Marking its 200th anniversary this year, the quietly winding Union Canal provides a smooth route for narrow boats to navigate, but there have been rough waters in its history.
The canal opened in 1822 and was used to transport coal to Edinburgh along a 31-mile route that begins in Falkirk. For 20 years it enjoyed a boom period, then disaster struck: the arrival of the railway.
The opening of the Edinburgh and Glasgow line in 1842 called into question the need for the Union Canal and finally, after floundering with limited services for years, commercial operations ceased in 1933.
Serene: Tom Chesshyre explored Scotland’s historic Union Canal by boat, sailing from Falkirk to Edinburgh. In the photo, a section of the canal near the town of Ratho (file photo)
The locks were filled and the canal was plugged. Then a miracle happened: £32 million from the National Lottery-funded Millennium Commission, plus further fundraising, resulted in the cleansing of the waters and the creation of an extraordinary mechanical link, known as the wheel. of Falkirk, to replace a series of steep locks.
The Union Canal was back in business. But instead of coal, the burden these days is tourists. Learn all this and more at the waterside Canal Museum in Linlithgow, on the way to Edinburgh.
An eight-minute walk away is Linlithgow Palace, created by James I in 1424 as a ‘pleasure palace’, rather than a fortified castle, to impress his nobles and assert his authority. It is halfway between Edinburgh and Stirling and sits beside a picturesque lake.
The Union Canal was transformed with the creation of an extraordinary mechanical link, known as the Falkirk Wheel (pictured), to replace a series of steep locks, reveals Tom.
Tom stopped in Linlithgow to explore Linlithgow Palace, where Mary Queen of Scots was born in 1542. “There’s a statue of her (upstairs) out front,” he says.
His scheme worked, and future kings also enjoyed its effect: James IV received the Spanish ambassador there, while James V built a grand gatehouse to make the entrance to the royal court even more impressive.
This was where the kings and queens of Scotland came to play in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Mary, Queen of Scots was born in the palace in 1542, and there is a statue of her out front.
Unfortunately, in the 17th century, the palace was more or less abandoned and is now a shell of its former self.
To reach his fenced remains, you walk down a hill from the canal and through the heart of Linlithgow, a square known as The Cross.
This meeting place has seen markets, public proclamations and executions over the years. On one side was the Golden Cross Tavern, where the poet Robert Burns attended a meeting of the local Masonic Lodge in 1787.
All that remains of this today is a carved stone pediment fixed to a modern building. But there are plenty of other inns: the Four Marys serves decent beers and hearty haggis and potato cakes. Named after four ladies-in-waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots, the building dates from the 16th century.
Linlithgow Palace, pictured, was created by James I in 1424 as a “pleasure palace”, rather than a castle with fortifications, to impress his nobles and assert his authority, explains Tom.
Pubs tend to be a big feature of trips along the Union Canal, as narrowboat tourists will attest. We certainly found this to be true when we took to sea on our ship, the Madeleine, a 62-foot fighter from the well-run charter company Black Prince.
There are no shortage of good hotels here. The bustling and welcoming MBK Canalside Inn on Redding Road features on one of its walls the story of a 1923 tragedy at the nearby Redding Colliery, where 40 men died when the mine flooded from previous work.
Meanwhile, the Tally Ho in Winchburgh serves excellent fish and chips, and The Bridge Inn in Ratho has great canal views.
Part of the joy of the Union Canal is the almost complete absence of locks, apart from a couple near Falkirk. So it’s a great choice for narrow boat newbies (like us).
There’s also a nice learning curve in handling the tiller, mooring, cleaning the “weed hatch” each morning, and checking that the metal vise above the hatch is secure.
“Without that, you could sink the ship,” said the cheerful (and ironic) Scottish Canals employee before leaving. That would not be an ideal situation.
But what really makes the Union Canal is the arrival in Edinburgh.
Would the 1822 canal founders believe their eyes if they saw the waterway winding under bridges leading to dual carriageways, gliding between housing estates and ending by gleaming modern apartments by the Leamington Lift Bridge, with Edinburgh Castle darkened on top of its hill? Hardly.