How Scotland Is Reinventing Its Centuries-Old Canals for Paddlers

“Four!” Kassie shouted from across the canal. I twisted in my kayak seat to get a better look. It took me a minute to see what she was pointing to. Near the shore, one lone, rusted wheel stuck up over the water’s surface like the flag of a sinking ship. That’s when I realized what Kassie was counting: submerged shopping carts. She’d seen four already—and it had only been a few hours.

So this is the kind of scenery we’re in for, I thought, grimacing as I used my paddle to bat away a floating beer bottle. We’d just begun a four-day kayaking trip along Scotland’s Glasgow to Edinburgh Canoe Trail. At that point, we were both wondering if we’d made a huge mistake. Neither of us had any idea that we were on the verge of discovering one of Scotland’s most inspirational—and unlikely—environmental success stories.

When I’d first mentioned the prospect of visiting my friend Kassie in London, she’d recommended we spend a few days getting out of the city and going on an adventure. The plan was to paddle the 200-year-old Forth and Clyde Canal into the Union Canal. Together, the two canals form a historic, 54-mile route that bisects Scotland.

Swans on Forth and Clyde canal
A family of swans swims on the Forth and Clyde in Falkirk in Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Of course, when we mentioned the plan to our Scottish friends, they were anything but supportive.

Scotland is home to gorgeous high country, scenic coasts and mist-veiled lochs—but the canals? The canals are disgusting, our friends told us. “You’ll be dodging cans of Irn-Bru the whole way,” one said.

It’s not surprising that some Scots hold poor opinions of the canals, says Chris O’Connell, the heritage manager and resident historian for Scottish Canals, a public corporation of the Scottish government charged with caring for the country’s five canals. After all, the waterways don’t exactly have a pristine history.

Scotland’s first canal, the 35-mile Forth and Clyde, was built in 1768 to transport coal. Horses would walk alongside the canal on a towpath, pulling massive barges of coal at first, and then all kinds of other goods. Throughout the late 18th century, furniture, granite and paving slabs all made their way along the canals from the Scottish interior to Glasgow on the west coast, then the second biggest city in the British Empire. Much of it, O’Connell says, was shipped out to fuel the explosive growth in New York City around the turn of the century.

How Scotland Is Reinventing Its Centuries-Old Canals for Paddlers
The Union Canal Visit Scotland

Then, in 1822, a second canal was completed, connecting the Forth and Clyde to Edinburgh on Scotland’s opposite shore. This one, the Union, was a revolutionary “contour” canal: Engineers dug the trench along a single topographical contour, keeping it at the exact same elevation for nearly its entire 31-mile length. That nearly eliminated the need for locks, which were expensive to build and maintain, and time-consuming to cross.

Elsewhere in the country, three other canals—the Caledonian to the north, the Crinan to the east, and the Monkland, which ran parallel to the Forth and Clyde—were built during this same time period. During their golden years, the canals were wildly successful. The Union and Forth and Clyde, in particular, funneled an endless stream of coal and raw materials into Glasgow, contributing to its ultimate role as one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution.

“You’d see 1,500 or so boats a day on the Forth and Clyde,” says O’Connell. “And it was deep and wide enough to take seagoing vessels, so you’d have these three-masted ships with sails floating through the countryside, which I’d imagine was a quite unusual sight.”

How Scotland Is Reinventing Its Centuries-Old Canals for Paddlers
Lochrin Basin, Edinburgh Visit Scotland

But that heavy traffic only lasted a few decades.

“In the 1840s, the coming of the railways really put the kibosh on the canals,” O’Connell says. “The trains were easier and faster, and you could get more passengers on them. So by the early 1900s, the canals were pretty much on the decline.”

Without traffic or income, it no longer made sense to maintain the Union’s few locks. In 1933, they were filled in, essentially rendering the canal—once a connector of east and west—useless. In 1963, the canals were closed altogether.

For the next few decades, jurisdiction of the canals was passed from organization to organization. The canals were historic structures, so they couldn’t be destroyed, but no one really wanted them, O’Connell says. They soon became dumping grounds. The canals filled with tires and cars. Some—like those running alongside Alfred Nobel’s famous dynamite factory in Glasgow—filled with mercury and other toxic waste.

Local residents found the canals unsightly. Parents feared their children would fall in and drown—or get bitten by the rats and mosquitoes that thrived in the murky water. As the years passed, pressure from communities grew: They wanted the government to fill in all the canals, burying them once and for all.

