Andrew Thin: Our canals are a fantastic asset - are we getting the best out of them?

The Kelpies, built by Scottish Canals, attracted over a million visitors in their first year and now enjoy global recognition.
The Kelpies, built by Scottish Canals, attracted over a million visitors in their first year and now enjoy global recognition.
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This year I have decided to work off the excesses of Christmas and New Year in advance. I am going to cycle from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and I will do so without once encountering a car, lorry or motorbike.

I am looking forward to passing the time of day with a few other cyclists and pedestrians, and with a bit of luck there will be a handful of canoeists and boaters sharing the route as I pedal my way eastwards.

What is left of the Monklands Canal now terminates just north of Queen Street railway station. During the 19th century it was one of Scotland’s most important industrial arteries, bringing coal and iron ore up from the Clyde to Coatbridge and beyond before returning them as the finished article. These days it offers a pleasant commuting route into the centre of town, and it provides a superb wildlife corridor in a heavily built up environment. It is also a great place to fish, or moor your houseboat.

Having cycled a short distance west I will quickly reach the Forth & Clyde Canal, where I will turn right and begin the journey in earnest. Bishopbriggs, Kirkintilloch, Kilsyth and Cumbernauld. I will resist the temptation to stop for coffee and cake, instead pedalling on to the Falkirk Wheel where I will spoil myself at the newly refurbished café. Then another fork in the way, and a right turn towards Falkirk itself, then Linlithgow, Polmont and Broxburn before finally rolling into my destination just south of Haymarket station as darkness descends. 67 miles in total - pretty much all flat.

Scotland’s canals are one of our great national treasures. They belong to all of us, and they are managed on our behalf by a small public corporation called Scottish Canals. That organisation was created in 2012 when the Scottish part of what was then British Waterways was brought under Scottish control. The transformation that has occurred in the few years since then has been truly remarkable. Some of the changes have been conventional stuff - resurfaced towpaths, new moorings, additional houseboats, refurbished locks – but others have been truly innovative and inspirational.

Anyone passing junction six on the M9 cannot fail to notice the new piece of canal that now goes under the motorway, and the extraordinary piece of public art that is the Kelpies. Built by Scottish Canals and completed just over two years ago, they attracted over a million visitors in the first year and now enjoy global recognition. Pull in at the newly refurbished Falkirk Wheel, and you will find one of Scotland’s premier visitor destinations enjoying a renaissance that has boosted both visitor numbers and its financial fortunes.

Divert east to Edinburgh and you will find at Fountainbridge a vibrant mix of new residential flats, funky cafes and restaurants. A far cry from the place that so many of us remember from only a few years ago. Divert west and you can take in a spot of white water kayaking or wakeboarding at Pinkston Watersports Centre, or marvel at a remarkable initiative that will enable regeneration of a huge area to the north of Glasgow by using new “smart” technology to control the flow of surface water through the adjacent canal.

All of this is exciting, but it also has something quite profound to say about the future of this country. History has bequeathed to us an extraordinary array of infrastructure assets, a great many of which are publicly owned. Are we always making the most of them? Are we thinking innovatively enough about their contemporary relevance? Have we got the right people in the right places to realise this potential? Can we do more? Food for thought as I pedal along a piece of 18th century infrastructure that is addressing 21st century priorities.

Andrew Thin is chairman of Scottish Canals