S summer has seen the footpaths of our two canals fill with walkers following in the hoofsteps of the great horses that once pulled barges of coal, grain, timber, iron ore and passengers by the thousands from one side of the country to the other.
More than any other development, it was the arrival of the canal builders in 1768 that kicked off the industrial revolution in the Falkirk district and in the Forth and Clyde, known then as ‘the Great Canal’, they created what remains a wonder of the industrial world today.
The engineer responsible for this masterwork was John Smeaton who planned a 35-mile waterway over fifty feet wide and seven feet deep from the point where the Carron joined the Forth to the Clyde near Bowling. A series of 20 locks would carry the barges north and west of Falkirk, from Middlefield to Bainsford and on through Camelon and Bonnybridge to the summit at Wynford Lock, over 150 feet above sea level.
In 1767 a public company was formed with fifteen hundred £100 shares subscribed to by the most powerful figures in the land. There were six dukes and 17 earls as well as the Lord Provosts of both Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the biggest shareholder was Sir Lawrence Dundas of West Kerse. 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 Romans completed the Antonine Wall 1600 years before.
Smeaton’s salary as chief engineer was £500 and Robert McKell, his assistant, was paid £375. These were princely sums at the time when one of the workmen was paid less than a shilling a 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, and engaging skilled masons as well as scores of labourers, the navigators or ‘navvies’, armed with pick and shovel who, by all accounts, fought, drank and dug themselves from Grangemouth all the way to the Clyde.
One can hardly imagine the impact on small communities of the arrival of these huge armies of workmen, living in temporary accommodation and disturbing the peace of the inhabitants. Their presence was resented by many, especially carters who thought their jobs would go, and the records report regular vandalism, locks destroyed, equipment stolen, and workers attacked. Even worse was the breaking down of the lock gate at Lock 16 in Camelon allowing four miles of water to pour through the workings towards the Glasgow Road at Rosebank.
By 1775, with over 1500 men employed, the canal was completed as far as Kirkintilloch and there was water in most of the eastern end so that could begin. Financial difficulties delayed completion of the final stretch until July 1790 but 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.
The Wheel and the Kelpies may be marvels of the modern age but spare a thought for the stretch of water that lies between them and salute the genius of the men who designed and built it 250 years ago.