Union Canal

(Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal)

Union Canal Basin, Linlithgow
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Union Canal Basin, Linlithgow

The Union Canal runs from the Lochrin Basin, in the Tollcross area of Edinburgh and links with the Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk, close to the Roman Antonine Wall. Today the canal forms a scheduled monument.

Opened as the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal in 1822, it was principally the work of Hugh Baird (1770 - 1827), with some assistance from Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834). Alternative plans for the route, proposed by engineers Robert Stevenson (1772 - 1850) and John Rennie (1761 - 1821), had been argued over for several years. This is a contour canal, which means that it follows the natural topography, remarkably retaining the same height throughout its 31-mile (51-km) length and therefore not requiring locks. Features of the canal include the Falkirk Wheel, the Leamington Lift Bridge, the Prospecthill Tunnel, the only canal tunnel in Scotland, near Falkirk, which is 640m (2070 feet) long, and the Avon Aqueduct, which is the longest and tallest aqueduct in Scotland (247m / 810 feet long and 26m / 86 feet high). Of the three other aqueducts, the best known and most accessible is at Slateford in Edinburgh, a mere 152m (500 feet) long and 23m (75 feet) tall.

The Union Canal links Edinburgh, Ratho, Broxburn, Winchburgh, Linlithgow and Falkirk. A planned extension, which would have taken the canal on to Leith Docks via what is now Princes Street Gardens, was never built. The time of the railways had come, and it was they which exploited this route into the heart of Edinburgh. Peculiarly, Canal Street was built (beneath North Bridge), although this has subsequently been lost under Waverley Station.

Two of the main backers of the canal were John Hope (4th Earl of Hopetoun; 1765 - 1823) and Alexander Hamilton (10th Duke of Hamilton; 1767 - 1852) who both owned extensive coalfields to the west of Edinburgh and wished to transport their coal into the city for domestic and industrial use. Other materials carried included building stone, chemicals and agricultural produce, while horse manure and waste from butchered animal carcases were exported from the city to serve as fertiliser. Within two decades the canal was in decline as railways became a faster mode of transport.

The canal originally extended to Port Hamilton and Port Hopetoun in Edinburgh, a short distance to the northeast of the Lochrin Basin, on the opposite side of Fountainbridge but this was cut back in 1922. At its western end, the flight of locks which had originally connected the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal closed in 1933 and were infilled.

Operation of the canal passed to the British Transport Commission on nationalisation in 1948, to British Waterways in 1963 and to Scottish Canals in 2012. Along with the Forth & Clyde Canal, it was renovated and reopened under the auspices of a Millennium Commission project. This has included the removal of major obstructions, such as the 1 mile / 1.5 km in-filled section through Wester Hailes in SW Edinburgh. The centre-piece of the project is the Falkirk Wheel, a 35m (115 feet) diameter boat-lift which provided a new connection between the two canals. The Union Canal was extended by a mile (1.6 km) to the west to reach the Wheel, which moves boats down to the Forth & Clyde Canal and back, using state-of-the-art mechanical, electronic and hydraulic engineering.

Engineer John Scott Russell (1808-82) observed an unusual long-lived solitary wave on the canal while testing a new boat design in 1835. He named this the 'soliton' and the aqueduct which now carries the canal over the Edinburgh Bypass (A720) was named the Scott Russell Aqueduct in his memory.

The canal was closed for six months following a significant breach to the southeast of Polmont in August 2020, brought about by exceptional rainfall. Water cascaded down from the canal causing significant damage to the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway.

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