Camelon and the Forth and Clyde Canal

Major Chalmers was an able man and in March 1768 he was appointed to the committee for managing the affairs of the Company of the Forth and Clyde Navigation.  His interest in this venture was personal as John Smeaton, the engineer tasked with taking it forward, had just produced a suggested line.  Starting near Carron Iron Works, it was proposed that the canal should follow the lie of the land, noting:

From Carron-shore to Tophill, a little below Camelon bridge, the ground is gently rising, and accommodated as well as possible for a canal.  From thence to the point above Camelon between New Hall and Glenfuir, the ground rises near 60 feet in half a mile, and is more uneven…” 

New Hall was Camelon House where Chalmers lived.

The canal was built from east to west with the first sod being cut by Sir Lawrence Dundas at Grangemouth on 10 June 1768 and within weeks a large workforce, in the region of 1,000 men, spread out over several miles making the cut.  Initially they were recruited from Central Scotland to provide employment to the poor at 10d a day.  Many of them left to work on the harvest and so Highlanders were also employed.  The work was hard and the men were often drunk and abusive – quite a shock even for the locals.  A tall boundary wall was erected between the towpath and the grounds of Camelon House in anticipation of similar behaviour from the boatmen.  In the summer of 1769 the main road from Falkirk to Camelon was placed in a pend under the canal and in 1770 an ornate classical facade was added on either side, providing a grand entrance and exit to Camelon – an echo of the fabled Roman city there.

Illus 2: Elevation and Section of the Camelon Aqueduct on the main road to Falkirk.

The first locks, Lock numbers 3 to 6, were built by labour employed directly by the Forth and Clyde Canal Company.  Locks 7-16 at Camelon were contracted in February 1770 to William Gibb, the founder of the famous civil engineering family of Gartcows.

By the end of December the following year six locks had been completed and the remainder were well advanced.  In September 1772 water was introduced into the lower end of the canal to test the locks and in early January 1773 the canal was officially opened as far as Kilsyth, reaching Kirkintilloch in October.  The businessmen and local landowners were elated.  However, for the carters of Falkirk who had earned a living from road transport it spelled disaster.   In November that year two carters were charged with emptying the great canal, by opening two locks in the neighbourhood of Camelon, and were committed to prison.  Within days an even greater disaster befell the new waterway when the aqueduct-bridge immediately west of Camelon gave way: the water in the canal, for several miles, came down with the greatest rapidity, swept away part of a bridge on the high-road, and did other damage.  A great number of workmen were diverted from continuing the navigation westward to deal with this and before the week was up the canal was again full of water, the vessels daily passing and re-passing between the Firth of Forth and Kirkintilloch.  One of the first items to be unloaded from the Christian at Camelon was the rod iron from Cramond Slitting Mill belonging to the Carron Company.  Rod iron was used in the manufacture of nails.

Illus 3: The Eastern Approach to Lock 15 at Camelon.


Physically the canal formed a new southern and eastern boundary to Camelon, replacing the Tamfourhill Burn in this role.  Between the canal and the stream the largest field belonged to Wester Bantaskine and was destined to become Camelon Public Park – the first “municipal” park in the district.

Writing in 1777 Nimmo was able to say:

The canal hath already made a visible alteration upon the face of the country through which it passeth.  Dwelling houses and granaries are erected in sundry places upon its banks; as also brick-works, and yards for the sale of foreign timber; boats for the navigation have been built upon the brink of it; the adjacent fields begin to be enclosed and better cultivated, and the bustle of trade gives an enlivening aspect to several places which were formerly quite desert and lonely.”  Camelon shared in this prosperity.

Nimmo also describes its course through the Camelon area:

when it arrives at Mungall, opposite to Falkirk upon the north, the ground begins to rise so quickly the ascent of an eminence called Tophill, that, in the course of little more than a mile, no less than eleven locks are required… At Tophill, in the very midst of the group of locks, it intersects the high road leading from Falkirk to Glasgow and Stirling, which is carried through below by a magnificent aqueduct bridge, alongst which, the navigation, with all its appendages, passeth.  After it hath reached the high grounds at Camelon, it stands for a long way upon a level...”

