The Forth and Clyde Canal opened on the 28th of June, 1790.
The thirty-five mile course of the Forth and Clyde Canal, from Bowling to Grangemouth, was the longest of the Lowland canals. It was formally abandoned in 1962, but was reopened, in 2001, as part of the Millenium Link scheme. Once again, waterway travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow was possible, however, this time by linking to the Union canal via the remarkable ‘Falkirk Wheel’ boat lift. The world’s first practical steamboat, the ‘Charlotte Dundas’, sailed on the Forth and Clyde Canal as did Scotland's first iron vessel the ‘Vulcan’. The canal also gave birth to the puffers of ‘Vital Spark’ fame and played host to a delightful fleet of pleasure steamers.
In the days of sail, it was tempting to contemplate somehow avoiding the trip around the Hebrides; the journey that had sunk the Spanish Armada. So, the idea of a making a canal across central Scotland had been put forward as early as the reign of Charles II, but nothing serious was done about it until the middle of the 18th Century. In the early 1760s, initial surveys were made by John Smeaton, who was later appointed Canal Engineer.
Various plans with different routes and schemes were put forward for discussion, each with its detractors, and there was great rivalry between Edinburgh, the Capital City of Scotland, and Glasgow, the centre of industry and commerce. Edinburgh promoters wanted a canal "big enough to take seagoing coastal vessels", and Glasgow merchants feared they would lose trade if the canal by passed Glasgow. A compromise involving a short branch to Port Dundas in Glasgow meant that agreement was reached and on the 8th of March, 1768, a Bill was passed “to make and maintain a canal from the River Carron near Falkirk (on the River Forth) to Dalmuirburnfoot near Glasgow (on the River Clyde)”. Under the Act, the ‘Company of the Forth & Clyde Navigation’ was established, with Lord Dundas as its chief shareholder. The following month, Smeaton was appointed Engineer and work started in June, 1768.
The canal was built from east to west, from the Forth via the River Carron, and the whole construction took twenty-two years. Water was first let into the Canal, in 1773, when it was filled as far as Kirkintilloch. By 1775, it had reached as far as Stockingfield, but two years later, in 1777, funds ran out and it was not until 1784 that work resumed towards the new terminus destination of Bowling, which was reached in 1790. The Canal finally opened on the 28th of June, 1790. It was thirty-five miles long, with thirty-nine locks and, as planned, wide enough to accommodate sea-going vessels. The first vessel to transit the Canal from Grangemouth to Bowling did so on the 31st of August, 1790.
The Forth and Clyde Canal does not have the dressed stone bridges of the Union Canal as all of its overbridges were of the wooden ‘Bascule’ design, which opened to allow tall masted sailing vessels through. However, it did have aqueducts with the most notable being the ones that carry the Canal over the Luggie at Kirkintilloch and the Kelvin at Maryhill.
The Canal was the venue for many pioneering experiments. In 1788, the ‘Charlotte Dundas’ became the first steam driven narrowboat and, in 1803, is on record as having pulled two other loaded narrowboats for twenty miles from Lock 20 in just six hours and on a windy day. In 1812, the ‘Comet’ was the first commercial steamboat and, in 1818, the ‘Vulcan’ was the first iron hulled passenger boat. Super-narrow ‘swiftboats’, pulled for two miles at a time by changing pairs of horses, were introduced, in 1831, which halved the journey time to Glasgow.
The completion of the Canal opened up Central Scotland to both domestic and international trade, and the towns and cities within the reach of the Canal boomed. Timber, coal, clay and sand were major cargoes and there was also a regular passenger service. The advent of steam brought paddle steamers and then the distinctive 'Puffers', so called because of the noise they make. ‘Puffers’ are now best known from the BBC TV series, ‘Tales of Para Handy’.
It prospered for about one hundred years, until the railways and then roads, forced its decline and closure. In 1867, the Canal was bought by the Caledonian Railway and remained under railway ownership until nationalisation of the waterways, in 1948. Its rights of navigation were terminated by Parliament, in 1963 and it sank into dereliction.
Now, however, after lying abandoned and dilapidated for years, the Forth and Clyde Canal, together with the Union Canal, has been reopened, due in large part to funds secured from the Millennium Commission. Since 2001, the largest canal restoration ever in Britain has resulted in boats once again being able to navigate from Glasgow to Edinburgh. The restoration has resulted in a green corridor linking town and country, with bright flowers and trees adorning the verges, where wildlife abounds. It is now one of central Scotland's prime environmental and leisure resources.
En route, close to the site of the Roman Fort of Roughcastle on the Antonine Wall, the Canal passes the thirty-five metre high ‘Falkirk Wheel’. That unique and remarkable piece of working sculpture is the world’s first rotating boat lift; the only structure of its kind in the world. Two boat caissons on the end of curving arms balance each other so that the half-rotation to change levels will take about eleven minutes and use very little energy. At the beginning of each cycle, boats can simultaneously enter or leave the wheel at either side. Tiny motors then turn the precisely balanced wheels through 180° and, when each has come to rest, the boats can exit at the other canal level.
Visitors can take a ride on this magnificent structure, on an excursion boat that departs from the Exhibition and Visitor Centre.