Press and Journal - June 05

Messing about in narrowboats

Adrian Gardiner navigates the Forth-Clyde and Union Canals


WITH traditional Edinburgh-Glasgow rivalry, "despicable ..." was an Edinburgh writer's comment on Glasgow tobacco merchants' attempt to manipulate the course of the proposed Forth- Clyde, the world's first sea-to- sea canal.

     Charles II had wanted a safe route for his warships. He was quoted £500,000 - but the builders naturally couldn't start for 75 years. A route was surveyed in 1726: no one could agree who was to pay for it.

     In 1760, two prominent Edinburgh businessmen persuaded the government to put up funds - which came mainly from confiscated Jacobite estates after the "Forty-Five".

     Once cash was available, everyone wanted a finger in the pie. Those tobacco barons were concerned with the American tobacco trade (in those days, the River Clyde went shallow a long way seaward of the city centre), while the Carron Iron Co at Grangemouth also wanted a diversion for its own ends.
     Work began in 1768. A head
engineer was appointed at £500 a year and 1,000 navvies at 10 pence a day. In 1779, the project stuck in the mud - namely the infamous Dullater Bog near Kirkintilloch. New prime minister Pitt authorised a loan of £50,000, work continued and the canal opened in 1790, followed by the link to Edinburgh. William Symington tried out his new steam-powered boat and went on to become one of Scotland's great engineers.

     But the canal was slow to make a profit. Tolls were reduced to a ha'penny a mile, the company was in debt and had paid no dividend to its share-holders. In Victorian times, things improved. Where coal had been travelling east, now fish travelled west, and tourists were going both ways, city to city - it was a popular day out.

     It is a widespread misapprehension that railways put paid to canals. In this case, it is true. When the North British Railway Company bought both canals, revenue declined like an express train out of fuel. In 1933, commercial haulage ceased. Locks were infilled. After a committee of inquiry report called for the "extinguishment of rights of navigation", the canals closed in 1965. Castle Cary bridge, carrying the main Glasgow- Stirling road, was the final straw. Estimated at £160,000, it was a bridge too expensive. The story has a happy ending: tireless campaigning by enthusiasts, plus millennium money, saw the reopening of the Forth-Clyde and Union in 2002. An £84million.

I crewed a narrowboat from Edinburgh to Glasgow recently If you have never been on a barge, I recommend it. At a maximum speed of 4mph, it is relaxing. There is plenty of room if you're used to the sizing down of caravans. You can go where you like. You need no previous experience: the hire company will provide a half-hour tutorial. You can park where you like on the public (towpath) side using mooring spikes (provided you're not causing an obstruction), or find a quay or marina. Locks, tunnels and bridges provide excitement and there are ample opportunities to see wildlife close up and feed yesterday's stale bread to the ducks.

     Out of Edinburgh, perhaps pausing at the Bridge Inn at Ratho - full of canal memorabilia - there are several fine aqueducts, one named after John Scott Russell, a Victorian scientist whoinvented the solitary Wave theory (he stopped his boat and chased after the bow wave for a mile on horseback).

     At Linlithgow is Scotland's diminutive, but evocative, canal museum. Farther on, note the curious Laughin' Greetin' bridge. Two deep locks and a tunnel lead into the top stage of the Wheel - to experience which you don't need your own boat. There are hourly trips in summer from the lower basin.

     The landscape becomes increasingly rural as we sail west. The canal is as wide as a lake, reminding us it was built for shipping, not the narrowboats on most English canals.

     Kirkintilloch is the next stop, home to the Seagull Trust, a charity with a fleet of boats adapted for the disabled. We disembark for lunch - not easy to find in a town notorious for having more churches than pubs. When we do, my Sassenach crew ask me to translate the sign: "Hunger's Guid Kitchen Tae a Cauld Potato, but a Wet Divot to the Lowe o' Love". (I suggested "If you don't take her out for a meal tonight, you'll be sleeping in the spare room").

     The tower blocks of Glasgow appear on the horizon and we can choose to go right through the city to Bowling on the Clyde (those tobacco barons got their way) or south to British Waterways' headquarters by Applecross Basin.

     We opt for the latter, only a 15-minute walk from the city centre. The crew set off to see the "sweet green city" while I coil ropes, grease the engine bearings, splice a few mainbraces - then yo, ho, ho, it's time for a bottle of single malt.