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.
Top Union Canal Facts
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.
Feats of Engineering on the Union 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.
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.
Did You Know?
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.