Scotland’s canals, created for the industrial revolution but in recent times focused more on leisure than industry, are finding a new purpose as a different revolution, this time a green one, gets underway

Ask people how many working canals Scotland has and you’ll get a variety of answers. Many will be able to name the Caledonian Canal, which cuts through the Great Glen, from Inverness to Fort William, ending at Corpach Harbour, at the head of Loch Linnhe. And of course, many will also know the Forth and Clyde Canal, which crosses Central Scotland and connects the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. It is just a bit more than half the length of the 60-mile-long Caledonia Canal. 

Then there is the Crinan Canal, often called Britain’s most beautiful shortcut, which runs from Crinan on the west coast to Ardrishaig Harbour on Loch Fyne. It was originally built to provide a shortcut for commercial sailing and fishing vessels and is still a great shortcut to this day. 

Anyone who has visited the iconic Falkirk Wheel will be aware of the Union Canal, the full name of which is the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal, which runs from Falkirk to Edinburgh. Just 14 kilometres long, the Crinan provides a navigable route between the Clyde and the Inner Hebrides. It saves leisure boaters from having to make the arduous diversion around the Kintyre peninsula, and the tricky waters around the Mull of Kintyre. 

The Union Canal, originally constructed to bring coal and other minerals to Scotland’s capital, fell into decline as a commercial waterway with the advent of the railways and was closed in 1965. It was reopened in 2001 and connected to the Forth and Clyde Canal in 2002 via the Falkirk Wheel, and is now very popular with leisure users. 

The Union has the distinction of being a contour canal, which means it was planned on a single level, with no locks, apart from where it joined the Forth and Clyde Canal. There are some spectacular viaducts as it crosses the Avon, Almond and Leith Rivers. It began to be restored in the 1990s in response to action by local community groups.

The link between the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals, was restored via the Millennium Link, a project that resulted in the spectacular Falkirk Wheel. 

The Wheel lifts boats 24 metres from the Forth and Clyde to the Union, and there are two locks that have to be traversed at the top of the Wheel to get into the Union Canal proper. 
Scotland’s fifth canal, the Monkland Canal, was originally designed to bring coal from the mines around Monklands, to Glasgow.

It stopped being used as a navigable waterway in 1952, but the remainder of the canal still provides water for the Forth and Clyde. It continues to be popular with fishing folk, being well stocked with fish. 

Laurie Piper, the Head of Customer Experience and Delivery at Scottish Canals, points out that today Scotland’s canal network plays a key role in taking a surprisingly large number of heavy lorry loads off the road network, while also being a sought-after leisure attraction. 

“It is astonishing to realise that the first of the Scottish canals began to be dug some 220 years ago. Indeed, the Caledonian Canal had its 200th Anniversary just recently, in 2022. It was originally conceived as a way of opening up the Highlands to commerce, as well as providing a navigable route for the Navy,” he comments. 

The Caledonian Canal, in particular, is now seeing a return to serious commercial freight traffic passing through it for the first time in decades. Exploratory works on the large-scale pumped storage hydro scheme at Loch Lochy, in the Great Glen, were carried out in 2022 using huge barges to transport plant and equipment.

The first loads were intended as a test case and will be an important factor in the decision by SSE Renewables as to the viability of the Coire Glas, pumped storage project. 

Richard Millar, the interim chief executive of Scottish Canals, commented on the project in 2022 saying: “This is a real landmark moment for the Caledonian Canal and made even more memorable as this year we were able to celebrate the Caledonian Canal’s 200th birthday.

“The canal is an important heritage asset that has stood the test of time; providing important transport routes, bolstering the local and national economy and helping to put Scotland on the map as experts in engineering and innovation.

“These latest freight movements will also go a long way in our commitment to supporting Scotland’s journey to Net Zero and we are always open to working in partnerships in this area.”
In 2022 Ian Innes, SSE Renewables project director, added: Coire Glas is one of the most significant engineering projects to take place in the UK for decades and the commencement of these exploratory works is a great milestone for everyone on the Coire Glas Project Team and at SSE Renewables.

“As a great feat of engineering, it is fitting that in its 200th year, we were able to celebrate the role the Caledonian Canal has provided by transporting freight to the Coire Glas project site.
“The canal has made a vital contribution in the first steps to creating a pumped storage scheme, which in itself is expected to become a historic achievement in engineering an indispensable part of the UK and Scotland’s renewable energy infrastructure.”

Ardrishaig Harbour itself is part of Scotland’s TimberLINK Programme, a partnership designed to promote the movement of goods, specifically timber for the most part, by sea instead of by road. Timber from the forests of Argyll is sent by sea to sawmills in Ayrshire. The project takes heavy loads off the road network and helps to reduce CO2 emissions. 

“Another interesting potential opportunity for commercial freight on the Crinan is that there is a proposed wind farm near to the canal. There is some potential for the windfarm operator to use Ardrishaig Harbour to move some of the infrastructure, and some could, possibly move through the canal,” Laurie Piper explains.