World’s First Boat Elevator Transforms Scottish Canals

After more than a century of disuse, Scotland’s old coal barge canals have been transformed into peaceful, beautiful arteries of recreation and wildlife.

Picturesque Bridge Inn on the banks of Scotland's Union Canal
Bridge Inn on the Union Canal | Credit: Visit Scotland

Part of a repurposing of commercial canals across Europe, Scotland’s are now a major tourist attraction. The Caledonian to the north, the Union and Crinan to the east, and the Monkland, which ran parallel to the Forth and Clyde; these canals in the early 19th century transported vast amounts of coal to Glasgow, which played a major role in the birth of the UK's industrial revolution.

As Smithsonian Magazine reports, over the past two decades, the country has transformed its decrepit coal-transport infrastructure into a thriving recreational wonderland. Prior to this, jurisdiction over the crumbling canals was passed across many organizations, none of them ever looking upon these once-mighty lines of supply as anything other than a burden or, arising from Alfred Nobel’s dynamite factory in Glasgow, a polluted sore of mercury and other toxic material.

Looking for big engineering projects to fund in order to usher a totally modern Scotland into the new millennium, the Scottish Government approved a seriously cool project, a giant rotating boat elevator to connect the Union and Forth of Clyde canals.

Falkirk Wheel - the World’s first boat elevator
Falkirk Wheel | Credit: Visit Scotland

Known as the Falkirk Wheel, it was the world’s first rotating boat lift, but it’s birth was twinned with a national clean up effort, which between 1999 and 2003 hauled out old cars, discarded tires, and countless tons of contaminated soil, until the canals were safe enough to paddle in.

Almost instantly, the canals as a recreational resource exploded into life.

This single invention created a chain reaction in society. Boating clubs, crew team boathouses, began popping up along the canals, while waterfront cafes and property began to boom. Industrial metal girder and red brick manufacturing plants morphed into thriving art districts.

Today the waters of the canals are safe enough to swim in. The green spaces, the return of aquatic wildlife, and the relaxing lifestyle that arose in the wake of their recovery has had planners from France and Germany visiting to learn and inform their own canal revivals.


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