Under lock & quay: The Forth and Clyde Canal sustains a parallel society in the heart of the city
THE last voyage of Jimmy McFarlane begins at a little after nine on a sunny morning in Glasgow. It will end – after 12 miles, six hours, two bottles of whisky and several fish suppers – in Bowling, where the dark sluggish canal empties, glistening in its sudden rush, into the Clyde.
Jimmy is the skipper of the Wee Spark, a working replica of a traditional puffer, but run on diesel and one-third the size. A retired fitter/welder, Jimmy built the boat 12 years ago with the late Archie Rennie, a retired joiner. Ever since, the Wee Spark has been a heartening sight on the Forth and Clyde Canal. But now Jimmy, a spry, wry, twinkle-eyed man in his early seventies, is navigating those waters for the last time. He is heading west to Bowling basin, where, not without sadness, he will tie up the Spark and sell her. “You can’t keep a boat like this on a pension,” he says.
Her hull and funnel painted red and black, her name inscribed with evident pride in gleaming white capitals, the Wee Spark is hell of a smart. The cabin is a cosy wood-lined space complete with coal stove and kettle. Six portholes show the banks slide past. Jimmy and his pals – Hughie, Alan and Alex, all men of a certain age – are amusedly impatient of land-lubbing journalists who climb down into the cabin while facing forwards. “There’s a rule, son,” I’m told. “Never turn yir back on a ladder or a wummin.”
The Forth and Clyde Canal runs from Grangemouth to Bowling, the cinched waist of Scotland, connecting the two firths. Construction was completed in 1790. During Scotland’s industrial age, the canal transported timber, clay, coal and sand. But in 1963 it closed, becoming dirty and derelict. This coming July 6 and 7 will mark the 10th anniversary of the reopening of the lowland canal system, with celebrations taking place at the Falkirk Wheel.
Untying the boat and giving two jaunty peeps on his steam whistle, Jimmy sets off from the Applecross Street basin. The engine keeps up a staccato tick, like a gigantic grandfather clock, as we glide towards a horizon of spires. The canal is flat calm, reflecting tower blocks and tenements. Bald tyres arc, Nessie-like, above the surface. A line of lilypads resembles the tracks of cloven hooves. Every few yards we pass another Buckfast empty bobbing in the water, leaving one to wonder what desperate messages might be found in these particular bottles.
Jimmy points out areas of the canal, unremarkable to the casual viewer, which were important to heavy industry, and which have, too, their own sombre unwritten history. “This basin we’re going into now is where Broonlee’s sawmill kept the hardwood logs,” he says. “This is where aw the kids used to get drooned.”
He is tremendously keen on Scotland’s waterways and on puffer lore – “Let me introduce you to the ship’s Bible,” he says, bringing forth a well-read copy of Neil Munro’s Para Handy Tales. He has lived his whole life on or around the canal. When he was first married, he set up home in a ketch in Bowling basin. His grandfather was one of the last bargees with a horse-drawn boat. “And it’s just as well the horse knew where it was going because Auld Geordie was usually three sheets to the wind.”
It takes us an hour to get to Maryhill, where there is a system of locks and mushroom-shaped pools. Alongside the Wee Spark, waiting to go through the first sluice gate, is the Peccadillo, a beautiful green barge transporting a gallus cargo – a party of women celebrating a 50th birthday. One of them, removing her cardigan as the day warms up, is treated to a rendition of The Stripper from the Spark. The lock-keeper, leaning down, speaks to this lady – “You’re gonnae gie these men here a heart attack.” Hughie, though, is blithe about the danger: “Awready hud wan,” he shrugs.
Bev Schofield, skipper of the Peccadillo, whose constant companion on board is Richey, a dachshund in a life-jacket, is worried about the lack of vessels on this stretch of water. “It’s great that I’ve had the Forth and Clyde to myself for 10 years,” she says, “But the fact that there are not enough boats moving means that ultimately the canals are going to close up again.”
It does seem true that most of those who enjoy the water do so from the land – as joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and fishermen. So, at Maryhill Locks, I disembark from the Wee Spark and explore the life of the canal path, walking westwards.
