We have visited both ‘ends’ of the Union Canal in the past few days. With a walk along it from a frozen Lochrin Basin to Slateford and a visit to the busy Falkirk Wheel. Proposed to promote the ‘union’ of Edinburgh and Glasgow through trade and commerce the canal builders followed a geographical contour line rather than incur the expense of installing locks. Further expense was spared by altering the original plan of a direct route to Glasgow to make the link up with the Forth and Clyde Canal at Camelon near Falkirk. Because of the contour approach many buildings were sacrificed along the which originally started from Ports Hamilton and Hopetoun – now the site of Lothian House and the Odeon cinema. It could have been worse – plans were drawn up for the route to continue east across the Meadows before these too were shelved due to the cost!
The canal was started in 1818 and was opened to much excitement in 1822. Among those who worked on the 32-mile construction (on the day shift at least!) were the notorious Burke and Hare. Those who laboured have left a great architectural legacy – locally a number of fine bridges such as the Leamington Lift Bridge, the spectacular eight arch aqueduct at Slateford and the nearby 1937 art deco style Charlie’s Bridge over Lanark Road. Passengers were able to travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow in 13 hours in ‘swift’ barges with frequent changes of horses – up to 8 pairs were needed to get to Falkirk alone!
Thanks to the stewardship of the British Waterways Board, assisted by the Millennium Fund we can now enjoy the canal from the terminus at Edinburgh Quay to the Falkirk Wheel and many places in between. The Wheel itself is a modern architectural triumph in the style of a Celtic double headedaxe. The arches of the aqueduct frame stunning views to the Ochils on a sunny day. For the adventurous canal user there is of course the chance to be lifted by the Wheel to enter the Forth and Clyde Canal and carry on to Port Glasgow – East coast to West coast is a bit more than 13 hours today though.
Leisure use today is only possible because the commercial viability of the canal was relatively short lived. With the advent of new technology passenger transport was lost to the new Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company in less than 30 years. Freight business was all but lost by the 1930s and the canal was abandoned as a business concern in the 1960s. This in turn had a big impact on the cityscape around the basin too – where once there were coal, timber and stone yards in abundance we now have a pleasant place to meet friends eat, drink and enjoy a stroll beside the colourful boats that have assembled there.