the Lowland Canals) with the outcome disputed by boaters on the two canals, resulting in a petition being lodged with the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee. It soon became apparent to the Committee that mooring issues were but the tip of the iceberg and IWA was asked to contribute a report outlining the situation as they saw it.

IWA gave evidence of significant shortcomings in the administration of the navigations which led, indirectly, to the forming of Scottish Waterways for All –, introducing a formal point of contact between Scottish Canals and their stakeholders. IWA now holds a seat on the SWfA management committee and has even lent its castoff 1990s slogan!

A perception (and ultimately a problem) common to all the waterways under the aegis of Scottish Canal is their unreliability in both commercial and leisure applications, something that seriously undermines confidence in their potential use. Lack of dredging, excessive weed growth and, in the case of the Forth & Clyde Canal, badly leaking lock gates (alongside other unreliable infrastructure) means that yacht skippers opt to use the Caley – or even the Pentland Firth – to navigate from one side of Scotland to the other, rather than risk becoming trapped between the Firths of Forth and Clyde.

Only a very limited number of the locks and bridges on the Lowland Canals are considered suitable for self-operation, which means that transits have to be booked 48hrs in advance so that assistance can be provided by bank staff. Nearly all the locks on the Forth & Clyde lack by-washes and, throughout the year, water constantly weirs over the top gates, threatening the unwary with capsize.

IWA has offered the services of its Honorary Engineers and its Waterway Recovery Group to initiate the provision of by-washes, so taking the financial pressure off Scottish Canals in having to provide assisting staff. As yet the navigation authority has not availed itself of this and other offers.

Available, serviced moorings on the Lowland Canals are currently limited and Scottish Canals holds an almost complete monopoly. About 50 moorings are awaiting completion but prospective moorers get little encouragement from the navigation authority. This jars with what was probably a unique initiative, namely Living on Water: 63 brand new, fully serviced pontoon moorings established between Bowling and Edinburgh.

It has subsequently been left to Community Moorings Scotland  – a charity recently set up to provide an alternative mooring offering – to make the running as far as new moorings are concerned, their first nine-boat site being at Narrowboat Farm, near Linlithgow

In its current Asset Management Strategy for the Lowland Canals, Scottish Canals acknowledges that there is now an accumulation of over £70 million worth of outstanding work with the most vulnerable section of the waterway being the heavily-locked, western end of the Forth & Clyde Canal, spanning the nine miles of Locks 21 ­– 38: Maryhill to Bowling. In the event of a funding shortfall, it makes it clear that this is the first length of waterway it will abandon which would, of course, make a total nonsense of reopening the Forth & Clyde as a transit canal. The outstanding work is now believed to be over £112 million (2023 figure).


There are no opportunities to hire a boat on the Crinan Canal but this is more than made up for on the Caledonian Canal. Caley Cruisers – – operates from Inverness, while Le Boat – –  hires out cruisers from Laggan Locks. Yachts can be chartered from which is based in Seaport Marina, on the canal in Inverness.


On the Lowland Canals, the navigation authority is effectively the franchisee for three of the national narrowboat hire firms and they operate 19 narrowboats and one widebeam from a base beside the Falkirk Wheel –

More than 95% of the boat movements on the Lowland Canals are down to a diverse range of charity boats and the hire boat fleet. In Edinburgh, Fountainbridge Canal Community – operates a wide-beam for charter, together with two day boats. People Know – also runs a wide-beam for charter.

In Ratho, The Sorted – set up to help members of the recovery community, has a wide-beam and a work-boat that are used for voluntary work along the Union Canal. Seagull Trust – operates from two bases on the Union Canal, while the Linlithgow Union Canal – is very active, with a variety of boats, towards the western end of the waterway.

On the Forth & Clyde Canal there is a third Seagull Trust base at Kirkintilloch, home also to the Forth & Clyde Canal – while at Falkirk Go Forth and – operates a day boat and also has the contract to operate the locks from the Kelpies up to the summit pound.

Alongside the IWA’s presence in Scotland, and very much complementary, is the Lowland Canal ­– which provides a hands-on interface between boaters and Scottish Canals, looking after navigation, safety and day by day boating issues. It was amongst the earliest of the local organisations to champion boaters’ interests and was instrumental in taking the complaint over the original mooring review to the Public Petitions Committee.

RYA – also holds a watching brief over the Scottish Canals, especially those used as transit routes by blue water boaters. They are represented on the RYA Inland Navigation Panel which meets twice a year in London, with oversight of all matters to do with navigation on the inland waterways of Great Britain.

As Scottish Canals does little to encourage boats onto the system, it is generally best for potential new moorers (especially those keen to bring their craft up from England) to work through the local IWA representative [email protected].  It is usually less expensive and easier to launch boats on to the rivers Clyde or Carron than directly on to the lowland canals – there are details and navigation tips covering the practicalities of this on the River Clyde and River Forth (which includes the River Carron) pages.

Scottish Canals publishes a series of Skippers guides to navigating the waterways under its control which can be downloaded at Whilst the Nicholson Guide to the Waterways for Scotland has been out of print for some years, second hand copies can be found on Amazon and ABE Books amongst other places. River Canal Rescue’s WaterNav app – – covers Scotland, although this is the one region still to be updated.

It should, however, be noted that narrowboats are not allowed on the Caledonian Canal as with a 22-mile ‘fetch’ on Loch Ness alone, the water state can change dramatically in the course of a transit, putting it way outside the weather window suitable for Category D craft. With only one (blue water) marina on its diminutive nine-mile length, there are no inland waterway craft on the Crinan Canal.

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