The Falkirk Wheel is a remarkable feat of engineering that has become an iconic landmark in Scotland. It is the world's only rotating boat lift, connecting the Union Canal with the Forth and Clyde Canal. However, it is also a fun attraction for visitors and locals alike. So, hop on board, and join us we set out on Scotland's canals to explore and discover the Falkirk Wheel!
History of the Scottish Lowlands Canal System
The Scottish canal system has a long and fascinating history that dates back to the 18th century. It all started with the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal, which was completed in 1790. This canal was built to connect the Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland with the Firth of Clyde on the west coast. It was a major engineering feat at the time and helped to connect Scotland's two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The success of the Forth and Clyde Canal led to the construction of other canals throughout Scotland. The Union Canal was completed in 1822 and connected Edinburgh to the Forth and Clyde Canal.
These canals were used primarily for transportation of goods such as coal, timber, and iron. They also helped to connect Scotland's various industries and allowed for easier trade with other countries. The canals played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution in Scotland and helped to spur economic growth and development.
However, over time, the canal system fell into disuse. The rise of railways in the 19th century meant that goods and people could be transported faster and more efficiently by train. The canals became neglected and fell into disrepair. Many of the canals were also too small to accommodate larger boats, which made them less attractive to users.
In addition, the canal system was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The economic downturn meant that many businesses could no longer afford to use the canals. The canals were also affected by the decline of industries such as coal mining and ironworks, which had been major users of the canals.
Despite efforts to revive the canal system in the mid-20th century, it was ultimately unable to compete with other forms of transportation. However, this isn’t the end of our story on the Scottish Canal System.
The Rebirth of the Scottish Canal System and The Falkirk Wheel
Starting in the 1970s, volunteers and canal enthusiasts led the way for the beginning of a renewed interest in Scotland’s water routes. Albeit, this time the focus was on leisure rather than industry. However, the biggest push for the revitalisation of Scotland’s canals came in the 1990s- thanks in large part to fundraising from the Millennium Commission, Scottish Enterprise, European agencies, and local councils. Additionally, it is important to note that it was a dedicated group of volunteers that were determined to bring the Scottish canals back to life.
This was an incredibly monumental task, and the first step was to clear the canals of debris and overgrowth. Next came the restoration of the locks and aqueducts that allowed boats to navigate the canals. Many of them were in a sorry state, but with the help of engineers and craftsmen, some were able to be repaired and rebuilt.
A major part of the rebirth of the Scottish canal system was to reconnect Scotland’s two Lowland Canals- the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal. The previous, original system of a flight of 11 locks was half buried under Falkirk streets as it had been abandoned in 1933. It would take an entire day for boats and their owners to navigate the old system! Therefore, something new and improved was needed and the Falkirk Wheel was the engineering feat to do this.
Opened in 2002 by Queen Elizabeth, the Falkirk Wheel is an impressive piece of machinery, standing at 115 feet tall and weighing 1,200 tonnes. It is powered by just eight electric motors, which use a mere 1.5 kilowatts of energy (the equivalent of 8 electric kettles) to rotate the wheel. While its predecessor required the entire day to navigate, the journey on the Falkirk Wheel only takes 15 minutes in total!
The design of the Falkirk Wheel is not just functional, but also visually stunning. The wheel is made of steel and has a graceful, curved shape that is reminiscent of a giant piece of modern art. Visitors can take a ride on the wheel and experience the thrill of being lifted high above the ground, while enjoying panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. We have visited on a few occasions, and would love to now give you a wee virtual tour of what it’s like to visit the Falkirk Wheel (with guest appearances by our Golden Retriever tour guide, Sawyer, and our Golden angel, Stirling).
Visiting the Falkirk Wheel
We have been fortunate to experience the Falkirk Wheel in both winter and spring and can confirm that- no matter the season – she is a beautiful site to see! We highly recommend that you book your visit in advance to make sure to secure a spot on one of their boats (check out their website to help you best plan your visit). The entire trip takes 60 minutes and starts in the basin at the Falkirk Wheel complex. We are happy to say that well behaved dogs are allowed on the boat ride, and it is best experienced for dogs who have a calm disposition.
After you board your boat, your pilot navigates into one of the gondolas.
There are two 50 tonne gondolas that each must “transfer a total 250 tonnes of boats and water the 25 metre vertical distance between the Union and Forth & Clyde Canals” (which takes just 5 minutes for the half turn). As I mentioned before, the perfectly balanced wheel needs only “1.5kW hours of electricity- costing just a few pence- to complete a half turn”. As the Wheel turns, the gondolas stay horizontal as you make you way up to the reinforced concrete aqueduct. The entire Falkirk Wheel complex is run by state-of-the-art technology that is completely controlled by computers.
Your boat then leaves the gondola and takes you along the aqueduct to a tunnel.
After exiting the tunnel, for this attraction, your boat turns around and makes the trip back to the Wheel and back down to the basin where you started. However, if someone were in their own boat, they could continue along to a double staircase lock which would take them to the Union Canal (and eventually the Edinburgh city centre if they wanted).
The views both on the way up and down the Wheel are simply stunning and provide a unique way to experience the Scottish countryside.
When we visit the Falkirk Wheel, we also enjoy getting a bite to eat at the café. The food is reasonably priced and delicious.
Overall, the Falkirk Wheel is a testament to human creativity and engineering prowess. It is a must-see destination for anyone visiting Scotland, and we highly recommend it. Whether you are interested in history, engineering, or just looking for a unique and exciting experience, the Falkirk Wheel is sure to impress. Plus, once you take the trip on the Wheel, you can brag how you were able to do something that even Queen Elizabeth wasn't allowed to do. Ironically, while the late Queen was there to officially open the Falkirk Wheel, much to her dismay, she wasn't allowed to go on a boat ride on it due to security concerns by her team.
Here are a few more photos for you to scroll through from around the Complex:
Before we leave, we can’t forget to mention our friends, Duke and Baron, the world-famous Kelpies who keep guard over the Scottish Canals. So, after visiting the Falkirk Wheel, be sure to take the beautiful 6km walk or boat ride along the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Helix Eco Park. There, you will find Scottish sculptor, Andy Scott’s, magnificent steel structures- the Kelpies. Rising 30 metres high out of the water, Duke and Baron are a site that you will want to see in person. Sawyer loves to visit them and even did a nose boop or two!
It is wonderful to see how the revitalisation of the Scottish Canals has brought renewed life and interest in an area that has a rich and storied history. The Falkirk Wheel has reconnected an important corridor in the Lowlands of Scotland and we look forward to seeing what the future holds in store for Scotland’s waterways.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!