By Trevor Timpson
The Forth and Clyde Canal was derelict for decades. Its locks blocked up with rubbish, and wherever it interfered with road plans it was filled in and channelled through a pipe. It was seen only as a store of water for industry.
Now, with the industry mostly gone, Scotland’s first substantial canal lives on. Not just reopened, but the setting for some of modern Britain’s most adventurous engineering works – and huge landmark art projects.
Map of the Forth and Clyde Canal
On the site of an old tar plant stands the Falkirk Wheel, which raises boats 35 metres from the Forth and Clyde to the level of the Union Canal to Edinburgh. Half a million people visit it every year. Just a start, say British Waterways.
‘Can do attitude’
Built from 1768 to 1790, the Forth and Clyde closed to navigation in 1963.
Campaigners began operating boats on it again from the 1970s. Vessels were placed on stretches that no longer connected with each other, to arouse interest and deter development schemes.
But Jim McLachlan, chairman of the Forth and Clyde Canal Society said: "We seriously didn’t expect the whole thing to be opened up in our lifetime."
Nevertheless, gradually a new "can do" attitude grew up among British Waterways management, he says – a desire to get the full value out of the waterway.
Then came the £84.5m Millennium Link project, culminating in the opening of the two canals and the Wheel by the Queen in 2002.
Canal societies collected tens of thousands of signatures to prove to the Lottery Millennium Commissioners that the plan to revive the link was not just a good project, but a "people’s project".
When work on the Millennium Link began in the 1990s, there were 32 major obstructions across the Forth and Clyde Canal. It cost £10m to reroute utility pipes laid in the canal after it closed to navigation.
Now, where boat building yards and foundries lined the canal banks, bluebells and bright yellow gorse bloom. In the old timber basins, swans guard their nests.
Where railway sidings carried coal wagons to the canal at Kirkintilloch, a marina and residential development is open for business.
And though Strathclyde Police have set sail on the canal on occasions to catch "groups involved in anti-social behaviour", these are greatly outnumbered by ordinary walkers and cyclists.
British Waterways Scotland has been "bowled over" by the numbers using the towpath, says Richard Millar, business development manager.
"People are travelling from one side of Scotland to the other or travelling to work, or just going out for a walk."
There are over 300 boats on the canal compared with perhaps 50 before the official reopening.
Boat trips are mostly confined to the lock-free middle section, from Maryhill in the west to Banknock in the east, including the Glasgow branch, which gives panoramic views of the city from the redeveloped Spiers Wharf.
Vessels passing through the canal from sea to sea – which was the original intention of the canal – are lagging behind expectations."They’re not thoroughbreds; they’re heavy horses that represent the heritage of the canals "
Andy Scott (Seen here with model of Kelpie sculpture) A place for ‘a big statement’ In pictures: the Forth and Clyde
"Millennium Link was hoping to see 500 transits of the canal a year; I think we’re seeing, tops, 200," says Richard Millar.
Jim MacLachlan says a "major compromise" of the Millennium Link was that the budget did not allow the canal to be reopened all the way back into Grangemouth – a town it created.
Cut off from Grangemouth by the M9, the canal got a new eastern entry to the east of Falkirk.
But this is so far upstream on the tidal River Carron (leading to the Forth) that there is only a brief "window" for craft to pass between the river and the canal, between the Carron being too shallow, and too deep, so boats cannot fit under the bridges.
Now, another giant project promises to come to the rescue. The £41m Helix project, also Lottery backed, for the redevelopment of land to the east of Falkirk includes the extension of the canal back into Grangemouth, with an easier link to the Carron.
Scale and pride
As part of the Helix project the Kelpies – twin 35-metre tall horse-head sculptures – will rock back and forward on their axis, displacing the water to fill a new lock by the Carron.
Sculptor Andy Scott says "the money’s in the bank" for the Kelpies, and the full-size statues are intended to be completed in 2011.
But that is not enough for British Waterways, Andy Scott and the Forth and Clyde.
Just east of Maryhill, the east-west towpath is interrupted where the Glasgow branch leaves the main canal.
Now, the planning application has gone in for a three-way bridge straddling the canal junction – supported by the towering Bigman, a 30-metre steel Andy Scott statue holding the supports in its outstretched hand like puppet strings.
"For me it’s got that thing about scale and pride and again some instance of the history of the canal and area," says Scott.
And still the plans pile up. In Maryhill is a magnificent flight of locks, leading down to the sturdy aqueduct which takes the canal across the River Kelvin.
In the 1970s volunteers pulled 2,000 tonnes of rubbish out of those same locks.
Now Glasgow has ambitious plans for canoeing, caving and canyoneering courses down the incline beside them.
And the city is also proposing a watersports centre at Port Dundas, the canal’s Glasgow terminus.
Then there is consideration of constructing access to Loch Lomond, close to the canal’s western end.
"There’s been 40 years when development hasn’t happened on it," says Richard Millar. "And the opportunities that lie out there are tremendous."Return to top
This article is from the BBC News website. © British Broadcasting Corporation, The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.
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