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Borrowstounness and District
Chapter XVI. The Borrowstounness and Grangemouth Canal

1. Local Disappointment over Selection of Grangemouth as Eastern Termination of Forth and Clyde Canal: Proposal of Merchants and Shipmasters to Make Branch Canal to Bo'ness—2. Failure of First Scheme: Mr. Whitworth Consulted: Extracts from his Report: His Plan and Profile—3. Further Extracts from Report—4. The Estimate—5. Failure of Second Scheme and Its Results.


In what brief references there are in gazeteers and similar works regarding Bo'ness we are almost sure to find this very depressing sentence, "After the opening of the Forth and Clyde Canal its trade gradually declined." And this was only too true. It would be unjust, however, to dismiss the subject with this sorrowful statement. As a matter of fact, no part of our local history deserves to be more carefully recorded and emphasised than the part we have arrived at. We mean the whole circumstances attending the misfortune which was sustained locally through the opening up of the Forth and Clyde Canal and the selection of Grangemouth (or Sealock as it was then called) instead of Borrowstounness as the eastern termination of the canal. We believe heroic, if unsuccessful, attempts were made on the part of the Borrowstounness merchants and shipmasters to have the termination made there. In support it was argued that Sealock, or Grangemouth, was considered by engineers and those capable of judging, as a very unsuitable place for an entry into the firth, vessels of that period having to lie a long time in the roads opposite Sealock waiting for stream tides and suitable winds before they could get in. Borrowstounness, on the other hand, was claimed to be a port possessing great natural advantages, and therefore the proper and more suitable terminus. But Grangemouth was, as we have said, ultimately chosen, much to the disappointment of Bo'ness. We cannot at this distance of time find the true cause of this decision, although local tradition puts it down to the exercise of sinister influences by parties interested in Grangemouth.

The sturdy merchants and shipmasters of the old port did not lie down to this reverse. They clearly foresaw that the Forth and Clyde Canal, when finished, would practically put an end to their trade with Glasgow. Hitherto this had been very extensive, and was carried on by means of packhorses and carriers' carts. It was no rare thing at this time, we have heard, to see in a morning fifty carts of merchant goods start off for Glasgow. In order therefore to avert the impending calamity, what did these plucky residents do? They made one of the boldest strokes that has ever been made in Bo'ness (and we are not forgetting that there have been one or two bold and creditable strokes made in the interests of the town in recent times). They agreed to make a branch from the Great Canal, as it was then called, at Grangemouth to the harbour of Bo'ness, and a company called the Borrowstounnesa Canal Company was formed. In briefly describing the undertaking Mr. M'Kenzie says—

"Two Acts of Parliament and subscriptions to the amount of £10,000 were obtained. The canal was cut from the river Avon eastward within a mile of the town, and an aqueduct across the Avon was nearly completed; but after an outlay of about £7500 the work was abandoned when not half-finished. The circumstances which prevented the accomplishment of this desirable undertaking need not be stated; but they were, and still are, deeply regretted by the inhabitants of this town, especially on seeing their trade turned into another channel. Much of it passed by the canal direct to Glasgow, and the larger vessels discharged at Grangemouth, which was only a creek of this port, but then became its rival, and was eventually erected into a separate port."


The promoters of this canal of communication certainly undertook a long and tedious task. Evidently money had come in freely at the first, and the work was set well agoing according to a plan laid down by a Mr. Lowrie. Among the enthusiastic promoters were, as might be expected, the members of the Seabox Society, who invested in a number of shares. After executing the work detailed above by Mr. M'Kenzie, and after spending over £7000 of the £10,000 gathered, it was seen that more funds would be needed, as the task had turned out to be a much more difficult one than was at first anticipated. In a brief reference to the reason of the stoppage Mr. Johnston1 says—

"No doubt want of funds was one of them, but, if local tradition spealceth truth, a portion of the money raised was not expended as it ought to have been, and some associated with the project rendered themselves richer in pocket and poorer in character by their conduct at that time."

Notwithstanding all this, the idea of completing the task was not then abandoned. It was resolved to get a report on the whole proposal from a skilled engineer, as well as an estimate of the probable cost of completing the work, so that more money might be raised. Accordingly, Mr. Robert Whitworth, of Glasgow, under whom the Great Canal was completed, and who was an engineer of great standing, was employed. We have had an opportunity of perusing Mr. Whitworth's report and estimate with accompanying plan.2 The document is a long one, and it is only here possible to give a few extracts from it.

It is dated Glasgow, 28th. December, 1789, is addressed to the company of proprietors of the Borrowstounness Canal, and opens thus— '

"Gentlemen,—In obedience to your orders, I have taken the levels and made a survey of the line of the proposed canal from Grangemouth to Borrowstounness, and made a plan and profile of the same. The line laid down upon the plan, which is nearly the same as that laid down by Mr. John Lowrie, is as good a one as can be taken. The level of the reach of the Great Canal above the second lock suits the level of the country very well, as appears by the profile, and from Grangemouth to the river Avon will be exceedingly easy to execute, except at the crossing of the Grange burn, where a small aqueduct will be necessary."

