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

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

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

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