(Nimmo 1777, 475-6).

The aqueduct bridge was designed by Smeaton and was considered to be quite a feature.  In 1802 Alexander Campbell visited Falkirk:

Its proximity to the great canal with which on leaving the town we fall in’ (sic), and pass under through an aqueduct arch, constructed with much judgement, and substantially built, gives it an advantage that few towns in Scotland possess, excepting such as are situated on the principal rivers or sea shores.” 

The “aqueduct arch” was constructed in masonry and bridged the road in a single arch, 4.9m wide and 3.4m high.  The rise on the arch was only 0.6m.  The pend had to be placed at right angles to the waterway as skew bridges had not been developed and so the canal made a shallow S-bend to accommodate it.  While visiting the area in 1819, Thomas Telford and Robert Southey (poet laureate 1813-43) remarked that it was “so dangerously low that it might easily prove fatal to a traveller on the outside of a stage coach”.  To prevent leaks, it was customary to place a layer of clay up to 0.9m thick beneath the canal bed.  However, Smeaton chose not to use any clay over the crown of the arch here and used a special lime mortar made from imported Pozzellana Earth, examples of which can be found in the museum of the Institute of Civil Engineers at Herriot Watt University. 

An amusing incident occurred in 1819.  A van carrying an elephant and a rhinoceros from a wild beast show was travelling from Stirling to Falkirk that November.  The direct route was through Larbert and Camelon, but the pend under the canal at Camelon was too small and so it had to cross the canal at Bainsford.  A representative from the show notified the bridge keeper in advance and a few hours before the vehicle was due to cross he checked on the arrangements.  Nothing had been done, but as one of the Canal Company’s carpenters was at the bridge he was asked if it would take the weight.  He was confident that it would.  The van duly arrived and got part way across before the bridge collapsed.  Fortunately the van was longer than the bridge and came to rest on the stone abutments.  The elephant and rhinoceros were led to safety, but the canal and road were closed for some time.  The Canal Company subsequently docked the carpenter’s wages (Glasgow Courier 11 November 1819).

The canal had other problems.  On 14 April 1781 it was reported that “On Tuesday, by the violence of the wind, a man was blown off one of the locks into the Canal, near Camelon, and drowned.  He has left a wife and three children.”  Over the decades there were to be many more drownings.  The canal also impeded the driving of cattle to the great Trysts at Rough Castle.  The beasts did not like crossing the wooden bascule bridges which moved under their weight and the pend on the drove loan at Carmuirs was rather narrow.  It was partly for this reason that the Trysts moved to Stenhousemuir.

In October 1783 the Canal Company announced that it had built two vessels to carry passengers and cargoes on a daily basis through the canal. Goods could be loaded at Grangemouth, Bainsford and Camelon, where suitable warehouses were built. Passengers from Glasgow could alight at Camelon and continue to Edinburgh by a new stagecoach service. Camelon was now at the centre of the transport infrastructure!

Illus 5: The Locks up to the Union Canal with the later Railway on the left.

In 1818, after many years of discussion, the course of a new canal eastward to the capital city was agreed.  This was the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal and its point of junction with the Forth and Clyde Canal was Lock 16.  Once again large numbers of labourers flooded into the area, with much work required on the flight of eleven locks that cut across the face of the hill to join the two waterways.  Stone for these was quarried from Falkirk Muir and the rock face can still be seen in South Bantaskine Park.  The first boat to make the entire passage through the new canal did so on 11 May 1822.

One of the farmhouses, now at the top of the flight and partly cut off from its land, became a public house known locally as Nanny Jones Inn where passengers could refresh themselves before walking down to Lock 16 where the proprietors of the new canal had built another pub appropriately called the Union Inn (now known as Auntie Kate’s after Kate Struthers, a later proprietrix).  This substantial three storey Georgian building also served as the ticket office and hotel for travellers.  In front of it was an expansive basin called Port Downie after Robert Downie of Appin, one of the directors.  Needless to say the imposition of these features greatly impacted upon the estate of Glenfuir and its owner was able to insist that the Canal Company buy the entire small estate, which it did for 12,000 guineas.  In 1823 the Union Canal was extended by 560yds to a new terminal called Port Maxwell after General Maxwell of Parkhill near Polmont, another of the directors.  This shortened the walk between the two canals and meant that passengers could simply change vessels rather than wait for their first one to go through all the locks.  Alternatively, a local operator ran a coach service to take them and their luggage this short distance.