We shall give further extracts later, but these will be more readily understood if we first of all endeavour to describe the plan. In following the description we must remember that there was then no railway in Bo'ness, and therefore no railway stations and sidings either in the neighbourhood of Kinneil or Bo'ness. To begin at Bo'ness—the plan first shows the harbour, then coming westwards a large canal basin is denoted, which if constructed would have taken up the ground, now railway lines, from Masonic Hall and the present passenger station to the bend at West Pier. Along at Corbiehall, somewhere in the vicinity of what was formerly the West End Foundry, now Avon Place, was to be a supply pond. Next to that is shown the "Bucket Pot," near the site of the present slaughter-house. Then on the south side of the proposed canal, and to the westward we think of the present distillery buildings, what was then known as the "West Engine" is indicated. Near to this, on the shore, is Copess or Capie's Point. Still going westward, and evidently near the site of the present Furnace Yard pit, comes a place marked "Castle." This is doubtless the remains of " Castle Lyon," said to have at one time existed in this vicinity. More will be learned of this when we refer to Mr. Whitworth's estimate. The Snab is next clearly shown, with a natural projection pointing northwestwards. In more recent times, of course, this has been projected artificially much further in the same direction by being made up with slag in the days of Kinneil furnaces, and is now known as the Slag Hills. Further west, but a little to the south, comes Kinneil Castle (Kinneil House). Parknook ^presumably the present Dykeneuk) is the next point marked, and from here the route of the canal struck away from the roadside and kept along by the Firthside until it came towards the mouth of the Avon. It then diverged to the left, passing the farm steading of Kinneil Kerse on its south side, and from there running to about where the present bridge over the Avon stands, and where an aqueduct for the canal, as we have seen, was at that time partially constructed. We need not follow the plan further, as the Grangemouth territory is not so well known to us. Besides, the route to Grangemouth from the Avon aqueduct was quite easy, as Mr. Whitworth points out, and does not call for remark.


There is a strong dotted line shown on the plan running from Parknook along the present roadside, and then deflecting at the Haining towards the Avon, almost on the same line as the present Grangemouth Road. The part thus indicated was evidently thought to be a more direct and less expensive route than the old one along the shore and through the fields. Mr. Whitworth was asked to survey it, and report on what he thought* of its adoption. He took the levels, and reported that, while he considered the canal could have gone that way very well, yet seeing the shore route was fairly on the way to completion, and that a large sum had been spent on it, he could not advise its abandonment.

We must recollect that the road to Polmont was the only road in that neighbourhood at that time, the plan giving no indication of the new road to Grangemouth. As we know, most of the canal from the Snab to the Avon had been excavated when Mr. Whitworth was called in. On his plan therefore the canal line is tinted red and yellow, and there is a note to the effect that those parts shaded yellow were already dug in part; those shaded red were yet to do. Even to this day the big ditch or trench of the canal can quite well be traced on the roadside beyond the Snab, and it is still to be traced in the fields near Kinneil Kerse.

Consider now some further extracts from the report. We add these, because they incidentally describe to us the state of the Snab and Kinneil districts at that period: —

"From the Avon aqueduct to Parknook the canal has been finished for seven feet water; but as it has now to be raised to eight feet, the puddle will want raising on both sides the whole way. The south bank is rather slender, it having been formed with great economy for only seven feet, yet has stood so long to consolidate that it may sustain eight feet without enlarging the base.

"From Parknook to the Snab garden the bank has been a good deal cut away, and will be attended with a good deal of trouble and expense to replace it.

"In passing the Snab there are two ways of doing it. One is round the house and through the offices, which appear to be two pretty good new buildings which would be entirely destroyed. The other is through the garden as represented on the plan and profile. Which of these will be cheaper and more eligible I cannot well say. The latter is more direct and out of the way of the sea. For the present I will suppose the line drawn upon the plan to be adopted and the canal to be finished in the direction already begun to Copess Point, opposite the West Engine.

"From the West Engine to the harbour will require some consideration. There are two ways for it to go. One is through the Salt Works; the other on the outside of the Bucket Pan, which will, of course, take considerable hold of the sea, and will require a strong and high wall to defend it; yet I have no doubt of its being practicable, but will be very expensive."

Reduced plan of Borrowstounness and Grangemouth Canal. (Sketched by J. D. H. Dymock, A.M.lnst.C.E., from Mr. Whitworth's plan lent by Mr. J. F. Macaulay.)