You could spend your whole life in Glasgow and never see the canal. It is a hidden part of the city. On the M8 at Port Dundas, traffic roars eastwards, most of the drivers unaware that, just to their left, pike lurk in a deep pool, lit by harpoons of sunlight slanting into the water. These pike are infamous, growing ever larger and more ferocious with every angler’s account. They eat voles, I’m told; ducklings, cygnets, poodles. The canal is hoaching with roach, pike and perch, and is rumoured to be restocked, now and again, with carp and trout. “But ye cannae eat anythin’ oot ae here,” the fishermen say. “Deid bodies and everythin’ in here, man.”
The canal has trees on both sides and for long periods you would not guess you were in a city. But occasionally a landmark looms up – multi-storeys, CCTV cameras, an Orange Lodge gaudy with bunting – to remind you of the urban reality. A heron flies south over the Anniesland gasometers. “You forget that you’re in the middle of Glasgow,” says Tracey Bridges, throwing bread to the ducks with her young sun-bonneted daughters. “Oh, look, there’s a dragonfly.”
You meet all sorts on the canal: a recovering alcoholic who comes here to fish rather than sit in the house and drink; foot-sore field officers from Historic Scotland surveying the banks for erosion and intent on a particular ice-cream parlour in Kirkintilloch; two Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out pamphlets by a wall on which is scrawled this righteous text – “F*** the Maryhill polis”. Here and there, tied to fences or laid next to the locks, are bunches of fading flowers, tributes to those who have lost their lives in the lonely water.
In Drumchapel, as the canal curves past pebbledashed low-rises, a group of young men, neds from central casting, are packing up their rods and the remains of a carry-out. They have an air of drunken befuddlement and a minimalist sartorial approach best summed up in the phrase “Glaikit, nae jaikit”. They are here daily, landing eels and then attempting to kick them across to the opposite bank. “Listen, mate, I’ll gie it tae ye straight,” says one who introduces himself beerily as Clarence. “We jist get f***in’ full ae it and fish.”
A small blue boat, low in the water, with complicated apparatus attached to the bow, comes chugging past. This is a harvester, bound for Dalmuir, cutting away the weeds that can tangle round rudders. The pilot of such a craft is privy to the sunken underworld of the canal. “You name it, we’ve found it,” he shouts over to me. “Shopping trolleys, motors, motorbikes. See the weight in a three-piece suite when we bring it up? Murder.”
The sounds of the canal are birdsong and ice-cream chimes. The smells are cut grass, honeysuckle and the occasional whiff of hot fat as you pass close to a takeaway. A grand place to eat on the canal is McMonagles, “the chippy boat”, a ship moored where the water passes under Argyll Road in Clydebank. Vessels can tie up alongside and collect fish suppers from a hatch. It is also a favourite with the local swans, which have been known to chap the window with their beaks until served a portion of chips. The seagulls, too, know all about the chippy boat and are an ever-watchful presence. John McMonagle, the owner, did try to deter them by stationing two owls on guard duty, but these sentinels were stolen and the gulls continue to lay siege to the bankside tables.
A familiar figure on the Clydebank path is 48-year-old Phil Toye, known as Boxer, a great enthusiast for his town and the narrow channel that runs through it. During the 1970s, he and his pals from the Linnvale scheme would nail together wooden palettes from the whisky bond and stage Viking battles with kids from Whitecrook, the housing estate on the other side of the water. The canal for him was and is a kind of magical realm. “Because of the warm water from the Singer factory,” Boxer recalls, “you didn’t need to go to the fairground to get your wee goldfish in a bowl. You could just take wan out the canal with a net.”
In late afternoon sun, I arrive at Bowling, the basin drowsy in the heat. The name of one moored barge – Dungraftin – is strongly suggestive of easeful retirement. Jimmy McFarlane wakes things up a bit, though, as the Wee Spark arrives in her final berth, and his neighbours, the residents of houseboats, come out to greet him. Jimmy is the sort of man for whom banter is a personal philosophy, so if he is downcast about the end of this final voyage, he chooses not show it.
“Is that no’ a lovely colour?” he says, raising a glass of Auchentoshan, which he takes, of course, without water. “I’ll keep drinking to your health until I ruin my own.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East