WE Scots are always happy to point to our inventions and how much superior they are to those produced by England. Yet our neighbours can claim to have a clear and unassailable lead in the development of a near-nationwide system of canals – there are more than 2000 miles (3200km) of canals in England and Wales, while we have just 137 miles (220km) of inland waterways.

It did take two great Scottish civil engineers, John Rennie and Thomas Telford, to design and build many of the original English canals, most of which are still navigable today, so in that way Scotland did play a vital role in canal innovation.

Telford, of course, with the help of James Watt, was responsible for Scotland’s longest canal, the Caledonian Canal between Corpach near Fort William in the west and Clachnaharry near Inverness in the east, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea via three lochs including Loch Ness.

I have written extensively about the Caledonian Canal and I have no intention of repeating myself today so please use the search function on The National website to locate the article from last year during my series on Telford.

In this final part of a short series on the built heritage of Scotland brought about by transport, I will be looking at canal-associated constructions that have had an impact on Scottish history and culture. Unlike my recent columns, I will not be choosing my own favourites from a long list simply because I don’t need to – there are so few Scottish canals, just five under the care of Scottish Canals, and all of which I have visited. If you care to suggest something I have missed out then email me at nationalhamish@gmail.com.

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First of all let me say how proud I am that the Scottish Government back in 2012 decided to keep our canals in devolved public ownership and in 2020 Scottish Canals became an executive non-departmental body.

Canals extensively changed Scotland, not least because every canal required an infrastructure around them. Thus Scottish Canals say they are guardians of 1500 hectares of land and water, 90 locks, 98 road bridges, 77 accommodation bridges, 50 foot bridges, eight railway bridges, and two towpath bridges.

The four main canals – Forth and Clyde, Union, Caledonian and Crinan – are all scheduled monuments and thus highly protected while more than 90 locations in the care of Scottish Canals are Listed Buildings.

Scotland’s original transportation waterways were our rivers and lochs – freshwater and sea – and since no part of Scotland is any more than 42 miles (67km) from the sea, transport and travel by sea were hugely important for centuries. The problem for inland waterways such as Highland rivers was that they were notoriously difficult to navigate and their nature could change with the seasons – in full flood in winter and running dry in summer.

The possibility of building canals had been proposed as far back as the brief Roman occupation of the southern part of this country. Yet even the Romans, with their roads and forts, could not manage to build a single canal in Scotland.

The National: Thomas TelfordThomas Telford

Fast forward to the final years of the 15th century and the first definite canal in Scotland. It was built by the privateer and naval commander Sir Andrew Wood, Lord High Admiral of Scotland, around 1495 and went from his estate at Largo in Fife to the local church.

It was just 400 yards long at most and was used by Wood to travel “in great state”, as a chronicler put it, to the church on a Sunday, which he did for 20 years until his death in 1515. Wood’s canal has long since disappeared but its course can be traced in the grounds of Largo House.

There are fairly obvious reasons why Scotland fell a long way behind other countries in the construction of canals. For many centuries all of Scotland’s most important towns and cities were sited around the coast, served by navigable inlets and rivers adjacent to estuaries – the Clyde for Glasgow and the Water of Leith for Edinburgh, for instance.

The undulating nature of most of Scotland’s terrain also mitigated against canal development and when canal construction began in earnest it was in the lowest part of the country between the Forth and Clyde valleys.

I will deal with the canals in chronological order of their opening. The first major canal in Scotland was the Monklands Canal which was pioneered by none other than James Watt, the Genius of Steam, as I have called him, but who was then gaining renown as a land surveyor for all sorts of projects.

The Forth and Clyde Canal is often cited as Scotland’s oldest, but there is no doubt that sections of the Monkland Canal were open for business in the 1770s. The Monklands area of Lanarkshire – so called because the land was granted to the Cistercian order in the 12th century – contained rich seams of coal, the main fuel that was powering the Industrial Revolution.

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The problem was that it was very expensive and time-consuming to transport coal from Monklands to Glasgow, so in 1768 Watt was commissioned by the Glasgow Town Council to come up with a plan for canals. The following year, he reported on two possible routes and the council, as always, chose the cheaper and gave Watt the task of building it.

The weather was abysmal and the land was difficult and so were his contractors but Watt persevered and the first section opened in November 1771, the coal being drawn on horse-drawn barges.

Watt departed and the full 12-mile (19km) route between Monklands and the Townhead Basin in the city was not completed until 1795 but it was successfully used for many years, not least after it was joined to the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1867, before railways and improved roads rendered it redundant. Only a small section of the Monkland Canal remains, much of it having been buried under the M8 motorway.