Illus 6: The Union Inn in the centre with the Forth and Clyde Canal on the right and Port Downie Basin on the left.

Tophill, next to Camelon Bridge, had become the maintenance depot for the eastern half of the Forth and Clyde Canal.  Shades were built for the masons to prepare stone blocks and carpenters to repair lock gates.  In 1794 a dry dock was dug out so that boats could also be looked after.  It was but a short step to building new boats here.  Between 1808 and 1838 fifteen vessels were built at Tophill; many of these carried the latest innovations and the yard became famous for its successful experiments.  Thomas Wilson had launched Scotland’s first iron ship, the Vulcan, on 14 May 1819 at Faskine, Monklands.  In 1822 he took up the post of resident engineer at Tophill and just three years later produced his second iron ship there called the Cyclops.  In 1832 a stern paddle steamer Edinburgh was launched.  Soon after the Union Canal opened, boatbuilding also took place at Port Downie.  In 1836 Thomas Wilson’s son, Robert, took a lease of a new yard there and most of the business from Tophill was transferred to it.  It had a dry dock and a patent slip and was far more suited to the work. 

Illus 7: The Canal looking north-east with Tophill Yard on the right.

He continued his father’s approach of installing the latest technology and design.  In 1860, for example, he placed the rudder around the propeller – the first time this had been done in central Scotland.  The yard employed around twelve men.  Boatbuilding continued under different owners, until 1890 – the last builder being Gilbert Wilkie.

Camelon played a minor role in the demonstration of the Charlotte Dundas – the world’s first practical steamship – and the ship was eventually abandoned at Tophill where her decaying hulk attracted many famous engineers.  Later, in the late 1830s, the length of the canal above Lock 16 also saw experiments with the use of stationary engines to track barges.  However, not only were the towing cables found to be impracticable, but the engines were targeted by local people for their copper piping.

The pend for the main road under the canal was replaced by a wooden bascule bridge in 1838 at a cost of several thousand pounds.  It was over this bridge on 13 September 1842 that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert passed.  A contemporary record says that:

The cortege passed through the town at a brisk trot.   In passing through Falkirk, out along the drawbridge, across the canal, which was tastefully lined with pink cloth, the ships were drawn up on each side, with their gay colours flying & c. and had a very rich and pleasing effect.”

Illus 8: The Bluebell Inn with the Publican, Alf Webster, at the door.

There were many public houses in the village were the workmen consoled themselves from their life of drudgery.  Over the years drunken and disorderly behaviour increased.  At the east end of the Main Street was the Bluebell Inn where the boatmen from the canal would drop in for a drink.  Around 1900 a new pub was built on its west side to take over the trade and appropriately named the “Hop Inn”.

Local men were able to get some employment by helping in the operation of the canal locks.  The intermittent nature of this work meant that it was often older men who took the opportunity, sometimes with fatal consequences:

An old man, belonging to Camelon, was drowned in the Canal, on Tuesday evening last, at the first lock below Bainsford.  He was engaged in emptying the lock, when he accidentally fell in; and it being about six o’clock, the darkness of the night prevented any successful aid from being rendered him.  Creepers were brought from Tophill as soon as possible; but it was not until half-past ten that he was taken out, when life was extinct.”  

(Scotsman, 1 December 1838, 3).

Even the lockkeepers fell victim: “Upon the morning of Monday last, a man of the name of Henry, lock-keeper at Tophill, upon the Forth and Clyde Canal, and who had grown old in the Canal Company’s service, lost his life, from having fallen into the water whilst in the act of working the lock.

(FH 10 December 1846, 2).

On windless days when fishing vessels arrived it was also possible to get some work tracking or hauling them.  Regular users of the canal had their own horses.

Illus 9: A Fishing Boat being tracked along the Canal with Rosebank Distillery in the background.

