The short neck of land between the Irish and North Seas had been identified as early as the 1660s as the ideal place for a canal but it was not until economic and social conditions were right a century later that the work was begun. In 1762 the great engineer Robert McKell surveyed a route on behalf of a group of Glasgow merchants and shortly afterwards John Smeaton was invited by the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Fisheries, Manufactures and Improvements in Scotland to produce an alternative version which was the one finally adopted. Smeaton’s proposal, modified in several ways after it was first produced, envisaged a 35 mile canal over fifty feet wide and seven feet deep from an eastern terminus where the Carron joined the Forth, to the Clyde near Bowling. A series of locks would carry the barges across the carse immediately north and west of Falkirk, from Middlefield to Bainsford and on through Camelon to Bonnybridge. From there a further four locks would lift the canal up to its highest point at Wyndford Lock near Castlecary over 150 feet above the sea. Thereafter it was stepped down through a further 19 locks across to the Clyde north of Glasgow. A cut from the canal into the city would ensure that the produce of the east coast would have a path to the rapidly expanding commercial heart of the west coast.
In 1767 a public company was formed with fifteen hundred £100 shares subscribed to by the most powerful and influential figures in the land. There were six Dukes and seventeen Earls, as well as the Lord Provosts of both Edinburgh and Glasgow, but by far the biggest single shareholder was Sir Lawrence Dundas of West Kerse with £10,000 worth of stock. The canal would begin its journey on his land and, as a result, he stood to gain in every way from its success. Parliament approved the proposal in 1768 and in the same year the work began. It was a colossal undertaking, the greatest civil engineering project in Scotland since the Roman builders completed the Antonine Wall over the same ground over 1600 years before. Smeaton was appointed as chief engineer with a salary of £500 and Robert McKell, his assistant, was paid £375. These were princely sums in the mid 18th Century when one of the thousand men engaged to dig the canal was to be paid less than one shilling per day. McKell certainly earned his pay for he was in charge of the day-to-day work, searching out and buying timber, stone and clay, engaging skilled masons and woodworkers as well as scores of untried labourers , these celebrated navigators or ‘navvies’ who by all accounts, fought, drank and dug themselves from Falkirk all the way to the Clyde.
By 1770 over 1500 men were working and the Canal had covered over fourteen miles. Five years later the canal was completed as far as Stockingfield near Kirkintilloch and there was water in most of the eastern end so that trading along this part could begin. Financial difficulties delayed the completion of the final stretch until July 1790 when a ceremonial hogshead of Forth water was poured into the Clyde near Bowling. By then developments were already underway with small workshops and warehouses, tile works, timber yards and coal stores established along the length of the canal from the new village of Grangemouth in the east to Camelon and Bonnybridge in the west. More than any other development the cutting of the canal transformed Falkirk from the market town of the carse to a centre of industry with a wide range of new manufacturing activities and a growing population.
More and more vessels which had once used the established port of Bo’ness now landed raw materials and finished goods at Grangemouth, where they were loaded onto barges for the journey west. In the opposite direction came the imported goods of the great Glasgow merchants for onward transmission from the Forth to the rest of Britain and Europe. Initially goods were moved on horse drawn barges but the inventive genius of the age soon found an outlet in the harnessing of steam power to the task. In 1789 Patrick Miller of Dalswinton brought his 60 foot paddle boat The Experiment to the canal west of Lock 16 where there was a clear four mile run free of locks. It was fitted with a steam engine designed by William Symington of Wanlockhead and made in Carron. After several unsuccessful attempts during which Millar began to lose faith in the whole idea of steam navigation, The Experiment did finally sail on the canal on 25th December 1789. Miller was absent and he refused to support the venture further.
A decade later the sheer volume of shipping trying to use the completed canal led the Canal Company to think once again about the possibility of steam tugs. Lord Thomas Dundas, son of Sir Lawrence was by then the Governor of the Company and early in 1800 he asked Symington who was once again working at Wanlockhead, to design a new engine. The following year, a wooden hulled craft, probably designed by Captain John Schank of the Royal Navy and certainly fitted with Symington’s steam engine was built by Alexander Hart of Grangemouth and launched with the name Charlotte Dundas. Contemporary reports suggested that the 58 foot by 18 foot boat had successful tests on the canal but the project was expensive and not without serious technical problems. In 1803 a second boat, probably also called Charlotte Dundas, was built to a modified design with an improved engine. Early the following year Symington tested the boat along the whole length of the canal and on 28th March witnessed by a number of important guests, the boat towed two large barges weighting some 130 tons a total a distance of just over 18 miles in just over nine hours. It was generally regarded as a satisfactory if not spectacular performance but the fears of the Company that the boats would damage the banks of the canal persisted and the project, and Symington, were eventually abandoned.
The coming of the railways in the mid century changed everything but the canal continued as a key route for shipping, goods and passengers, remaining financially sound until the early years of this century. Thereafter the decline accelerated and in 1933 the section joining the Forth and Clyde as it was then called to the Union Canal was abandoned and the linking locks filled in. In the early 1960s an Act of Parliament closed both canals and in 1966 the eastern end of the Forth and Clyde, from Grangemouth to Middlefield, was filled in. Years of neglect followed and the canal became dangerous, choked with weeds and rubbish, polluted by chemical and other waste and unloved by the community. The wooden lock gates rotted away and people talked about filling the whole thing in. But there were those who dreamed of the day when both waterways would be restored and their faith and dedication paid off in the 1990s with the Millennium link project which brought millions of pounds of investment on the restoration of locks and bridges, the reinstatement of lost sections and, most famously, the Falkirk Wheel ingeniously linking the two canals in place of the lost flight of eleven locks.
Ian Scott (2005)
For further information see: Geoff Bailey “Locks, Stocks and Bodies in Barrels: A history of the canals in the Falkirk area“ Falkirk Council Library Services 2000