The Falkirk Wheel - A Gamble?

One remarkable legacy of our Victorian forebears was the enormous network of canals that criss-cross the United Kingdom and which ushered in and made  a success of the Industrial Revolution. In England, and certainly around the North West and the Midlands there is scarcely a town that cannot access a local canal. In Scotland we had less industrial centres outwith the central region and hence the two major canals in Scotland are the Forth & Clyde and the Union Canals, bisecting the country from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde.

As the motorways of their age, they were the major transport arteries of the early industrial revolution but by the mid part of the twentieth century their days were numbered as a method of industrial transport.  As it was elsewhere in the UK, so it was for the people of Scotland and particular the town of Falkirk which had heavy reliance on the trade the canals brought to the town. As the 'lynch pin' of both canals, the town had a prominent role and especially in Camelon where the two canals met albeit at some 25 metres difference in height.

The connector was the 11 lock gates that traversed the hill down from the Union to the Forth & Clyde and with the whole process of navigating the 11 locks, both upwards and downwards, taking up to a day it ensured a lot of time was spent in local hostelries and inns by the boatmen and their crew. It also became a transport 'hub' where goods and cargo from surrounding towns and villages would be delivered and loaded onto craft heading for Edinburgh or Glasgow and taking the workmanship and reputation of many a small business to 'those fine fallutin' folk' in the big cities..

Sadly, the system of eleven locks fell into disuse and by the nineteen thirties were unused and irreparable. Eventually they were filled in, not least because of the increasing danger they represented, and the land upon which they once raised and lowered countless barges, cargo and people was covered with new housing and high rise blocks of flats.

For over seventy years the Scottish capital city, Edinburgh and its second city, Glasgow, had no water based connection and it would have remained so had it not been for the inception of the National Lottery and the Millennium Commission. With this sudden influx of massive sums there was a national drive to finding 'good uses' and submissions from every corner of the UK were invited to vie for a slice of the pie.

In hindsight it would have incredible if the idea for transforming the canal network had not become one of the leading contenders. In every way it stood apart as a project of real merit with everyone in a 'win-win' situation. It resolved the problem of the derelict canals, it increased employment in an area suffering from a greater than national average unemployed, it was futuristic, it was desirable, it was achievable and above all it had the backing of British Waterways who had a 'master plan' which would make good use of the Millennium fund in areas all over Britain.

The construction of the M9 motorway had dealt a massive blow to the town as it effectively bypassed Falkirk on its route from Edinburgh to Stirling and the North. This coupled with the descision to pedestrianise the town, which effectively drove the retail shopping trade out of Falkirk for 10 years, and the closure of so many of the staple industries of the town had a debilitating result. At one time there had been 69 foundries in the area and this had fallen to around 2 by the time the Falkirk Wheel was announced. Their closure had transformed the town from a smoky, dingy, reekin' town into a modern and pleasant environment but it had taken 10 years or more and meanwhile the people suffered high unemployment and a consequent lack of confidence in themselves and of pride in their town. The Falkirk Wheel not only promised employment it instilled a sense of identity and a resurgence in pride that this engineering town could still produce the goods - The Wheel became a monument to their history and the reopening of the canals became a pointer to the future prosperity of the town.

However this idea focused on the Falkirk Wheel and funding from the Millennium Commission was for this Wheel project alone. The rest of the canal network would have to be brought up to standard to ensure the Wheel could actually receive traffic. Little point in having a Wheel with no boats able to get to it..

Thus it was that British Waterway set about cleaning up the canal network with a zeal unseen in decades - as they would have been doing previously if they'd had the funding but they had been starved of real resources for many, many years by successive governments. So with help and financial committments from local authorities along the route of both canals the funding was found and work commenced.

The target - to have both canals open to traffic in time for the opening ceremony of the Falkirk Wheel at the Queens Jubilee in 2002.