As a child, growing up in Scotland, Falkirk was just one of many small towns in Central Scotland that used to have heavy industry. Falkirk is also located at the intersection of the Union and Forth & Clyde Canals. It certainly wasn’t a tourist destination, as the only time I recall going to Falkirk was to visit the football ground when I followed my beloved Rangers all across Scotland.
The industry is gone and the canals were closed in the 1960’s, after 30+ years of decline, but The Falkirk Wheel, a millennium project resurrected the canal system for leisure uses and is a rapidly growing tourist attraction.
Forth and Clyde Canal was completed in 1790 and provided access for ships to transit across central Scotland from one coast to the other. It is 35 miles in length and it runs from the River Carron at Grangemouth to Bowing on the River Clyde. Initially very successful, it suffered decline as ship size increased beyond the canal’s capacity, eventually ceasing operations in the mid 1960’s.
The Union Canal was completed in 1822 and is 31 miles in length, running along a single contour from Edinburgh to Falkirk. No locks are required along the entire length of the canal and the 3 valleys are crossed using aqueducts. This canal is only accessible by the narrower canal boats.
You may ask, as we did, what exactly is the Falkirk Wheel and why should we go see it?
Well, to summarise, it is simply an amazing feet of British engineering that is the world’s first and only balanced rotating boat lift that uses no water and minimal electric power. The wheel joins the Union Canal and Forth and Clyde Canal, which have a vertical height difference of 115 feet. Prior to the Wheel, the canals were connected by a series of 11 original locks, which took a full day to transit and required 3,500 tons of water.
The original locks connecting the canals had not been used since the 1930’s, but at the end of the 20th century plans were developed to regenerate Scotland’s canals. These plans envisioned reconnecting the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde with a stunning 21st Century landmark, instead of recreating the existing locks, which were dismantled in 1933. The project received approval in 1977 and the Falkirk Wheel was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2002.
Slideshow showing wheel in operation
We started our visit with the 40 to 50 min boat tour on one of the custom built cruise barges. While not overly comfortable seats it did provide excellent views with large windows and a glass ceiling.
On departing the dock we entered the lower caisson and once secured, with the gates in place, we commenced the 1/2 rotation taking about 4 minutes to the top level.
At the upper level, once the gates were lowered we departed the caisson onto the aqueduct and then through the 200 yds long tunnel.
The tunnel leads to the turning basin and double lock to raise barges up to the Union Canal.
Once turned around we retraced our route back through the tunnel, across the aqueduct and into the upper caisson of the wheel, to be rotated back down to the basin.
Once we departed the boat, Judi went inside to the heated gift shop and café, while I braved the elements and climbed the hill for a walk along the canal tow path. The incline was fairly gradual, the paths were in excellent condition and it was definitely worth it, as I walked along the aqueduct, climbed above the tunnel, walked through the tunnel and up the double lock to the Union Canal. The following photos are a small selection of my walk.
Falkirk Wheel – Quirky Facts
1. How do they ensure the wheel is balanced? The answer is found in the name given to one of the boats – Archimedes. Provided the water depth in both caissons is equal, regardless of the number or size of boats, the weight will be equal. Any floating body will displace a volume of water equal to its weight.
2. How much water in each caisson? Just over 100,000 Imp Gallons or 500,000 litres.
3. How much electricity is used? Each operation uses about the same amount of electricity used to boil 8 kettles.
4. How much water is used? None
5. Does it rotate both directions? Yes, and the operators try to equalise the number of clockwise and anti-clockwise rotations.