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Early Public and Private Transport in Scotland
by R. S. Rodger
Part 3: Inland Waterways


The geology, and hence the geography, of Scotland made it more difficult to adapt to the needs of inland navigation than the flat regions of England. Nevertheless, those that were created became better known than their counterparts in the south. The Caledonian, Crinan, Forth & Clyde, Monkland and Union are known in every land the Scots have reached, and that is most of them.

In many instances difficulties were encountered and estimated costs exceeded. Even the Caledonian, which in theory was a matter of stringing together a chain of existing lochs, took eighteen years to complete and cost £800,000. Begun in 1803/4 it was finally opened to water traffic in 1822. From the outset it failed to generate the expected income and was used primarily by the navy – it was designed to admit a frigate of 32 guns – and by the steamers on the Glasgow to Inverness route. Some ten years after it was opened, the Caledonian was still only earning around £2,500 per annum in dues. Its real value in those days would have been to provide easy passage in the event of another war with France.

During the 18th century there had been several suggestions of joining the Clyde and Forth estuaries, but it was not until 1768 that Parliament finally approved the measure. Cutting began that same year with a subscription of £150,000, but almost immediately a further £50,000 proved to be required. It took 22 years, but on the 28th of July 1790 the thirty-nine mile canal from sea to sea was finally opened. Besides requiring a great deal of banking and shoring-up, the Forth & Clyde also had to cross several existing waterways and this could only be achieved by the building of viaducts.

Unlike the Caledonian, the Forth & Clyde was a financial success, and the company’s shares saw a dramatic increase in value. By running the Union Canal into it at the Edinburgh end water traffic was increased still further. As well as providing a short route to Leith from Glasgow and Liverpool, the company ran daily passenger vessels.

Without the creation of the Crinan Canal, vessels going to or coming from the west coast of Argyllshire and the western entrance to the Caledonian Canal had to navigate around the south of Arran and the promontory of Kintyre. From Loch Gilp, a small inlet off the west side of Loch Fyne, a canal was cut across the neck of Kintyre to the Sound of Jura. As well as greatly shortening the time and distance required on the Glasgow to Inverness run, the Crinan Canal also opened up the Hebrides to early tourism, which further added to the income of the joint stock company.

The Union Canal was created to connect Edinburgh with the Forth & Clyde and hence with the industrial city of Glasgow. As an undertaking it was enormous, yet it was started in March 1818 and completed only four years later in 1822. To cross a ravine and the Water of Leith at Slateford required a bridge 65 feet in height and 500 feet in length, and an even larger aqueduct over the Avon above the bridge at Linlithgow. In all, the Union is thirty-one miles in length, but required no locks except where it descended into the Forth & Clyde.

The two great benefits from the creation of the Union were, first, heavy goods could be taken to Edinburgh from Glasgow and the west of England at a fraction of the usual cost; and second, new coalfields became available to private and commercial users in Edinburgh and the east. But although the benefits to the consumer were considerable, the returns to the shareholders were less so. Expectations were set too high and the total revenue was only a fraction of that anticipated. The coming of the railway within a short number of years was the final straw.

See Scotland's Waterways here


 

 


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