From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

A decade for the Union Canal

This year is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wester Hailes section of the Union Canal.  Major city celebrations were held to celebrate 10 years since the re-opening of the Union Canal last year, but local residents here know that the Wester Hailes section wasn’t completed until 2001! 

 The one mile section of the canal was officially closed and infilled in 1965 when plans were being drawn up for housing in Wester Hailes.  It was felt that this would be the safest option and the distinctive feature was duly buried under concrete and roads.  However in 1994 British Waterways came up with an exciting proposal, the biggest engineering project they had ever undertaken in Scotland.  They proposed restoring both the Union and the Forth and Clyde Canals to link up the West and East coasts of Scotland with fully navigable waterways for the first time in over 35 years.  The Wester Hailes section needed to be re-opened if these plans were to come to fruition.  This represented a huge piece of work: the channel had to be dug and  lined, bridges had to built, roads

photo by Kevin Walsh

diverted.  The Millennium Link was not only about creating permanent improvements to the landscape: the bid included job creation and recreational opportunities to bring economic benefits to the area.  British Waterways submitted a bid to the Millennium Commission, a Lottery managed fund established to fund projects that would mark the start of the new Millennium through creating lasting monuments to the achievements and aspirations of the people in the United Kingdom.  Over 200 projects received support with a total of £1.3 billion being spent. 

 However, the journey to achieving this ambitious project was not smooth.  The original application was rejected by the Millennium Commission.  British Waterways persisted in their fundraising, eventually raising £78 million of which £32 million came from the Millennium Commission.  The bid pulled together a wide ranging partnership and other sources of funding included the City of Edinburgh Council who put in £1.5 million towards the Edinburgh section.  It was Scotland’s most expensive millennium project. 


The response to the announcement that there were plans to re-open the canal in Wester Hailes was mixed.  It generated a lot of excitement but also some apprehension.  There were concerns about safety particularly for children, and about how the canal would be kept clean and maintained.  In 1994, the Sentinel featured an article that painted a negative picture of what would result.  You can read this report by clicking here on December 1994.  Once the project had been given the go ahead, people felt the need for more information and in 1998 the Sentinel featured the project, raising local issues with British Waterways.  You can read this report by clicking here on July 1998.

There’s currently an exhibition in WHALE Arts Centre showing the progress of the canal’s re-opening.  Through Sentinel headlines and photos it documents the huge structural changes that took place and shows how people were involved during and after the re-opening.  WHALE are collecting comments about the images so if you remember what it was like before the canal was re-opened or the canal work or the celebrations you could add to the information on display. 

 On Saturday 10th September there’s a celebration event to mark the 10th anniversary of the re-opening of the Wester Hailes section.  There’ll be free boat trips, stalls, music, a BBQ and much more.  It’s being held on the Wester Hailes waterfront, beside the Shell Garage, from 12PM to 4PM.  For more information contact Re-Union on 0131 453 4617. 


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