As we put up with ever changing traffic re-routing and associated chaos in preparation for Edinburgh’s tram system let us spare a thought for our nineteenth century predecessors who had an even more intrusive transportation scheme to contend with – the building of the Union Canal.
Proposed to promote the union’ of Edinburgh and Glasgow through trade and commerce, the canal was to follow 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 link up with the existing Forth & Clyde Canal at Camelon near Falkirk. Because of the contour approach, which had to follow the natural shape of the land, many buildings were sacrificed and their residents displaced along a route which originally started from Port Hopetoun at the Edinburgh end – now the site of Lothian House and the Odeon cinema. It could have been worse – plans had been drawn up for the route to continue to a basin at the east edge of the Meadows before these too were shelved due to the cost!
The canal was started in 1818 and was opened to passenger traffic amid much excitement in 1822. The 32 mile construction had been a catalyst for a great influx of Irish folk to Edinburgh and amongst those who laboured on it (on the day shift at least!) were the notorious grave robbers and felons Burke and Hare. Those who laboured have left a great architectural legacy along its route – locally a number of fi ne 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 are prime examples.
Thanks to the stewardship of the British Waterways Board, assisted by substantial funding from the Millenium Fund we can now enjoy the canal from the boating centre terminus at the re-generated Lochrin Basin (now Edinburgh Quay) to the unique rotating boat lift at Falkirk Wheel and many places in-between for boat trips, canoeing, rowing, cycling, walking and quiet reflection.
Perhaps a cautionary tale for the tramways though – leisure access was perhaps only possible because the commercial viability of the canal was short lived. With the advent of new technology passenger transport was lost to the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company in less than 30 years. The canal was bought by the Railway Company for a price that less than half of the cost to build it. Freight business, which was mainly the transportation of coal from the west, subsequently declined and was all but lost by the 1930s and the canal was abandoned as a business concern in the 1960s.
Do you have any particular memories or stories or photos about the canal that you would like to share with our readers? If so, we would be delighted if you could
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