THEY are the arteries of Scotland.

The historic canal network – which has ferried coal, grain and people across the breadth of the nation for centuries – are a watery symbol of Scotland’s enduring status as an industrial powerhouse Now in decline, the waterways are facing a crisis with a cash shortage ensuring it is no longer possible to keep them open to traffic.

Instead, parts of the network will be closed to barges – including the area surrounding the world famous Falkirk Wheel and the giant Kelpies.

However, campaigners say it will leave the ancient canals no more than “stagnant ditches” and accused bosses of squandering a £79 million legacy to modernise the network for the Millennium.

In a new strategy document, Scottish Canals said that maintaining navigation across the network is “unsustainable”, and will be replaced with a strategy that does not involve the movement of boats.

Scottish Canals said the 137-mile network needed to be looked after “for the benefit of the many as well as the few” and that might not include navigation.

The strategy says: “Historically our approach has been to maintain all of the canals to a similar level of service, maintaining navigation and supporting a variety of additional uses.

“While this has been achievable in the short term, it has resulted in a growing backlog of work and further deterioration in the serviceability of assets. Maintaining this approach is unsustainable.

“Consideration must be given to the primary use and function of the various canals, recognising the wider benefits to the greatest number of people”.

“This may not necessarily include navigation, although this is an important consideration.”

According to the strategy, the two main canals will be the Caledonian and Crinan Canals, that between them see some 85,000 boat movements a year, compared to a mere 200 on the western section of the Forth and Clyde Canal between Glasgow and Bowling.

But it concedes that any closure of the Forth and Clyde eastern section would bring “significant reputational damage” because it includes The Falkirk Wheel and the “Kelpies” horses’ heads sculptures.

Scottish Canals receives around £11 million each year from the Scottish Government, but claims it needs an extra £9 million a year to maintain the network.

Interim Chief Executive Officer Catherine Topley said: “With ageing infrastructure, the growing impact of climate change, and increasing pressure on public finances, it’s never been more vital to ensure we manage these 250-year old assets responsibly, competently and for the benefit of the many as well as the few.

“Without additional investment, we will continue to see asset decline and asset failures – some of which may be substantial. We simply do not have the resources to do all that we would like to do, and this means we will have to make some hard decisions.”

Earlier this year, the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal, both of which were re-opened in 2001 at a cost of nearly £80 million, were closed to permanent end-to-end navigation after three bridges that open to let boats through were put out of action because of safety concerns.

It is estimated that canals bring in around 22 million visitors a year and support hundreds of jobs along their banks.

But campaigners have condemned Scottish Canals’ handling of the network and claim the £79million millennium investment in the system is going to waste.

They say the lack of investment is threatening jobs and is also affecting tourism.

Pressure group Keep Canals Alive!, which has 11 member organisations accuse Scottish Canals of failing to meet its statutory obligations.

The body is also accused failing to maintain canals adequately and allowing key stretches to become choked with weeds already, a situation which is likely to get worse under the new strategy.

Ronnie Rusack MBE, chairman of the the pressure group said without boat movements the lowland canals would “slip back to becoming remainder waterways”.

He said: “Boats add colour and interest to the canals. Once large boats stop moving, the waterway silts up, weed growth accelerates and rubbish accumulates. Scottish Canals paint a glowing picture of the many developments that are taking place alongside the canals [but] the enhanced value of canalside property depends on the canal being used by boats.”

“Long-term implications locally include a threat to the 19 jobs in the hire boat fleet at Falkirk, loss of income to canalside pubs in West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire, and a cessation of weed cutting and floating litter clearance, especially in urban areas”.

He argues that “none” of an additional £6 million per year Scottish canals receives from canalside property is yet being used to maintain the canals themselves.

He argues: “The enhanced value of canalside property depends on the canal being used by boats. The basic concept of the Millennium Link was that by making the canals useable again, they become interesting and desirable place to live, work and play beside. Once large boats stop moving the waterway silts up, weed growth accelerates and rubbish accumulates”.