The time all traffic was suspended on the Forth and Clyde Canal for 68 days

With a stuck cargo ship causing chaos on the Suez Canal this week, we thought it would be worthwhile to see if Scotland has experienced a similar situation along its principal waterways.

Opened in 1790, the Forth and Clyde Canal was for many generations one of the main means of moving goods east and west along the Central Belt.

In 1878, all movement ceased for a record length of time. However, unlike the situation in the Suez, it had nothing to do with a 400-metre-long Japanese cargo vessel.

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Winter temperatures in Scotland in the 1870s dipped to levels below the likes that had ever been witnessed in living memory, and the Forth and Clyde Canal was hit particularly hard during the decade.

The most severe frost experienced along the Forth and Clyde Canal on record arrived in the winter of 1878/79, when traffic was forced to grind to a halt for an astounding 68 days.

Crystal clear skies on the night of December 16, 1878 saw temperatures plummet. Snow had been falling for much of the month, but now came the big freeze.

The Forth and Clyde Canal was completely frozen over along its entire extent and all traffic suspended. The grim situation would last until February.

Scotland’s lochs were also frozen solid, and the steamer fleet at Loch Lomond stuck fast in a thick coating of ice well into January.

Boats of all shapes and sizes navigate the Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch. Photograph: Peter Sandground

In Kilsyth it was reported that the number of unemployed was increasing daily. A number of collieries in the district were forced to pay men off, with two pits suspended, owing to the Forth and Clyde Canal being frozen over.

Deaths were also common during this time, with the number of reports of adults and children perishing in the icy canal tragically on the increase.

Traffic in late December was at a standstill on the canal as the snowfall and frost cover continued unabated. It was reported that the ice was measuring between 10 and 14 inches in thickness.

A failed attempt to break up the ice was made on December 27, when workers employed 20 horses attached to breaker engines by strong rope to penetrate the almost half-metre thick ice at Kirkintilloch.

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