Before the Crinan Canal was built, there were only four small houses at Ardrishaig. It is therefore fair to say, the history of Ardrishaig started with the construction of the Crinan Canal.
The Crinan Canal, once described as the 'most beautiful shortcut in the world', started as the Duke of Argyll's canal. The canal was created to open up the West Coast and improve access to the Western Isles thus offering a safe transit route from Ardrishaig, Loch Fyne to Crinan. This would avoid the often hazardous sail around the Mull of Kintyre in addition to cutting over 160km (100 miles) off the journey time. In 1771, James Watt surveyed the region to find a course for the canal. Since no money was available at that time, nothing was done.
However a concrete proposal to construct the canal came only when Parliament passed the Crinan Canal Act in 1793. Investors were convinced, this was a money-spinning opportunity. The Duke's Company of Proprietors of the Crinan Canal held all their meetings in London and they had no difficulty in raising enough capital (£92,000) by floating £50 shares. Shares were picked up by the gentlemen of London and Glasgow, including Campbells, local Highland land owners and Josiah Wedgwood of the famous pottery family. John Rennie, a 32 year old engineer from East Lothian with extensive experience in canal building, who had surveyed the region a year earlier, was appointed as a consulting engineer. For a salary of 200 guineas a year he agreed to attend all meetings in London and spend a month on site of the Crinan Canal every year, however within a year he persuaded the Proprietors that he did not need to be at site in Argyll and his salary be halved.
Crinan Canal Office was setup in the newly laid, planned, town of Inveraray. When the resident engineer attended his monthly meetings there, it took him a day to travel there and another day, sometimes two, to attend meetings and return home. Experienced canal workers in Argyll were not easy to find. A resident engineer was appointed, John Paterson, who had never seen a canal and he has to be sent to Lancaster Canal for three months for a short course in canal work. Some of the contractors could not be relied upon and on one the engineer reported "Cairncross has not been here for three months past, and his partner is of no greater use when present than absent".
MacNeil of Gigha, one of the proprietors, made a fortune as land was purchased from him at two and a half times the valuer's price. With great pomp and show the work started at the Pont of Ardrishaig, "the point full of briars". The Point jutted out into the waters of Loch Gilp and was determined as the most suitable place to make the entry to the canal from the sea. Andrew Brocket, the masonry contractor excavated the sea-lock and the other three locks just above it, using freestone from the isle of Arran. Some 600 labourers worked their way about, haphazardly, using simple tools. Supervision was inadequate, work quality was poor, digging was erratic and jutting-up hard rocks were not cut flat. The locks were built of poor quality rubble. Blasting and cutting of the last half mile near Crinan proved most difficult. When the funds dried out, the Government lent £25,000 on the security of future tolls, and the Proprietors themselves raised another £10,000 so that the Canal could be completed. The Canal was opened in 1801 even though it was still incomplete. The Proprietors had hoped the Canal would make enough money to pay off the debt and to make a handsome profit.
Disasters were frequent: in 1796 hundreds of yards of the Canal bank subsided 9 feet, Lock 11 at Dunardry was uneven as part of it was built on sand, leakages were frequent, in 1805 the Canal burst its banks and it was closed for almost a year, in 1811 the main reservoir gave way in a storm and the flood swept mud & rock into the Canal and smashed lock gates at Cairnbaan and the Canal was closed for 18 months as there was no money to repair. Financial problems seemed un surmountable until the Commissioners of the Caledonian Canal sent their own engineer, Thomas Telford, to assess the situation. Telford's recommendations amounted to a thorough renewal of the Canal at a cost of over £18,000. An experienced John Gibb, who had worked with Thomas Telford at Aberdeen, arrived with skilled workmen and promptly and methodically started to work. They repaired or replaced every faulty stonework, lock-gate and bridge. They raised the banks, straightened out the worst bends and removed rocks to level the Canal bed. These workers skill and labour saved the Canal.
The Canal was reopened on November 20, 1817. Twenty vessels, towed by horses, passed through the Canal from Crinan to Ardrishaig that day. However' the Crinan Canal never became financially self-supporting and the loans remained unpaid. Therefore in 1848 the Caledonian Canal Commissioners formally took control of the Canal. By 1854, the canal was carrying 33,000 passengers, 27,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle. Between 1930 and 1932, new sea locks were constructed at either end, making the canal accessible at any state of tide. For many years, some of the most prominent sights on the canal were the Clyde Puffers, little cargo vessels designed to fit the Crinan Canal. They delivered coal to the West Coast, bringing back whisky and other produce. Now only two puffers are left on the canal, Auld Reekie and Vic 32, both are based at the canal basin in Crinan. Lock 14 and the canal bank between Crinan and Bellanoch were extensively improved in 1991, in an effort to reduce the amount of water lost through leakage.
Today the canal itself is no longer being used to carry freight though recreational value has increased considerably; it is being used by yachts and fishing vessels. And the harbour at Ardrishaig has become an important part in Scotland’s timber trade. Approximately 30,000 tonnes pass through the harbour each year. However recent refurbishments and modernisation has boosted capacity to 150,000 tonnes.