Now the public body responsible for safeguarding the nation’s inland waterways is to embark on an ambitious project to repair, maintain and re-use scores of important buildings.
The plans are contained in the Heritage Strategy being drafted by Scottish Canals, which runs the country’s 137-mile canal network. Scottish Canals says 40 per cent of its buildings – around 100 properties – are ranked as nationally important scheduled monuments, but many have fallen into disuse.
The buildings include the vacant Telford House, an elegant 19th-century lock-keeper’s cottage built by Thomas Telford, the renowned canals architect and engineer. The property, next to the Neptune’s Staircase locks at Banavie on the Caledonian Canal, is believed to have been home to Telford during his inspections.
The strategy also pinpoints the Bona Lighthouse, built in 1815 on the Caledonian Canal to a Telford design. Located on the northern shores of Loch Ness, the B-listed octagonal building is the only inland lighthouse in Britain.
Dr Sabina Strachan, senior heritage adviser at Scottish Canals, said: “There’s a whole hidden history relating to the buildings, which were often purpose-built for the canals, some of which are particularly significant and of outstanding architectural merit.
“Some of the buildings are known as landmarks, like Bona, which stands in a magnificent location at the head of Loch Ness, but has lain empty for a few years. People have been asking us for years about its future, and we’re in a position now where it can be sensitively restored.”
On the Forth & Clyde Canal, the body intends to work with Isle of Arran Brewery to ensure the buildings which make up the former Rosebank Distillery are rendered fit for the 21st century. The brewery purchased the site from Scottish Canals last autumn.
Near Glasgow, priority will also be given to restoring Applecross Street workshops at Hamiltonhill. The oldest surviving canal-related building in Scotland, it served as the original terminus of the Forth & Clyde Canal. On the Crinan Canal, attention will be focused on Seaview, a 19th-century building thought to have functioned as a lighthouse.
As well as preserving buildings, the strategy highlights plans to catalogue and conserve a range of historic artefacts which illustrate the rich cultural history of canal life.
They include a steel lighter barge recovered from the bed of the Forth & Clyde Canal at Pinkston Basin, and various signage and documents relating to the waterways.
Plans are also in place to secure funding to provide work placements encouraging traditional building skills, while Scottish Canals also intends to create an oral history of the country’s canals.
In the introduction to the draft strategy, Steve Dunlop, the chief executive of Scottish Canals, explains: “We also wish to safeguard and promote cultural heritage that is not physical, including traditions, craft skills, language, literature, knowledge and associations with past events and people.”
Welcoming the plans, Janet Richardson, editor of Towpath Talk, a magazine devoted to Britain’s waterways, said: “It’s very important to people using waterways to see the past around them, and canals help to bring that history to life in a way that other forms of transport aren’t doing. They may be used for leisure purposes nowadays as opposed to trade, but their heritage is still hugely important.”
A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland said: “We welcome this draft strategy. We are working with Scottish Canals on a review of all their listed buildings and looking for new candidates for listing. The results of the project will be celebrated in a joint publication.”