CRUISE GUIDE: FORTH & CLYDE CANAL
Including Scotland’s most populous city and its newest landmark, the Kelpies, join us on a trip along Scotland’s oldest coast-to-coast waterway
We’re going to begin our tour of Scotland’s first great sea-to-sea canal, opened in 1790, neither at Bowling where its western end meets the Clyde, nor where its eastern limit connects to the Forth near Grangemouth. Instead, we’ll start near Camelon, west of Falkirk.
Why? Partly because since the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal were restored and reopened, this is the new junction where the routes to Edinburgh and Glasgow diverge; and where the spectacular Falkirk Wheel forms the link (more of that next month when we visit the Union Canal). It’s also where the hire fleets are based – so for most visitors, it’s where your journey is likely to start.
We mentioned the routes to Scotland’s two greatest cities, but first we’ll head off in the third direction: east to the Firth of Forth. It’s a short length but with interesting features, beginning a mile from the junction with the Union Inn and the first of a series of descending locks.
The aptly-named Union Inn marks the original junction where the Union Canal entered the Forth & Clyde, still indicated by a widening. You can search out some surviving remains of the former flight of 11 locks (see walk, CB September 2016) as well as the Antonine Wall, the Roman Empire’s northernmost limit. Six locks begin a steep descent through Falkirk. Note the canalside cut-out steel statues of local heroes including Robert Barr, originator of the legendary Scottish soft drink Irn-Bru. The sixth lock is followed by the A803 bridge: the town’s shops are a mile east, and Callendar House (see inset) beyond.
Continuing down the locks, there are signs of the what it took to reopen the canal in 2001 after 38 years’ dereliction: boats cruise through a gateless former lock, where a length of canal was lowered to provide navigable headroom under the main road. The headroom
issue was what closed the canal: as built, all its bridges opened for seagoing craft; by 1963 with the spread of modern roads this was no longer seen as an option.
Leaving the town behind, a sharp left turn is a sign of more changes to the canal. The M9 motorway blocked the original route to Grangemouth Docks, so as part of the restoration a new arm and lock into the River Carron provided an alternative. The tidal range and low headroom under the river bridges meant this wasn’t entirely satisfactory; so a third entrance has now been created – accompanied by Scotland’s canals’ newest landmark: the Kelpies. The two vast horses’ heads, built from hundreds of gleaming stainless steel plates, stand guard either side of the new Lock 2, as part of the Helix Park (see inset). But while the Kelpies are a work of art, the lock has a purpose: it leads to a new length of canal avoiding the River Carron’s problems, ending at a new tidal lock. To remind us that, despite its headroom limits, the canal still has a role carrying coast-to-coast seagoing traffic (albeit leisure rather than cargo), the lock is fitted with a de-masting crane.
Returning to Camelon, we’ll head west – and soon all traces of Falkirk are left behind, with a wooded hillside on the
south, and open country to the north.
Despite the disappearance of many original opening bridges a number remain, and at Bonnybridge a liftbridge carries a road. Another mile leads to the first of four widely spaced locks.
The scenery might lack the Highlands’ sheer grandeur, but don’t take the term ‘Lowland Canals’ to imply that it’s flat: the canal follows a broad valley, between the Kilsyth Hills rising steeply to over 1500ft, and the ridge carrying the Antonine Wall. At Wyndford Lock the canal reaches its summit level: a broad, straight, and impressive stretch that
leads to Auchinstarry Basin, the first boaters’ facilities since Falkirk, and a short walk away from Kilsyth’s shops.
A much more winding length follows, the continuing rural scenery giving few clues that this was once a centre of mining and quarrying. The Kilsyth Hills give way to the Campsite Fells as the canal passes Twechar village to reach Kirkintilloch, a former industrial town that’s the subject of a Scottish ditty…
In Kirkintilloch there’s nae pubs, And I’m sure you’ll wonder why My brother and me, we went on a spree, And we drank the pubs a’ dry…
There were indeed no pubs, as it was one of 40 places which voted to ban them under the Temperance (Scotland) Act of 1913. Happily for thirsty boaters, it’s no longer true: the Kirky Puffer pub recalls the locally-built sea-going Clyde ‘Puffers’ made famous by the Para Handy
‘The canal follows a broad valley between the Kilsyth Hills rising to over 1,500ft, and a ridge carrying the Antonine Wall’
stories. The town is a good shopping stop, while waterway interest is kept up by an aqueduct over the Luggie Water.