Jokes were often made about the inland mariners who navigated these artificial waterways, comparing them to those sailors who ventured out into the open waters of the sea.  However, despite common perception, the inland waters could also be treacherous.  The main problems arose from the way in which the vessels were loaded.  They could be top-heavy due to unstable deck cargoes that could shift during passage or which gave the vessels too high a centre of gravity, causing them to overturn.  Often the boats were overloaded with only a small part of the hull above the water line.

Illus 10: a heavily laden Barge sitting low in the water at Tophill.

The following two incidents occurred near Camelon, the first is written to mirror the reporting of a maritime incident:

The shipping at sea has, from all accounts, suffered severely from the prevalence of strong westerly winds, which raged with unabated fury during the early part of the month.  Nothing has been said, however, of the loss sustained on the Forth and Clyde Canal, – especially among the scows, which have been doing a brisk trade for some time.  The first casualty we have to record is the case of the scow “Agnes,” Samuel Brookman, commander.  In coming into Carron Mouth, loaded with a cargo of wood, towed by the “Helen McGregor,” the scow upset, and it was with great difficulty that the crew were saved.  The next casualty happened with the scow “Ann,” Robert Russell, master.  After coming down the Four-mile-Reach on Saturday the 2d – wind blowing a hurricane from the west – and entering Lock 16, she shipped a heavy sea and went down, losing about a third of her cargo, which consisted of whin metal for Carron Company.  A farther disaster occurred with the scow “Falkirk,” Captain John Taylor.  She sailed from Grangemouth with a heavy deck-load of railway sleepers on the 7th.  About 8pm, the Captain lay to near Tophill, when the mate took soundings and found they were lying in 9 feet water; latitude 56.2 N. Of Greenwich, slight breezes from the N.W.  After reporting that all was right, a light was hung on the larboard bow, and the crew went to their berths.  They had not been long in their hammocks when the wind began to freshen.  Blowing directly from Camelon Bay, it took effect on the heavy deck-loading, and upset the boat.  The captain and crew then took to the water.  Fortunately a number of the Canal Coast Guard, in the shape of Mr Morrison’s haulers, being present, rendered every assistance; but not having Captain Manby’s life-preserving apparatus at hand, they formed a raft of some sleepers, and by its aid were the means of saving the captain and crew.  We would suggest to the Canal Company, that, as so many accidents occur, they should present each captain with a good Chart of the Forth and Clyde Canal Navigation, and this would perhaps be the means of preventing such disasters in future.”

(Falkirk Herald 14 March 1850, 2).

The iron steam screw lighter “Calder” laden with 60-70 tons of pig iron from Calder Iron Works bound to Grangemouth put up at Camelon Bridge on the night of Monday 15 December 1873.  At 10pm the crew consisting of master Thomas Baird (aged 53), mate John Hamilton, and James McIlroy (14 years old), retired to rest in the fore castle.  Between 6 and 7 o’clock the next morning it was discovered that the lighter was upset and lay on its side with only about 2ft of the boat above the water.  The alarm was raised and Mr Spence, the canal overseer, was informed, and went to Glasgow to seek permission to drain the reach.  It was generally believed that the men were blocked up in the forecastle and must have drowned or been suffocated.  Around 11 o’clock some of the numerous spectators said that they could hear noises coming from the vessel.  A man got on top of the boat and tapped on the iron near the forecastle and heard a faint moan.  The crowd was horror struck and Superintendent McDonald (Falkirk Police) at once directed that the locks be opened and the water run, whatever the consequence might be.  In less than 30 minutes the water had been so drained that nearly half of the face of the forecastle was exposed.  A punt was secured and a few willing men with strong picks and other implements smashed up the top of the cabin and to the astonishment of all the boy McIlroy was dragged out in a helpless and unconscious state, but alive.  Immediately after, the mate, Hamilton, was also dragged out in a pitiful state.  Baird, the master, was lying on the bottom of the cabin quite dead and stiff. The survivors were carried to the nearest house (Mr Webster’s Blue Bell Inn) and Dr Hamilton applied restoratives to good effect.  It was supposed that the boat overturned about 4am in the gale.  The two survivors had been up to their necks in the water, occasionally over their mouths and had despaired of being heard.

