Canal History


The idea of a canal across central Scotland had been put forward as early as the mid 17th Century, but nothing was seriously done about it until the early 1760’s when initial surveys were made by John Smeaton. The most promising idea was a canal from the River Forth in the East, to the River Clyde in the West which would be suitable for seagoing coastal vessels. This plan had its detractors and different routes and schemes were put forward for discussion, and much rivalry was created between Edinburgh, the Capital City of Scotland, and Glasgow, the centre of industry and commerce. Eventually in December 1767 a Bill to permit the building of a canal was put before the British Parliament and on the 8th March 1768 the Bill was passed “to make and maintain a canal from the River Carron near Falkirk (on the River Forth) to Dalmuirburnfoot near Glasgow (on the River Clyde)”. The Company of the Forth & Clyde Navigation was established under the Act and in April 1768, John Smeaton was appointed Canal Engineer.

The Canal was built from East to West, being started on the 10th June 1768 at the Eastern Sealock. From there, via 16 locks, the Canal rises through Falkirk to the village of Camelon then running level through Bonnybridge to 4 locks at Underwood and Wyndford. These locks take the Canal up to its highest level of 156 feet (48m) above sea level and from there it runs level through Kilsyth, Twechar and Kirkintilloch to Stockingfield, on then to the northern outskirts of Glasgow. From Stockingfield, the Canal commences its 19 lock drop through Maryhill towards Bowling on the River Clyde. From Stockingfield a branch canal was dug, which terminated in the centre of Glasgow at Port Dundas.

The Forth & Clyde Canal took 22 years to build, including 7 years during which no work was done due to a lack of funds. Water was first let into the Canal in 1773, when it was filled as far as Kirkintilloch which became the terminus until 1775, when the water was taken as far as Stockingfield. In 1777 funds ran out, and it was not until 1784 that work resumed towards Bowling, which now was to become the terminus on the River Clyde as opposed to Dalmuirburnfoot, and which was finally reached in 1790, with the Canal being opened to through navigation in the summer of that year. The first vessel to transit the Canal from Grangemouth to Bowling did so on 31st. August 1790, a total distance of 35 miles (56 km) through 39 locks.

It was the Canal Company’s policy to recruit the workforce locally, and this provided employment particularly for the poor and unemployed. The wages were low, about 10d (£0.04p) per day for a labourer and “the lowest weekly wage possible” for the foremen. The Sub-Engineer engaged the men, supplied them with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows and their brute strength dug out the Canal. The workers were a tough lot and discipline was hard to maintain especially as whisky was cheap and plentiful and moral standards were low. Theft of tools and equipment was common and the workforce was seasonal, but nonetheless the work was done and the Canal dug.

The Forth & Clyde Canal does not have the dressed stone bridges of the Union Canal; all its overbridges were of the wooden bascule design, which opened to allow the tall-masted sailing vessels through. However it did have aqueducts, the most notable being the ones that carry the Canal over the Luggie at Kirkintilloch and the Kelvin at Maryhill. Many more of the canal side buildings have survived and are now being used either to their original design, e.g. The Union Inn (Auntie Kates) a pub at Lock 16 in Camelon, or the old warehouses at Spiers Wharf which are now converted to flats, amongst others.

The Canal served three main purposes:

  1. It allowed seagoing coastal ships to transit between the East and West coasts of Scotland without having to undertake the hazardous voyage around the North of Scotland.
  2. I provided a good inland waterway to transport imported and locally manufactured products from one coast to the other, and the towns in between
  3. It allowed passengers to travel across the Country, as many coach services linked up with canal services.

In 1822 the Union Canal joined the Forth & Clyde Canal at Lock 16 in Camelon and this provided a direct route between the main cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. A shipbuilding industry also sprang up on the canal side. In some instances, it was to build and repair lighters and canal craft for firms located on the Canal, and in others it was to build fishing vessels and the ships known as Puffers which travelled all round the Scottish coast and became famous in films like “The Vital Spark” and “The Maggie”. One thing is certain, the completion of the Canal opened up Central Scotland to both domestic and international trade and the towns and cities within the reach of the Canal boomed.

The Forth & Clyde Canal enjoyed an active life, but by the end of the Second Word War there were faster ways to transport goods and this trade fell away but the day-tripping and transits from one coast to the other continued, though to a lesser extent than before. In 1962 ownership of the Canal passed to British Waterways and after an Act of Parliament that year the Canal was closed to all traffic on 1st January 1963.

