Canal & Riverboat - April 05

Last September Ian Mitchell cruised the newly restored Forth & Clyde canal. This time he tackles its sister, the union canal from the Falkirk Wheel to the City of Edinburgh.

You wonder how it can possibly work. Staring at the stunning masterpiece of modern technology that is the Falkirk Wheel, the feeling is of disbelief. How on earth can the energy used to power five electric kettles move this massive futuristic construction, the only rotating boat lift in the world, 115 feet in diameter? But this was the means intended to take our Black Prince Duchess 4 narrow boat from its base on the Forth and Clyde Canal, up to the Union Canal, replacing the eleven locks that once linked central Scotland's two main waterways. The Wheel also replaces a former passage of several hours between the canals, by one of a mere 15 minutes.
     With our craft tucked in
beside the British Waterways Archimedes, which takes tourists on a short 45 minute round trip through the Wheel, I struggled to resurrect my school physics, recalling that the water displaced by a floating body was equivalent in weight to that body, according to Archimedes' Principle. The gondolas in which our boats lay thus balanced exactly the weight of the counterbalancing empty gondola, and only a slight impulse was needed to start our ascent; this was so smooth that it hardly appeared that we were moving.
     Once through the Wheel
a short tunnel, the first canal tunnel constructed in Britain for over a century, takes you under the old Roman Antonine Wall to a basin where two modern locks allow you to gain the Union Canal proper. This was a fabulous experience to start our short break on the canal, and indeed the Falkirk Wheel has caught people's imagination so much that it is now Scotland's third most visited tourist attraction, after Edinburgh Castle and Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum. Last year it attracted over 250,000 visitors.


Linlithgow canal Centre
We arrived here comfortably in five hours after
passing the Wheel, and berthed at a row of former stables for the canal's horses, which now host both a cafe and a museum of the Union Canal, with photographs, artefacts and an audio-visual display. Linlithgow is also the base for the Union Canal Society who offer summer trips in the Victoria, a diesel-powered replica of a Victorian steam packet boat. Opposite the basin stands a construction my companion Pete hazarded was a war memorial, but my hunch that the beehive-shaped object was a dookit (dovecot) proved to be correct. Linlithgow is altogether a splendid spot to stop, with a short walk downhill to the town for pubs and restaurants.
     The Union Canal is Scotland's only surviving contour canal, nicknamed the
"Mathematical River", as it has no locks along its length, except for those joining it to the Forth and Clyde Canal, and it follows the 240 foot contour from Falkirk to Edinburgh. It was built mainly to carry coal and building materials to the capital, and opened in 1822, closing finally in 1965. Part of the canal's problem was that it carried mainly a one-way traffic, as Edinburgh was not an industrial city and had little (apart from horse manure for fertiliser) to export back along the Union Canal's length. Until the coming of the railways in the 1840s the waterway also carried passengers in the then speedy time of 13 hours between Glasgow and Edinburgh. There were even overnight boats called Hoolets (Scottish for owlets) for the passengers' convenience and 24 hour hostelries on the canalside for refreshments. Like its similarly closed sister the Forth and Clyde Canal, the Union benefitted from the Millennium Link Project and in 1999 work began on its reopening.

Highlights of the day's journey to Linlithgow included the Falkirk Tunnel, Scotland's longest waterway tunnel, cutting through 690 yards of solid rock. Lighting added rather than detracted from the eerie feeling of going through the tunnel, with the stalagtites dripping from the roof and the slithery green and yellow deposits on the walls. Noticing the tunnel leaked at several points, I left the steering to Pete and went below to make tea. Almost immediately on exiting the tunnel you come to the popularly named Laughin and Greetin Brig, or Glen Bridge, with a fine carved relief stating its bridge number, 61, and date of construction, 1821. Below on separate sides are faces that look like the theatrical Tragedy and Comedy masks. Legend has it that the Greetin (Crying) one, looking towards Falkirk represents the contractor facing construction of the Falkirk Tunnel and 11 locks to the Forth and Clyde Canal, while the Laughin face is that of another contractor with the easier task of building the section of the Union to Edinburgh.
     The 12 arched Avon
Aqueduct is also crossed between Falkirk and Linlithgow, at 810 feet, it is the longest in Scotland. This was constructed by Thomas Telford, Scotland's great civil engineer, who had the idea of getting the ironmaster Baird to provide lightweight iron for the aqueduct trough, rather than heavier clay, thus reducing the weight carried by the slender 85 foot high arches. Walking along the cobbled towpath and looking over gives an idea of the immensity of this structure, which I had often noted from the train to Edinburgh.    

