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Issue 57 - Scotland's Shortcuts

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011

 

This article is 6 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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Scotland's Shortcuts

John Hannavy tells the story of the country's canals

Whether the mind dwell on its grandeur or on its lovelier characteristics, it is equally moved to delight and admiration. The bold outline of its stupendous crags or rugged mountains, and the broad bosom on the magnificent lochs, alike glorious in clam or in storm, excite the imagination of those who love nature best in her wildest moods.”
So went the introduction to Sylvan’s Pictorial Handbook to the Scenery of the Caledonian Canal, published in 1848, one of the most successful of the Victorian guidebooks to Scotland’s most beautiful inland waterway.
In addition to bookshops, Sylvan’s guide was sold on board David MacBrayne’s steamers
which plied the length of the canal, to offer a commentary to tourists and other travelers through the stunning scenery.
The story of Scotland’s canals is also the story of several of the greatest late 18th and early 19th century engineers. In the 1770s, James Watt first proposed the building of what became the Caledonian Canal, but his plans came to nothing. Twenty years later John Rennie – born at Phantassie in East Lothian – resurrected the idea, but it was an 1801 proposal by Thomas Telford and James Watt, which finally got government approval. The 60-mile canal, from Corpach at the head of Loch Linnhe to Inverness, was officially opened in 1822, with 29 locks, designed to accommodate what were considered to be large vessels at the time. From the east end at Inverness, 14 locks ascended to the summit, while 15 descended to the west, culminating in the spectacular Neptune’s Staircase flight of eight locks down to Banavie north of Fort William.
Only 22 miles of the total length of the canal was made up of canal cuttings as we known them, the remaining 38 miles of the journey was through Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness,
passing through some of the most celebrated scenery in the country.
Each of the canal’s 29 locks was 170 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 18 feet deep! Nobody could have foreseen just how quickly, in the steamer age, those locks would be unable to cope with the increasing size of cargo vessels.
Ultimately, all of Scotland’s canals suffered from the same problem – the commercial traffic for which they were built, and upon which their business plans were based, could no longer be accommodated. The canals became increasingly used by fishing boats and passenger steamers. Today the traffic is largely pleasure craft – but
that is growing, giving the waterways a whole
new future.
While John Rennie’s plans to build a canal through the Great Glen came to nothing, his Crinan Canal across the top of the Mull of
Kintyre was completed and opened in 1801 – the year Telford had received approval for the Caledonian Canal.
Regular readers of Scotland Magazine will recall that Daniel Defoe was struck by how close the two great rivers, the Forth and the Clyde, came to each other at their closest point, and suggested the idea of building a canal between them more than 250 years ago.
Some 40 years after Defoe’s remarks, a canal linking the Forth and Clyde was built. John Smeaton designed a viable engineering solution to linking the two rivers, and work started in 1768. The canal, however – the first in Scotland – would not be eight miles long as Defoe had suggested, but 35. It required 39 locks to link the two rivers, and turned out to be a much bigger engineering undertaking than he had ever envisaged! It finally opened to traffic until 1790, but it too was quickly found to be too small for the sort of traffic for which its designers had planned.
Today, thanks to the Millennium Project and the building of the Falkirk Wheel, the canal is
fast becoming the focal point of a resurgent
tourist industry.
The Forth & Clyde Canal linked Bowling on the Clyde with Grangemouth on the Forth, and the 1822 Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal, designed by Hugh Baird, linked the Forth & Clyde Canal at Falkirk with Edinburgh. These were the motorways of their day, the most country’s important transport links before either railways or properly surfaced roads.
Amongst the many construction workers who built the Union Canal were William Burke and William Hare whose notorious serial killings a few years later would ensure their enduring place in Scotland’s Victorian history!
Scotland’s three other canals have disappeared. The Monkland Canal – designed to carry coal into Glasgow to fuel the city’s industries – opened in 1794. It closed in the 1930s.
Part of the route of the canal is now buried beneath Glasgow’s M8 motorway.
The Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone Canal was originally intended to extend as far as Ardrossan, but it was never completed. Opened in 1810, it never made money, and by 1881 had gone completely. In its place was the Paisley Canal Railway, largely built along the line of the canal, and even using one of its former aqueducts as a rail bridge. That bridge, over the River Cart, is the oldest bridge in Britain still used by a railway.
Scotland’s shortest canal – the half-mile long Forth and Cart Junction Canal was the only one opened in QueenVictoria’s reign – in 1840 – and it closed during her reign as well, just 53 years later! It had never made a profit.
The four which are left – the Caledonian, the Crinan, the Union and the Forth & Clyde canals – are now enjoying a resurgence in funding, and a huge increase in use as leisure boating increases in popularity. The Millennium Project also ensured that canal architecture would enter the 21st century, with the amazing Falkirk Wheel replacing a significant flight of locks between the Union Canal and the Forth & Clyde Canal. The four surviving canals are seeing significant increases in traffic, and are now every bit as much a part of Scotland’s heritage – and her attraction – as the mountains and lochs we also enjoy.