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Issue 34 - West from the Falkirk Wheel

Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007


This article is 11 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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West from the Falkirk Wheel

Ian R Mitchell explores Scotland's reborn Forth & Clyde canal

It is easy to close a canal, much harder to re-open it. Finished in the 1790s, the Forth & Clyde Canal was the artery of Scotland’s Industrial Revolution. Largely devoted to carrying commercial freight, as this declined so too did the canal and it was closed in 1962, large sections being subsequently infilled or overbuilt. For three decades it was forgotten.

Increasing recreational usage and the restoration of sections of the canal led to the ambitious project to re-open it along its entire length, as a Millennium Project, reinstating locks, repairing canal banks and developing an infrastructure for recreational boating use.

After an expenditure in excess of £84 million, the canal was eventually re-opened in 2001.

Although the term Forth and Clyde is used to designate the 37 miles from Bowling on the Clyde to Grangemouth on the Forth, the network of reopened Scottish canals is greater, including as it does the Union Canal into Edinburgh, and the branch line off the Forth & Clyde into Glasgow, making it now possible to visit Scotland’s two great cities by pleasure craft. The hub of the canal system, where the Union joins the Forth & Clyde, is the town of Falkirk. Here are based many of the companies offering boat hire on the canal, as well as the unmissable Falkirk Wheel, where 21st century engineering has been applied to solve one of the problems created by the restoration of an 18th century canal.

Originally the Union was joined to the Forth and Clyde by 11 locks over 35 vertical yards. But the cost of reinstating these plus the time it would take to get boats through the locks, led to the radical solution of the world’s first rotating boat lift, the staggeringly beautiful Falkirk Wheel. This 115ft high structure can lift the weight of 100 African elephants (though there are not many around Falkirk) and its 1800 tons is driven by electricity sufficient to power six electric kettles, a masterpiece of energy efficiency.

This is because it is built on the principles of Archimedes. The lifts are finely balanced, and as each boat displaces its own weight of water in the rotating barges, only the slightest tilt is necessary to power the Wheel. After Edinburgh Castle and Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum (both of which you can now visit by boat from Falkirk) this masterpiece of modern British engineering has deservedly become, in a couple of years, Scotland’s third tourist attraction with more than 500,000 visitors a year.

Shortly after leaving Falkirk there is a series of locks to negotiate, four in all, before arriving at the cute hamlet of Banknock, with its restored lockkeeper’s houses. The locks on the canal are still operated by muscle power as they were 200 years ago, but at the moment are not self-operated; the helpful British Waterways (BW) staff will lock-hop ahead of you to prepare your way, but should be contacted in advance. Amobile phone is very useful. An afternoon start makes Banknock a good place to berth overnight, and a few hundred yards away in the award winning restaurant of Glenskirlie House if you are eating out.

All along this section of the canal can be seen to the south the sites of the Antonine Wall, constructed by the Romans in the second century, such as the earthworks at Rough Castle. Several of the forts are easily accessible by foot from canalside berthings, such as the Bar Hill with its Roman bath house. Details of possible walks are given in The British waterways Forth and Clyde Canal, Union Canal and Falkirk Wheel.

As this canal was always primarily an industrial canal, and industrial archaeologists will have their eyes full as they move along. Everywhere are the remains of old wharves for the collieries, quarries and factories which were served by the canal, as well as the stabling and warehousing which attached to it. Some of these are still ruinous but gradually they are being restored to use, such as The Stables Restaurant on the canal at Bishopbriggs near Glasgow.

In Kirkintilloch is the Seagull Trust which is based on the site of an old boatyard, J&J Hay’s, which built many of the famous Clyde Puffers.

These were canal and inshore-going cargo boats whose last working survivors could still be seen in the 1980s. The Seagull Trust is a charity specialising in providing canal boating opportunities for the disabled and the disadvantaged. In their yard they modify and restore craft for this purpose.

Kirkintilloch soon gives way to the outskirts of Glasgow, where at Cadder is a delightful spot worth a halt to visit the Kirk. In the graveyard are old stones of interest from the 17th century onwards, and a cast iron mortsafe lying next a gravewatcher’s bothy, complete with fireplace.

Grave robbing was a serious problem, especially when you recall that the infamous resurrection men Burke and Hare started out as navvies building these canals.

Inside Glasgow city boundaries is found Possil Loch, an RSPB reserve which is an internationally important wintering ground for wildfowl, and which drains into the adjacent canal. Access to the loch can be had from paths which lead off from the canal towpath. Birdlife along the canal is plentiful, with more than 50 species recorded.

Swans galore, ducks, geese, herons and cormorants indicate a plentiful supply of fish such as pike, perch roach and eels, which the birds compete for with the fishermen.

Maryhill was the hub of Glasgow’s canal system, where the Forth and Clyde headed for Bowling, while another section branched off at Stockingfield Junction towards the city and to Port Dundas. This, the original canal terminus, was re-opened to navigation this year. Port Dundas was named after a Scottish politician with financial interests in the canal, and the world’s first ever steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, which was tested on the canal itself, was named after his wife. The canal was so important to Maryhill, whose industrial growth it underpinned, that the town hall of the burgh featured stained glass panels of canal horses and bargees, as well as of barge construction at Maryhill Dock.

Maryhill’s days of industrial glory based on the canal are gone. Extensive regeneration plans for the area foresee the development of housing here along the canal, some of which is already being constructed, as well as the provision of leisure facilities such as a marina and arts centre.

There is even talk of a hotel at the Maryhill Locks.

Here, in addition to the locks themselves and other relics such as an old boatyard and canal inn, is a wonder of engineering to rival the Falkirk Wheel, and that is the Kelvin Aqueduct, a scheduled Ancient Monument.

The canal reached Stockingfield Junction in 1775 but the company ran out of funds. More were raised and devoted to the Kelvin Aqueduct which virtually bankrupted the company. Its engineer was Robert Whitworth, who also constructed the locks and when the 400 ft long four arched viaduct was completed in 1790 at a cost of £8500 it was reputed to be the biggest constructed since Roman times. Visitors flocked to see it, including crowned heads of Europe. Bowling and the Clyde is only 13 miles from here but due to the number of locks traversed takes a full day to navigate to, and another back.

At Possil Basin, a delightful mess of buildings from the 18th century to the 20th, is found the BW Scottish headquarters. Here is a secure and safe berth that is manned night and day, and from which a walk of 15 minutes takes you into the heart of Glasgow. There is also an usually a wide variety of craft to view, not only BW vessels, but others such as the Nolly Barge, a community-based venture which operates from the basin. Here too one can see the past and hopefully future of the canal. The past in the fine mansion from the 1800s outside the BW compound, lying ruinous and graffiti-covered, and the future a short walk further along the canal path to the magnificent Spiers Wharf, where former warehouses have been restored as luxury flats and offices, with a splendid outlook over Glasgow.

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