As we put up with ever changing traffic re-routing and associated chaos in preparation for the tram system let’s 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 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 route which originally started from Port 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. The 32 mile construction was 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 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 Rd.
Thanks to the stewardship of the British Waterways Board, assisted by substantial funding from the Millennium Fund we can now enjoy the canal from the terminus at Edinburgh Quay to the Falkirk Wheel and many places in between for barging, canoeing, rowing, cycling and walking. At the remarkable Wheel there is to chance to be lifted up onto the Forth and Clyde Canal and onwards to Port Glasgow. Trips from east to west coast take a leisurely 2 days to complete.
Perhaps a cautionary tale for the tramways though – leisure is only possible because the commercial viability of the canal was 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.