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Falkirk Wheel — Reviving a Canal Tradition

Time was when the best mode of inland transport was by water. Where rivers did not exist, or did not connect major towns, man reshaped the land by cutting canals. Where the ground level fell drastically, locks were put in place to allow the passage of boats from higher to lower ground, and vice versa. As time went by, improvements in road construction and later, with the invention of the railway train, the canals declined in importance. With the advent of automobile powered societies, many canals have been simply abandoned.

History of the canals

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Britain was once the workshop of the world. Textiles, liquor and the machinery led the march towards industrial scale production. The cutting of canals put coal and other minerals within reach of the industrial centers arising. Imported raw materials made their way inland to the growing hubs of factories everywhere. Scotland was no less affected. Its largest towns of Edinburgh and Glasgow were booming with whisky and shipbuilding. The Forth and Clyde and Union Canals linked these two cities and managed the gradient difference with a series of 11 locks.

 

As traffic declined, the canals ceased to be used for navigational purposes. With no long term plans and maintenance halted, the canals were expected to die out slowly and dry up into small pools of water. That is, up until a national body, the Millennium Commission, decide to take up the challenge to rehabilitate the canal and restore it to proper functionality. The Millennium Commission was set up specifically to apply funds from the National Lottery to fund projects celebrating the end of the 2nd Millennium and the start of the third. Proposals were solicited and the restoration of this canal, linking the two main estuaries of Scotland was made to the Commission and accepted.

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The two canals had a water level gap of 115 feet. To bridge this gap, the organization responsible, British Waterways, intended to have a radical solution in preference to traditional locks. A revolving lift capable of lifting 600 tonnes of water in a rotational motion created a dramatic structure which stands out in the Scottish countryside.

Dubbed a stunning piece of working sculpture, the Falkirk Wheel presents a different image when seen from different vistas. From far away, the sharp spines rising in the sky appear to look like the bones of a giant whale beached inland. From within the lift, the arches look like a tunnel enveloping the pool of water in which the boat would slide. The impression of a canal which ends in mid-air is also somewhat disconcerting. While it is gracefully beautiful, the underlying objective of the design is efficiency — using just 1.5 kW of power to move two boats plus water of about 600 tonnes in 15 minutes. A system of cogs turns the caissons containing the water and boats precisely so that the boats remain upright throughout the transfer process.

 

You can take a trip from the wheel up the Union Canal. You can start with an exhibition at the Visitor Centre — admission free — that gives you more information about the design and construction of the structure. Then the boat trip begins. You start from the basin, slide into the gondola which holds the boat and water, and the whole thing begins its turn up. You can take in the panoramic view of the Scottish countryside on the ascent up. The ride then sails along the aqueduct and the 180 metre long Roughcastle Tunnel. This is actually under the historic Roman fortification, called the Antonine Wall. The trip is a round trip and brings its passengers back for a descent experience on the wheel.

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