Recently I had a chance to visit friends in Scotland. One day we took an early train with our bikes to Falkirk to see the famous Falkirk Wheel.
Falkirk is located about midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1790 the Forth and Clyde Canal was built across this narrow part of Scotland, allowing goods to travel by boat from the River Clyde to the Firth of Forth. Later in 1818 the Union canal was completed with a direct link to Edinburgh. At the junction of the two canals, Falkirk became an important industrial center.
The old canal towpath is now a recreation trail, and its an easy bike ride from the train station to the wheel. The canal follows the contours of a plateau until suddenly we arrive at a dramatic overlook of the Forth valley below!
In the old days of the canal, boats ascended or descended the plateau by a stepped series of 11 locks. Moving goods this way was slow and expensive, so the locks were closed in the 1930s as the Scottish canal system was superseded by other modes of transport.
Seeking to increase tourism in the area, British Waterways built the eye-catching Falkirk Wheel in 2002 to reconnect the two old canals for recreational boating.
The boat lift is a strangely elegant industrial machine. The two arms of the lift hold water-filled caissons which rotate to keep level as the arms turn. Because the boats in each each caisson displace water equal to their weight, each caisson is always balanced by its opposite, and only a small 30hp engine is necessary to turn the arms.
We arrived just behind several tour busses of pensioners but I still wanted to ride the wheel, so we waited in a long line for tickets to the 40-minute boat tour.
The tour boat filled quickly, and I missed my chance to sit in the front window for the best view. Every seat was filled and we pushed off to the center of the basin as a guide explained the workings of the wheel.
Moving into the caisson, the boat paused as the doors of the basin and caisson closed with a soft hydraulic hiss. In a hardly noticeable moment we are in motion! The wheel turns gently, steadily, our little bathtub and little boat climb high into the air. The tourists on the boat glanced about distractedly, and I strained to peek at the technical details of the turning gears and hydraulic apparatus that hold back the trough of water high above us.
At the top of the wheel, our boat continued down the canal to a short tunnel under the ancient Antonine Wall, to a turning basin, and then back for a ride down the wheel and return to the visitor center. It was more of a slow-moving sleepy excursion than the carnival thrill ride that the Falkirk Wheel appears from the ground. I imagine it would be far more exciting to ride in the open air in a small canoe than in the confines of a packed tourist barge.
Just a mile from the wheel is the site of a short-lived Roman fort that was part of the 39-mile Antonine Wall which protected Roman Britannia from the barbarian Picts of the north. The wall is located here for much the same reason as the canal at this narrowest part of Scotland, though following the higher ridge of the plateau. After a dozen years of construction starting in 142, the wall was only used for 20 years or so and the frontier retreated to Hadrian's wall a hundred miles south. There is not much to see at Roughcastle Fort except the grassy outlines of the buildings and the ghosts of the Picts who fell attacking them.
Back on the canal path we head back toward the east, following the old Union Canal. Just past Falkirk town we come to a cool little tunnel with a narrow path on the side. We forgot our flashlights but the tunnel is straight and not difficult to walk.
The Union Canal path is a picturesque and leisurely ride. It struck me how far away from home I am, and yet biking the canal path feels so similar to the I&M Canal trail back home. The canals of Scotland and England were the engineering models for the canals of the U.S. Its nice to see the canals here restored and usable by boat traffic. Soon we come to a long aqueduct.
The impressive stone Avon Aqueduct is 810 feet long, the tallest and longest in Scotland.
Finally we arrive at Linlithgow and its palace ruin. It was too late to go inside, but its a pretty pile to see even on the outside.