Canal History

The Union Canal - Cheap Coal for the Capital

John Rennie, the Scottish canal engineer, put forward an early proposal for a canal from Leith to Saltcoats in Ayrshire. The main driving force behind the establishment of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal was not to link the two cities, but to provide access to the coalfields of West Central Scotland. Prior to the canal's opening, coal was brought into the capital by sea from as far away as Newcastle, incurring significant duty.

A Main Route or a Branch Line?

School TripIn the 1790s, there were several meetings of prominent citizens to promote a canal. Robert Whitworth and John Ainslie, and thereafter John Rennie, were commissioned to devise a route, running from central Glasgow to Edinburgh. The Napoleonic Wars intervened and the project was shelved until 1813. Hugh Baird, the engineer of the Forth & Clyde Canal, then suggested the option of creating a branch canal to the Forth & Clyde Canal which would start from Fountainbridge near to "Mr Haig's distillery" at Lochrin in Edinburgh. This would not only carry cheap coal into the city but also much-needed lime for the fields round the capital.

Baird's scheme aroused many objections, ranging from suggestions that he had a personal interest as a coalfield owner, to the fact that the route began "under the windows of one gentleman's house" and traversed "shrubberies and pleasure grounds innumerable".

Proposal attracted counter-proposal and the Union Canal supporters were even accused of stirring up revolution among the population of a city "where the religious and moral principles were perhaps better than any town in Europe". This attack was occasioned when a mob broke the Edinburgh Lord Provost's windows - although it was likely that his support of the Corn Laws, rather than his attitude to the canal, was the trigger for violence. Thomas Telford was finally invited to adjudicate, deciding in favour of Baird's scheme in 1815.

A proposed extension of the canal to Leith was abandoned on grounds of cost and practicality. If it had been successful, Princes Street Gardens would not be as they are today.

Building the Union

The Act of Parliament giving the green light to the Union Canal was finally passed in 1817. It was to join the Forth & Clyde Canal near Falkirk, at what later became Port Downie, named after Robert Downie who had made his fortune in India and was one of the principal backers of the scheme. There were clauses laying down that the canal should not encroach on the views of local landowners, notably William Forbes of Callendar, Falkirk. As a result, the Union Canal entered a tunnel to pass under part of the Callendar estate (now Callendar Park).

Ice BreakerWork began on the Edinburgh end in 1818 under the supervision of Hugh Baird and with at least one contractor being exhorted to employ local unemployed people. There were problems during the work, including riots among the workforce, excessive drinking and fights between Highlanders and Irishmen. Some landowners proved difficult and the canal company had to purchase Glenfuir House near Lock 16. They tried, unsuccessfully, to run it as an inn.

There were aqueducts to construct over the river Almond, the river Avon (the longest and tallest in Scotland) and the Water of Leith at Slateford. These were all designed by Baird in consultation with Telford. For most of its route, the Union Canal was only 5 feet deep, deepening only as it reached the junction with the Forth & Clyde.

Open for Business

Coal BargeThe Canal was officially opened in May 1822, with the first boat carrying flagstones from Denny. The company's first passenger boat, the Flora McIvor, sailed between Edinburgh and Ratho and was soon joined by the Di Vernon. Both boats were strongly influenced by Dutch design. The company adopted strict rules to maintain standards: no smoking or sales of spirits; no cooking of food (other than eggs and potatoes); the removal on to the bank of anyone found to be drunk; and a ban on liveried servants travelling as cabin passengers. The next year, the first daily passenger service was launched and it ran from Port Dundas through to Port Hopetoun.

Mainly a One-Way Trade

The Union Canal brought stone from the Hailes and other quarries, as well as other materials such as slate, for the building of Edinburgh's New Town (now part of a World Heritage site). A separate coal basin was created at Port Hamilton (Fountainbridge) at the Edinburgh terminus, to cater for the increasing demand for coal. The relatively limited trade out of Edinburgh was largely of merchants' goods and manure.

The End of An Era

The opening of the Glasgow-Edinburgh railway in 1842 had an immediate and dramatic impact on the Union Canal and by 1848, passenger services were virtually at an end. The same year, the North British Railway Company took over the canal, which became part of the railway in 1861. In 1921, after the move of the Edinburgh meat markets from Fountainbridge to Gorgie, Port Hamilton and Port Hopetoun were sold to Edinburgh Council and filled in.


The Union Canal was 32 miles long, 37ft width at the surface, 22ft at the base and 5ft deep. A contour canal, it followed the natural contours of the land and although it had no locks, it boasts the only canal tunnel in Scotland (690 yards long) and the largest and tallest aqueduct. It connected to the Forth & Clyde Canal at Falkirk by a flight of 11 locks, which dropped the canal 33.5m over a distance of 1.5km.

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