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Forth and Clyde Canal

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Forth and Clyde Canal or Great Canal, The, constructed to connect the Firths of Forth and Clyde, was opened for traffic in 1790. The possibility of making a short cut through this neck of Scotland was discussed as early as the reign of Charles II., and the plan was revived without success in 1723 and 1761,-the survey in the former year being made by Mr Gordon, author of the Itinerarium Septentrionale, and in the latter, at Lord Napier's expense, by Mr Robert Mackell. The latter survey was approved by the Board of Manufactures of Scotland, who, in 1763, employed Mr Smeaton to make a survey of the proposed route. This engineer put down the expense as £80,000, which was thought too great to justify further proceedings. In 1766 some Glasgow merchants began a subscription of £30,000 for a canal 4 feet deep and 24 broad, but parliament refused to sanction the scheme, owing to the smallness of the sum, which had been fully subscribed in two days after the proposal. Another combination was made, and a new subscription for £150,000 set on foot. In 1767 parliament gave the required permission for the incorporation of 'The Company of Proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Navigation,' the stock to consist of 1500 shares of £100 each, with liberty to borrow £50,000. Work was begun in 1768 under the superintendence of Mr Smeaton, the first sod being cut by Sir Lawrence Dundas on 10 July. In July 1775 the canal was completed up to Stockingfield, at which point a branch to Glasgow was constructed and was carried to Hamilton Hill near that city, where a basin and storehouses were made. By this time all the capital and the loan had been spent, as well as the income from other sources. The revenue from the part then opened was only £4000, and the prospects were gloomy all round, the shares falling to half their original price. In 1784 assistance was given by the Government, who handed £50,000 of the revenue from the forfeited estates of the Jacobites to the corporation. This was not a gift, for the Government stipulated that the Crown should draw the ordinary dividend for that sum. In July 1786 the cutting of the canal was resumed under the superintendence of Mr Robert Whitworth, and, by July 1790, it was opened from sea to sea. At the opening ceremony the chairman, accompanied by the magistrates of Glasgow, poured a barrel of Forth water into the Clyde,-this interesting ceremony being witnessed by a large concourse of people. The first vessel to pass through was the sloop Agnes of 80 tons burthen, belonging to Port Glasgow, and built at Leith for the herring fishery and coasting trade. This took place on 31 Aug.; and on 9 Sept. the sloop Mary M'Ewan was the first to accomplish the journey the other way. The Hamilton Hill basin was found too small, and the large depot at Port Dundas was constructed to answer the needs of Glasgow. Here a junction was afterwards effected with the Monkland Canal, and the two were amalgamated in 1846. The branch connecting the two was furnished with substantial quay walls for the accommodation of barges unloading; and up to 1850, the sum expended on the Forth and Clyde and Monkland Canals was £1,090,380. Although the canal was planned to be only 7 feet deep, its depth was practically 10. Its length was 38¾ miles-35 miles direct between the Forth and Clyde, 2 miles of the branch to Port Dundas, and a mile of the continuation to the Monkland Canal. The greatest height of the canal above the sea is 156 feet, and this is attained by means of twenty locks on the eastern and nineteen on the western sides, a difference due to the different water-level of the two rivers. The locks are each 74 feet long and 20 broad, with a rise of 8 feet. They admit the passage of vessels of 68 feet keel, 19 feet beam, and 8½ feet draught of water. The average breadth of the canal on the surface is 56 feet, and at the bottom 27 feet. Above thirty bridges span the canal, and it in turn crosses about forty aqueducts, the largest of which is that over the Kelvin at Maryhill, consisting of four arches 83 feet high, which convey the waterway across a dell 400 feet wide. This work was begun in June 1787, and completed in April 1791, at a cost of £8500. Water for the canal is supplied from eight reservoirs, covering a space of 721 acres.

The canal begins, at the E end, about a mile up the river Carron at Grangemouth. Hence it goes south-westward to Grahamston and Bainsford, where a basin was made for the Carron Company's traffic. It then continues in the same direction to Camelon, and then trends to the W to Lock 16, where it is joined by the Union Canal from Edinburgh. Thence to Windford Loch, near Castlecary (where it attains its greatest elevation), it goes in a westerly and south-westerly direction. A quarter of a mile further on it leaves Stirlingshire, though for many miles it keeps closely to the borders of that county. Passing N of Kilsyth it comes to Kirkintilloch, and ½ mile further on enters Lanarkshire. In 4 miles the branch to Port Dundas is reached (this branch being on the summit level throughout), and from this point the canal proceeds northward a little. As it approaches the Kelvin viaduct the locks become numerous, and the scenery through which the canal passes is picturesque and romantic. At this point it re-enters Dumbartonshire, and thence it proceeds about 5 miles till it is joined by a junction canal, extending to the Clyde at the mouth of the Cart, formed in 1839 for the benefit of Paisley. For 3¾ miles the Forth and Clyde navigation follows the course of the Clyde in a north-westerly direction, finally joining the river at Bowling Bay, where a harbour and wharves were constructed at a cost of £35,000. For a great part of its course the canal follows the line of 'Graham's Dyke,' or Antoninus' Wall, showing how closely the Romans attained the shortest line between the two great estuaries. The completion of this work was no small event, for we read that, as there was only 7 feet of water at the Broomielaw, while the canal was 8 feet deep, its basin, 'immediately on its being made open for traffic, became a more important port than the Broomielaw.' The whirligig of time has certainly brought in its revenges in this case.

