No canal building in Forbes’ ‘backyard’

The Bantaskine Tunnel is one of the marvels of the Industrial Revolution.
The Bantaskine Tunnel is one of the marvels of the Industrial Revolution.

It’s not that many years since I first heard the expression NIMBY, for those ‘not in my backyard’ folk who are happy to see a new development as long as it is well away from them.

But while the word may be new the idea behind it has been with us for centuries.

In Falkirk we have a perfect example which resulted in us having one of the most famous works of 19th century civil engineering, the Bantaskine tunnel, the only one of its kind in Scotland.

Exactly 200 years ago the engineer Hugh Baird produced a plan for a waterway between Edinburgh and Falkirk.

The route he proposed was welcomed by many but there were also opponents, including the formidable William Forbes of Callendar, Falkirk’s richest and most powerful landowner. He was shocked to discover that Baird’s route would take the canal close to Callendar House and that the passengers would be able to gaze down into his private gardens.

He raised a great hue and cry against the scheme and had a special drawing done showing how his privacy would be invaded.

He sent this to all MPs urging them to reject the plan and the planners were forced to devise a new route which would carry the canal away from the house and park.

Unfortunately the great bulk of Prospect Hill stood in the way and their only choice was to cut a tunnel 690 yards long through the solid rock.

Hugh Baird believed that the canal needed to be at least 13 feet wide with another five for the footpath and that the tunnel must be at least 18 feet from the roof to the bottom of the water.

This huge cavernous passage was to be cut through using only simple tools and primitive explosives by a very large contingent of ‘navvies’ many of whom were recent immigrants from Ireland. Five years after Baird first presented his plan, and with William Forbes already dead and gone, the work began.

A number of vertical pits were dug from the top of the hill down to the level of the waterway and the material was lifted up using windlasses.

The ‘navvies’ then drove the tunnel back and forward to meet the next pit and so on until the passage was complete.

It is to their credit that it is a straight as a die and that the first thing you see on entering the tunnel is the light shining through the exit nearly half a mile away.

There is a famous letter written at the time which describes progress and finishes with “a great deal of Irish men came over and is employed at it and several accidents has happened at it and two was killed by the face of the brae falling down on them . . . few of our countrymen is at it as in general they cannot stand the work”.

Back in the 1950s we used to dare one another to walk through the ‘dark tunnel’ which had no lights and a broken down handrail with large gaps.

The running water from the

roof and the creepy light and sound made it a dare indeed though most of us did give it a


Today there is a new handrail and lighting but it is still a pretty spooky experience.

If you haven’t already been then take a walk through or maybe seek the safety of the

Seagull Trust boat.

It is a true wonder of the industrial world.

Ask Ian

Why is there a pub in Tamfourhill called The Hurlet.

From 1851 the Hurlet Chemical Works manufactured alum not far from Lock 16. It took its name from the village of Hurlet in

Renfrewshire where the parent company was based. The Camelon works closed in 1901.