Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
A revitalised network

A revitalised network

What had once been the great economic backbone of the nation, one of the most important innovations of the Industrial Revolution making transport far quicker, was in rapid decline as canals were replaced by rail and road.

Particularly north of the border, the man-made waterways were well on their way out. In disrepair, unnavigable and with parts closed off completely – and there it might have stayed had it not been for a sustained effort, over 20 years ago, to get them working again that culminated in the Millennium Link which joined the Union and Forth and Clyde canals in 2002.

In the last 10 years £109m of government money has been invested in the Scottish canal network and further changes have been underway after British Waterways, which had managed the whole UK network for 50 years, split - with a new public corporation, Scottish Canals being formed.

Its chief executive, Steve Dunlop, who had been director of its predecessor British Waterways Scotland, says that the canal network here has gone through its period of failure and its renaissance – and the next step is to build on a new vision for how the canals can help a new period of growth in Scotland.

From the organisation’s headquarters, Canal House, in Glasgow, there are signs of what it believes the 137-mile network can achieve.

Naturally, the building is at the waterside and just a short walk along the towpath takes you into what Dunlop calls the “cultural epicentre” of the city.

In a former whisky bond for Highland Distillers (and a short-lived mushroom factory) owned by Scottish Canals, there is now, based on its first three floors, Glasgow Sculpture Studios, nearby are parts of the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Scottish Opera.

“North Glasgow has been for many generations an area that may as well have been 20 miles outside the city centre, rather than less than one mile, because of this severance of the city by the M8,” says Dunlop.

“What we’ve been able to do is reconnect North Glasgow with the city centre using government money to transform no-go areas into areas that become destinations and attractive areas.

“As a consequence of us bridging the gap, literally, unblocking routes into North Glasgow, we’ve been able to stimulate the creative community. When they perform in the city centre all the behind-the-scenes, all the studying, the crafting are actually done here in Glasgow down at Speirs Wharf.” Th e oldest of Scotland’s canals date back to 1768, in the Highlands, the Caledonian Canal stretches from Inverness to Fort William and links four natural lochs, including Loch Ness.

The Crinan Canal in Argyll stretches nine miles from Ardrishaig on Loch Gilp to the Sound of Jura; in the Lowlands the Forth and Clyde Canal links the Forth near Grangemouth to the Clyde at Bowling, and the Union Canal runs from Falkirk to Edinburgh. The Monkland Canal, which runs from near Airdrie to Glasgow, is no longer navigable but provides the main water supply to the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Although their origins all lay in industrialisation, Dunlop stresses that canals are not just an urban issue.

“This isn’t just a story about cities. We’re one of the only assets that go coast-to-coast. We’re the most popular cycling route in Scotland. It’s wrong to see this as a localised thing, it’s a big integrated network.” While projects are under way right across the canal network – not least the £43m Falkirk Helix project – North Glasgow is a vital area for Scottish Canals. About 20 per cent of Scotland’s most deprived communities are on the banks of the Lowland canals and areas like Maryhill and Port Dundas – which was hit by the closure of the Diageo plant four years ago – are seen as prime areas that could benefit from the canal’s regeneration opportunities.

Scottish Canals has bought the Port Dundas Business Park and other areas of land in North Glasgow and is involved with setting up a £2.2m Paddlesports centre that it says will attract 28,000 canoeists and kayakers to the area.

Although the centre at Pinkston Basin will be the first of competition-standard in Scotland, meaning elite athletes will not have to travel to the nearest at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham, the project is aimed at all levels from the top down and the first 10 coaches have all been taken from the local area. It coincides with separate plans involving the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council, among others, to invest £270m in a bid for the Youth Olympics in 2018.

Dunlop says the new centre will be “totally catalytic” for the area.

“From an area that feels like a brownfield, ‘why on earth would you go there?’ this will change the perspective completely. We’ve proved with what we’ve achieved with the cultural community that you can change places – well, for Port Dundas, and Sighthill and the Youth Olympics, it’s going to be urban sport that’s going to be the driver, so the essence of the place will become about young people and activity.” With other projects taking place in North Glasgow, it is hoped the lessons learned can be rolled out across the whole network.

Scottish Canals are part of the Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Drainage Partnership which is looking at ways in which the canal network can be employed to cope with flooding.

As reported in Holyrood last November, research has been carried out into turning the canal into a live water management system.

Although Scottish Water announced earlier this year it was investing £250m in upgrading the ageing network of Victorian sewers in Glasgow, the MGSDP is looking at easing the burden of sewers and rivers, by allowing the canal to take the water away.

“Instead of us releasing flood water straight into the River Kelvin, which is already full in times of flood, we can use it as a conduit to take water out of the city into safe areas.

“We can, for example, lower the level of the canals when we know a stormy event is going to happen, we can use our reservoirs to create more capacity.

“If we can model that in Glasgow – that model will apply to other parts of Scotland.” However, with issues like employment – particularly jobs for younger people – at the top of the political agenda currently, a great deal of focus is going into how the network of canals can help provide better opportunities.