(Falkirk Herald 20 December 1873, 4).

Although Camelon was established before the arrival of the Forth and Clyde Canal, the navigation acted as a spur to the economic development of the area.  Some of the works, such as the boatbuilding at Tophill (Mitchell & Ronald 2007) and Lock 16 (Ronald 2011), were directly related to the working of the canal.  Others, such as the Woodvale wood yard at the east end of the village, were dependent upon the canal for supplies and onwards sales.  Many, like the distillery and nailmaking industries, expanded due to the ability to get bulk products to markets with relative ease.  Even the agricultural industry was transformed and in the late 1780s one of the main users of the canal was the local landowner, William Forbes, who brought in vast amounts of lime from Charlestown on the Fife coast.  This cargo was landed at his private wharf near Tamfourhill.  So much was transported that the road leading from the canal to the fields on the Callendar Estate became known as Lime Road and the landing place as Lime Wharf.

In  1845  James Ross  sold  the boat building  business  at Lock 16 and  entered  into partnership  with two companions as chemical manufacturers on a small piece of land on the bank of the Forth and Clyde Canal at the east end of Camelon near the West Burn.   Here the business slowly prospered using the canal to transport its products.  Developments in chemistry led James Ross to consider taking up the distillation of tar which was a by-product of making town gas.  He bought out his partners in 1847 and entered into a 99 year lease with William Forbes for land at Limewharf which offered more room for expansion.  In 1876 receiving tanks were installed for Edinburgh Gas Works crude tar which now arrived by rail.  Crude tar also came to Limewharf from Lerwick, Stornoway, and the border of Scotland as well as England.   Pitch was taken away by canal.  To facilitate its loading into barges a ‘couper’ was installed.   Pitch was hauled by horse in hutches along a light railway to a slope above the canal where the horse was unhitched, the hutch run down the slope to a platform over a weighbridge and then tipped into the barge.  The barges proceeded to Grangemouth or Bowling for the pitch to be transhipped.   In 1887 the steam tanker Analine was built for James Ross and Company for the purpose of collecting the crude tar from gas works adjacent to the inland waterways system.   Later, a second ship, named the Ammonia was acquired.

The initial presence of the ironfounding industry in Camelon was almost entirely due to the canal.  Camelon Iron Works was founded in 1845 by RW Crosthwaite, John Miller and John Smith on the south bank of the canal west of Lock 16.   The foundry was purchased in 1854 by John Smith, Camelon House, with Mr Fullerton as a partner and so was then called Smith, Fullerton and Co.  New works were built further down the canal at Bleachfield in 1870 and the company moved there.  However, the new site had a link to the Midland Junction Railway which bordered it on the south and from then on railways took over the transport of the goods.  Three years later the old foundry was sold to Walker, Turnbull and Company and its name changed to Portdownie Iron Works.   Before long a railway siding was also introduced there.

Camelon’s second ironworks was the Union Foundry, established in 1854 adjacent to the Camelon Iron Works.  A crane on the canal bank handled the heavier goods.  Between 1855 and 1860 this foundry made all of the stoves for Smith and Wellstood before their production moved up the canal to Bonnybridge in 1860.

Illus 11: 1860 Ordnance Survey Map of Camelon and the Forth and Clyde Canal (National Library of Scotland).

In 1863 the Main Street of Camelon was illuminated to celebrate the wedding of the Prince of Wales and there was great rejoicing.  It was on this occasion that the Ceremony of the Keys was inaugurated.  A procession of local people walked to Camelon Bridge which was considered to be the boundary of the village.  Here they handed over to a representative of Falkirk a symbolic set of keys to the ‘Ancient City’, that is to say to the twelve brass gates of the legendary Pictish city where the Roman fort had stood.  The villagers were proud of this heritage and constantly referred to it.  It was only a little after this that another tradition arose- that of calling someone from Camelon a “Mariner.”  The appellation probably came about due to the finding of Roman anchors next to the River Carron at Dorrator and the presence of the inland waterway and its boatbuilding tradition.

