The World Canal Conference,
Edinburgh, Scotland

-- by Carl Linden

Sycamore Islander, November 2003


-- Photo by John Winer      
Some say that canals are boring and are little more than glorified ditches filled with water. They are wrong. Canals attract our attention in various ways. They are marvels of engineering and technology both old and new. Their creation and careers are intertwined with history, politics and the rise of commercial civilization. Today’s canal restoration movement in Europe, the USA and Canada is regenerating communities, opening up opportunities for popular recreation and outdoor activities, and providing opportunities for business enterprises from restaurants to bike shops. People can take voyages of discovery on canals. You can travel at an easy pace on many canals in your own, a rented or commercial boat without the hustle and bustle of modern high speed transportation. You can hike, bike, jog or stroll on canal towpaths.

The annual World Canal Conferences began back in 1988. The conference alternates between the United States and Canada one year and then Europe the next. Last year it was Montreal, the year before, Dublin and the year before that, Rochester (Erie Canal). Next June the conference goes to St. Catherine’s and the Welland Canal in Canada linking Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. In 2005 the conference goes to Sweden. The conferences do not overdo indoor sessions and devote much of the conference time to field trips and canal outings. You do not have to be a canal expert to attend. Novices are welcome.

-- Photo by Margery Passett      
This year it was Scotland’s turn to host the conference, held September 24 to 26. The Scots are devoting major resources to restoring their canals. Their ingenuity and inventiveness in coming up with 21st century solutions to characteristic problems of canal engineering is striking. The Falkirk Wheel is just such a solution and was the main attraction for the conferees. (See photos on page 10) Queen Elizabeth pushed the start button of the Wheel at its inauguration several years ago. The wheel lifts and lowers canal boats some 100 feet connecting the Union Canal above to the Forth and Clyde Canal below. The challenge to canal engineers is how to move boats up and down as elevations change. The classic solution is the lock but when the elevation change is great a long flight of locks becomes necessary and makes slow going for a canal boat. Eleven locks in a row were previously used at Falkirk to surmount the change of elevation. What once took a canal boat hours to negotiate now only takes minutes. The Wheel is a striking example of the new inventions in canal technology. Inclined planes, hydraulic lifts and counter-weight elevators are other means that have been used and, in some cases, are still used for more rapid transfers of boats to different elevations than locks can provide. The Falkirk Wheel is perhaps the most efficient and innovative of these contrivances so far.

Another recent Scot innovation is the “drop lock” which enables canal boats to go under a low highway bridge put across a canal after it had fallen into disuse blocking resumption of canal traffic. Instead of building a costly high bridge over or tunnel under the canal to replace the low bridge, a lock with a pump system is used to lower boats down and under the bridge. This solution is in use at a point on the Forth and Clyde Canal in Glasgow. Here is another example of Scot invention using the principle of the lock in a new way.

In any case, the canal conference in Edinburgh proved to be most enlightening even to a canal aficionado. Shakers and movers in Scotland’s canal revival spoke with the conferees revealing their breath of expertise, know-how and vision. The conference included some delightful social occasions among them a superb banquet at the modern visitors' center next to the Falkirk Wheel with pipers, of course, and musicians present as well as a grand reception at the Great Hall of the Edinburgh Castle hosted by the Minister of Transportation. Of course, Scotland is a wonderful country to visit with its hospitable and witty people, its great natural beauty, intriguing history, and rich culture.


Carl Linden, in addition to the Falkirk Wheel photographs, also sent along a photo of the cantilever railroad bridge crossing the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh. Carl writes that "it was built after William Botch tried to build a bridge on the same site. It collapsed. Hence we have all heard his name when someone messes up. His successors built the present cantilever in 1892. It has lasted so well because they were able to secure the piers on solid bedrock using Roebling's pressurized caisson method which he devised when he built the Brooklyn Bridge. This was where Botch botched – his piers were not firmly placed on the bedrock. It was hit or miss, and he missed." -- (Norm Metzger, Sycamore Islander Editor)