The Falkirk Interchange

Map of Falkirk Interchange between Union and Forth and Clyde canals
Map derived from data (c) OpenStreetMap

Avon Aqueduct to Falkirk Falkirk to Grangemouth Falkirk to Kilsyth

The Union Canal emerges from under the hill next to Falkirk High Station. The "high" is appropriate as canal and railway are quite a distance above the town centre here. The banks are nicely landscaped and a stylish modern boathouse next to Bantaskin Bridge (62) houses the local Seagull Trust trip boat as the canal approaches its end.

The Falkirk end of the Union Canal has probably changed more drastically over the years than any other part. Originally, a flight of 11 locks curved down the hill from here to join up with the Forth and Clyde Canal at a large basin called Port Downie. The locks were filled in in 1933; the top two chambers are still visible near the Union Canal but there is no trace of the rest. To begin with, the lock flight was right at the end of the Union, but shortly after it opened the canal was extended a short distance west so that there would be less of a walk down to the Forth and Clyde. This extension was known as Port Maxwell. There have also been changes on the parallel railway line - a large viaduct known as Summerford Bridge used to cross the locks, but this is gone and there is now just an embankment with a small bridge spanning Greenbank Road.

Shortly beyond the remains of the lock flight is the first evidence of the extensive work that was done to rejoin the two canals for the Millennium project. The canal branches in two, the original line to the left is Port Maxwell, but the right hand fork is completely new. It crosses Greenbank Road on a new concrete aqueduct and then continues west for nearly a mile. A minor road crosses overhead, and then the new Falkirk Interchange complex is reached.

Roughcastle Tunnel north portal

The long-missing lock flight, the height difference between the canals, the new road, rail and housing developments in the area and the need to preserve the Roman wall and its forts combined to present a formidable obstacle for the restoration project. But the engineers rose to the challenge and created something impressive and unique. First of all, the Union Canal's level is dropped by a staircase of two locks - the only locks anywhere on this canal. Then it turns sharply north and plunges underneath the railway line and the Antonine Wall. This is Roughcastle Tunnel, the second canal tunnel ever built in Scotland and the first to be built anywhere in the UK for many decades. A tunnel was necessary here to avoid disturbing the remains of the Roman wall.

Falkirk Wheel and visitor centre

At the far end of the tunnel is the amazing spectacle of the Falkirk Wheel, the world's first rotating boat lift, which lifts boats down to the Forth and Clyde Canal far below. It has been built in a natural amphitheatre at Tamfourhill and the setting, with the lower basin always filled with boats and the striking Visitor Centre building complimenting the wheel itself, is perfect. The Union Canal reaches the wheel by means of a high aqueduct striding out from the hillside - somehow fitting for a canal that's perhaps best known for its original aqueducts. At the bottom of the wheel, a final lock gives access from the marina out to the main line of the Forth and Clyde Canal.

As well as being innovative and spectacular, the Wheel is also much more efficient than the old lock flight. Sailing from one canal to the other could easily have taken half a day by the time all 11 of the locks were negotiated. The trip on the Wheel, in contrast, only takes a few minutes.

View photos of this section of canal in the gallery