It is easy to close a canal, much harder to reopen it. Finished in the 1790s, the Forth & Clyde Canal was the artery of Scotland's Industrial Revolution. Always devoted to carrying industrial freight, as this declined so too did the canal and it was closed in 1962, large sections being subsequently infilled or overbuilt. For three decades it was forgotten, apart from by those who dumped old cars and shopping trolleys into it, and by canal enthusiasts crying in the wilderness.
In the 1990s increasing recreational usage and the restoration of sections of the canal led to the ambitious project to reopen it along its entire length, as a Millennium Project, reinstating locks, repairing canal banks and developing an infrastructure for recreational boating use.
After an expenditure in excess of £84 millions, the canal was eventually reopened in 2001, and since then various organisations have been making great efforts to ensure the venture is a success. As one who has walked, cycled and now boated the canal for over three decades, I can report that things are moving in the right direction.
Although the term Forth and Clyde is used to designate the 37 miles from Bowling on the Clyde to Grangemouth on the Forth, the network of reopened canals is greater, including as it does the Union Canal into Edinburgh, and the branch line off the Forth & Clyde into Glasgow, making it now possible to visit Scotland's two great cities by pleasure craft. The hub of the canal system, where the Union joins the Forth & Clyde, is the town of Falkirk. Here are based many of the companies offering boat hire on the canal, as well as the unmissable Falkirk Wheel, where twenty-first century engineering h as been applied to solve one of the problems created by the restoration of an eighteenth century canal at a cost of £18 millions.
Originally the Union was joined to the Forth and Clyde by 11 locks over 35 yards. But the cost of reinstating these plus the time it would take to get boats through the locks, led to the radical solution of the world's first rotating boat lift, the staggeringly beautiful Falkirk Wheel.
This 115ft high structure can lift the weight of 100 African elephants (though there are not many around Falkirk) and its 1800 tons is driven by electricity sufficient to power 6 electric kettles, a masterpiece of energy efficiency. This is because it is built on the principles of Archimedes.
The lifts are finely balanced, and as each boat displaces its own weight of water in the rotating barges, only the slightest tilt is necessary to power the Wheel. And there is no need to balance the boats with Archimedes; four boats going up will displace their own weight of water, as will for example, two going down, always maintaining a perfect equilibrium. After Edinburgh Castle and Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum (both of which you can now visit by boat from Falkirk) this masterpiece of modern British engineering has deservedly become, in a couple of years, Scotland's third tourist attraction with over 500,000 visitors a year.
But whatever the attractions of the wheel you will be eager to get afloat, as we were when we were led to our barge based at the Black Prince group's Falkirk depot. A well established company on the English canals. Black Prince have recently moved to Falkirk, and they are so pleased with their reception that they are adding another four boats to the six already berthed at the Wheel. It was still March when I set out, yet all bar one of the company's boats was out on hire and the other was in dry dock.
From Falkirk you can go west to Glasgow or east to Edinburgh, and indeed on a week's cruise you can visit both cities, by doubling back. Time was limited so I headed westwards.
Shortly after leaving Falkirk there is a series of locks to negotiate, four in all, before arriving at the cute hamlet of Banknock, with its restored lock-keeper's houses. The 67 ft Elgar boat was tight in the locks and had to be taken through one or two diagonally. The locks on the canal are still operated by muscle power as they were;200 years ago, but at the moment are not self-operated; the helpful BW staff will lockhop ahead of you to prepare your way, but should be contacted in advance. A mobile phone is very useful. An afternoon start makes Banknock a good place to berth overnight, and a few hundred yards away is the award winning restaurant of Glenskirlie House if you are eating out.
Soon there will be good berthage at Auchinstarry, opposite the fine cliff walls of the old quarry, but when we did our trip the marina here was still under construction. All along this section of the canal can be seen to the south the sites of the Antonine Wall, constructed by the Romans in the second century, such as the earthworks at Rough Castle. Several of the forts are easily accessible by foot from canalside berthings, such as the Bar Hill with its Roman bath house.
As this canal was always primarily an industrial canal, industrial archeologists will have their eyes full as they move along.
