Canal History

The Forth & Clyde Canal - Linking the Oceans

The idea for a canal to link the Atlantic and what was then called the "German Ocean" (the North Sea) was probably first mooted in the reign of Charles II as a passage for warships. In the early 18th century several surveys were undertaken, which attracted the support of among others, Daniel Defoe the author, William Adam the classical architect and Robert Napier of Merchiston, a descendant of the inventor of logarithms - an essential tool in canal engineering.

Going Down, Down, Down

Unusually, as time passed, the estimated costs for building the canal went down rather than up. In the late 17th century the figure was 500,000, but by the 1740s it was 200,000 and by the 1760s, just 80,000!

By Yon Bonnie Banks

In 1763, the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Fisheries, Manufactures & Improvements in Scotland, appointed Yorkshire engineer, John Smeaton, to survey the route for a canal. He came up with two options - a route which meandered north of Stirling and took in Loch Lomond on its way to the Clyde Estuary and another from Carron to Yoker, relatively close to the route which was finally adopted.

Glasgow/Edinburgh rivalries not new

Puffer at DrumchapelSmeaton's proposals provoked a fierce reaction from the two cities. Glasgow merchants were outraged that the canal by-passed the city. The 'Tobacco Lords' sought a central Glasgow site so that they would be able to re-export their goods directly to the Continent. At about this time, Glasgow controlled roughly a third of the tobacco trade. They commissioned a rival survey, which was carried out by Robert Mackell and James Watt.

At this time, the Clyde was only four feet deep in Glasgow and bringing the canal into the city centre would limit its depth, and therefore usefulness, considerably. Edinburgh was not impressed with the Glasgow counter-proposals. One correspondent criticised the Glasgow scheme as "a ditch, a gutter, a mere puddle" which would do nothing for "magnificence and national honour". "The fools of the West must wait for the Wise Men of the East."

The 'Grand Canal' Becomes Reality

The proponents of a "grand canal" finally won the day. Smeaton revised his plans, taking a 7ft-draught canal into the Clyde at Dalmuir and suggesting a branch into Glasgow. The necessary Act of Parliament was passed in 1768 and a subscription of 100,000 raised quickly. At this time, canals were seen as a good investment, as the railways were later to become.

One of the main backers was Sir Lawrence Dundas: he was not entirely a disinterested party as he owned extensive lands at Kerse, close to modern Grangemouth. Son of an Edinburgh baillie, he made his fortune as commissary-general, responsible for supplying the British army in Flanders in the 1750s. (His town house in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh is now the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.)

Building the Canal

Fairy Queen at HillheadConstruction started at the East end of the Forth & Clyde Canal on 10th June, 1768. Unlike most canals, which relied to a considerable extent on Highland and Irish navvies, construction used largely local labour. In the mid-1770s, lack of finance held up progress as the canal reached the outskirts of Glasgow. This problem was eventually resolved by a Government grant in 1784, made from money forfeited from the Jacobite estates. In 1785, Robert Whitworth took over from John Smeaton as chief engineer.

When it was built, the Kelvin Aqueduct was the largest of its kind in Britain. The area behind the aqueduct became known as Butney, after Botany Bay. The reason for this is obscure - was it the starting point for a convict's journey or so nicknamed because convict labour was used in building the aqueduct?

A side cut was built to Port Dundas, the depth increased to 9 feet and a harbour created at Bowling.

The Canal opens for Traffic

The Forth & Clyde Canal was officially opened in July 1790, when a party sailed in one of the canal company barges from Glasgow to Bowling. It passed through 19 locks on its four-hour journey. At Bowling Harbour, Archibald Spiers of Elderslie, the chairman of the management committee, poured a hogshead of Forth water into the Clyde, symbolising the merging of the two oceans.

The next month, the fisheries sloop, the Agnes, became the first ship to sail from ocean to ocean, travelling from Leith to Greenock. Ironically, the last commercial craft to use the canal were also fishing boats in the 1950s.

Travelling the Canal

In its heyday, passengers had three options when travelling along the Forth & Clyde Canal. If speed was not important, they could share a truck boat with cargo and take a day to make the journey. Passenger-only boats, notably the Swifts, took between three and 6 hours and an overnight service was provided by the Hoolets (owls).

Gipsy Queen at Port DundasThe End of an Era

The Forth & Clyde Canal admitted defeat to the railway in 1867, when the Caledonian Railway Company acquired it as part of its deal to purchase Grangemouth docks. In 1948, it was taken over by the British Transport Commission and then, in 1962, by the British Waterways Board. Although it was the advent of the railways which heralded the long-term demise of canal transport, it was road transport which sounded its death knell. It was decided to close the canal rather than invest 160,000 in building a lift bridge to accommodate the Denny bypass on the main Glasgow-Stirling road. On 1st January 1963, all rights to navigation ceased.


The canal was 35 miles long, with an additional 3.5 miles on the branch into Port Dundas in Glasgow. 60 feet wide and 9 feet deep, it rose to 156 feet above sea level, through 20 locks on the eastern side and 19 on the western.

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