The Union Canal: an outline history

The Union Canal was designed to complete the link between Edinburgh and Glasgow, by meeting the existing Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk. Already under discussion in the late 1780s, it was not completed until 1822, making it one of the last canals to be built in Scotland. The 31 ½ mile route started at Fountainbridge where three basins were constructed to facilitate the trade that - it was hoped – would pass along the canal. The designer, Hugh Baird, followed the idea (unique for Scotland canals) , of using the same contour throughout its length, thereby making it cheaper to construct and maintain as there would be no locks, except for the link with the Forth and Clyde Canal. The clever use of the contour system gave the canal its nickname “the Mathematical”
The canal took the waste from Edinburgh’s many stables out to the surrounding farms, in addition to the traffic in stone and coal into the city.
Another lucrative line was passenger traffic, which allowed passage between the two main cities in 13 hours. This was a great benefit to travellers as the road route was extremely poor and subject to the vagaries of the weather.
By 1842 the railway had taken much of the transport of passengers and the passenger barges, known as swifts, ceased to run. The Canal was still much needed to transport heavy bulky loads into the centre of Edinburgh, and continued in this role until after World War 1, but always in competition with the railways, who had taken over ownership of the canal in 1845.
The cattle markets and slaughterhouses in central Edinburgh closed after WW1, and the main Edinburgh basin (Port Hamilton) was closed in 1921. The canal continued working but in much reduced capacity, until closed to commercial traffic in 1933.
Public opinion and town planning saw the restriction in recreational use of the canal, with the cutting and culverting of the route at Wester Hailes as part of the new housing scheme.
After much lobbying by interested groups and local communities, the link was restored during the 1990s to join up with the Falkirk Wheel. This was a millennium project which replaced the defunct lock system which had joined the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal.
The canal has now a number of pleasure facilities (some dating back to the 19th century) such as the boating clubs and the Forth Canoe Club; there is also a thriving fleet of pleasure and residential barges.
In the 19th century, many industries were set up alongside the canal, particularly at Fountainbridge. They did not all use the canal directly for transport, but did use its waters for production purposes. This helped keep the canal extant when public opinion was for filling it all in.
Although by the mid twentieth century many of the foundry and boatbuilding works were closing, the area was the home to the North British Rubber Company. Founded by an American in 1856 on the site of the Castle Silk Mills on the north side of the canal, the large manufacturer produced goods such as shoes, boots and hosepipes, and employed over 3000 local people. Also on the north side was the McEwan Fountain brewery which, after the combination with the brewing firm of William Younger to form Scottish Brewers (later Scottish and Newcastle), was looking to expand its production, and took over the NBR site after 1971. The site is now closed.
Much of the surrounding and supporting housing and shops was demolished, particularly in the 1970’s, as the City planners continued to seek improved facilities for the people of Edinburgh.
As a unique engineering facility, the canal is a monument to the early industrial expansion in Scotland, and its route follows many historic links.
Richard Allen