They almost succeeded, O’Connell says. Then, around the 1980s, a small minority started to speak up—and to fight for the canals.

“There was this grassroots movement of canal enthusiasts who just took them on and started to clear the rubbish out of their own volition,” O’Connell explains. “Lots of them lived next to the canals. Some had canal boats. They were just people who liked canals.”

Minty Donald, an artist and professor of contemporary performance practice at the University of Glasgow, was one of those people. She was living in a houseboat on England’s canal system when British Waterways, the organization that managed Scotland’s canals before spinoff organization Scottish Canals took over, tapped her and a few other boaters to move onto the Forth and Clyde near Glasgow in the mid-1990s. It was part of an initiative to make the Scottish canals look more appealing—and habitable.

“It was a pretty rough area at the time,” Donald says. “We stayed [on the boat] in a secure compound.” Since then, she says, “things have changed immeasurably.”

Speir's Wharf
Spiers Wharf near Glasgow Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

While those changes are visible along much of the canal system, they’re not yet palpable everywhere, which is why Kassie and I didn’t have any idea what to expect after that first day in Glasgow.

We’d gone forward with the trip, despite our friends’ warnings, for practical reasons. For one, we had little paddling experience, and we felt ill-equipped for the foam-tipped waves and high winds we expected to find both in the high country and the coast. Plus, Kassie didn’t have access to a car. What she did have was a pair of Oru kayaks—foldable boats made of corrugated plastic—that she knew we could get onto the train from London. So we boarded the tube, grabbed a London North Eastern Railway train at London King’s Cross and traveled five hours to Glasgow Central Station. It was just a 20-minute walk to and from public transit on either end of the journey.

We put in at Spiers Wharf near Glasgow on a chill, slate-gray day in mid-April. For the first few miles, the water quality was almost as bad as we’d been warned. After all, this was a small waterway in the heart of a major urban area. We dodged beer bottles, strollers, a full dining set and a floating boxing glove. But the farther we paddled outside of the city limits, the cleaner the water got.

Soon, cherry trees in full bloom stretched out over the water. Daffodils and tiny white flowers bobbed in the breeze, and swans nested along the shore. On day three, we spent miles paddling through sheep pasture. Newborn lambs blinked at us as we floated by. The towpath was busy with runners and cyclists, dog walkers and parents with strollers.

How Scotland Is Reinventing Its Centuries-Old Canals for Paddlers
The Bridge Inn is situated on the banks of the Union Canal in the village of Ratho, seven miles to the west of Edinburgh. Visit Scotland

As we floated through mossy forests and under 100-year old bridges, I wondered what I would write about. I’d been hoping to pen a story about a misadventure through disgusting canals in terrible Scottish weather. But we’d had nothing but sun. And for days, we’d seen nothing but pastoral beauty.

The real story, I realized, wasn’t about how we made it from one end of the canal to the other. It was about how we got there at all—how an 18th-century industrial canal system that turned to rat-filled cesspools by the 1960s blossomed into a recreation destination pristine enough to draw kayakers like us from across the world.

George McBurnie, a restoration engineer who’s been working on the canals for more than two decades, knows best how this makeover came to be. When he first got hired at Scottish Canals, then called British Waterways, “The canals had no future. There was no vision. They were not an asset,” he says. “My job was to just keep it all wind- and water-tight—plug the leaks. There was no boating activity, and very little towpath activity.”

But around the turn of the millennium, the Scottish government started hunting for big engineering projects to fund. They wanted something that would put Scotland on the map as a modern nation. A 1994 announcement and call for project proposals called it a “once-in-30-generations chance to mark the new millennium in style.” Another stated that the grants were intended to be “the foundation for a process of rebuilding and regeneration which will last well into the next Millennium.” They were looking for projects that could both reinvigorate the past and usher in the future.

A unified front of canal enthusiasts, composed of Scottish Canals, several local canal societies and a number of volunteers, basically walked up to the government and said they could do it one better: They could build a structure that would not only connect past and present, but east and west. Their pitch? To build a giant rotating boat lift that would at last reunite the Forth and Clyde and Union canals, and replace the 11 locks that had been filled in.

