It was once a dumping-ground for shopping trolleys and traffic signs, but a radical transformation of Union Canal has seen it turn into a vibrant and cherished part of the city.
The 19th century canal provides a strip of blue and green through Edinburgh from Lochrin Basin in Fountainbridge to Ratho and beyond.
Its 32 miles of revitalised waterway, aqueducts, tunnels and bridges offers walkers, joggers, cyclists, and waterborne craft an alternative and at times tranquil route all the way to the Falkirk wheel, a huge engineering marvel that lifts boats down into the Forth & Clyde Canal.
Lochrin Basin is where the canal begins and is the fitting location for the ever-growing Edinburgh Canal Festival – an event which showcases the canal’s beauty to thousands of residents and visitors.
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the annual event, on June 16, which incorporates the highly anticipated raft race.
Pat Bowie, general manager of Re-Union Canal Boats Ltd and organiser of the Edinburgh Canal Festival said: “It has grown bigger and bigger each year. Our headcount last year picked up 7,000 which is fantastic. It is really important to raise the profile of the canals. Some people don’t know the they are even here. Ian Rankin said the canal was “Edinburgh’s hidden gem”, and that’s exactly how I would define it too.
“It is fantastic to see how much the canal has been revitalised to make it the place to be. We can hardly wait for the canal festival which is always a lovely day.”
Originally used for horses dragging barges of coal, the tow-path has seen an influx of usage thanks to the upgrading of the cycle paths and walk way to make it a more enticing commute for residents.
The former brewery sites at Fountainbridge have been a focus for new development over the past 10 years including the new Boroughmuir High School, while more than 100 new homes are also in the pipeline. Just as important is the way the canal offers a green corridor into the heart of the city, with otters, kingfishers and even a resident cormorant all to be spotted among the wild flowers and water-based plants.
Local Green councillor and city canal champion Gavin Corbett said: “I’ve lived within a stone’s throw of the canal for almost 30 years and seen what a dramatic transformation there has been in that time.
“Once it was shunned and a last resting place for trolleys and cones, now, since it was restored through Wester Hailes, it is a hugely popular place, both on the water and on the towpath. The canal festival celebrates that success story and is a fantastic community event, especially in the run up to the bicentenary in 2022. With that success also comes new challenges: for example, how to manage competing pressures on the towpath and how to ensure that a 200 year old structure is maintained and improved as a working waterway.”
Boats have endured disruption in recent months due to the restricted use of a bridge in the Capital. The Forth and Clyde canal has been closed to through traffic since February due to three lift bridges being deemed unsafe meaning bookings have had to be abandoned ahead of this summer.
Pat added: “We are a little concerned that the canal could turn into a concrete corridor with some of the development. We are also eager for these bridges to be accessible again as it is vital for us. Degeneration can happen quickly and if the maintenance of the canal is not up to scratch then people will not want to live or travel here.”
The Canal Festival is made possible through support from Scottish Canals and the city council while local developers Vastint and Moda have helped fund the event.
Richard Millar, director of infrastructure at Scottish Canals, said: “With more than £200 million of investment and the support of the local community and businesses, the canal has seen a tremendous transformation in recent years and it’s now a bustling, vibrant part of the city. While that popularity does come with its own challenges, we’re committed to ensuring the 200-year-old Union Canal continues to thrive.”
Festivities on June 16 kick off from noon.