Edinburgh's 'coal canal' is set to turn 200 with a new role in tackling climate change – Gavin Corbett

Back in 1822 the Union Canal was completed, running all the way on the 73-metre contour from Edinburgh to Falkirk.

By Gavin Corbett
Monday, 23rd August 2021, 4:55 am
A canal boat heads from Edinburgh along the Union Canal towards Falkirk (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)
A canal boat heads from Edinburgh along the Union Canal towards Falkirk (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

As Scotland’s only contour canal, the first locks encountered were at Falkirk, connecting to the Forth-Clyde Canal, with the Edinburgh end being Port Hopetoun just off Lothian Road. Among the workers over the five years of its construction were the notorious Burke and Hare.

Roll forward 200 years and much has changed. At Falkirk, the locks have gone, replaced by the wonderful Falkirk Wheel. Well worth a visit, with a stroll to the Kelpies nearby and the Antonine Wall too.

At the Edinburgh end, the Port Hopetoun basin has vanished, with the canal now finishing at Lochrin Basin in Fountainbridge. For most of the last century that has been the site of industry: the rubber factory churning out wellies among a huge range of products, then the breweries. Nowadays it’s the focal point of a new canalside neighbourhood, with over 1,000 homes being built in three large sites over the next five years, alongside workplaces and retail units.

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Walk of the week: Water of Leith and Union Canal, Edinburgh

The canal today has changed in other ways as well. Back in 1822 it was built to bring coal from the Lanarkshire mines to Scotland’s capital. Its role as a coal canal wasn’t long-lasting as the railways came only a couple of decades later. And, of course, we know now what price there is to pay for burning fossil fuels in the shape of climate change. So, as the bicentenary of the Union Canal looms, there is an opportunity to turn full circle and place the canal firmly in the battle against climate change.

What would that mean? In Glasgow, significant investment has gone into the Forth Clyde Canal, with new sports facilities, new bridges and other upgrades. Among the innovations is a partnership with Scottish Water to develop a “smart canal”, acting as major channel for excess surface water.

That applies equally well in Edinburgh as flooding increases through climate change. Over the last year we have seen how localised and intense those rainfall events can be, so the Union Canal, with its 30-mile length can be well placed to even out those peaks, although the breach in the canal near Polmont last summer shows it too needs investment.

Throw in the cooling effect of the canal; its role as a green corridor and haven for wildlife and its potential to act as a heat pump, and we have a decent 21st-century climate-friendly Union Canal for the capital.

Various community groups and businesses are already planning a range of ways to mark the Union Canal bicentenary over the next year.

Among them are events to celebrate its history and supporting key projects from a Blue-Green community development trust based in Fountainbridge, new ideas for the boat-house at Ashley Terrace, developing the outdoor hub at Bridge8 and making the most of the climbing centre-wavepark link at Ratho.

An important theme will be making the canal a centrepiece of the regeneration of Wester Hailes, the renewal of Wester Hailes High School, and, equally, better managing the pressure from the sheer volume of people using the towpath.

All exciting stuff. Next year’s bicentenary should be lift-off for many decades ahead.

Gavin Corbett is Green councillor for Fountainbridge-Craiglockhart and City Canal Champion

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