The Union Canal is a 31-and-a-half mile long man-made canal stretching from Edinburgh in the east of Scotland, to Falkirk in the centre of the country, where it meets the Forth and Clyde Canal.
The canal was originally called the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal, designed by Hugh Baird and constructed between 1818 and 1822. Burke and Hare, of murder fame, were among the workers on the canal. The original purpose of the canal was to link together Glasgow and Edinburgh by means of canals, and in particular to transport coal to nearby railheads and settlements.
Unlike the Forth and Clyde Canal, the Union Canal has very few locks. The locks were principally at the western end of the canal, taking it down to meet the Forth and Clyde, but a number of these have been removed due to the construction in 2002 of the world’s first rotating boat lift – the Falkirk Wheel.
The Falkirk Wheel is a magnificent structure, an engineering marvel. A consortium including British Waterways, Scottish Enterprise and the European Development Fund led the project, with the wheel itself being built in Derbyshire by Butterley Engineering. RMJM were the architects, with Nicoll Russell Studios the original designers and Binnie Black and Veatch the principal engineers.
The wheel is 35 metres in diameter, with two axe-shaped leading edges. These cut through the air in a versatile and dynamic motion. The Union Canal is some 24 metres above the Forth and Clyde Canal, and the boat lift affords a wonderful way to allow boats to transfer from one canal to the other, in a much more speedy, efficiency and aesthetic manner than by using locks. Assume a boat on the Union Canal wishes to descend to the Forth and Clyde – it steers through a tunnel that comes off to the right of the Union Canal, emerges onto an aqueduct which is suspended out above the ground below, and connects onto the wheel itself.
Sluice gates isolate the water on the wheel from the rest of the aqueduct, and then the wheel rotates, gently lowering the boat (and water) down to the Forth and Clyde Canal below. Giant gears ensure the boat and water do not tip out of the wheel. It is a marvel to watch, and there is also a visitor centre here where you can get further information about the Falkirk Wheel. A very interesting day out, and a great place to take the kids.
Back to the Union Canal itself – it’s route goes from Fountainbridge in Edinburgh, west towards Winchburgh and Broxburn, Linlithgow, and through Polmont itself, before heading on to Falkirk and the Falkirk Wheel. There is a towpath along the canal which is great for walking, cycling or jogging, and plenty of interest along the way too. The Forth Canoe Club use the waterway, as well as local schools and universities. There are three local organisations which promote the use of the canal – the Edinburgh Canal Society, the Linlithgow Union Canal Society, and the Bridge 19-40 Canal Society. Some wooden rowing boats are available for hire near Ashley Terrace / Harrison Park in Edinburgh, and you will also be likely to see narrowboat barges here too.