Union canal put Falkirk at the heart of the Scottish economy

The Union Canal in Falkirk at Bantaskine Bridge No. 62
The Union Canal in Falkirk at Bantaskine Bridge No. 62

A few weeks ago I told the story of the ‘Great Canal’ from Forth to Clyde. Thirty years after the laden barges began sailing from the new village of Grangemouth, the city fathers in Edinburgh, anxious to access cheap Lanarkshire coal, proposed a second waterway from the capital to the west.

After years of wrangling the decision was finally taken to construct the Union Canal linking the city centre to the original canal in Falkirk.

Work began in Edinburgh in March 1818 to the design of Hugh Baird and continued, following the contours of the land right through to Falkirk, a total distance of 31 miles.

Where valleys lay in its path great aqueducts were built such as the 12 mighty arches of the Avon aqueduct over 80 feet above the river and stretching for 900 feet. But the barriers were not always physical. The Forbes family refused to allow the canal to come close to Callendar House resulting in the phenomenal 690-yard ‘dark tunnel’ under Prospect Hill which I described in an article last year.

Unlike the Forth and Clyde, the Union had no locks and the bridges were of immovable stone, numbered from Edinburgh, the last being the familiar Bantaskine bridge No. 62 At the Falkirk end a flight of eleven locks bridged the 110-feet gap to Lock 16 on the Forth and Clyde at Camelon.

While the passengers walked down to the basin to partake of refreshment at Auntie Kate’s Union Inn, the barges passed through the chain of locks for a renewed journey to the west. The whole project was completed in 1822-23 linking the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and placing Falkirk at the heart of a communications system that transformed the economy of Scotland.

Passenger trade was important but it was the carriage of coal from the Braes and stone from the quarry at Brightons that brought new opportunities to our area. Coming in the opposite direction were vast quantities of ‘polis dung’ from the teeming city of Edinburgh, put to vital use as a fertilizer throughout central Scotland.

Despite all this the Union Canal was never quite as successful as the Forth and Clyde. The coming of the railways just 20 years after it opened dealt both canals a serious blow, although they continued to operate for well over a century. Thereafter the decline accelerated and in 1933 the section linking the two canals was abandoned and the locks filled in.

In the early 1960s an Act of Parliament closed the canals and years of neglect followed. But there were those who dreamed of the day when both waterways would be restored and their faith paid off in the 1990s with the Millennium project and its crowning glory, the magnificent Falkirk Wheel, which replaced the old 11 lock link.

My own early memories of the Union are of a kind of sleepy rural backwater where wee boys fished for baggies, collected frog spawn and built rafts from old doors to sail across to South Bantaskine. Today the Seagull Trust boats sail from their boathouse with happy passengers, young and old, reviving past memories or experiencing the delights of the canal and the famous tunnel for the first time.

The volunteers do a fantastic job and deserve all our support in helping to preserve a really important part of Falkirk’s story.