CRUISE GUIDE: UNION CANAL
From the iconic Falkirk Wheel boat lift, we follow the Union Canal eastwards, crossing valleys on three high aqueducts as it traverses the hilly countryside, with far-reaching views, to reach Scotland’s historic capital city of Edinburgh
Come with us along one of Scotland’s lowland canals, from the spectacular Falkirk Wheel, though hilly countryside to the historic capital of Edinburgh
To those unfamiliar with Scottish Lowlands geography, it may come as a surprise that the West Coast and East Coast cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are on the two summit levels of the system – and that a journey east from Falkirk to ‘Auld Reekie’ begins with a steep climb. And for those unaware of the canal’s engineering it would surely come as a surprise to turn south from the junction near Falkirk and see exactly how the Union Canal overcomes that rise.
A single lock leads via a circular basin to the remarkable Falkirk Wheel: the world’s only rotating boat lift, Scotland’s only working boat lift, a modern day wonder of the waterways – and a highly efficient way of lifting a boat 80ft. But it’s no good me listing off its claims to fame: you have to experience it ‘in the flesh’.
The journey didn’t always begin here, though. When opened in 1822, the Union left the Forth & Clyde closer to Falkirk town centre, climbing 11 locks before
heading east to Edinburgh. The Falkirk Wheel was only one part of the replacement for these missing locks: as part of the work to restore both formerly abandoned canals, more than a mile of new channel was built.
From the Wheel’s approach aqueduct it plunges into Rough Castle Tunnel, which cuts through a ridge carrying a road, a railway and the remains of the Roman Antonine Wall.
Emerging from the tunnel, the canal takes a sharp left and climbs through a further two locks – the only staircase on the Lowland canals – which bring it to the start of a 31-mile level extending all the way to Scotland’s capital. But don’t take that to imply that it lacks interest, or that the country it traverses is flat – far from it. The level is maintained through some distinctly hilly country, sometimes by clinging to the contours, but more often by striding across the valleys on high aqueducts.
As a foretaste, the new length includes
the first of these, a modern concrete structure spanning Greenbank Avenue.
Soon, the old route merges from the left – a footpath leading into the bushes will bring you to some remains of the old locks. There’s also a short arm on the north side: in the early days this was where the passenger boats docked, so that people could walk down the flight of locks to save time.
A rather more impressive piece of waterways heritage follows soon, in the form of the 696-yard Falkirk Tunnel. Scotland’s only canal tunnel for over a century (from the 1880s demise of the Glasgow Paisley & Johnstone Canal until Rough Castle opened in 2002), it is partially unlined, cut through rock of various colours, lit throughout, and very impressive. There are plans to improve the lighting for events inside – including Hallowe’en specials marking the canal’s link with notorious murderers (and former canal navvies) Burke and Hare.
Emerging from the tunnel, Falkirk’s built-up area is gradually left behind, and the route heads eastwards through open country, passing a series of fine original stone bridges which are a hallmark of the canal.
These include the ‘Laughin’ and Greetin’ Bridge’, with its curious happy and sad faces carved into the crown of the arch on each side – an explanation (albeit one dismissed by the local history society as ‘without much evidence’) is that they represent canal
‘The canal heads south eastwards through increasingly hilly country to reach the first of the three great aqueducts’
contractors faced with building the easier and harder lengths on either side.
Industry and housing follow the canal through Polmont, but are soon shaken off as it heads south eastwards through increasingly hilly country to reach the first of the three great aqueducts.
The Avon Aqueduct’s 12 arches stride 85ft high across the deep wooded valley. Its construction is a hybrid: mid-way between the heavy masonry of the early canal-building era and the lightweight iron trough of the Pontcysyllte, it uses an iron trough within a stone structure. To really appreciate how impressive it is, tie up at the far end and scramble down the steep track for a riverside view.
Two more miles of countryside bring the canal to Linlithgow. Its attractions include the remains of Linlithgow palace (where Mary Queen of Scots was born), Linlithgow Loch, a selection of pubs and restaurants, a local museum, a circular structure by the canal which an interpretation board explains is a 16th Century doocot (dovecote), and for waterway visitors, the Canal Centre.