The 1960’s were a time of decline, infilling and building of bridges over the canal to carry the larger roads now needed for the increasingly motorised population. However the 1970’s saw a renewed interest in the Canal and various private projects restored small sections of the Canal and its environs.
Today, the Canal has been largely restored to its former glory and is actively used. Thanks to the Millennium Link Project, in 2001 it became possible to travel once again from Bowling to Grangemouth and Edinburgh on the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals.


The Union Canal came about due to a need for a quicker and more cost effective way of transporting goods between the two main cities of Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Forth & Clyde Canal, completed in 1790, ran from Bowling on the River Clyde to Grangemouth on the River Forth. Any goods from Glasgow destined for Edinburgh then had to be transported overland from Grangemouth, which was both slow and expensive.

From approximately 1791 various discussions, surveys and reports were commissioned to look into the feasibility of building a canal from Edinburgh to Glasgow. In 1813, after a 15 year break in discussions due to the Napoleonic Wars, Hugh Baird the resident engineer on the Forth & Clyde Canal suggested a route which called for a branch to be taken from the Forth & Clyde at the village of Camelon near Falkirk to run to a basin in the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh. This was a cheaper option than any other previously submitted but it did not win much favour or public support.
After much discussion, further suggestions for the route of the canal and a defeat of the first reading of the Union Canal Bill in the British Parliament in 1815, Baird’s plans were eventually accepted at the second reading of the Union Canal Bill in June 1817. The Union Canal Company was established under the Act to construct a canal from Lock 16 at Camelon to Edinburgh and in August 1817 Hugh Baird was appointed as Canal Engineer. Work began on the Canal at the Edinburgh end in March 1818 mainly to Baird’s design.

The construction of the canal was carried out by the crudest of methods, picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and the brute strength of the migrant Irish and Highland workers who had come to the industrialised Central Scotland looking for work. The work was hard and gruelling and because of the nature of the work accidents were common. There were frequent complaints from the local communities about the workers, the most common being for drunkenness and riotous behaviour.

The Union Canal was designed as a contour canal, i.e. it follows the contours of the hills and in this case is 240 feet (73m) above sea level. This is more economical with water and produces a long level stretch of water with no locks. Being a contour canal Baird was confronted with some major obstacles, notably taking the canal over the Rivers Avon and Almond, and The Water of Leith, and also through Prospect Hill in Falkirk. The rivers were all crossed by means of aqueducts with the Avon Aqueduct at 85 feet (26m) above the River and 900 feet (219m) long being the longest and tallest Scottish aqueduct.

Prospect Hill was altogether a different matter.

Callendar House, owned by the landowner William Forbes of Callendar Estate, sits in the shadow of Prospect Hill and Forbes refused to allow the canal to follow the contour around the Hill within sight of Callendar House and its gardens - so Baird was faced with digging a tunnel through the Hill. The tunnel, designed to be 690 yards (631m) long and at least 12 feet (3.6m) high was cut through the solid limestone, coal bearing rock and millstone grit, like the rest of the canal, it was cut by the brute force of the navvies with picks, shovels and using gunpowder to blast the rock into small pieces. Many of the “shot holes” can still be seen in the walls of the tunnel. The tunnel was built by digging down through the rock from above, through these shafts and then working outwards towards the ends, the navvies met the others tunnelling inwards. These shafts can still be seen in the tunnel roof. The towpath also continues through the tunnel, and at 5 feet (1.5m) is more than wide enough for a horse to pull a lighter or scow through the 13 foot (4m) wide waterway.

There are numerous bridges over the canal, all built of dressed stone which, although being expensive to build, required little upkeep and are a permanent reminder of the craftsmen of the day. The bridges were all built around 1820, and are numbered from the Edinburgh end going west, the last being number 62, Walkers Bridge, close to the west end of the canal at Bantaskine in Falkirk. The most notable bridge is number 61, the “Laughin’ and Greetin’” Bridge. The keystones on this bridge are engraved with faces - the one facing west being that of a crying (or greetin’) man and the one facing east being that of a laughing man. The reason for the engravings are lost in the mists of time but it is thought that the east looking, laughing face looked over the contractor who had the easy, and profitable, job of digging the level open canal to Edinburgh, whilst the Greetin’ west face looked over the contractor who had the hard and dangerous job of digging the tunnel and then the eleven locks down to the Forth & Clyde Canal, and going bankrupt as a result.

The Union Canal is 110 feet (34m) above the Forth & Clyde Canal, and to allow barges access to this Canal, and to Glasgow, a flight of eleven locks was built down into Port Downie, adjacent to Lock 16 on the Forth & Clyde. These locks were situated close to the West end of the Union Canal near Port Maxwell now known as Greenbank, and parts of the stonework are still visible today.

