Remember When: Ebb and flow of canal life

IT OPENED with little pomp or fanfare – after all, the Union Canal, running between Edinburgh and Falkirk, was designed to be functional rather than frivolous, just one more engineering triumph of the Victorian age.

• View of the old wooden bridge over the Union Canal at Leamington Road

So there is no official record of the first craft to steer its way along what was originally known as the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal – although historians believe it was the Flora McIvor, a passenger craft and that the date was 11 May, 1822.

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Sandra Purves, an Edinburgh-based Union Canal historian, explains: "The opening was very quiet – once the boats were running, that was the main thing, as the money started to roll in."

That wasn't surprising, considering the building costs of the canal with its beautiful aqueducts – including Slateford over the Water of Leith, Almond at Ratho and Avon near Linlithgow, the second longest in the UK – had gone over budget.

The canal's main purpose was to transport coal but it did a fair trade in passengers as well before the advent of the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway, who swapped to the Forth and Clyde canal at Falkirk. "People found it a far more pleasant way to travel to Glasgow than the road. They could get there in about seven to eight hours, which at the time was a remarkable achievement," explains Sandra.

Originally a commercial success, the canal suffered its first blow when the Glasgow-Edinburgh rail link opened in the middle of the 19th century. Then the First World War put the squeeze on the canal and in the 1920s, Port Hopetoun, the end of the canal in Edinburgh, was filled in – a plaque stating: "Here stood Port Hopetoun 1822-1922" remains to mark the spot on the side of Lothian House on Lothian Road.

Remarkable shots of how the canal looked pre-1922 were captured by photographer FM Chrystal in a series of pictures now held at the Edinburgh Room at Edinburgh Central Library – with two reproduced here.

By the 1930s, the connection to the Forth and Clyde canal had gone and the Second World War helped to kill the canal off as a commercial enterprise.

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Neglected for years, in more recent times the canal has sprung back to life, with the Millennium Link, at Falkirk, joining the two canals together again in 2000. Now beginning at the Lochrin Basin in Edinburgh, the canal's length is dotted with homes and business and its waters with canoeists and barge holidaymakers.