The Feuars and tenants of Camelon, under the chairmanship of Ralph Stark, having installed the street lighting, decided to undertake the much-needed improvement in the drainage system.  By 1880 the sewers were flushed weekly by water from the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Illus 12: Camelon Bridge with the Hop Inn to the right and the Rosebank Bonded Warehouse on the left.

When the Circular tramway was constructed in 1905 the wooden bascule bridge at Camelon was replaced by a 70ft long steel swing bridge that rotated on a turntable.  The old pend was subsequently used to house gas and water pipes as well as telephone cables.

The usage of the canal slowly declined throughout the 20th century, though a fair number of vessels still plied it.  School children became familiar with the fishing fleet passing from coast to coast and would hitch lifts from one set of locks to the next.  Fish was relatively cheap as it was sold during the passage.  The canal was closed to most commercial traffic for the duration of the Second World War and having switched to using the railways it did not return.  Landing craft traversed the canal during the war and in 1952 the passage of miniature submarines or X-Craft made quite a stir. 

Illus 13: X-Craft passing Glenfuir Road, 1952.

The Ceremony of the Keys was revived in 1949 as part of the first Mariners’ Day and took place on Camelon Bridge.  The day was essentially a gala for the children interwoven with pageants from Camelon’s historic past.  At Lock 16 a boat was launched to the strains of “Anchors Aweigh” performed by the Camelon Brass Band.  Around 20,000 people attended and the day ended with sports, a gymnastic display, fairground amusements and a competition for the best dressed lorry.

After the Forth and Clyde Canal was closed to navigation in 1962 the swing bridge was removed and a concrete culvert put in its place.  This greatly impeded the flow of water causing the water to stagnate and trapping a considerable amount of rubbish.

Illus 14: Scottish Tar Distillery Fire.

Worse pollution came as the result of a devastating fore at the Scottish Tar Distillery at Limewharf on 6 November 1972 which resulted in the spillage of much tar into the canal.  The billowing smoke could be seen for miles and those who saw it remembered the event as a time-mark for decades.

The old wooden bridge at Lock 16 was also replaced with a static link making the road far more serviceable for vehicles.  Numerous calls were made to have the canal filled in and it looked like this valuable industrial relic would be lost for ever

Illus 15: The Canal at Lock 16.

Incredibly, the inland navigation was brought back from the brink of extinction.  As part of the Millennium Project to reopen the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal there was a lot of activity in the Camelon area.  The culvert on the main road was replaced with a fixed link concrete bridge.  To do this meant lowering the canal at this point and this was achieved by constructing a new lock chamber to the south.  The bed of the canal was then lowered between the new locks and the bridge – removing the original road pend.  The bridge at Lock 16 was also replaced and roundabouts introduced to help the flow of traffic.  Further up the canal the tar spillage from 1973 was cleaned up.  Part of the tar distillery site was used for a new link between the two canals – the innovative and attractive Falkirk Wheel.  This created a new tourist hub and once more the barges pass quietly along the waterway overlooking the village – but that is another story for another day…

Sites and Monuments Records

Forth and Clyde Canal (Bonnybridge to Camelon Bridge)SMR 1675
Forth and Clyde Canal (Camelon Bridge to Abbotshaugh)SMR 1678
Camelon AqueductSMR 1790NS 8755 8028
Tophill StablesSMR 962NS 877 803
Union InnSMR 954NS 8676 8000
Canal InnSMR 960NS 8693 8009
Rosebank DistillerySMR 1028NS 876 803;
NS 8749 8025;
NS 8754 8033
Tophill Signal BoxSMR2048NS 8789 8049


Campbell, A.1802A Journey from Edinburgh, through parts of North Britain.
Hutton, G.2002Scotland’s Millennium Canals: the survival and revival of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals.
Love, J.1908Local Antiquarian Notes and Queries. Volume 1.
Mitchell, S. & Ronald, A.2007‘A historical and archaeological study of Tophill Dock, Camelon, Falkirk,’ Calatria 24, 79-106.
Nimmo, W.1777A General History of Stirlingshire.
Ronald, A.2011‘The boat building yard at Port Downie,’ Calatria 27, 77-88.

G.B. Bailey, 2021