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Issue 66 - A Remarkable Course

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


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A Remarkable Course

Keith Fergus looks at the history of the once mighty Monklands canal

Most people living in Scotland will be aware of the four main canals that strike their course through the Scottish landscape, these being the Caledonian, Crinan, Forth & Clyde and Union Canals. But what has been the most profitable canal in Scottish history? Well surprisingly none of the above as it was in fact the Monklands Canal, which ran for only 12 miles and connected the great coal-mining region of Monklands with Glasgow. For 50 years, during the 19th century, the Monklands Canal was one of the busiest canals in Britain and by 1863, The Monklands, as it became known, was transporting around 1½ million tonnes of coal and iron a year.

Tragically, almost all of the Monklands Canal was wiped out and today there are only two very short sections still visible (at Drumpellier Country Park and Summerlee Heritage Museum, both in Coatbridge). The rest of the canal was covered when the M8 motorway was built in the late 1960s, early 70s and its course can be followed exactly as you drive along the M8 from near Easterhouse to Glasgow; the culverted remnants of the Monklands canal, supplying water to the Forth and Clyde Canal, now lie underneath six lanes of concrete, consigning this remarkable story of the Industrial Revolution to the past.

Many villages sprang up along the canal’s length due to the economic benefits bestowed by the success of Monklands Canal while there were many innovative engineering developments throughout its existence. Nowadays our other four canals, even though they were nowhere near as successful, are all greatly admired and enjoyed for various forms of recreation but it seems, outwith the local boundaries, the Monklands Canal is all but forgotten apart from the two visible sections of the canal, which are a haven for wildlife and enjoyed by local walkers.

The initial design of the Monklands Canal was under the tutelage of the great Scottish engineer James Watt who, in 1770, was employed by Glasgow city magnates and tobacco barons to survey and construct the early phases of a canal.

This was to begin at Sheepford, which lay to the north of Glasgow in-between Coatbridge and Airdrie and would allow the great reserves of cheap coal at Monklands to be transported simply and quickly into Glasgow with the hope that coal prices would plummet. Prior to this much of Glasgow’s coal was under the grip of a few mine-owners who set the price high (think petrol today) and an Act of Parliament was required for the canal to receive the go-ahead.

At first Watt provided two alternatives as to where the canal would reach Glasgow. The first option was for it to join the River Clyde at Broomielaw but this would have required a flight of expensive locks. The second, and cheaper, preference was to stop short of Glasgow at Germiston from where the coal would be transported by road or rail with no locks being necessary. The Glasgow magnates decided to go with Germiston and Watt spent the next three years overseeing the operation as it inched towards Glasgow. However over time the project was unable to continue due to insufficient funds and at this point Watt left, happy within himself that he had done his bit to reduce coal prices.

At this point a basic cart track linked the canal with Glasgow but money was raised to push the canal, by way of a short railway track, on to Blackhill but further financial problems meant the project stuttered until three brothers, Andrew, John and James Stirling, who were local businessmen, became sole owners of the canal in 1789. The Stirling Brothers put up money for a lock system at Blackhill, (where the canal dropped by 96 feet), and at Sheepford extending the canal to its source at the North Calder Water at Calderbank allowing the coal to be transported quickly and efficiently the full 12 miles. It was also decided to join the canal at Townhead with the Forth & Clyde Canal at Port Dundas by a stretch of water, known as the Cut-off Junction, and this extension required another Act of Parliament. But finally, having taken 24 years to complete, the Monklands Canal opened for business in 1794.

The route, which was determined by the necessity for the canal to keep predominately on level ground, passed through the likes of Faskine (where The Vulcan, the first iron hulled boat, was built in 1819), Palacecraig, Sheepford (now Coatdyke), Coatbridge, Ruchazie and Blochairn to finish at Castle Street in Townhead. The massive Hillend Reservoir was built in 1799 (at the time it was thought to be the largest of its kind in the world) to feed the North Calder Water and the canal eventually drew water from the likes of Bishops Loch and Johnstone Loch.