The Scottish Waterways Trust, a charity that, just like Scottish Canals, split last year from its UK group to concentrate wholly on the issues north of the border, has made one of its central aims to see how the lengths of waterways can help improve skills.

Tracey Peedle, Development Director, said: “We’re trying to connect people with the waterways. The waterways, we think, are a fabulous resource of wildlife, green open spaces, as a great leisure resource as well as having huge heritage and environmental value. Canals go through some of the most deprived areas of Scotland, no more so than in Glasgow.

“Our role really is to try and facilitate people to kind of either get enjoyment through recreation or through learning more about the canals. More recently, two of our big strategic aims are in relation to health and in terms of skills development.” The charity had previously run ‘Green Action’ projects which help 16 to 25 year olds with projects associated with the canal. Now these have been expanded to create a Canal College that with the help of nearly £200,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to offset the £500,000 costs, will open this summer on the Forth and Clyde and Union canals.

It is hoped that 500 people will benefit from the college by June 2015 and volunteers will carry out projects including conservation work on the canals and work towards various awards and certificates including the John Muir Award, Youth Achievement Award and the Saltire Volunteer Award.

Schemes they will be involved in will include creating heritage and wildlife trails, the unearthing of the historic Falkirk Lock Flight and the creation of a new landscaped gateway to the Union Canal at West Calder.

Peedle added: “There is a transformation in some of these young people who have come through our Green Action programmes, who have come in with very little self-esteem or self-confidence. We just thought there was something really worth building on there in terms of extending it to more people and doing a more formal programme to help these young people even more.

“We think of the canals as the canvas for these schemes.” In 2002, the then Scottish Executive set out its long-term aspirations for canals, while the work to reverse decline in the network was already under way. Last month, Transport Minister Keith Brown launched a revamped policy ‘Making the most of Scotland’s canals’, setting out the aspirations for the network’s life over the next five to 10 years.

Scottish Canals, whose board is appointed by ministers, will be handing a new corporate plan to the Scottish Government in the next few months.

Since the first report, economic activity has certainly increased. Yachting and boating is estimated to be worth more than £100m to the Scottish economy – with canals playing a large part of that .

Canal towpaths now receive 22 million visits a year – a 300 per cent increase in the last eight years and although the original purpose of canals may well often be overlooked in favour of rail or road freight, Scottish Canals says canal-based freight took 1.5 million miles of lorry journeys from Scotland’s roads over the last three years.

Dunlop added: “In the first policy, I think the number one objective was to raise public awareness that these canals had been brought back to life.

“People might have been aware of the Falkirk Wheel or certain bits and pieces but actually, in local areas, people didn’t really realise that Glasgow, for example, had canals, or even some folks in Maryhill didn’t realise there was a canal.

Over the last 10 years we’ve been trying to improve that.” One initiative that they hope will do just that is getting people to see a canal as not just a place to visit but a place in which to live.

The Living On Water scheme, which is being piloted in Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow, is encouraging people to invest in a boat and try a different lifestyle.

One such barge floats outside Canal House, kitted out to include a wood-burning stove, and flat-screen TV – more luxurious than some caravans.

Dunlop said: “There are a lot of folk in England and Wales who live on canals, in fact, it’s seen on some occasions as counterproductive – because it clashes with leisure use. We see tremendous benefit in some areas of living on water.

“In terms of affordability and a different lifestyle, we think we’ve got something unique to offer. If the pilots work well, we’d like to expand that across the network. If we get the model right, we could see small clusters of floating villages.

“All you need to do is look at cities that really celebrate their water, whether it’s Amsterdam or any other European city, you’ll see that rich blend of use of the water – that’s what we want to develop, in a Scottish context.” For all the ambitions laid out for the canal network, the success of it still lives or dies on the quality of the water it carries.

The Water Resources (Scotland) Act was given Royal Assent in April this year which sets out that Scottish ministers have a duty to ensure the responsible use of Scotland’s water resources.

In addition, the Scottish Government, as part of its Hydro Nation agenda, wants to use the quality and abundance of water in Scotland to economic advantage.

Canals, like other waterways, are subject to strict regulations carried out by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) A spokesman for SEPA said: “SEPA regulates various aspects of canal operations in Scotland through the Controlled Activity Regulations (CAR). This includes discharges, abstractions and engineering. In order to maintain and protect water quality in Scotland’s canals, such activities can only be carried out if an appropriate CAR licence is in place for the specific watercourse.

“Scottish Canals currently holds CAR licences for the Caledonian, Crinan and Lowland Canals and we regularly liaise with the operator to ensure the conditions of these licences are met and the high standards of Scotland’s canals are upheld.” Dunlop added: “We are a regulated body and SEPA monitor closely what we do, but we’re absolutely passionate about the environment.

We care about the water quality and we’re our own toughest task-masters. The canals are incredibly clean since the restoration and that’s the way we plan to keep them.

“Without the asset and water being part of the asset, being in great condition, you kind of lose everything.”

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top