Linlithgow Union Canal

by Robin McKelvie

“When our wee community-based volunteer-run society was formed back in 1975 the idea of re-opening the historic canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow must have seemed an impossible dream,” explains David Shirres, Chair of the Linlithgow Union Canal Society. “I’m glad to say that LUCS was part of that happening and that today we can also welcome everyone to come and learn about the canal, and take a trip on its waters.”

When the Linlithgow Union Canal Society (LUCS) was founded, its aim was simply to promote and encourage the restoration and use of the Union Canal, particularly in and around the Linlithgow area. It has always been an entirely volunteer-run body that emerged from the community. Shirres reveals its origins: “Our founder, Mel Gray, arranged for the overgrown canal towpath to be cleared to provide a footpath between a new housing estate and the station. Mel then invited people with an interest in restoring the canal to a meeting in his house which led to the formation of LUCS which grew from there”.

And they did grow. Soon they had their first boats. One of the first, U66, was incredibly horse-drawn. Their flagship, Victoria, arrived in 1978 and they have not looked back since with a total of over 20 craft operated over the years. They took over derelict premises at the canal basin and that has grown arms and legs too. In 1977 the old stables became Scotland’s first canal museum, with the other stables bashed through into the neighbouring cottage to create their tearoom in 1990.

The Linlithgow Union Canal Society is based at the Canal Centre on Manse Road in the canal basin in Linlithgow, which is just a short walk from the train station that offers direction connections to both Glasgow and Edinburgh. I’m from West Lothian and have always been amazed more people don’t flock to Linlithgow to visit the palace where Mary Queen of Scots was born, walk around the crannog-strewn loch, explore the cobbled High Street and, of course, visit the canal.

I’ve been to and around the canal basin a lot over the years. One year it was with my own hire boat that I was using to journey from Falkirk west on the Forth and Clyde to Glasgow, then back east up the Falkirk Wheel to continue along the Union Canal to Linlithgow, then on further east in search of Edinburgh. The nights we spent in each direction at Linlithgow were a joy with the town easily the best overnight option on the trip outside the cities.

My journey in the early 2000s was only possible thanks to the pioneering work of LUCS and other small-scale canal bodies. “LUCS not only lobbied hard to have the canals ‘unblocked’, but we also clearly demonstrated that there was a public appetite for using the canal and its towpaths again,” says Shirres. In this way, the canal societies on the Forth & Clyde and Union Canal were the catalyst for the formation of the Millenium Link Partnership which re-opened the lowland canals in 2000 after securing funding of £78 million from various bodies. £32 million of this was from the National Lottery as part of its Millennium projects.

The Union Canal is thriving today in a way that would have been unlikely even 20 years after it opened in 1822 after being much delayed by the Napoleonic Wars. “It’s hard to overstate how impressive it must have been in those days” smiles Shirres. “They had boats weighing 23 tonnes – as we have – that they could move by hand or horse. It was a great way to move goods, of course, but also what is less well remembered is how many people used it to get between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Each year the canal would transport around 200,000 passengers before the railway, with boats hauled by teams of galloping horses at ten miles an hour, with no way of quickly braking. It would have been much smoother than the stagecoaches of the day though.” But when the train line opened the canal quickly fell out of fashion.

The Union Canal is an engineering marvel, not because of its impressive locks; but rather the lack of them. I remember as a kid wondering why the canal didn’t go on a more straight route through West Lothian. My dad didn’t know - we knew both knew nothing of contour canals. Thankfully chief engineer Hugh Baird did and he carefully crafted a path that followed the natural height of the land as much as possible, without a single lock between Falkirk and Edinburgh.

The Linlithgow Union Canal Society’s unpaid volunteers are responsible for the facilities and all activities. These stretch from operating and maintaining the Society’s boats and premises, on to staffing the on-site museum and tearoom, through to helping out with canal clean-ups and conservation. They also take part in local events, such as the Deacons’ Night and the famous annual Linlithgow Marches. Not done there they publish books and pamphlets, give talks, provide educational visits and stage the annual Canal Fun day with its cardboard boat race.

Peter Lewis, who helps with marketing for LUCS, explains what they offer to the public: “We run trips of 30 minutes locally, and also trips of two and half hours to the local landmark of Avon Aqueduct and even further to the Falkirk Wheel. And we also have a self-hire boat. In total, we now have four boats for use on public trips and self-hire. We very much promote the use of the canal for local tourism and public access purposes.” Lewis is a volunteer in his 40s with a busy job who still manages to help LUCS as he wants to give something back to his community. It strikes me that he is a model that it would be amazing to see more of in community tourism. Many people these days are working compressed hours to get more time for other stuff - often family - but when the kids grow up they then have time for volunteering. But Lewis shows you can help out and support by welcoming ‘temporary locals’ earlier in life.

And ‘temporary locals’ love the canal basin and the boat trips. Shirres says, “We get a complete mix of people as the trips are advertised online. We get visitors from as far afield as Germany, Australia and America. They all seem to have a great time and we get good reviews. Our passion shines through I hope. Chatting with the volunteers is a key component. It’s a great chance for the community and ‘temporary locals’ to mix, which is obviously key with SCOTO too.”

It's been and continues to be quite a literal and metaphysical journey for the Linlithgow Union Canal Society But not one that looks like ending any time soon with such strong community energy driving it. Shirres concludes, “We’re always looking at different things to do. Covid meant we had to tweak our Santa experiences, so we had him onboard the boat with his elves and they gave out presents to hundreds of kids. One day we were ice-bound, but still made it work. There are Halloween cruises and, new for this year, afternoon tea cruises – we are constantly thinking of ways to make the canal work better and better for the community.”

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