The Forth & Clyde Canal and Union Canal, the Scottish Lowland Canals
The reopening of these deep and wide Scottish Lowland Canals recreated a 69 mile waterway route running from City to City and Sea to Sea. The dimensions allow Northern European boats to make a journey similar to Scotland's other coast to coast canal, the Caledonian Canal.
The Forth and Clyde Canal; the assistance from the lottery has provided almost 40% of the costs of recovering from the decision (1963) to close this canal which halted regular sea-to-sea passage of herring fishing boats and many pleasure craft. This canal has big locks for small sea going craft (68 feet long x 20 feet wide). All major roads that cross it once permitted full mast headroom by using rolling or swing bridges and the minor roads used two leaf bascules. Many have been renovated although modern masts need some adjustment (2001).
In days of sail it was tempting to contemplate avoiding the trip around the Hebrides that had sunk the Spanish Armada. King Charles thought to make the connection for his warships (1650) and the final section from Glasgow to the Clyde was finished with the help of a Government loan (1784). The company owed much to the energy of its chief shareholder, Lord Dundas, who lived in London but whose estates surrounded the eastern end at Falkirk and Grangemouth. He encouraged many pioneering experiments. Charlotte Dundas, the first steam driven narrowboat (1788), pulled two other loaded narrowboats on a windy day (1803) from Lock 20 for 20 miles in 6 hours. Comet, the first commercial steamboat (1812), and Vulcan, the first iron hulled passenger boat (1818). Cyclops, a New Orleans style paddle boat (1830). They even tried hauling by a bank mounted locomotive for 1 mile above Lock 16 (1839). Following trials on the Paisley Canal supernarrow ‘swiftboats’ (pulled for 2 miles at a time by changing pairs of horses) were introduced (1831) and halved the journey time to Glasgow. Passenger services ran four times a day and even (1841) included nightly ‘sleeper’ services. They only stopped when railways bought out the service.
The Union Canal stretches from Edinburgh to Falkirk. Thirty two years after the Forth and Clyde Canal was open, Baird designed a contour canal from central Edinburgh to join with it at Falkirk. With thirty miles of lock free level towpath and making spectacular river crossings of Almond (5 arch aqueduct 420’ x 76’ high) Avon (12 arches 810’ long x 86’ high), and Water of Leith (8 arches 500’ x 75’ high) it finally dropped down a single flight of 11 locks to the top of the Forth & Clyde’s 16 lock flight leading east to Grangemouth, now replaced by the Falkirk wheel.
The Falkirk Wheel is now a significant landmark rising 115 feet (35m) into the air above the Carron valley. Although unique engineering, it has been also praised as a significant piece of sculpture. It has now been called become the Eighth Wonder of the Waterways. Two boat caissons on the end of curving arms balance each other so that the half-rotation to change levels will take about 11 minutes and use very little energy. At the beginning of each cycle each is at the level of one of the canals whilst boats enter and leave. The tiny motors then turn the precisely balanced wheels through 180° and when each has come to rest the boats are let out at the other canal level. A ride on this magnificent structure, which is served by a new section of canal, two aqueducts, and a 476ft (145m) tunnel, is possible on a special trip boat departing from the Exhibition and Visitor Centre. A round trip of about 40 minutes gives passengers the same panoramic views offered to boatowners.