When the Union Canal was completed in 1822 it was connected to the Forth and Clyde Canal by a series of eleven locks descending 110 feet to Port Downie near Lock 16. The declining use of the canal system in the 20th century brought eventual closure and the removal of the link in the 1930s. When the restoration project, the ‘Millennium Link’, was announced in 1994 one of the challenges identified was “the creation of a link between the two canals at Falkirk providing an opportunity to build a new landmark as a symbol for the new millennium”. The idea of a rotating boat lift emerged during the planning stages and by early 1998 the main operational principles were established though the wheel itself as then envisaged looked more like a fairground wheel. It was not the 21st century image demanded by the promoters and soon afterwards the now familiar futuristic Falkirk Wheel emerged as the preferred solution.
Employing a boat lift like the Wheel meant reducing the distance – both horizontal and vertical – between the two waterways and this was achieved by constructing a new section of the Union Canal which extended it by around one kilometre westwards. After dropping down through new high locks the extended waterway turned north before entering a 145 metre tunnel under the Edinburgh-Glasgow railway and the Antonine Wall. It was the first canal tunnel constructed in Scotland for a century. Emerging on the north facing slope the canal is carried on a 300 metre long aqueduct resting on five huge piers, to the 35 metre diameter wheel.
Two caissons within the wheel, each holding 250,000 litres of water, carry boats up and down simultaneously between the two canals, a journey that takes 15 minutes. The various elements of the Wheel were fabricated by the Butterley Engineering Company in Ripley, Derbyshire and brought north for assembly and installation. The whole system which cost some Â£17 million was completed by a large basin linked to the Forth and Clyde, and a Visitor Centre.
On May 24th 2002 the Wheel was officially opened by the Queen. Since then it has attracted many thousands of visitors and won several awards including being named by the Saltire Society Civil Engineering Award Panel as the finest project in Scotland during the 25 years of their annual award.
Ian Scott (2006)