The Union Canal ran from Port Hopetoun adjacent to Lothian Road in Edinburgh, over the Water of Leith by the Slateford Aqueduct, through Ratho, Broxburn, Linlithgow, Polmont and terminating in Falkirk. The final cost of building the 31.5 mile (51 km) Canal was in excess of £600,000 and it was finally opened to traffic in January 1822 with the official opening in May of that year.

From its opening in 1822 until about 1842, when the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway opened, the canal was used to convey passenger traffic from Edinburgh to Falkirk and onward to Glasgow, peaking at 200,000 passengers in 1836. It was also used extensively by day-trippers who sailed in pleasure boats from Edinburgh to see the scenic open countryside and the architectural splendour of the aqueducts and bridges. The main purpose, however, was for commercial traffic and this had a substantial affect on the development and growth of towns and industry in Central Scotland. Goods such as coal, wood, stone, sand and brick were carried into the fast growing city of Edinburgh and hides were taken back to the tanneries in Linlithgow and Falkirk. The opening of the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway sounded the death knell of the Union Canal as all the goods once transported by barge were sent on the much faster railway.

From 1845 the Canal changed owners on many occasions and in 1933, with trade almost nil, the flight of locks from the Union to the Forth & Clyde and Port Downie were closed and subsequently infilled. Despite this, the Canal continued to be an important source of water supplying industry on the banks of the Canal, but eventually an Act of Parliament in 1965 officially closed the Canal to navigation.

Today, the Canal has been totally reopened to navigation as a result of the Millennium Link Project and navigation from Edinburgh to Falkirk and, by the Falkirk Wheel conveys boats down to the Forth & Clyde Canal, through to Glasgow.


Like the Forth & Clyde Canal, the Caledonian Canal came about because there was a need for seagoing ships to get from the East to West coasts of Scotland without having to transit the dangerous Pentland Firth round the North of Scotland. In the case of the Caledonian Canal, the trade most expected to use the canal would be from the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, and as these were bigger ships than those using the Forth & Clyde, the canal would have to be both wider and deeper. This would make the construction of the canal a more difficult project than those that went before.
Construction of a canal through the Great Glen had been proposed at intervals during the 18th Century. By 1800 the glens were being cleared to make way for sheep farms and there was much emigration of the local populace. This raised a genuine concern about conditions in the Highlands and, although the situation was complex, it was generally agreed that improved communications would be beneficial.

In 1801, and again in 1802, Thomas Telford went to the Highlands to report to the Government on conditions and his proposed actions. His principal recommendations were for the building of many new roads and bridges (for which he is now world renowned) and of the Caledonian Canal, which would link Inverness in the East with Fort William in the West successively passing through Lochs Ness, Oich and Lochy. The works would of necessity be large and would provide employment for those who would otherwise have emigrated. In the event, the Canal would take twenty years to build and would in that time provide much needed employment to some 3,000 Highlanders.

Work on the canal started in 1803 and by 1818 the eastern section of the Canal was open allowing ships to transit from the sea at Inverness to Fort Augustus on the South end of Loch Ness. Work had also started at the other end of the Canal and by 1819, the Sealock and entrance basin at Corpach near Fort William was opened, finally by 1822 the Canal was opened throughout its length, although not at its full depth. It was not until 1847 that all the improvements had been finally made and the Canal was considered to be complete to its design specification.

Like the Central Canals, the Caledonian was built using picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and the brute strength of the workers. Wages, food and living accommodation were poor but “after pay day, which was once a month, the Highlanders took to drinking and quarrelling, and spent as much money on whisky as would have fed them comfortably for the whole month.”

Apart from its size the most notable design feature of the Caledonian Canal is that in three sections the locks are “Staircase Locks”, that is the top gates of one lock chamber form the lower gates of the next chamber. Staircases were built at Muirtown, near Inverness, at Fort Augustus and at Banavie of 4, 5 and 8 locks respectively, the latter soon becoming known as Neptune’s Staircase. The staircase locks were more economical to build than a flight of locks with basins in between, but in practice these proved to be wasteful of water and become bottlenecks for traffic as passage through them can be very slow.

Since its opening the Caledonian Canal, unlike the Central Scotland Canals, has been in continual use and is still in use today for small commercial traffic, fishing vessels, yachtsmen wishing to transit safely from the East to West coasts and mainly the leisure industry where cruise boats based in Inverness can be hired to cruise the Canal and the Lochs.

From day one, the Canal provided a means of transporting mail, goods and passengers down the Great Glen when the roads were little more than rough tracks, with many people going on day trips to see Loch Ness and the beautiful scenery and no doubt hoping for that ever elusive glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster.