Taking a canal boat from Glasgow to Edinburgh drifts you back through the centuries and reveals an altogether different perspective of central Scotland
The reactions from friends when I announced that I was embarking on a week cruising the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh ranged from raised eyebrows through to concerns that there were parts of both where boats should not go. A week later I was a total convert, after a trip that took me between Scotland’s two biggest cities at a pace that drifts you back through the centuries.
Until 2002 this unusual journey was not even possible. What were once the main arteries between the cities during the Industrial Revolution, the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, were no longer connected. Many parts of the waterways were infested with clogged weeds and that most urban of aquatic interlopers, the abandoned shopping trolley.
Things have come a long way in recent years, thanks to an influx of cash from the Millennium Commission and the determination of British Waterways that the canals should open again. New bridges have been built, the canals dredged and cleared of vegetation and, of course, the stunning Falkirk Wheel has been conjured up in what was one of the most impressive feats of Scottish engineering since the canal’s heyday.
Setting off west from Falkirk on the Forth & Clyde Canal, all doubts about the trip quickly faded as a green cloak of trees and fields descended around our boat and we settled into the 4mph pace. There is something supremely relaxing about not only sharing the water with swans, but also being overtaken by them. After quickly mastering the steering, we eased into the sort of relaxation that modern life seldom allows.
On board a canal boat you really have time to relax and let the world go by. I travelled with my wife, mother-in-law and father-in-law and we all found our own ways to relax, whether reading in bed when you feel like you really should be up, sunbathing on the deck or just watching the scenery on the banks. On the way, we picked up a collage of friends and relatives for a brief spin on the canal, all of whom soon entered into the spirit of this truly soporific mode of transport.
On our second morning, after a hearty dinner in a local pub near Kirkintilloch, things took a surreal turn as we sailed through Glasgow’s outskirts, past Maryhill’s tower blocks and on to Firhill Stadium, before arriving in the city centre and our base for the night at British Waterways HQ. Up we popped like submariners for a curry and pint before retiring to our mobile home, with its proper double beds, stereo and TV.
Heading back east we tackled the Falkirk Wheel, all very impressive to look at, but quite daunting when you are humbled right underneath in its hulking shadow. Mercifully, British Waterways staff were on hand to do the hard work and we were soon up on the lock-free Union Canal with only 32 miles between us and Edinburgh, an epic adventure with overnight stops to enjoy in Linlithgow and Ratho en route.
It is up to you where you stop off. We took lunch stops at various points, enjoyed a barbecue (much to the amusement of the natives in Winchburgh), and moored up in a different place most nights. The highlight was Linlithgow with its lovely canal basin and easy access to the local pubs, shops, restaurants and the world famous palace.
On the run into Edinburgh, the greenery momentarily gave way to concrete bridges on the reborn stretch through Wester Hailes, but once we crossed the Prince Charlie Viaduct we were soon back in a world of rowers, reeds and wildlife as we approached Edinburgh’s financial district and the newly revamped Lochrin Basin. This leisure oasis is another sign that the canals are finally making a comeback.
Sitting proudly by our brightly painted boat at one of the new restaurants that line the waterfront, we were the talk of the lunching office workers. I’d like to think as we slowly turned tail and set sail for Falkirk that more than one or two looked on with a touch of jealously as we joined the swans cruising Scotland’s long forgotten canal artery.
We travelled with Black Prince, who rent out canal boats from their base beneath the Falkirk Wheel. Boats cater for two to 10 passengers, with initial tuition and petrol included on all trips. They also provide a route guide and some basic training on handling the boat.