Back in January I mentioned the efforts of the Friends of Charlotte Dundas to honour the memory of the great Scottish engineer William Symington whose pioneering work on steam navigation accelerated the industrial and transport revolutions. I am delighted to report that these efforts are beginning to pay off and that if all goes to plan we should soon have a fitting memorial to the great man’s work in the shadow of the Kelpies not far from where his steam powered boat Charlotte Dundas was constructed in the early 19th century.
Symington’s first attempts to power boats with deck mounted steam engines were carried out on Dalswinton Loch around 1788 but the real financial opportunities lay on the ‘great canal’ which was completed a couple of years later. The first trials were not completely successful but Symington persevered and in March 1803 the Charlotte Dundas, built in Alexander Hart’s yard in Grangemouth and fitted with a Carron engine, pulled two barges weighing 130 tons, over 18 miles in nine hours. It was a good performance but not good enough to persuade the canal company members. They feared that the banks of the canal would be damaged and refused to continue the experiment. It was a bitter blow for the great engineer who never fully recovered and died some years later in near poverty in London.
Today we look back on that trial as ‘a first in the world’ moment which should be acknowledged and celebrated along with the life of the man whose genius laid the foundation for the work of American Robert Fulton who launched his Clermont on the Hudson River in 1807 and Henry Bell whose Comet sailed on the Clyde near Helensburgh five years later. Both men had visited Symington at the yard in Grangemouth no doubt with notebooks and pencils at the ready.
The imaginative plans of the Friends are centred on the new stretch of canal which runs almost parallel to the River Carron to the east of the basin where the Kelpies now stand. A series of information plaques telling the story of Symington and steam navigation will lead visitors towards a display close to Lock One which might well take the form of the Charlotte Dundas itself giving an impression of its size and the layout of its key external features and method of operation. However, before any decision on this is made there will be a public consultation so that the community have a chance to shape the kind of exhibit they think ought to be on display.
Scottish Canals, who are responsible for the canal corridor, are enthusiastic about the project which is intended to educate and inform both visitors and our own people especially children about this crucial part of national and local history. With many thousands coming to the Helix and Kelpies each year it is another opportunity to blow our own trumpet and remind people again that this part of Scotland was the crucible of the revolution that turned Scotland into a powerhouse of industry and helped transform the world. It is also an opportunity to right a long standing wrong and give William Symington his place among the world’s great men of science and technology.
A final thought. When Andy Scott designed the Kelpies he was inspired he said by the great horses which pulled the ploughs on land and the barges along the waters of the Forth and Clyde Canal. Soon we hope, not far from his massive equine statues, we will honour the man who did most to send the barge horses into early retirement!