The Forth and Clyde Canal is the longest of the canals in the Lowlands and was a product of the “improvement” era in the 18th century.

Our most eminent historian, Sir Tom Devine, in his magisterial work The Scottish Nation, A Modern History, brilliantly demonstrates how population growth, agricultural improvements, developing industrialisation and the expansion of cities and major towns all combined to change the face of Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th century, even before a modern road system and the railways arrived.

Increased trade was the driving force behind canal construction. Devine writes: “In the central Lowlands, where, by the early 19th century, the majority of the population lived, the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal was also crucial, enabling, for example, the booming commercial metropolis of Glasgow to be supplied with grain and meat from as far away as the farms of the Lothians and Fife.”

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As often happens, while researching the history of some aspect of Scottish life, I found that others had got there first so who better to explain how the canal came into being than the Forth & Clyde Canal Society. Its excellent website states: “The building of a canal across Scotland was first discussed during the reign of Charles II. It was not until the mid-1700s that the building of the Forth and Clyde Canal, or ‘the Great Canal’ as it was referred to then, became an actual possibility with funding being raised to carry out the work.”

The advantages of taking cargoes between the firths of Clyde and Forth were obvious and plans for its construction to a design by the brilliant English civil engineer John Smeaton were approved by Parliament in 1768. Construction took 22 years including a long delay caused by a lack of funds that was only remedied by the use of income from the forfeited estates of Jacobite landowners.

Opened in 1790, eventually the canal ran some 35 miles (56km) from the River Carron at Grangemouth to Bowling on the Clyde. There were 40 locks and five branches, one of them a branch that extended into Glasgow. Two magnificent aqueducts carried the canal over the River Kelvin and the Luggie Water at Kirkintilloch.

At first, the canal enjoyed huge success but, as with other canals, the railway boom of the mid-1800s saw the Forth and Clyde Canal, once the nation’s busiest, reduced in importance until it closed in 1962.

Considerably restored using National Lottery funds, it is now a major tourist attraction, thanks in no small part to the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boat lift, which connects the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal.

Designed by John Rennie, the Crinan Canal – in my opinion Scotland’s most picturesque transportation system – was opened in 1801 and enabled the fishing fleets of the Clyde estuary and Loch Fyne to avoid the gruelling and often dangerous 130-mile passage around Kintyre.

The National: The Union CanalThe Union Canal

The opening of the Caledonian Canal in 1822 greatly increased traffic on the Crinan, including daily steamer services, but it is now used almost exclusively by private boat owners.

The Union Canal between Falkirk and the centre of Edinburgh was opened in 1822 and linked the country’s two major cities by water for the first time, with passengers and freight moving overland between the two at Port Downie at Cameron near Falkirk.

Originally the Union Canal ran – via three superb aqueducts including the country’s longest over the River Avon – into Lothian Road in Edinburgh but that terminus was later changed to Fountainbridge.

For 20 years the Union Canal was successful but in 1842, the Glasgow to Edinburgh railway was opened and the canal’s days were numbered.

It was not always just five canals. No longer extant is the Aberdeenshire Canal which ran from Aberdeen to Inverurie and had 18 locks over its 18-mile (28km) length. It was built by public subscription but soon ran into money troubles and the original aim of extending the canal to Monymusk had to be abandoned.

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Approved by Act of Parliament in 1796, the canal was opened in 1805 to the design of Rennie and further financial difficulties followed quickly when no fewer than 14 of its locks failed in the first few months due to poor construction. Telford was called in and he masterminded a reconstruction so that the canal was able to be used.

It never made money, however, and was closed in 1854. Bought by a rail company, the canal was converted to a railway and parts of it can be seen to this day.

The Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone canal was some 11 miles in length and was proposed by Watt as early as 1773. It was originally intended to extend to Ardrossan, where the Earl of Eglinton had developed a harbour, hoping to serve Glasgow. The chief design was by Telford and he factored in a minimum of locks.

The Paisley to Johnstone section opened in 1810 and was successful at first, sadly so, as 85 men, women and children drowned when excited families rushed onto a boat, the Countess of Eglinton, and capsized it just four days into the canal’s operations.

The Glasgow to Paisley section opened the following year and is commemorated by Canal Street in the town. It was successful for many years before the advent of the local railways proved fatal.

The canal was bought by a rail company, which closed it in 1882, converting the route to a railway known as the Canal Line, which is used by ScotRail to this day, as is Paisley Canal station.

As a nation, we should take more pride in our canals. We may not have a lot but they have been important in our history.