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Scotland’s Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness Monster

Scotland

Scotland is sliced in half by the Caledonian Canal — with 20 miles of British-built locks and canals. This Industrial Age infrastructure laced scenic lakes into a shipping lane. And many believe that, in the biggest and deepest lake swims…the Loch Ness Monster.

Complete Video Script

As we drive north from Glencoe, we find a massive fault line, slashing about 60 miles across the Highlands, nearly cutting Scotland in two. The drive from here northeast to Inverness follows three long, skinny lakes created by the "Great Glen Fault" and a series of 19th-century canals that lace them together. This is the Caledonian Canal.

Perhaps the most idyllic stop along the canal is the little town of Fort Augustus, built around an impressive staircase of locks. Today, this historic piece of British engineering is a welcoming park.

Two hundred years ago, as Britain was at full steam during the Industrial Age, it connected these lakes with about 20 miles of canals and locks. That was so its ships could avoid the long journey around the north of the country. The Caledonian Canal took 19 years and cost a fortune to construct. It opened in 1822.

While these locks were an engineering marvel in their day, they were quickly antiquated — and a disaster commercially. Shortly after the canal opened, ships were built too big to fit. And, shortly after that, with the advent of steam trains, the Caledonian Canal became almost useless…except for Romantic Age tourism. And today, the canal remains a hit with holiday-goers.

The most famous part of the Caledonian Canal route is the long and skinny Loch Ness. Twenty-two miles long and over 700 feet deep, it's essentially the vast chasm of that fault line, filled with water. They say Loch Ness contains more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined.

Loch Ness is deepest near Urquhart Castle. While thoroughly ruined, and little more than an empty shell to climb through, in its medieval heyday this strategically situated castle was one of the most important in the Highlands — controlling traffic along the Great Glen. Today, so gloriously situated with a view of virtually the entire lake, it's extremely popular with tourists, and the perfect place to look for the Loch Ness monster.

While the lake is, frankly, boring, the local tourist industry thrives on the legend of the Loch Ness monster. It is a thrilling thought, and there have been several seemingly reliable "sightings."

And, of course, there's a touristy exhibit that would love to tell the story thoughtfully. The Loch Ness Exhibition is spearheaded by scientist and naturalist Adrian Shine, who's spent decades studying the Nessie phenomenon.

Rick: Adrian, can you tell me the mission of this exhibition?
Adrian: Our mission is to be part of the essential sense of place. We are not a monster show, but we will tell you a lot, whether you like it or not, about Scottish lochs, by arguing about the Loch Ness monster. But we do it in a fairly entertaining way, I like to think, because we're talking about the one thing we would all like to have in Loch Ness. What we do is take you through the history of the search for an unusual animal in Loch Ness. In the '60s, it was surface surveillance, with big, telephoto-lens cameras. Having failed, in the '70s, we went underwater, partly in my own little, photographic hide, Machan. Having failed to encounter a beast, we resorted to sonar in the 1980s — sort of underwater radar. We built a flatpack sonar search vessel on a beach in 1981, patrolled up and down the loch. The contacts led, in the end, to Operation Deep Scan in 1987, with the fleet. In the '90s, we got a bit canny. We used an indirect method and we have been, ever since, and it's general science. What could the loch support, in terms of food resources? What do the temperatures tell us about what could live in Loch Ness? And, finally, we have the environmental message, in terms of the record within the Loch Ness sediments. I would like our visitors to go away thinking about what could live in Loch Ness, when we have explained Loch Ness. Go and see Loch Ness, but, if you want to understand it, come here. And, at the same time, and above everything, we want them to go away knowing a lot more about Scottish lochs.