Considerable scientific and historical interest attaches to the Forth and Clyde Canal as the scene of early experiments in steam navigation. After Mr Patrick Miller and Mr Symington had, on Dalswinton Loch, proved the feasibility of using steam on the water, they came to Edinburgh, and had a boat of 30 tons burthen constructed at Carron. In November 1789 this vessel was launched on the Forth and Clyde Canal. In presence of hundreds of people the vessel started, and attained a speed of 6 miles an hour. On reaching Lock 16 unhappily the floats of the paddlewheels gave way, and the experiment had to be stopped. Ten years later Lord Dundas desired Symington to construct a steamer to be used as a tug on the canal, and in March 1802 the Charlotte Dundas towed two laden barges of 70 tons burthen each a distance of 19½ miles with great ease. This vessel was built by Mr Hart, of Grangemouth, and its hull lay for many years in a creek between Locks 8 and 9; Her timbers were afterwards made into furniture or other relics. In consequence of the success of this experiment, a proposal was made to the proprietors to use steam tugs instead of horse power, but it was rejected on the ground that the wash from the paddles would destroy the banks of the canal. Another result of Symington's success was a poem by a Mr Muir of Kirkintilloch, which gives expression to the common wonderment at the phenomenon-

'When first, by labour, Forth and Clyde
Were taught o'er Scotia's hills to ride
In a canal deep, lang, and wide,
Naenody thought
Sic wonders, without win' or tide,
Wad e'er be wrought.
'But lately we hae seen a lighter
Wi' in her tail a fanner's flighter,
May bid boat-haulers a' gae dight her
Black sooty vent;
Than half a dozen horse she's wighter
By ten per cent.
'It was sae odd to see her pullin',
An' win' an' water baith unwillin';
Yet deil may care, she, onward swellin',
Defied them baith,
As constant as a mill that's fullin'
Gude English claith.
'Can e'er, thought I, a flame o' reek,
Or boilin' water's caudron smeek,
Tho' it was keepit for a week,
Perform sic wunners,
As quite surprise amaist the feck,
O' gazin' hunners?'

1n September 1839 another experiment in the use of steam was made on the canal, but this time the power was proposed to be supplied by an engine running along the bank; and a light railway having been formed along the path near Lock 16, a locomotive engine of moderate power was put on it. On 11 Sept. the engine was attached successively to passenger boats, lightly and heavily laden; to sloops, single and in pairs; and to a string of nine miscellaneous sailing vessels. The passenger boats were drawn at a rate of 16 or 17 miles an hour, the single sloops at 3½, and the string of vessels at 2. Greater velocities could have been attained, but, though the wash was seen to have little effect on the banks, the rates were restricted to those mentioned. All the experiments were satisfactory, but as the application of the system to the whole canal would have been very costly, it was abandoned.

All that remains of the history of the canal may be gathered from a sketch of its financial fortunes. In 1841 it was stated that 'this canal has been most lucrative to the proprietors. In 1820 their capital was £519,840, and the income in 1836 was £63,743.' In 1839 the revenue was £95,475; and in 1850, four years after their amalgamation, the returns from the Forth and Clyde and Monkland Canals was £115,621, while the total sum spent on the two from the beginning was £1,090,380. In 1867 the joint-undertakings were taken over by the Caledonian Railway Company, when they were valued at £1,141,333. The terms of transfer were that the railway company should pay an annuity of £71,333, being a guaranteed dividend of 6¼ per cent. secured by a lien over the works and revenues. In 1881 for convenience the stock was nominally increased, so as to amalgamate it with other guaranteed stocks at an equal rate of 4 per cent. From the half-yearly balance-sheet of the company, published in Sept. 1882, it appears that the receipts from the canal were £43,882, 8s. 9¾d., while the expenditure for the six months was £14,509, 5s. 0½d.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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