Scottish myth, history and engineering

Falkirk Wheel. Marsupium photography via Wikimedia Commons

Those of you who dropped into the Liberta Blog over Easter might have noticed I was a tad slow with my replies to the comments…

That’s because I was busy exploring a little more of Scotland. The Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies, to be exact.

Most of you will know that my main interest lies in the history of the 18th and early 19th century, but although the Falkirk Wheel did not open until 2002, its heritage and engineering dates back way beyond the Industrial Revolution.

As far as Archimedes, in fact.

Let’s go back a bit for more engineering

Between 1768 and 1790 a canal was built connecting the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth. It gave Glasgow direct access to the North sea and opened up more trade for the city.

Forth & Clyde CanalM Michel Ven den Berghe

By Michel Van den Berghe CC BY-SA 2.0

Later, in 1818, work started on the Union Canal, which provided an onward route to Edinburgh. The Union Canal was built as a contour canal, i.e. all on one level with no locks along its entire length. This was an incredible feat of engineering, but it did mean that when it came to joining up with the Forth & Clyde at Falkirk, they needed to ascend some 34 metres from the Forth & Clyde to the Union Canal.

Female climber clinging to the edge.

OK, NOT that way!

The boats and barges from the Forth & Clyde had to negotiate a series of 11 locks to take them up to the Union Canal. The locks are long gone, but a couple of years ago we took a trip along the Caledonian Canal and had to take our hired cruiser through a mere 5 locks at Fort Augustus.  That took long enough….

Locks at Fort Augustus:  Mike Peel (

The canals and the locks were a necessary route for trade, but it surprised me to learn how many visitors travelled between Glasgow  and Edinburgh simply for pleasure. The current Scottish Canals guide books says that by the 1830s, up to 200,000 passengers were travelling the route annually.  There is a facsimile of a guide book from 1823 which is full of useful information for the Canal passengers. It still makes fascinating reading today!

Companion for Canal Passengers between Edinburgh and Glasgow

Back to the Falkirk Wheel

By Sean Mack - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

By Sean Mack – Own work, CC BY 2.5

In 1933, the Falkirk locks were closed and built over, so when what was left of both canals was refurbished in 1999-2001 as the Millenium Link, they needed to bridge the gap a different way. And the engineering of the Falkirk Wheel does just that.

The Wheel was opened in 2002, by the Queen, and has been carrying passengers ever since. Apparently, Royal Security deemed a trip on the wheel too dangerous for Her Majesty , but thousands of visitors every year are willing to trust themselves to this feat of engineering.

Scottish Canals run two tourist boats that have windows on all sides and the roof, where one can see the massive wheel that takes the boats up to the aqueduct.

How it works

Worry not. I am not an engineer and don’t intend to try and explain!

If you want to know all about how the Wheel works, then the link takes you to a YouTube video. (Sadly, the Scottish Canals’ video of exactly how the wheel works appears to be a broken link.) Put simply, the wheel’s two propeller-shaped arms move two 25-metre gondolas, each weighing 50 tonnes. One gondola goes up as the other comes down. Simples. Each half turn takes about 5 minutes, although you can add another 10 minutes for loading and unloading the boats.

The wheel is so perfectly balanced that it requires only 1.5Kwh of electricity to complete each half turn. Our tour guides assured us there are plenty of safety measures in place, so we climbed aboard to experience the journey for ourselves.

Once we had made the upward journey, we sailed on across an aqueduct with views to Grangemouth and the Kelpies, just visible & ringed in black in the photo below. Trust me, they are there!

Then it’s onward, through a tunnel to a large holding basin at the base of a double staircase lock. This  takes travellers the remaining seven metres up to the Union Canal. Our visitor barge turns around in the basin at this point. The photo on the right shows our tourboat waiting for a barge to exit the acqueduct before we can make the return trip back to the visitor centre on the lower basin.

For those making the longer journey from one canal to the other, there is a single lock from the lower basin that takes vessels down the three metres into the Forth & Clyde Canal.

History doesn’t stop there

I said earlier that we passed through a tunnel before turning around for the return journey. Well, it’s not just any old tunnel. It passes underneath the Antonine Wall. The wall was built on the orders of Antoninus Pius around AD142 and this section is the best preserved of all the 60km length. It was important, therefore, to construct the tunnel so that it did not affect the archaeology above it. Also close by is Rough Castle, one of the 19 Roman forts built to defend the wall.

Antonine Wall

By PaulT (Gunther Tschuch) – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Sadly, because we were on our way home to the Highlands, we didn’t have time to explore the fort and the wall. We shall save that bit of engineering for another day.

Onward, to much more modern structure

We drove the short distance to see these fabulous sculptures:  The Kelpies.

These huge steel statues represent the mythical shape shifting creatures of Scottish mythology.

Bev Sykes from Davis, CA, USA CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Kelpies  lived in the water and often took the form of horses. Scottish sculptor Andy Scott modelled the Kelpies on the Clydesdale horses that used to pull the canal barges and wagons during Scotland’s industrial past.

The statues really are impressive. Beautiful, too, but we had to be moving, and only had time for one more brief stop before heading north.

Fancy a pint, anyone?

The old locks joining the two canals might be long gone, but there is one reminder of the canal’s history still standing,. The Union Inn, the pub where the canal men used to stop to refresh themselves before taking on the 11 locks between the Firth & Clyde and Union Canals. It could take the best part of a day to travel through the locks, so who could blame them?

The inn was built around 1822 and at that time it overlooked the canal basin called Port Downie. Just to the east of the inn was Lock 16, at the start  of the 11 lock ladder that joined the Union Canal  with the Forth & Clyde.

I couldn’t pass that without stepping inside for a little refreshment myself! The beautiful cast iron pillars in the bar are still very impressive.

I did not have long to explore these wonderful places, but it is definitely on my bucket list to go back and spend come time looking at everything again. So much to take in.

And who knows, there could be a book in it (there usually is!)


The Night She met the Duke

13 thoughts on “Scottish myth, history and engineering

  1. Liz Fielding

    The Falkirk Wheel is an amazing feat of engineering, Sarah. I saw it on a television programme a few years ago and envy your trip. And the kelpies are stunning. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Joanna

      Sarah may not be able to reply to comments today but said she will try via her phone. I agree about the amazing engineering, Liz. I haven’t seen it myself, though I did see the Kelpies en route to Stirling Castle a few years back. Sadly we didn’t stop (on a coach) so I didn’t get a real chance to look at them. I agree they’re stunning.

  2. Sophie

    I really look forward to Sarah’s Forth and Clyde and Union canal book. That day to go through the locks if someone were in pursuit of you would be real edge-of-the seat stuff. And an Encounter in the Union pub a chance for some real mayhem!

  3. Joanna

    I’m sorry to report that Sarah’s link to How the Falkirk Wheel Works doesn’t, in fact, work because the link on the Scottish Canals’ Website is broken. Not Sarah’s fault, I hasten to add. I’ve replaced the link with a YouTube one which does work (and may in fact be the original video from Scottish Canals).

  4. lesley2cats

    Fascinating, and certainly out of my comfort zone! I envy you your trip, Sarah, so thank you for sharing your memories. And the Kelpies are stunning. One day…

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