Faskine and Palacecraig were the first areas to have their coalfields exploited and communities began to spring up along the course of the Monklands Canal as its economic significance grew. By 1830 horse-drawn scows (flat-bottomed barges) were transporting more than 100,000 tonnes of coal into Glasgow (the work horses did is beautifully symbolised by the wonderful Heavy Horse sculpture beside the M8 near Easterhouse).

As traffic increased share prices rocketed accordingly from £15 a share (in 1781) to over £1200 by 1830 and in 1846 the Forth & Clyde Canal Company bought Monklands Canal for the astonishing price of £3400 per share.

The Monklands Canal was an unqualified success. Even the opening of the Monklands to Kirkintilloch railway line in 1826, which was built to transport coal and iron ore to the Forth & Clyde (and was the first public railway in Scotland), had little effect on the canal’s success.

However it was the Gartsherrie Ironworks that catapulted the Monklands Canal into the economic stratosphere. The Baird family were local landowners and they grasped the opportunity that the Monklands coalfields offered and as early as 1816 they had leased a coalfield nearby at Rochsolloch. By the mid 1820s the coal boom was in its ascendancy and by 1828 the Bairds began the assembly of a furnace at Gartsherrie. The renowned Gartsherrie Ironworks opened in May 1830 utilising the Hot Blast Furnace process. Such was the immediate impact of Gartsherrie Ironworks on the canal that hold-ups for the delivery of coal due the influx of traffic were commonplace and ideas were discussed to improve traffic flow, particularly at the Blackhill locks where hold-ups were most prevalent.

In 1832 a Glasgow Civil Engineer called Andrew Thomson recommended the construction of an inclined plane which would transport the empty, lightest boats, leaving the canal clear to cope with the loaded boats making their way through the locks. However this innovative plan was shelved due to cost and the congested traffic continued - even the construction of new double locks in the early 1840s still couldn’t handle the sheer volume of boats. Andrew Thomson’s inclined proposal was finally given the go-ahead in 1850 at a cost of £135,000.

The plane was 317 metres in length with a rise of nearly 30 metres. The boats were carried in caissons (a watertight structure) with power supplied by a steam engine and with 7500 boats subsequently using the inclined plane a year the design was a triumph.

It had to be. By the 1860s Gartsherrie Iron Works employed 3200 people and there were 1½ million tonnes of coal and iron making its way along the Monklands Canal giving rise to one of the busiest stretches of water in Britain.

What is more surprising is that, during its heyday, the Monklands Canal was popular for local recreation and there were sailings for the public between Drumpellier and Easterhouse as well as Sunday school trips. A passenger service also operated along the length of the canal although commuters had to swap barges at Blackhill Locks with the entire journey taking around 2½ hours.

In 1867 the Caledonian Railway bought the Monklands Canal but by the late 19th century traffic along its length had halved, due to the now ferocious competition from the railways, and by 1920 only 30,000 tonnes of coal were being carried.

One system of transport was being defeated by another and in 1942 the Monklands Canal was abandoned and left simply to stagnate although it remained (and still is) the primary water source for the Forth & Clyde Canal.

And with the M8 being built on top of it in the 1960s a contemporary mode of transport finally laid the majority of Monklands Canal to a footnote in history.

Today what remains of Monklands Canal, particularly at Drumpellier Country Park, is surrounded by a wonderful variety of wildlife with the canal banks and surrounding woodland home to myriad of species. The towpath, along the short stretch of water, is lined with attractive mixed woodland and grants a peaceful, thoroughly enjoyable walk – it is such a pity is just stops and alas there is no way of getting it back.

Having spoken to several locals when walking along the canal, the general feeling is there was a huge opportunity missed when the canal was covered over. As one gentleman, happy to tell me he was old enough to remember the canal in its entirety, said to me “Look at all this wildlife, the trees, the reflections, listen to the peace and quiet. Can you imagine if there was 12 miles of canal today making its way towards Glasgow, instead of one? All of it could be enjoyed when walking or cycling along the banks. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” I couldn’t have put it better myself.