     The next day we were awaiting the arrival of an additional crew member, and while Dave came by train from Glasgow, Pete and I strolled round Linlithgow, visiting the 13th century St Michael's Church, one of the best Gothic churches in Scotland and Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. A two mile walk round Linlithgow Loch also allowed us to stretch our legs while mobile phone calls told us that Dave's train had broken down outside Linlithgow. This meant a later than expected departure and that our possibly over ambitious plans to make Edinburgh that night would have to be amended.


Edinburgh canal Centre
Another delightful mooring
this, at the small village of Ratho where much of the stone to build Edinburgh was quarried in the adjacent Ratho Quarry. This quarry has found a new life as the National Climbing Centre, which we passed just before mooring. Ratho is a busy spot, with two Seagull Trust boats and a dry dock. The Trust is an organisation which organises canal trips for disabled passengers, and we passed several of their craft on outings on the canal. Also here were the two restaurant boats operated by the owner of the Ratho Inn, Ronnie Rusack, who is a canal enthusiast. The inn, with its memorabilia of the canal, is a great place for an evening meal and a couple of pints of real ale. Hearing the distant hum of the M8 motorway, and watching the planes after take off from Edinburgh airport, we nevertheless felt completely away from it all in Ratho.
     Today's journey had
taken us through very different country from yesterday's, which had given us wide open vistas over mainly arable countryside. We had today passed through much of West Lothian which had formerly been the centre of the shale industry, set up in Victorian times by James "Paraffin" Young. Young developed a way of making paraffin, and later motor oil from the shale and was soon a multi-millionaire, employing over 10,000 people. Excavating the shale deposits created enormous mounds of waste, known by their old Scottish name of "bings". Unlike black coal bings the shale bings are red, and the effect of the changing light of them reminded me of the sandstone deserts in southern Utah. They are particularly striking when hit by the rays of the low, morning sunshine.

Gradually reverting to nature, with the growth of grass and trees, and the spread of wildlife, the bings are becoming a recreational resource for walking, and mountain bike scrambling. They are eroding naturally to blend with the landscape. Some of the bings are now actually scheduled National Monuments, protected by law. Boating slowly through this weird and dramatic landscape was, with the passage of the Falkirk Wheel, for me the highlight of the Union Canal trip as a whole. The canal actually passes through Broxburn, which was one of the main centres of this now disappeared industry, and the village is about the closest place on the canal to a variety of shops for provisions, with moorings at the Port Buchan basin.
     Before reaching Ratho we
had cruised close by the stark Niddry Castle, another scene associated with Mary Queen of Scots where she sheltered just before her final capture. It is now restored as a private house. And crossing the five arch Almond Aqueduct, we had a view over open country to the impressive 36 arch Almond Valley Viaduct that carries the Glasgow to Edinburgh railway. For some reason today the main birds we saw were hawks and buzzards, whereas yesterday they had been mainly kingfishers and herons. I'm sure there must be an explanation for that. Have readers any suggestions?


The Wheel Again
The return to the wheel from Ratho took us a good
nine hours. On the return journey we noted that the scenery looked completely different. Facing west, we first saw the Ochil Hills of Fife across the Forth, where Arrol's Forth Rail Bridge, another masterpiece of nineteenth century engineering, was visible, and then the Campsie Fells came into view. These were in turn followed by views to the Highland Line and beyond, with Ben Lomond visible in the far distance. For October the weather had been pretty good, with only a smirr of rain on the first day, and our return journey saw us basking in warm sunshine as we headed steadily westwards.
   We roused the interest of
other passing boats, and the increasing numbers of walkers, cyclists, joggers and dog walkers who are using the fabulous, restored recreational facility that is the Union Canal. We also aroused the interest of a cow, which was so mesmerised by us, that he staggered backwards and fell into the canal. Luckily the cow scrambled out and we were spared a rescue attempt, and reached the Wheel in time for our passage back to the Black Prince base. On the Wheel, as old hands, we explained its workings to the wondering Dave, as if we had always understood it, never doubted it.