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Guide to the Union Canal

Opened in 1822, the Union Canal was primarily used to transport coal from the central coalfields of Scotland to the capital Edinburgh, to help with the development of the capital. It also formed part of the first ‘inter-city’ link between Edinburgh and Glasgow, known then as the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal.

A brief history of the Union Canal

Thomas Telford stretched his reach north of the border and was involved in the designing of the Union Canal, together with Mr Baird and in 1817, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal Company obtained a Private Act of Parliament to start construction, work starting in 1818. The canal opened in 1822.

The Union Canal, which has a length of 31 miles today, was built as a contour canal which avoided the cost of building locks and the time needed to navigate them, however this did mean that large aqueducts were needed to cross river valleys.

The decline of the canal came not long after when in 1842, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway opened taking much of the traffic away. A limited amount of industrial traffic continued to use the waterway until after the First World War but in 1933, just over a hundred years since its opening, the Union Canal was officially closed to commercial traffic.

However, after a campaign was started by groups and local communities to improve the canal, work was carried out to restore the network during the 1990s. This culminated with the millennium project to reinstate the link between the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal with an incredible feat of engineering called the Falkirk Wheel.

Couple on canal side

Top Union Canal Facts

  • Main Line Canal Length

    31 Miles

  • Number of Locks


  • Cost of build

    The canal was built at a cost of £462,000

Black Prince happy couple Autumn

Route Overview

After leaving the Falkirk Wheel the canal heads east through the outskirts of Falkirk into open countryside and onto Linlithgow. It continues east until the village of Winchburgh, before shifting south to Broxburn.

The canal passes the M8 before heading east again to Ratho and finally on to Edinburgh, passes through the outskirts of this city directly to the heart of Edinburgh.

Falkirk Wheel

Feats of Engineering on the Union Canal

Contour Canal

The Union Canal was Scotland’s only contour canal, built to follow the contours of the landscape therefore foregoing the need for locks.

Three Major Aqueducts

Building a ‘flat’ canal solved the problem of locks however there remained an issue getting across river valleys.  Three major aqueducts were built to solve this . The 500ft eight-arched Slateford Aqueduct on the edge of Edinburgh takes the canal over the Water of Leith. Lin’s Mill Aqueduct to the west of Ratho takes the canal over the River Almond in just five arches, 75ft above the river and the largest of the Union Canal aqueducts is the one taking the canal over the River Avon west of Linlithgow. This is 810ft long and 86ft high, the second longest in Britain.

Millenium Link 

A staircase of eleven locks was originally built at Camelon to link the Union Canal with the Forth and Clyde Canal, a difference in height of 110ft, but these were dismantled in 1933. Then, in 1998, a project known as the Millennium Link was started to rejoin the two canals. This consisted of an extension to the Union Canal leading to the top of the magnificent Falkirk Wheel, which was opened by the Queen in May 2002.

The Falkirk Wheel 

The amazing structure of the 115 ft Falkirk Wheel is an awesome sight at the small town of Falkirk in Scotland. The final design is thought o have been inspired by a Celtic double headed spear, a vast turning propeller of a Clydebank built ship, the ribcage of a whale and the spine of a fish. Parts were constructed and assembled in Derbyshire, then dismantled and transported to Falkirk in 35 lorry loads before being bolted back together and craned into position. Watch the video below to discover how this incredible feet of engineering uniquely raises and lowers canal boats between the Union and the Forth and Clyde Canals.

Edinburgh city view

Did You Know?

  • Millenium Link

    In the late nineties the canal was restored as part of the £78m Millennium Link, Britain’s largest ever canal restoration, partly funded by the EU.

  • In decline

    The the M8 motorway cut the canal west of Ratho during its construction and an entire stretch of canal was filled in during the development of the Wester Hailes housing scheme on the outskirts of Edinburgh.  A new stretch of canal had to be dug at Wester Hailes during the redevelopment of the canal.

  • A level canal

    The waterway follows a contour of 240 feet above sea level throughout its entire length.

  • The Kelpies

    Close to Falkirk you can visit The Kelpies, a 30-metre-high horse-head sculpture depicting kelpies. It’s located between Falkirk and Grangemouth, standing next to a new extension to the Forth and Clyde Canal, and near River Carron, in The Helix. This work of art represents the lineage of the heavy horse of Scottish industry and economy, pulling the wagons, ploughs, barges and coalships that shaped the geographical layout of Falkirk.

Sunny signature boat interior

Black Prince Cruising Routes

You can cruise on the Union Canal in Scotland from our narrowboat hire base at Falkirk. Check out our canal maps and cruise guides on our base page for more information for your canal boat holiday.

Falkirk Wheel from above Black Prince Holidays