History of the Union Canal


Early Scottish Canals

Forth & Clyde Canal

By 1790, the Forth and Clyde canal had been built, linking:

-  Glasgow and Bowling (on the Firth of Clyde)

-  Glasgow and Grangemouth on the Firth of Forth

Between Falkirk and Grangemouth, the canal passed through a ladder of 11 locks taking it down from 110ft above sea level down to the Firth of Forth.

Between 1817 and 1822, the Union Canal was built to link the centre of Edinburgh with the Forth and Clyde canal at Falkirk.


Building of the Union Canal

Union Canal   -   1817-1822

The Union Canal, linking Edinburgh to Falkirk, was built between 1817 and 1822, mainly to carry coal from Central Scotland to Edinburgh.  Later, it brought stone, chemicals and market produce into Edinburgh.

Port Hopetoun  -  1825

   Engraving in 'Old & New Edinburgh'  -  Edinburgh Castle from Port Hopetoun  -  1825

There was also a passenger service by canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow.    [The Glasgow-Edinburgh did not open until 1840.] 

During the day, Swift Boats were pulled by two horses travelling at  about  9 or 10mph.  At least two companies ran boats between the two cities departing in the evening and offering a 'sleeper service'.  The evening boats took between 12 and 14 hours for the journey.

[In the 1720s travel between Glasgow and Edinburgh was by stagecoach, pulled by 4 or 6 horses, taking between 10 and 14 hours.]

240ft Contour Line

The canal follows the 240ft contour line throughout its route from Edinburgh to Falkirk.  It has 24 aqueducts, many bridges and a 700 yard long tunnel, but no locks in its 51 km course.  The aqueduct over the River Avon has 12 arches, each 26 meters high.


Closure of the Union Canal


The Union Canal, as well as providing transport, was an important source of water for the brewery, North British Rubber Works and Cox's Glue Works in Edinburgh.


However, the canal was closed to through navigation in 1965, and sections of it were removed, particularly through Wester Hailes in the western suburbs of Edinburgh.

It seemed unlikely then that the canal would ever re-open.


Re-opening of the Union Canal

Millennium Project

A scheme was approved to re-open the entire length of the canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow was approved at a cost of 78m, as one of Scotland's Millennium Projects in 2000. 

The canal has now re-opened.  Sections that were lost have been re-built.


A large "wheel" (a unique rotating boatlift) and visitors' centre has been recently built at Falkirk, at the western end of the Union Canal.  It opened in 2002.  This wheel enables boats to be transferred:

-  between the Union Canal (that links Edinburgh and Falkirk)

-  and the Forth and Clyde Canal (that links Falkirk and Glasgow).


There are now proposals to spend 60m to redevelop the area around Lochrin Basin at Fountainbridge, close to the view in the engraving above, to be known as Edinburgh Quay.

This was once an industrial area with a brewery and the North British Rubber Company Works.  It is proposed to create a mixed development with 30,000 sq ft for restaurants and bars, 80,ooo sq ft for offices and 62 apartments.

Construction is due to commence in summer 2002, with the first phase being completed in autumn 2003.

[Edinburgh Evening News,  4 July 2002]

Further Developments

Please click here for progress on  Edinburgh Quay  -  the development at the Edinburgh end of the Union Canal.



Comments on Contour Canals

Iain Street added:

"The Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal has been described as a 'contour canal' but I have to disagree. There are major aqueducts, cuttings and embankments, which straighten the canal considerably.

The canal was built late in the canal age, and its engineers benefited from the experience of  the early canal builders

Had the canal been built in the early 1700s, its route would have been very different, and much, much longer. Instead of large aqueducts, it would have followed the Water of Leith, Almond and Avon far upstream; there would be no cutting west of Ratho, and no embankments at Linlithgow.

For a true contour canal, try the South Oxford, or the unstraightened bits of the North Oxford."

Iain Street, Livingston, West Lothian, Scotland:  May 13, 2009


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