Everywhere are the remains of old wharves for the collieries, quarries and factories which were served by the canal, as well as the stabling and warehousing which attached to it. Some of these are still ruinous but gradually they are being restored to use, such as The Stables Restaurant on the canal at Bishopbriggs near Glasgow. Other buildings, such as the merchant's house at Possil just outside the city, with its warehouses reaching directly to the canal from the basement of the house, await their turn. But not everything needs to be restored. At Firhill inside Glasgow, the old timber basin has become a wildlife haven, and will be left in its overgrown state.
In Kirkintilloch we stopped for a while at the Seagull Trust which is based on the site of an old boatyard, J&J Hay's, which built many of the famous Clyde Puffers. These were canal and inshoregoing cargo boats whose last working survivors could still be seen in the 1980s. The Seagull Trust is a charity which specialises in providing canal boating opportunities for the disabled and the disadvantaged. In their yard they modify and restore craft for this purpose, and I was told that they have almost 100 bookings for cruises for the summer of 2004. They would be delighted to hear from anyone interested in using their facilities or helping with their work.
Kirkintilloch soon gives way to the outskirts of Glasgow, where at Cadder is a delightful spot worth a halt to visit the Kirk. In the graveyard are old stones of interest from the seventeenth century onwards, and a cast iron mortsafe lying next a gravewatcher's bothy, complete with fireplace. Grave robbing was a serious problem, especially when you recall that the infamous resurrection men Burke and Hare started out as navvies building these canals. A famous person with Cadder connections was Thomas Muir, a leading radical reformer of the 1790s, " sentenced to exile in Botany Bay for his activities in support of the principles of the French revolution."
He was an elder of Cadder Kirk.
Inside Glasgow city boundaries is found Possil Loch, an RSPB reserve which is an internationally important wintering ground for wildfowl, and which drains into the adjacent canal. Access to the loch can be had from paths which lead off from the canal towpath. Birdlife along the canal is plentiful, with over 50 species recorded. We saw swans galore, ducks, geese, herons and cormorants indicating a plentiful supply of fish such as pike, perch, roach and eels, which the birds compete for with the fishermen. Of animal life, we saw rabbits and mink but the most surprising thing was that coming into Maryhill in Glasgow, a group of roe deer grazed unconcernedly in a wood by the canal banks.
Maryhill was the hub of Glasgow's canal system, where the Forth and Clyde headed for Bowling, while another section branched off at Stockingfield Junction towards the city and to Port Dundas. This location was named after a Scottish politician with financial interests in the canal, and the world's first ever steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, which was tested on the canal itself, was named after his wife. The canal was so important to Maryhill, whose industrial growth it underpinned, that the town hall of the burgh featured stained glass panels of canal horses and bargees, as well as of boat construction at Maryhill Dock, where further puffers were launched.
Maryhill's days of industrial glory based on the canal are gone, though the odd works still lines its banks. Extensive regeneration plans for the area foresee the development of housing here along the canal, some of which is already being constructed, as well as the provision of leisure facilities such as a marina and arts centre.
There is even talk of a hotel at the Maryhill Locks.
If you head into Port Dundas at Stockingfield you will miss these locks.
They are worth a walk from Port Dundas along the canal banks to see, or even a detour on your boat of less than a mile from Stockingfield (no locks).
For at Maryhill Locks in addition to the locks themselves and other relics such as an old boatyard and canal inn, is a wonder of engineering to rival the Falkirk Wheel, and that is the Kelvin Aqueduct, a scheduled Ancient Monument.
The canal reached Stockingfield in 1775 but the company ran out of funds. More were raised and devoted to the Kelvin Aqueduct which virtually bankrupted the company.
Bowling and the Clyde is only 13 miles from here but due to the number of locks traversed takes a full day to navigate to, and another back. Exploring westwards from Falkirk, to Bowling and Port Dundas, could happily engage you for a week. At Port Dundas you will come to the headquarters of British Waterways (Scotland) at Possil Basin, a delightful higgeltypiggle of buildings from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. Here is a secure and safe berth that is manned night and day, and from which a walk of 15 minutes takes you into the heart of Glasgow.