Wonders of Scottish engineering
We had an 11-year-old boy to entertain for the day while his parents went hill-walking. What could we do that wouldn’t be terminally uncool, make him sick or otherwise put him off ever visiting anywhere again? We’d wanted to visit the Falkirk Wheel, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, for ages. So, on a blustery, snow-threatened early March day, we went to see if it lived up to expectations.
Celtic double-ended battle axes inspired the shape of the Falkirk Wheel. This combination of sculpture and engineering was the key to allowing boats to travel again on the old canal route from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
The Forth & Clyde Canal (the world’s first sea-to-sea ship canal) and the Union Canal both fell into disuse with the coming of the railways. They finally closed in the 1960s when roads were built across them.
When the project to re-open them began it looked almost hopeless. There were 32 main blockages and the flight of 11 locks at Camelon near Falkirk had disappeared under housing. Several miles of new canal had to be dug to get round the obstruction. Bridges and lock gates were restored. The new section, known as The Millennium Link, was finally opened by the Queen in 2002.
How the Falkirk Wheel works
The Wheel is a vital component of the Millennium Link. It used to take all day to move a boat up or down the 34 metres (110 feet) of the 11 locks between the two canals. You can now do it in five minutes on this ingenious boat lift – the first of its kind in the world. Two gondolas carry boats from one canal to the other on rotating arms; a series of cogs ensures the gondolas (and boats) remain horizontal.
Because the two gondolas are the same weight as each other, the system uses minimal power. It only takes about as much electricity as eight boiling kettles to move the 300 tonnes of water, concrete and steel on each arm. Also a few fish – apparently adventurous Glasgow fish go sightseeing to the Forth and (presumably) vice-versa.
Visiting the Falkirk Wheel
The Wheel is stunning and makes a terrific day out whatever your interest: canals, engineering, the beauty of the structure, the Scottish scenery. Or history: the boat trip stops just before the canal tunnels under the Roman Antonine Wall.
The tourist boats are enclosed, so even in winter you don’t freeze on the journey. On the return trip, the view from the top across to the Campsie Fells is uge and lovely.
The canal tow-path offers a peaceful walk and, like many canals, these are mini nature reserves. You can see mallard, goldeneye, great crested grebes, moorhens and other birds. Over 30 varieties of aquatic plant grow in or on the canal. So, apparently, do 15 species of mollusc, 33 different types of water flea, and freshwater sponges. There are even red-eared terrapins, thought to be pets dumped in the water when their owners got tired of them. We didn’t spot any of them.
For those closer to the water, there are several varieties of fresh-water fish, beetles, amphibians and invertebrates to look out for. If you can stay still long enough, you may be lucky enough to see otters, water voles, mink and roe deer. Mute swans nest here in the spring. When you’re ready to warm up again, head to the café and gift shop for a cup of tea or bowl of soup.
In summer, you can hire boats at the marina and do the trip underyour own steam. There are two boat-hire companies near the Fakirk Wheel visitor centre.
Thomas Telford started it, with bridges, aqueducts and canal routes, and Scotland has been famous for its engineers ever since. This latest marvel of Scottish engineering is, for one 11-year-old at least, “the best day out ever!”. We agreed.
Find out more
The address is Lime Rd, Tamfourhill, Falkirk FK1 4RS. The Wheel is near both Stirling and Denny and there are brown-and-white tourist signs pointing to it from all the motorways and main roads in the area, though we managed to miss one and got rather lost!