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Issue 17 - One man and his boat

Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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One man and his boat

The release of a Ewan MacGregor film following the fortunes of a dysfunctional man travelling onthe canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow has prompted us to send our Ewan MacGregorlookalike, Maxwell MacLeod, on the same journey. This is his story

So, picture it if you will... It's mid-August, and you are sitting beside the Edinburgh to Glasgow canal, on the first leg, the 31 mile long Union canal. The sun beats down like a hammer, and many Scots are responding by, well, getting hammered.

And there's laughing children pointing at a strange apparition that is appearing out of the heat haze.

It's a middle aged balding man sitting in a beautiful wooden skiff that is no bigger than a bath. He's rowing gently but only achieving a speed that could be outpaced by any self-respecting duck.

Who is this eccentric oars person? Alunatic? No gentle reader, it's worse than that. 'Tis this canal correspondent of Scotland Magazine and he has taken it into his head to row from Edinburgh to Glasgow to evaluate the £80 million project that has led to the canal's reopening.

The trip will take three days. Climb aboard.

The first day of the three day voyage was almost comical in its awfulness. The canal starts behind the beer factory in Edinburgh's Fountainbridge, 10 minutes walk from Princes Street.

Lordie what a horrible place it is. Green slime on the water. Drowned Martians everywhere (the canal-side dwellers’ name for semi-submerged blue rubbish bags) and your canal correspondent wishing he had stuck to teaching.

Luckily the reason the slum-locked Fountainbridge end is so smelly is simply that it's so sheltered that the water has no chance of moving. After half an hour of seriously focused sculling, the rower finds he is rowing at a steady three miles an hour through the leafy suburbs
of Edinburgh.

Soon he is nodding happily at fishermen on the banks and stops to buy a hack's recognised survival pack; a morning paper, a cup of coffee and a bacon roll.

Maybe it’s the coffee. Maybe it’s The Independent. Whatever, the rower suddenly decides that the world is a wonderful place, and more importantly that so is the Union Canal. For it is indeed wonderful.

The first thing that you must understand is that the Union isn't really a tired worn out industrial canal at all but a sort of man-made river of great engineering excellence. Indeed the Victorians nick-named it the Mathematical River.

That’s because it took so long in the planning – sound familiar? – that by the time it was actually finished (in 1822), it was only 20 years before the new railways made it relatively obsolete so it was never as industrialised as it might have been and became as much a recreational resource as an industrial one.

If the idea of a canal being engineered to a stunning exactitude doesn't seem to be exactly laugh-a-minute stuff, consider this; this canal is flat. That means to say that there are no locks or lifts along its 31 mile length.

Now imagine if you are consultant engineer Thomas Telford and your design brief is to link half a dozen villages by canal but you have the control of not being allowed to alter the height of that canal by even an inch. As a result every village servicing system, that is its docks and jetties, had to be at exactly 240 feet above sea level.

Now imagine if you are able to achieve that with a huge amount of aesthetic excellence, creating a flat river across south eastern Scotland that gives perspective to its geography, geomorphology and socio-economic history.

It's not laugh-a-minute stuff but if you love Scotland then it's certainly interesting.

Now the Union did of course have its industrial role, indeed much of the stone used to build the New Town was quarried along its banks and then barged into a dock near Lothian Road.

So successful was this system that they seriously considered extending the canal along Princes street, and even down to Leith.

And as for the empty barges going back to the quarry... why they filled them with horse manure and sent them off in the direction of Glasgow.

Anyhow back to the voyage. Having decided that he was having a good time, your correspondent started to drink heavily and chat up women by the score. Well that's not exactly true, but he did stop at the Ratho Inn (near the M8) to sink the odd cider and then, much refreshed, called out merry greetings to the bored dog walkers as he rowed.

Some of who replied most alarmingly.

After that things started to unravel a bit.

At three in the afternoon your intrepid correspondent awakes with a splitting headache from what he had intended to be a short snooze after dreaming about your editor shouting at him. He is immediately aware that his speed that day has been less than two miles an hour, and that he had better get on.

He arrives at Broxburn as the sun sets, hides the dingy in the rushes and catches a taxi home. It is not an expensive ride.

Luckily the travellers on the canal in days gone by didn't have to row their own boats and could drink, and sleep it off, at their leisure.

Indeed the record books show us that in 1834 more than 200,000 travellers rode the passenger barges between Edinburgh and Glasgow with many businessmen and honeymooners preferring the 13 hour overnight sleeper service. With the economy version of that cross Scotland trip costing a mere seven pence it was little wonder that this kind of booze cruise travel became popular not only for business but for recreation as well, and canal side pubs such as the Ratho soon began to thrive.

Of these pubs my favourite, now sadly demolished, was the passage-like tavern that lay long and narrow by the canal bank. According to legend the system was that the pony man would simply give his barge towing horse a good skelp, nip in one end of the pub, walk along quaffing his foaming pint, and nip out the lower door just in time to grab his still trotting nag. What happened to the horse if the pub was crowded is not recorded.

My second day on the Union is more productive.

Setting off early I lay to the oars with a vengeance and am soon burling along at a blistering three miles an hour, a top speed I maintain for a good hour before driving the vessel slushily into the rushes and falling to the floor boards whimpering.

Seeking directions at Winchburgh's Tap-Inn I am encouraged to hear that the next canal section is through delightful meadow lands, which indeed it is. Indeed with the sun still beating down and the Fresian cattle munching contentedly in the canal side fields it is quite a Constablesque scene.

Perhaps the most charming element of this section being an accompanying flotilla of five swans, two adults and three signets, the two elders intermittently hissing warnings to their offspring not to speak to that dreadful looking man in the dingy.

I am given dinner on board a canal craft, the Telford, in Linlithgow, and go home a happy man. Should any reader be tempted to take a walk, cycle, or indeed row along just a part of the Union canal my advice would be to tackle the last part, that is the section between Linlithgow and the Falkirk wheel, for it is indeed by far the most interesting.

Linlithgow itself is captivating enough for a whole day’s exploration but you should push on as the 900 foot long and 85 foot high viaduct over the Avon is a fabulous sight.

And it gets better, for just outside Falkirk lies a 600 foot long tunnel leading to the end of the canal, and the famed Falkirk wheel.

My last hour provides the most amusing incident of the journey. Rowing my tiny craft through the almost pitch black tunnel I become aware in the most immediate of ways that there is a large barge coming in the opposite direction and that I am shortly to be crushed to death.

Now whilst dying in Falkirk may not seem so bad an option, the transition being so slight, I feel I am not quite ready.

Leaping onto the adjacent footpath with a dexterity that would have been the envy of many 19 year olds (fear being the fuel) I rush along the path to inform the skipper of the impending impact which might well lead to the loss of what is probably the first vessel being rowed from Edinburgh to Glasgow for more than 50 years.

"Are you mad?" he blusters in the darkness,echoing the enquiry that has been expressed so often by others in the previous three days. I pause and think about it. It has been a fabulous trip and I feel fit in both body and mind.

"No, as a matter of fact I have never felt saner in my life." I reply.