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

Canal Boat - - This Month - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY MARTIN LUDGATE

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

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