The Great Canal, a transformation into an industrial powerhouse

The Forth and Clyde canal from Lock 16
The Forth and Clyde canal from Lock 16

This week marks the 250th anniversary of the start of work on what was to become ‘the Great Canal’ between Forth and Clyde.

Not even the arrival of Carron Works in 1759 was as important as this new artery of communications in the story of Falkirk district’s transformation into an industrial power.

Appropriately, the Friends of Charlotte Dundas chose this week to unveil the new heritage trail which tells the story of the world’s first practical steamboat and honours the genius of William Symington, her creator.

It was on the canal at Grangemouth that he carried out his experiments and there that his name will be forever honoured thanks to the efforts of the Friends.

The engineer responsible for the canal itself, John Smeaton, designed 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, seventeen Earls and the Lord Provosts of 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 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.

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.

Financial difficulties delayed the completion of the final stretch until July 1790 but long before then developments were 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.

Horses were the power source that pulled the laden barges but following the steam revolution set in motion by James Watt’s work at Kinneil, engineers like William Symington turned their minds to the application of steam to canal boats.

The Charlotte Dundas Trail from the Kelpies Basin tells the story of the famous boat in a series of panels along the length of the Queen Elizabeth II canal linking the Forth and Clyde to the River Carron.

I take my hat off the Ken Hutton and his colleagues whose dogged determination to celebrate this crucial part of Scotland’s heritage has been crowned with success this week.

I would recommend to everyone to take a walk through history and discover just how significant our little corner of the land was in the industrial history of the world.