The broad valley is replaced by gently rolling country as the summit continues towards Glasgow. Despite the approach of Scotland’s most populous city, the canal retains a rural appearance past Bishopbriggs, Possil Loch (a nature reserve) and the suburbs of Cadder and Lambhill to Stockingfield Junction.
Here the main line continues to the right, while the Glasgow Branch diverges to the left. The junction lacks a towpath bridge, so walkers pass underneath via a road aqueduct with no pavements. This may be remedied in a manner to rival the Kelpies: the Bigman, an enormous stylised statue, would lean against a tall pylon supporting a new bridge (see news, CB December 2016). First we’ll take the left turn, to follow the Glasgow Branch as it clings to the contour giving fine views across the city.
Partick Thistle Football Club might not be as well-known as Celtic or Rangers, but it has them beaten when it comes to the situation of its stadium, in a natural bowl with the canal running round three sides, accompanied by Firhill Basin.
By Scottish Canals’ Applecross Street offices stands a manual double bascule bridge, an original feature of the canal. A fine range of warehouses converted to modern uses marks Spiers Wharf, the terminus when the Branch reopened in 2001, and an easy walk to the city centre.
Beyond, the canal continued to Port Dundas basins and the former Monkland Canal. Sadly, the Monkland in Glasgow was destroyed by the M8 motorway; but the link to Port Dundas has now been reinstated, with two new locks.
Port Dundas is home to a watersports centre but otherwise a down-at-heel ex-industrial area; regeneration plans look set to make it more of a destination.
Back on the Main Line, the summit ends at the monumental stone-built Maryhill Locks, separated by short, almost circular pounds. They lead down to the River Kelvin Aqueduct, whose opening inspired a poem:
Tho’ spiteful Kelvin threatened to divide Forth’s tumbling flood from joining with the Clyde Thy rising form, majestic, interposed Strode o’er the vale and the wide gap was clos’d…
The 400ft long 70ft high aqueduct is still very impressive. It’s best seen from a network of riverside footpaths linked to the towpath, which lead to the Kelvin Walkway and down towards the Clyde.
The canal now passes through Glasgow’s western suburbs, but with enough trees and parkland amid the housing estates (and the inevitable tower blocks) to make a not unattractive route. The two Temple Locks, the Clobberhill flight of five and the Boghouse four continue the descent, interspersed with surviving double bascule bridges.
Clydebank was famous for its shipyards and Singer sewing machine factory. Both have long gone, the sites redeveloped as business parks and a college campus. Today the notable features for passing boaters are a former ‘floating’ fish and chip shop (it never did float, but this is even more obvious now it’s piled off from the canal) and an eye-catching shopping centre footbridge inspired by a swan in flight; we thought it looked more like an early aeroplane...
But the towpath is well used: an automatic counter indicated over 50,000 bikes in the first half of 2016 – impressive
or scary, depending on your view of towpath cycling. On closer inspection, it counted each baby buggy as two bikes…
At Dalmuir, the canal restorers faced a problem: a road crossing, far too busy to reinstate as an opening bridge, but with no room for ramps to raise the road. The solution was the unique ‘drop lock’ consisting of an extended lock chamber reaching right under the road (plus a boat-length either side), which can be pumped out to give enough headroom.
The long descent is nearing an end, with glimpses of the Clyde to the left. The last of Glasgow’s housing and industry are left behind as a left bend brings the moorings at Bowling into view.
Compared to the amazing Kelpies, the attraction of the canal’s west end is more subtle: a busy basin between locks; assorted inland and seagoing craft; white painted canal buildings; and the broad Clyde beyond. And we can’t promise you the same, but the scene was completed for us by paddle steamer Waverley passing on her way down the Firth.
Lock 8, on the descent to the Firth of Forth The Union Inn stands by the site of the original junction at Falkirk
Attractive rural scenery near Bonnybridge
Fine view of the Kilsyth Hills
Wyndford Lock, start of the summit level
Modern liftbridge at Twechar
Suprisingly rural approach to Glasgow
Kelvin Aqueduct and Maryhill Locks beyond
Spiers Wharf on the Glasgow Branch
Double bascule bridge in west Glasgow
Bowling Basin at the canal’s western end