The Union Canal was officially opened in 1823 although the original idea of a canal linking Edinburgh to Falkirk was first suggested in 1793. The new canal joined Edinburgh to the Forth and Clyde Canal, linking Edinburgh to Glasgow, thus “uniting” the two cities. The Union Canal is known as a contour canal as it makes its way to Falkirk without any locks, using tunnels and viaducts instead. When it was first built it was 31.5 miles long and could take boats of up to 69 feet long.
Unfortunately, despite its initial success, the canal became a victim of history for of course, the railway was to become the more popular and faster way of transporting goods. In 1842 the Edinburgh & Glasgow railway opened and the canal’s demise was sealed. Its use steadily declined although commercial traffic continued until 1933. The Union Canal was officially closed in 1965. When plans for housing in Wester Hailes were considered, it was felt that the safest option was to infill the one mile section of canal that went through the area, 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
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.
The Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift is perhaps now the most famous symbol of the two canals being rejoined. However, after the Falkirk wheel, the most challenging and complex piece of work required to restore the two canals was the work carried out at Wester Hailes.
The Wester Hailes project was broken into two phases to make it more manageable. It would require the redigging and filling of 1.7km of canal, therealigning of roads and the construction of new bridges. The first phase was completed in summer 2000 and involved recutting 850 metres of canal between Wester Hailes Road and Murrayburn Road. A new concrete road bridge to allow the Wester Hailes Road to cross the canal was constructed. A winding hole to enable boats to turn was also added along with bankside mooring areas and landscaping.
The second phase produced another 850 metres of canal between Murrayburn Road and Dumbryden Road. Six new road bridges and three footbridges were constructed. In March 2000, the Sentinel reported on the felling of trees along Hailesland Road to enable the canal to pass through. You can see the story here at Sentinel March 2000. You can see some great photographs recording the work of both these phases at James’s Canal Pages.
The opening of the Wester Hailes section of the canal marked a major milestone in The Millennium Link project. A day of celebrations commemorated the occasion and tribute was paid in particular to the Wester Hailes community whose support for the canal was a critical element in the project’s success.
The canal has continued to play an important part in the life of Wester Hailes, forming a distinctive feature as well as attracting a variety of birds on the water. The Sentinel featured a special report on the canal in April 2002 in conjunction with British Waterways and the Wester Hailes Partnership. Children from Clovenstone Primary School and Dumbryden Primary School compiled reports to show what they had learnt about the canal. The feature also included information about water safety and the dangers of walking on the canal if it iced over during the winter. There was also news from British Waterways with details on how the canal was being maintained, both the tow path and the removal of debris from the water. Schoolchildren had also contributed poems. You can read the full feature by clicking here on Sentinel Canal Report 2002.