In 1792, the same year as the Forth and Clyde was completed, the scarcity of coal in Edinburgh led the city fathers to look towards the rich Lanarkshire coalfields for future supplies. The advantages of a waterway linking the city to the west was obvious and several possible routes were surveyed between 1793 and 1797 by distinguished engineers including John Rennie and Robert Whitworth. Involvement in the French wars delayed the project and when planning was resumed in 1813 a further plan by Hugh Baird was commissioned. This envisaged a line linking Edinburgh and Falkirk, where the new canal would join with the Great Canal as the Forth and Clyde was known. Work began in Edinburgh in March 1818 and continued, following the contours of the land right through to Falkirk, a total distance of 31 miles. Where valleys lay in its path great aqueducts were built such as the twelve mighty arches of the Avon aqueduct over eighty feet above the river and stretching for 900 feet. But the barriers were not always physical.
The Forbes family of Callendar went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the canal would not be visible from their estates. The campaign of opposition included producing a print (shown above) and plan showing the ‘detrimental’ effect of the development which was sent to every Member of Parliament in Britain. It was successful and engineers were forced to cut a 690 yard tunnel under Prospect Hill. This involved blasting and digging through solid rock, and the ‘dark tunnel’ as it is known remains a marvel even in this high technology age. The squads of navvies engaged in digging and lining the channel were the same hard drinking, hard living gangs of displaced workers from the highlands and later from Ireland who had already made the Great Canal and would one day drive the railways across the length and breadth of the land. One observer was at least as concerned about their behaviour as he was impressed by the techniques involved. Writing from Falkirk to New York in September 20th 1818 he describes the project:
‘their is a Cannal going throu from Falkirk to Edinburgh and they are cutting a tunal belaw grany from west side of our moar all the way to the glen burn about half a mill ….. they sunk pits about 100 yards from each other to the level of the cannal and then cut east and west till they met below taking all the stuff up by windlasts ….. a great deal of Irish men came over and is employed at it and several accident has happened at it and 2 was killed by the face of the brea faling down on them …. few of our countrymen is at it as in general they cannot stand the work ….. they are mostly irish young men and a bad set they are.’
At the Falkirk end of the canal a flight of eleven locks bridged the gap to Lock 16 on the Forth and Clyde at Camelon where a basin was constructed at the junction. One of the most famous sights on the canal is the so called Laughin’ and Greetin’ Bridge, the Glen Bridge near the eastern entrance to the tunnel. Here the bridge builder has decorated the keystone of the arch on either side with a laughing face (facing Edinburgh) and a crying face (facing Falkirk). The reason? One theory without much evidence is that the section between the Glen Bridge and Falkirk involved the construction of the eleven locks and the cutting of the tunnel, a tougher project than the section to the east of the bridge!
The Laughin’ and Greetin’ Brig (Photographs by Ronnie Blackadder)
The whole expensive project with its aqueducts and over-bridges, linking locks and half-mile tunnel was completed in 1822-23 when the city centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the estuaries of the two great rivers were joined at last in a waterway system which was almost as important as a symbol of man’s ability to overcome and tame the natural world, as it was an element in the economic development of the nation.
As early as 1822 a traveller’s guide to the Edinburgh to Glasgow journey was produced, pointing out the sights to be seen to north and south of both the Union and Forth and Clyde canals – the forest of masts at the new port of Grangemouth, the elegant villas and ‘gentlemen’s seats’ and parklands, new church buildings and the flaming furnaces of Carron. It explained how passengers would disembark at Falkirk and walk the few hundred yards down to the basin and partake of refreshment at the new Union Inn while the barges passed through the chain of locks and basins ready for embarkation and a renewed journey to Bonnybridge and the west.
But the Union Canal as it came to be known was never as successful as the Forth and Clyde which remained the Great Canal in every way. The coming of the railways in the mid century changed everything but the Forth and Clyde especially 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 linking the two canals was abandoned and the locks filled in. In the early 1960s an Act of Parliament closed both canals. Years of neglect followed and the canal became overgrown, choked with weeds and rubbish, polluted by chemical and other waste, unloved and ignored by most of the community. 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 to 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