TOTAL LOCKS: 6
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 6 - 10 HOURS (22 HOURS IN TOTAL)
Maps & Guides for this route: Map will be provided on arrival
This cruise starts via the Falkirk Wheel and the new Rough Castle Tunnel, two new locks and a mile of new canal to join the original canal at the site of the summit of the flight of 11 locks that used to join the two canals. The stalactites and rock-hewn sections of the Falkirk tunnel, a treat for the budding geologist.
Amongst the numerous minor aqueducts en route, three to note are the 12 arch, 85ft Avon Aqueduct and the Almond and Slateford Aqueducts, both at 75ft high. Beecraigs Country Park and the beautifully preserved remains of Linlithgow Palace on the shore of Linlithgow Loch are within easy reach of the canal.
Turning off the Forth & Clyde Canal just by the base at Falkirk, your first experience is 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!
At the top of the Wheel, Roughcastle Tunnel takes the canal under the railway and part of the Roman Antonine Wall, dating from 142AD, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sharp left turn leads straight into Falkirk Wheel Staircase Locks then a mile of new canal leads to the original Union Canal, a relaxing route after the drama of the Wheel lock free all the way to Edinburgh.
The Union Canal was built to transport coal to Edinburgh, and was completed in 1822. Uniquely it is the only remaining contour canal in Scotland, using aqueducts and tunnels rather than locks to meander through hills and valleys. 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.
A path over Walkers Bridge 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).
Falkirk Tunnel (690yds/631m long), a difficult tunnel hewn through rock, had to be built because William Forbes, owner of Callendar House, refused to let the canal pass through his grounds. 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!) Callendar House set in the landscaped Callendar Park contains 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.
After the leafiness of the tunnel approach, your surroundings now alternate between modern suburbia and remote countryside, and then 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.
The canal now swoops into Linlithgow, where the Linlithgow Canal Centre offers a welcome cup of tea and an interesting canal museum to browse before exploring the town itself. Linlithgow is renowned as the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, and 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.
Near bridge 30, there’s another more poignant reference to Mary, Queen of Scots, as the canal passes the towering Niddry Castle – this was Mary’s last shelter in Scotland before being captured and eventually beheaded by the English. The canal continues to meander through peaceful open country dotted with stone bridges, 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.
The canal skirts the tree-lined boundary of Ratho’s golf course before heading 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…and of course a certain drink!
Once you’ve soaked up everything that Edinburgh has to offer, it’s time to turn and meander your way back. Enjoy the view from the top of the Falkirk Wheel before descending again to return to Falkirk. And perhaps follow this by a diversion to see Falkirk’s other great canal attraction, the magnificent 30m-high Kelpies, the world’s largest equine sculpture, built in 2013 from 990 unique stainless steel skin-plates, near the entrance to the Forth & Clyde Canal.
Max: 4 People
Max: 6 People
Length: 66ft (63ft from Falkirk)
Max: 8 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 8 People
Max: 6 People