This is the home of Linlithgow Union Canal Society, which worked tirelessly for the canal’s revival during the years of closure, opening a museum and operating trip-boats on the lengths still available. Today it runs hireboats, public trips, a tea-room and education centre.
The canal passes south of the town centre and at a higher level, giving fine views as it continues eastwards. Quiet countryside and shady wooded cuttings lead towards Winchburgh where you’ll see the first of several large, reddish mounds by the canalside.
These ‘bings’ are the relics of the once important shale oil industry. From 1860, the extraction of paraffin from shale grew to employ over 12,000 in Scotland, only to collapse after the First World War with the arrival of imported crude oil. Today, the spoil heaps form a reminder; to find out more, a museum (part of the Almond Valley Heritage Centre) can be reached by bus from Broxburn.
A plaque on the offside wall of a bridge carries a mathematical diagram, which
turns out to be an illustration of the motion of the rings of planet Saturn – part of an astronomical sculpture trail.
Turning east again, the canal reaches the Almond Aqueduct. Shorter and lower than the Avon but still impressive, it too can be viewed by scrambling down an unofficial-looking path from the east end.
Ratho village also helped to keep the torch burning for the Union Canal’s revival, with the restaurant boats and canal centre run by the legendary Ronnie Rusack, the Bridge Inn’s landlord from 1971 to 2005. A new owner still runs the boat trips. There’s some modern sculpture here too, but more down-to-earth and canalrelated: a horse-drawn boat and a couple of benches whose metalwork commemorates the canal’s history. Keep your eyes open for the wider view too: as you head east from Ratho, you can catch the odd glimpse of the Forth railway and road bridges in the distance. The M8 motorway has been making its presence felt for a couple of miles, and near Hermiston it meets the A720 Edinburgh Bypass: boaters have a grandstand view of the intersection, as the Scott Russell Aqueduct crosses the A720 just to the south. A functional concrete structure, its 1987 construction marked a huge step forward for the canal’s restoration, at a time when there was a serious threat to simply block the canal and end it here.
Incidentally, Scott Russell was a naval engineer, whose 1834 observation of the odd behaviour of a boat’s bow-wave led ultimately to fibre optic technology.
The aqueduct marks the start of Edinburgh’s built-up area. Through the housing estates of Wester Hailes, a concrete channel and series of modern bridges mark where a filled-in section had to be reinstated. Tree-lined lengths lead via Kingsknowe to Slateford, the site of the last of the three great aqueducts.
There’s no need to scramble down rough tracks to see this one; it doesn’t span a wooded valley, it strides between Slateford’s buildings and streets. From half a mile west at Redhall Footbridge, walk down Lanark Road for the best view. It’s also worth stopping to take a look at the Prince Charlie Aqueduct, a rare waterways example of characteristic 1930s style concrete construction.
The tree-lined canal passes playing fields and old housing as it approaches the city centre. Leamington Lift Bridge is a curious structure – it lifts vertically; it was originally balanced by a water-tank, and it was moved from its original site when the canal was shortened slightly.
That shortening left the canal without a terminal basin, but it’s doing its best to make up for this with the ongoing development of Edinburgh Quay, with restaurants, bars and other modern developments surrounding the terminus.
It’s a good base to explore, with the Castle barely half a mile away – and a fine end to the journey from Falkirk.
PU LL AN OU D KE T EP
The unique Falkirk Wheel boat lift in operation
The staircase locks above the Falkirk Wheel
Inside the unlined part of Falkirk Tunnel
On the new length of canal above Falkirk
Rural scenery and old stone bridge near Polmont
The Avon Aqueduct, the largest on the Union
Attractive moorings in Linlithgow
The modern Scott Russell Aqueduct
Ratho, base for a trip-boat fleet
One of the ‘bings’ ( shale tips) near Broxburn
Passing through a wooded cutting west of Ratho
On the approach to Edinburgh
The unusual Leamington Lift Bridge