How Scotland Is Reinventing Its Centuries-Old Canals for Paddlers
Falkirk Wheel Visit Scotland

By 1999, the $93 million project, dubbed the Millennium Link, was accepted and funded, and McBurnie was put to work. His engineering and restoration department swelled from five to 20 people. Teams of ecologists, construction workers, cleanup crews and contractors flocked to the canals. For the next two years, it was all hands on deck.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights,” McBurnie recalls. They hauled out cars and tires, dredged contaminated soil, and got the water clean enough to pass safety tests. For the first time in decades, it was safe enough to paddle. Today, it’s safe enough to swim.

Boat lifted in Falkirk Wheel
The Falkirk Wheel lifts a boat. Gannet77/Getty Images

By the time the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first rotating boat lift, was completed in 2002, the canals, reconnected for the first time in almost 70 years, were hardly recognizable. The opening celebration was “absolutely ballistic,” McBurnie says. “It was phenomenal, and the major reason was the communities. They came out in droves. We had people lining the banks five or six or seven deep. The canals were just awash with people celebrating.”

Seemingly overnight, recreation came back to the canals. Boating clubs, crew team boathouses and waterfront cafés have all popped up alongside the canals. In Glasgow, the old canalside industrial buildings—like the Whiskey Bond and Glue Factory—are home to a thriving arts district, O’Connell says.In North Glasgow, where Minty Donald used to live in a locked compound, she now goes running along the towpath, past cyclers and paddlers. She likes to eavesdrop as bustling recreationists pause to examine the sculptural projects she installed along the canal—part of a project entitled Then/Now that she and a few other artists were commissioned to do in 2015.

The Kelpies
The Kelpies Visit Scotland

The canals have inspired other artworks, as well. In 2013, The Kelpies—the world’s largest equine statues at nearly 100 feet tall—were installed in Falkirk to celebrate Scotland’s history of horse-powered travel. I dragged Kassie out of bed at 6 a.m. to visit them during our trip; we were able to rent e-bikes near the Falkirk Wheel and zip down the towpath to watch the sun’s first rays bathe their steel noses in gold—the same color as the sunrise on the canal’s glassy surface. In that moment, it wasn’t hard to see how the canals have evoked such artworks.

“The work I do very much responds to place,” says Donald about her own art. For an artist, she adds, “the canal is a particularly interesting site in that it’s a human-made feature but it’s also now very much part of the water infrastructure of central Scotland. People think of it as just a ‘big ditch,’ but it’s not. It’s interconnected with lochs and reservoirs, all these places that feed water into it. So the art we made was about trying to connect. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that the canal is part of this wider water network.” In addition to connecting lochs and reservoirs, the canal corridors connect wildlife populations, O’Connell adds. They also connect communities—both with nature and with each other.

In fact, one study conducted in Glasgow in 2020, found that people who live within about 750 yards of a canal have lower risks of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension compared with those who live farther away. That’s independent of socioeconomic factors; North Glasgow, where the canals are, isn’t exactly the wealthiest area, says O’Connell.

O’Connell suspects the positive health outcomes are because the canals provide easy access to recreation. They also bring real green space into the heart of the city; one side of the canals is left to grow wild, McBurnie says. Those shores now serve as valuable habitat for otters, water voles, herons, swans, deer and other wildlife.

The canals’ influence also extends beyond Scotland’s borders. Today, the revived canal system is an inspiration to other nations looking for ways to raise their own green space quotients and cater to a growing demand for outdoor recreation opportunities. Just weeks ago, a delegation from Germany toured the canal system. And in 2019, a French team visited to help inform a new boat lift and tourist site they’re hoping to build in Guerlédan, a city in Western France with its own historic waterway—the Nantes-Brest Canal. Construction of the lift is currently in the planning phase.

As evidenced by my Scottish friends turning up their noses, Scotland still has work to do to repair the canals’ image. Fortunately, McBurnie says, that should be far easier than repairing the canals themselves.

“The more people who use the canals and the more they see it as an asset, the more they’ll spread the word,” he explains. And in the meantime, his work continues: cleaning canals, building pedestrian bridges, and, more recently, overseeing a project to put solar panels on the Falkirk Wheel.

The canals, he says, are fulfilling their legacy in ways the original builders probably never imagined. They still serve as a connector, but not just from east to west. Today, they connect urban dwellers with natural landscapes, American kayakers with Scotland’s industrial past, and the age of coal to Scotland’s renewable future. And if Scotland’s canal enthusiasts have anything to do with it, that work will go on for centuries to come.