"If there was room to carry it through the Salt Works without taking down some of the principal buildings, and I fear almost destroying the works, it most certainly would be desirable, but I cannot find there is. Indeed, if the worthy proprietor was consenting, perhaps the works that stand in the way might be rebuilt in another place at a less expense than the difference of the two sea walls necessary to defend the canal; but of this I am not certain. I can make no calculation of the line through the Salt Works, therefore for the present I will suppose it to go on the outside of the Bucket Pan, where, I trust, I can be more certain in my calculations."

He also reports minutely on the various sources which would require to be tapped along the route to supply the canal with water, but he was relying also on a fair supply from the Great Canal, as there was always a good deal of water running over the gates of the second lock into the sea.

Mr. Whitworth closes the report by saying—

"If the works be planned and set out with judgment and conducted with economy, I believe the canal may be completed at the following estimate.

"I am,

" With the greatest respect,
" Your very humble servant,
" Robert Whitworth."


The estimate, which is divided into sections and carefully detailed, is based on the supposition that the canal be made fifty-four feet wide at top and twenty-seven at bottom, and eight feet deep of water. Digging to be eight and a half feet at the first, as otherwise the canal would soon become too shallow for a vessel drawing eight feet of water to pass freely along.

The following is an interesting example of its terms:—

"To completing the canal (which is in some places part dug) from the west side of the Snab garden to Copess Point, opposite the West Engine. In this part there is a variety of work, as cutting through the whin rock, taking down and rebuilding three hundred and four feet in length of the castle garden wall, completing and continuing Shaw's wall to Copess Point. As one part of this, work depends upon another, it cannot well be particularised; the whole, I judge from the best calculations I can make of such an irregular business, may come to about £750."

The total estimate from Grangemouth to the West Engine was.....£10,406 7 6

And from there to the harbour - - - 7,357 2 6

£17,763 10 0

The latter sum included the cost of proposed lock near the harbour and other expensive items connected with the terminus.

The issue of this report and estimate evidently finished matters. It meant that nearly £20,000 would yet be required —double that originally raised—and this was quite beyond the practical compass of even the most sanguine and enthusiastic of the promoters.

So a great and worthy scheme, originated by worthy men and in a worthy commercial cause, had to be reluctantly abandoned.


Perhaps it should be mentioned here that the townspeople some thirty years before this had met with another great disappointment. This was the strangulation of another big scheme which would, if carried out, have added enormously to the trade and prosperity of the town. It came about thus— The enterprising Dr. Roebuck left his chemical manufactory at Prestonpans, being strongly impressed with the mineral wealth then lying unheeded between the Forth and Clyde, and took a lease of the Duke's coal and salt works here. He was much interested, along with Mr. Cadell, in the improvement and development of the industries of Scotland. As is known, they and others founded the Carron Ironworks in 1759. It is not so generally known, however, that it was their first intention to erect the works in the neighbourhood of Jinkabout Mill, and that the ground was all carefully surveyed for the purpose and found very suitable. But the land, unfortunately, was found to be strictly entailed, and all that could be offered then was a ninety-nine years' lease. This they would not accept, and so were reluctantly compelled to abandon the project so far as Bo'ness was concerned.

Stenhousemuir estate was for sale at the time, so it was purchased forthwith, and upon it were built the Carron Ironworks, whose reputation has been world-wide for a century at least.

To return to the dropping of the canal scheme. Decay in the shipping trade of Borrowstounness did not immediately set in. What with the coal shipments from Kinneil Colliery, under Dr. Roebuck, the local shipbuilding yard, and other industries, the town enjoyed a fair measure of prosperity during the next twenty years. On the 1st December, 1810, however, Grangemouth, which only ranked as an out-station or a creek of Bo'ness, had a Custom-house of its own established, with jurisdiction over Alloa, Stirling, and Kincardine. In that year the total duties drawn at Bo'ness amounted to £30,485 17s. O^d. Five years later the figures had declined to £3835 6s. 4£d. These figures speak melancholy news for themselves. Grangemouth is a creation of yesterday, so to speak, dating back to 1777 only. It is said to owe its origin to Sir Lawrence Dundas of Kerse, an ancestor of the Earl of Zetland, who was the chief landed proprietor in the district. He called the town into being and patronised it in anticipation of the trade the Forth and Clyde Canal—in which he was also largely interested —was sure to bring to the place.

As a result of the tremendous decrease in the trade of the port, the number of skippers and sailors resident in and about Bo'ness fell away in a marked degree; and we understand the membership roll of the Seabox Society showed a corresponding decrease. For the same reason there occurred a great exodus of well-known and substantial shipowners and merchants, descendants of the men who, when the port began to rise in the seventeenth century, had come from Glasgow and the west, acquired property, and settled here. Among those who went away to settle in Liverpool, Glasgow, and Leith were members of such well-known families as the Grindlays, Hendersons, Cowans, and Mitchells.

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