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"Bringing destinations to life - uniquely" by Richard Millar, Scottish Canals: Visit to the Falkirk wheel - 1 March 2016

Richard Millar with the Falkirk Wheel and a Kelpie.d

Richard Millar with the Falkirk Wheel and a Kelpie.

© John Yellowlees, 2016

As Director of Heritage, Enterprise and Sustainability at Scottish Canals, Richard Millar's remit covers caring for the canal heritage and environment along Scotland's five inland waterways.

With fewer than 180 staff, Scottish Canals is a charity responsible for the maintenance and operation of 140 miles comprising four working canals - the Caledonian, Crinan, Forth & Clyde and Union - plus the remnants of a fifth, the Monklands Canal.

The Forth & Clyde was the world's first sea-to-sea canal, while the Union is remarkable for being entirely level. The Crinan was built to stem rural depopulation, while the Caledonian had a role in moving defence vessels. Traditionally the busiest, the Monklands remains so - as the M8 Motorway.

Born out of enterprise and enlightenment, the Scottish canals have had associations with many celebrities - Smeaton, Hutton, Telford, Watt, Scott Russell who discovered the solitron wave, Rennie, Burns and Symington, inventor of the first practical steamboat. As the first sustainable city-to-city route, they offered Edinburgh-Glasgow travel in two days with a boat drawn by the same horse or seven hours in a sleeper boat with frequent change of horses. Stables turned into pubs as steam traction developed, and the Singer sewing-machine works provided a classic industrial scene of puffers bringing in raw materials and taking out the finished product while water put back into the canal to cool supported goldfish which released from captivity grew to giant proportions.

Factories developed at Summerlee on the bank of the Monklands Canal, but tourism was always part of the mix with the May Queen and the Fairy Queen taking visitors to such destinations as Auchinstarrie. Railways being easier to engineer rapidly displaced canals during the nineteenth century, and by the First World War the Admiralty had closed them so that they degenerated into dumps, seen as dangerous and only to be used for drainage with the rest to be sold off for such purposes as the construction of motorways, with all rights of navigation in the Lowlands extinguished by 1965.

If you don't care for a canal it becomes a backwater, but by the 1990s a host of heroes had emerged determined to champion their restoration in the face of 36 major obstacles ranging from motorway bridges to the Wester Hailes housing estate for whose construction 3 km of the Union Canal had been drained. With £78M raised by 1999, the Millennium Link received Lottery funding to enable construction of 7 new opening bridges, 32 new road ones, 9 new locks and 32 refurbished ones; 38 masonry bridges were refurbished, 5 km of new canal built and 300,000 tonnes of silt removed.

Loss in the 1930s of the Tamfourhill Locks that had connected the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals presented a particular challenge, but when the Scottish Tar Works burned for six days in November 1973 it left the opportunity for a basin to serve what became the world's most efficient shiplift capable of raising 1800 tonnes with the power of just 6 kettles through application of the Archimedes Principle of objects displacing their own weight.

The Falkirk Wheel rapidly emerged as one of Scotland's top ten tourist attractions, in its first year attracting 650,000 visitors and creating 60 jobs, restoring pride in its area and allowing development of a play area demonstrating how to move water. Construction of the Millennium Link had put £176.5M into the economy, creating a Gross Value Added of £9.34M and establishing 175 jobs while operation of the two canals now yields £1.74M per annum through 77 jobs and a GVA of £1.52M. Associated developments include Edinburgh Quay, the marina at Auchinstarrie and at Bowling the refurbishment of railway arches to create shops.

Scotland's only inland lighthouse is now holiday accommodation, while Speirs Wharf is a hub for the creative industries including Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland and Pinkston Paddlesports at the site of a power-station provides whitewater and polo facilities that helped train Scotland's Olympic water athletes, with 20 rowing clubs operating out of shipping containers in a £200k investment that unlocked £3.5M of other people's money.

Working with Falkirk Council and Falkirk Community Trust, Scottish Canals has given the town a new green heart in the form of a ten-year development of The Helix water-park which attracted £25M Lottery funding in 2007 to give the Forth & Clyde a new front door onto the Firth of Forth, restoring the rundown riverside area and recalling local horse legend Carnera in a commission to sculptor Andy Scott inspired by his Heavy Horse on the M8 to create The Kelpies, Europe's largest public arts which recall also the Celtic mythology of water horses and the Carronade tradition of iron-making.

Notwithstanding the recession, this latest development progressed to attract 1M visitors in its first year, winning the Saltire civil engineering award in 2014 and seeing its maquettes displayed in New York and in Chicago for the Ryder Cup. Such investment is about creating jobs, with £55M per annum GVA, £150M in associated development achieved by £11M investment. International recognition for Scotland's canal renaissance will come with the holding of the World Canal Congress at Inverness on 19-22 September 2016, and underpinned by Transport Scotland grant for managing water and by income streams including its single biggest for fibre-optic cable under the towpath Scottish Canals will be able to say that it generates more income than its grant and plays a key role in community regeneration by offering volunteering opportunities in its operations.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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