Canal Guide

Union Canal

Union Canal


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Union Canal from Falkirk to Edinburgh

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs.


This magnificent waterway traverses part of the Scottish Lowlands and joins two major historical cities - Falkirk and Edinburgh.  It was only fully restored and reopened in 2002, under the Millennium Link project. It links Falkirk with another famous old Scottish waterway, the Forth and Clyde Canal, whose route runs from Bowling on the River Clyde just west of the great city of Glasgow to meet the River Forth just beyond Falkirk, at Grangemouth. (See separate section on the Forth and Clyde Canal) The entire traverse of the lowlands of Scotland  from Bowling to Edinburgh) is about 69 miles long in total, and  the full restoration of these two canals - derelict for over 40 years - now allows us to enjoy a canal boat holiday journey in beautiful surroundings and experience the thrills of the Falkirk Wheel.  More of this later. 

The fabulous Falkirk Wheel - photo by Stephen Worsfold
Entering the Falkirk Wheel  photo by Stephen Worsfold

Click Here for Falkirk Wheel Feature


The Union Canal nearly didn't make it to the "fully restored" list......In the 1960's it was formally closed by Act of Parliament, and 11 locks at Falkirk which linked the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde canal were removed. The route of the M8 was permitted to drive right through the canal at Ratho, and an entire stretch of the canal outside Edinburgh was filled in when a new housing estate was built there. The future for the Union Canal could not have looked more bleak.  However, with the determined campaigning of dedicated canal restorers and the setting up of the Millennium Link, work on the restoration of the Union canal began in 1991. It was finally completed with the grand opening of the magnificent Falkirk Wheel by The Queen in 2002.

The Union Canal was originally opened in 1822 and is 32 miles long.  It is Scotland's only contour canal - rather like the South Oxford Canal.  It was built so that it curved around the hills, rather than take a more direct route, which would involve the construction of many more locks to  raise and lower canal boats. This of course speeded up the passage of goods carried on the canal from Falkirk to Edinburgh. 
The canal's main freight was coal for the city of Edinburgh, and lime for the extensive building that took place during the rapid expansion of the city in the 19th century. A major obstacle to the canal builders was the Laird of Callender House, near Falkirk, who refused permission for the route of the canal to cross his land - so the navigators had to construct a 2,070 ft long tunnel and deep cutting here, just to re-route the canal.  Similarly, three great aqeducts had to be built to carry the Union Canal over the Water of Leith in Edinburgh,  the Almond Aqueduct near the town of Ratho, over the River Almond and - the largest of the lot - the Avon Aqueduct which carries the canal over the River Avon near Linlithgow.  These were superb feats of Victorian civil engineering, and the Avon Aqueduct is the second longest in Britain, after the more famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal. More of these later.


                                                                                                                  Photos by Stephen Worsfold 

The Canal effectively starts at the Falkirk Wheel which stands at 115ft above the valley of the River Carron. This is a truly amazing feat of 21st century civil engineering - an imaginative solution to the problem that faced the canal restorers when they had to try and think of a way of lowering canal boats from the Union Canal down to the level of the Forth and Clyde Canal after some clever people had filled in the flight of 11 locks that used to do this job. The Falkirk Wheel is effectively a giant ferris wheel for boats: an amazing rotating boat lift and the first of its kind in the world. It gives boaters an exhilarating ride, and those who navigate it rate it as highly as a trip across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct for adrenalin-inducing thrills. You can enjoy the orgainised cruise here or book your canal boat hire from Black Prince Holidays who have a base here.

Entering Rough Castle Tunnel-photo by Stephen Worsfold
Leaving The Roughcastle Tunnel photo by Stephen Worsfold

After leaving the elevated section of the Union Canal above the Falkirk Wheel, you reach what was another obstacle to the restoration work just beyond Falkirk, in that the new section of elevated canal had to be joined up with the existing section.  Ingenious solutions were proposed, and the canal was eventually placed in a new culvert and tunnel called the Roughcastle Tunnel

Just beyond this point you reach the infamous Falkirk Tunnel which was cut through bare rock and is not lined - so is rather wet with lots of interesting stalagtites hanging down. Beyond the tunnel is the village of Glen, with its "Laughing" and "Greetin'" Bridge.  This bridge is so-called because it has two carvings of a laughing face on one side and a sad face on the other side ("greet" being old Scottish for "weep").

The tunnel at Glen - photo by Rob Burke and reproduced by kind permission
The Avon Aqueduct over the River Avon - photo by Gordon Brown and reporduced by kind permission

The scenery beyond Glen is not as beautiful, with housing estates and views over the oil refineries at Grangemouth.  Then the canal enters a country park which leads to the very impressive Avon Aqueduct,  This is 810ft long and 86ft high and it is the second largest and highest aqueduct in Great Britain.   Unfortunately the Avon Aqueduct is hemmed in with woods and undergrowth and this makes a "full-on" view of the structure very difficult. It is more impressive from towpath level. The stone piers that carry the aqueduct over the River Avon are massive and support a cast iron trough which carries your canal boat high above the gorge.

Photos below by Stephen Worsfold


Linlithgow Palace

Linlithgow Canal Society

The canal now approaches the town of Linlithgow which has a canal centre and the famous 14th century Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots and a favourite home of the Scottish Stuart Kings.  Sadly, much of it was destroyed by fire and it is roofless - but still impressive for all that.

The canal continues through gentle countryside with views in all directions, and the Ochill Hills in the distance. It passes through Philipstoun, a nice spot, and through a wooded cutting at Winchburgh, before reaching a stretch where you see lots of red mounds which are the spoil heaps left from the oil shale industry in the 19th century. Thousands of people were employed here in the extraction of paraffin from the locally mined oil shale, and this was a vital industry before the invention of electric light because paraffin was the only substance in the oil lamps used by everyone to light up their homes. Beyond here you reach the Almond Aqueduct which again is beautifully built before reaching the little town of Ratho. 

The canal near Philipstoun - photo by Richard Webb and reproduced by kind permission The Slateford Aqueduct acress the Waters of Leith - photo by Richard Webb and reproduced by kind permission

After Ratho, the canal reaches the Slateford Aqueduct which carries it high above the Waters of Leith just outside Edinburgh and now goes through increasingly built up areas reaching the Lochrin Basin , a short walk from Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle.  The Lochrin Basin is another example of redevelopment and regeneration on a grand scale and it has made a huge difference to this area of Edinburgh. From the Basin it is a short walk to Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle and  - of course -  there are several pubs and bars by the canal at Lochrin Basin and Edinburgh Quay for you to enjoy, along with the locals who like looking at the canal boats there.

The Union Canal In Lochrin basin Edinburgh - photo by Eileen Henderson - photo reproduced by kind permission  The termination of the Union Canal in Edinburgh - just a short walk from Princes Street and the great Castle.  Photo by Eileen Henderson and reproduced by kind permission

I hope that you have enjoyed this brief introduction to the delights of the Union Canal, and that your eyes have been opened up to see the possibilities of a new canal holiday journey all the way from Edinburgh to Glasgow or visa-versa by using both the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals. 

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