Over a few days towards the end of the year I walked the length of the Forth and Clyde Canal, from the Carron at Falkirk through to the Clyde at Bowling. This was Scotland’s first canal, started in 1768, although the Monklands Canal wasn’t far behind, and the first surveys for what would become the Crinan and Caledonian canals were carried out only a few years later.
This was still near the start of what would become a great revolution of transport across the country, and really combined two functions – linking one coast of Scotland to the other and avoiding the need for a hazardous voyage round the north coast, but also linking many inland places to the sea and onward transport, and eventually directly into Glasgow.
The first phase of building, from 1768 to 1773, took the canal as far as Kirkintilloch, giving the town a new role as a transportation hub, and sparking new industry in the area. Two years later the canal was filled as far as Stockingfield, then just to the north of Glasgow, where it stayed for another seven years, before work finally began again in 1784, with two branches of the canal finally reaching the Clyde at Bowling and Port Dundas in the centre of Glasgow by 1790.
The famous face of the modern canal is of course the Kelpies, between Grangemouth and Falkirk where the canal now joins the river – echoing Scottish myths, but also recognising the amount of work done along the route of the canal by horses.
I’ve written a bit before about the very eastern end of the canal, which originally ran down to the mouth of the river at Grangemouth, where the docks didn’t run out on reclaimed land the way they do now. The last modern sealock, or river lock, is a bit further upstream , although the junction has been taken downstream from the Kelpies to avoid bridges on the river.
This first section of the canal runs mostly through modern buildings, but there are occasional older buildings scattered about.
Beyond the Kelpies the first real landmark is the Union Inn, built at the basin where the Union Canal originally joined at the base of a long flight of locks, demolished while the canals were closed in the late 20th century and now replaced by the Falkirk Wheel.
The canal is generally used now for leisure boating, and on a November day there wasn’t much on the move, but every so often I would come across a little cluster of moored boats.
It’s interesting to see how the routes chosen for the canals are still echoed by modern transport routes today – the railway line from Falkirk to Glasgow doesn’t shadow the canal quite as closely as the line from Edinburgh to Falkirk shadows the Union Canal, but they still come together at times.
The basin at Auchinstarry, now a marina, seems to have originally been built as a port for the town of Kilsyth to the north.
The basin at Hillhead at Kirkintilloch, the original terminus of the canal, is not nearly so impressive these days – the modern marina is on the far side of the town.
The ‘Unique Bridge‘ here, an aqueduct over the Luggie Water, seems to have got or kept its name because it later on carried a canal over a railway on a bridge over a river, but even the original aqueduct was an impressive engineering feat when first created.
The building at the Townhead Bridge probably dates from the 1820s, and was originally an inn serving canal traffic.
I’ll carry on through Glasgow to the sea another time, but one more striking feature of this section echoes the Kelpies at the beginning – the stable blocks built in the 1810s or 1820s to provide changes of horses for passenger transport.
The stables at Croy Hill, before Auchinstarry, had to be built well back from the canal because the first foundations vanished into the marshy ground. They’ve lost their roof, but look to be a pretty solid ruin.
The Shirva stables at Twechar are in a more precarious state, and have been fenced off from the path.
The stables at Glasgow Bridge, between Kirkintilloch and Cadder, are now a pub.
Lambhill stables, a mile or so before the canal junction in Glasgow, were neglected for years, but are now used as a local community centre – it’s nice to see the buildings being used.