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Duration: 7 Nights
TOTAL LOCKS: 14
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 4 - 8 HOURS (44 HOURS IN TOTAL)
Maps & Guides for this route: Map will be provided on arrival
This dramatic boating holiday offers the opportunity to cruise the full width of Scotland, and into the heart of both of its major cities. Experiencing a world-renowned masterpiece of engineering, you’ll enjoy meandering routes with glorious views and Roman heritage, and discover tales of aristocracy and monarchs, coal miners and ship builders, grave robbers and artists.
NB: If you are choosing to do this route you will probably need to contribute more for fuel than the deposit amount. Cruising time per day varies depending on wheel/lock/bridge bookings.
Next to the hireboat base at Falkirk, you turn off the Forth & Clyde Canal to your first canal encounter - the Falkirk Wheel. A masterpiece of engineering, the world’s first and only rotating Boat Lift was opened in 2002 to rebuild a link between the Union and Forth & Clyde Canals where an 11-lock flight used to be. The project cost £17.5 million and took over 1,000 craftsmen and over 1,200 tons of steel. How it works is remarkably simple - two gondolas are full of water, one at upper level, one at lower level, and when the upper gondola lowers boats to the basin below, the lower gondola simultaneously rises. The elementary physics of this process echo Archimedes’ ‘principle of displacement’. When a boat enters a gondola, it spills water and the remaining total mass of gondola and boat always balances the same weight. Cogs and wheels give a smooth ride. The giant wheel stands 115ft tall yet uses a mouse-sized 1.5KWh of energy to turn!
The canal above the Wheel heads into Roughcastle Tunnel under the railway and part of the Roman Antonine Wall, built in 142AD, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then a sharp left turn takes you straight into the Falkirk Wheel Staircase Locks before a mile of new canal leads to the original Union Canal, a relaxing route now lock free the full 31 miles to Edinburgh. The Union Canal, completed in 1822, was built to transport coal to Edinburgh. Today it is the only remaining contour canal in Scotland. In its heyday, the lock-free route (apart from the original 11 locks down to the Forth & Clyde Canal), meant that passengers could get from Edinburgh to Glasgow in a speedy 13 hours! Special night boats called ‘hoolets’ were especially popular. As with many canals, trade fell off with the arrival of the railways so the canal eventually closed in 1965, but a new road bridge at Linlithgow in 1990 combined with the Millenium Link Project and the construction of the Falkirk Wheel led to the reopening of the entire canal in 2002.
At Walkers Bridge, a path leads to the site of the Battle of Falkirk II in 1746, in which the Jacobites were victorious (the site of the Battle of Falkirk I, when William Wallace was heavily defeated by the English in 1298, is slightly further east, just south of Callendar Wood). William Forbes, owner of Callendar House, refused to let the canal pass through his grounds so Falkirk Tunnel (690yds/631m long), a difficult tunnel hewn through rock, had to be built. There’s only room for one-way traffic so watch out for the signals. Once in the tunnel, look out for stalactites on the roof, and be prepared for drips if it’s raining! Just beyond the tunnel, you’ll see a face carved into the stone bridge – at one end a ‘laughing’ face and at the other (turn round as you go through), a ‘greeting’ (or frowning!) face. One theory is that the Laughin' Greetin' Bridge was created by navvies working on the canal – those working to the east of the bridge had an easier task than those to the west who had the hard work of the tunnel followed by 11 locks (hence the frown!)
It’s worth a visit to Callendar House set in the landscaped Callendar Park, containing another section of the Antonine Wall. The House was built in the style of a French chateau and, now cared for by Falkirk Community Trust, is one of Scotland’s finest baronial mansions.
Your surroundings now alternate between modern suburbia and remote countryside, and just beyond Polmont the canal is out in open countryside, with extensive rural views. The Union Canal has several aqueducts, three of which were designed by engineer Hugh Baird with advice from Thomas Telford based on his designs for Chirk and Pontcysyllte Aqueducts in Wales. The 12-arched Avon Aqueduct is the largest. Its cast-iron trough is set into elegant stonework and, at 810ft long and 85ft high, is the second highest in Britain after Pontcysyllte.
At Linlithgow, the Linlithgow Canal Centre offers a welcome cuppa and a canal museum to browse before exploring the town itself. Renowned as the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, the dramatic ruins of Linlithgow Palace overlooking Linlithgow Loch are a must (you might even coincide with their annual jousting spectacle!). Beecraigs Country Park, in the hills just south of Linlithgow, is a great place for spotting iconic red deer, Highland Cattle and Hebridean sheep (amongst others) – all in 370 hectares of glorious woodland with a lake and Visitor Centre.
There’s another more poignant reference to Mary, Queen of Scots, as the canal passes the towering Niddry Castle near bridge 30 – this was Mary’s last shelter in Scotland before being captured and eventually beheaded by the English. The canal meanders through peaceful open country, interrupted only as the canal goes under the M8. Glorious landscape surrounds the 75ft-high Almond Aqueduct, another built to Baird’s dramatic design, before the canal reaches the small village of Ratho. The village is well known in canal circles for the pretty canalside Bridge Inn, offering an opportunity for refreshments, and in international circles for its huge indoor climbing centre, the largest in the world.
Skirting the tree-lined boundary of Ratho’s golf course, the canal heads back into a leafy rural landscape for the next few miles, until the noisy A720 city bypass signals your arrival into the outskirts of Edinburgh, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cruising over the 75ft-high Slateford Aqueduct, the canal ends at Edinburgh Quay, from where there is so much to explore – the medieval Old Town, with its Royal Mile stretching down from Edinburgh Castle towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament building, completed in 2004 to a striking design by Enric Miralles. Then there’s the Georgian New Town, and art galleries, museums, shops, cafés, restaurants…Once you’ve soaked up everything Edinburgh has to offer, it’s time to turn and cruise the route back to Falkirk.
