When passenger boats could dock at Lothian Road in Edinburgh's city centre

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For almost a century it was possible for visitors to hop a passenger boat into Edinburgh within just 500 feet of where the Usher Hall now stands.


Upon its completion in 1822, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal, linking Scotland's two largest cities via Falkirk and the Forth and Clyde Canal, was essentially the M8 on water; the liquid superhighway of its time.

And, while it still exists, with large stretches in better shape now than they have been in generations, the canal's eastern extent once penetrated far deeper into Edinburgh city centre.

Named Port Hopetoun basin, the Union Canal's giant eastern terminus occupied a plot measuring some 9000 square metres in area on the western fringe of Lothian Road. Incredibly, it was located within just 500 feet of what is now the Usher Hall.

Port Hopetoun canal basin occupied a huge area of Edinburgh city centre for 100 years. Picture: Francis M Chrystal collection/JPIMedia

Port Hopetoun canal basin occupied a huge area of Edinburgh city centre for 100 years. Picture: Francis M Chrystal collection/JPIMedia

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In the centre of the basin, a large, anvil-shaped warehouse rose leviathan-like from the water, becoming one of central Edinburgh's most dominant architectural landmarks.

A mid-19th century addition, the huge warehouse building was constructed specifically to service the luggage boat firms coming in from the west.

An engineering feat equal to any seen in Scotland's history, the Union Canal was constructed as a contour canal, avoiding the use of locks and instead incorporating aqueducts where required.

Designed by canal architect Hugh Baird, construction began in 1818, with hundreds of men faced with the arduous task of gouging out more than 31 miles of waterway across Scotland's Central Belt.

Among the construction workers were Messrs William Burke and William Hare, two young men who had arrived from Ulster specifically to work on the project. Had their foremen known what would become of their two future serial-killing navvies, perhaps they'd still be in the Union Canal today, with their feet bound to blocks of sandstone.

Canal passage between Edinburgh and Glasgow proved immensely popular, with around 200,000 people per year using the daily passenger boat service at the waterway's height in the 1830s.

These passenger boats, named "Swifts", on account of their speed, could negotiate the Glasgow to Falkirk leg of the journey on the Forth and Clyde Canal in around six hours, with the remaining distance to Edinburgh completed in a further seven.

At Port Hopetoun basin, waiting omnibus carriages could ferry the canal passengers to the department stores and tearooms of Princes Street in a matter of minutes.

But the glory days of the Edinburgh to Glasgow canal would not last long.

Within a mere two decades of the canal's completion, the first railway line between the two Scottish cities opened.

Boasting a journey time of 150 minutes, compared to the 13 hours it took to bob along the waterway, the new-fangled and considerably faster railway service soon won the battle for the hearts and minds of Edinburgh-Glasgow commuters.

From then on, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Canal survived mainly as an industrial highway, transporting heavy goods and freight loads in and out of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh tour guide, Fraser Parkinson, says he finds it incredible to think there had been a port situated right in the middle of the city.

He told the Evening News: "It's fascinating to think we once had Port Hopetoun in the city centre.

"These canals were such great achievements so in many ways, it’s sad that the railways arrived just a few years after the canal’s completion.

"I do have a giggle at the canal commuter run, however. This was a service offered between Glasgow and Edinburgh, more of an intercity cruise than a city sprinter. There were actually three daily passenger services at 7am, 2pm, and 6pm.

"Your fare was 6s 6d (about 33p today) and that provided you with a cabin. You could risk the elements on deck for 4s 6d.

"There was even an advert for an Edinburgh to America route via a link at Glasgow."

Port Hopetoun survived a century until 1922, when it was closed and subsequently abandoned to become an embarrassing and inconspicuous stretch of wasteground situated on one of the city's main thoroughfares.

The Art Deco Lothian House, which incorporated the Regal Cinema (now an Odeon), would fill the site in 1936. A stone-carved relief on the building's frontage recalls the basin that preceded it. A plaque reads: "Here stood Port Hopetoun 1822-1922".

A watercolour showing Port Hopetoun and canal buildings. Picture: Submitted

A watercolour showing Port Hopetoun and canal buildings. Picture: Submitted

Brought back to life as part of the Millennium Link project in 2001, the eastern part of the present-day canal now ends at Lochrin Basin in nearby Fountainbridge.

The entrance to the Port Hopetoun basin on the corner of Lothian Road and Morrison Street. Picture: JPIMedia

The entrance to the Port Hopetoun basin on the corner of Lothian Road and Morrison Street. Picture: JPIMedia

An Ordnance Survey map from 1893, showing the Port Hopetoun canal basin at Lothian Road. Picture: NLS Maps

An Ordnance Survey map from 1893, showing the Port Hopetoun canal basin at Lothian Road. Picture: NLS Maps

The former canal basin lay derelict until the construction of Lothian House in 1936. Picture: JPIMedia

The former canal basin lay derelict until the construction of Lothian House in 1936. Picture: JPIMedia

The Art Deco Lothian House was built in 1936. Picture: JPIMedia

The Art Deco Lothian House was built in 1936. Picture: JPIMedia

A stone-carved relief on the exterior of Lothian House recalls the former canal basin. It reads: Here Stood Port Hopetoun 1822-1922. Picture: TSPL

A stone-carved relief on the exterior of Lothian House recalls the former canal basin. It reads: Here Stood Port Hopetoun 1822-1922. Picture: TSPL

The canal now ends at Lochrin Basin, pictured here in the 1960s. Picture: JPIMedia

The canal now ends at Lochrin Basin, pictured here in the 1960s. Picture: JPIMedia