And now begins the second part of your adventure. Enjoy the view from the top of the Falkirk Wheel before descending to turn west along the Forth & Clyde Canal. Much wider than an English canal, the Forth & Clyde was completed in 1790, when it became the world’s first sea-to-sea canal and links the Irish and the North Seas. By the mid-1800s, some 3 million tonnes of goods and 200,000 passengers were being carried on the Forth and Clyde Canal every year but, as with many canals, trade fell off with the arrival of the railways so the canal fell into decline in the 1930s before officially closing in the 1960s. Thanks to the Millenium Link Project, the canal reopened in 2001 and the construction of the Falkirk Wheel relinked the Forth & Clyde with the Union Canal in 2002 for the first time in over 70 years. Staff from Scottish Canals now help at all locks and swing or lift bridges along the canal.
Climbing four closely spaced locks just beyond Bonnybridge and Bonnybridge Lifting Bridge, you reach the summit level of the canal with only gentle lock-free miles to come. Views across the valley with the River Kelvin and the Campsie Fells beyond add to the beauty and drama of the landscape along this broad, straight section of canal which passes north of the Dullatur Marsh, a nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Auchinstarry lies almost halfway between the two historic mining towns of Kilsyth and Croy either side of the canal. The marina here opened in 2003 and is renowned for its pub, restaurant and hotel – the first eco pub in Scotland. The canal runs close to the line of the Antonine Wall along this stretch, and there are Roman hill forts nearby at Bar Hill and Croy Hill.
A close-knit mining community used to exist in the former mining village of Twechar but the last colliery here was closed in the 196os. The village had two pits, Twechar and Gartshore, and thanks to its strategic position at the northern edge of the Lanarkshire coalfields, even housed the headquarters of William Baird & Co., one of the largest mining companies in the area (though reputedly not much-loved given their treatment of workers during hard times). Just beyond Twechar Lift Bridge, only ruins remain of the stables at Shirva which once provided fresh horses for the ‘swifts’, fast passenger boats running to and from Glasgow in the early 1800s.
The historic town of Kirkintilloch , enjoying its status as ‘Canal capital of Scotland’, dates back to Roman times and, as with much of this canal, has the Antonine Wall running through Peel Park in its centre. The town thrived as a centre for weaving, shipbuilding and iron founding during the 19th century due to the canal and later railway links to Glasgow. Auld Kirk Museum, housed in a Grade A-listed church, has a collection of around 13,000 items of local and national significance.
The engineer John Smeaton built the Forth & Clyde Canal in stages and, heading west from Grangemouth, a former basin just beyond Hillend Swing Bridge was the canal’s first terminus in 1773. The Seagull Trust boathouse is on the former site of J & J Hay who built and operated the infamous ‘puffers’ along the canal. The Clyde puffer was a small steam-driven, single-masted cargo ship and an artwork unveiled in Southbank Marina in 2013 celebrates puffers built by the Hays in Kirkintilloch between 1866 and 1945.
The canal cuts right through the Antonine Wall at a sharp bend before Cadder. Cadder Church, on a site dating back to 1150, is worth a visit for its stained glass windows and is reputedly one of the haunts of the infamous body snatchers, Burke and Hare (who took to murder to acquire more corpses to sell to the medical schools in Glasgow and Edinburgh). In the early 1800s, people would stand guard for days after a funeral, keeping the remains protected. Cadder Church had a small building used to keep watch for body snatchers, and an iron coffin was placed on newly buried coffins to prevent them being taken. A public outcry led the Government to eventually pass an Act in 1833 regulating the Schools of Anatomy by licence.
Turning off at Stockingfield Junction, the short Glasgow Arm, overlooking the River Kelvin and the city below, takes you into the very heart of Glasgow. To allow time to explore Scotland’s largest city, moor at Spiers Wharf which is lined with former tobacco warehouses, now mostly converted into luxury apartments. A major port dating back to the 18th century, Glasgow’s Port Dundas used to also be the junction with the Monkland Canal, now no longer navigable but vital as a water source for the Forth & Clyde Canal. Nearby Pinkston Basin was once overlooked by the tallest power station in Europe. Built in 1900, it was painted in camouflage colours during World War II so the Luftwaffe could not use it as a target. Following a regeneration project, the basin is now home to Pinkston Watersports Centre, Scotland’s first competition standard, purpose-built watersports centre.
Glasgow is of course synonymous with the architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Macintosh, and there are buildings and art galleries galore to soak up his work. He designed numerous buildings across the city, with the Glasgow School of Art considered to be his masterpiece. The city is an art and heritage lover’s dream as you meander from the Kelvingrove Art Galley & Museum to the Gallery of Modern Art, from the Riverside Museum to the People’s Palace. And then there are shops, restaurants, cafés…
Once you’ve explored all that Glasgow has to offer, it’s time to retrace your cruise back to Falkirk. And once you’ve arrived back at the base, if your itinerary allows, a short diversion towards the start of the Forth & Clyde Canal will take you to Falkirk’s other great canal attraction, the magnificent 30m-high Kelpies. The world’s largest equine sculpture, created from 990 unique stainless steel skin-plates, was built in 2013.
Max: 4 People
Max: 6 People
Length: 66ft (63ft from Falkirk)
Max: 8 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 8 People
Max: 6 People