Alastair Dalton: Canals should be open for business

Restoration of the Union (pictured) and Forth & Clyde canals has been a success. Picture: Dan Phillips
Restoration of the Union (pictured) and Forth & Clyde canals has been a success. Picture: Dan Phillips
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THE re-opening of the canals which span the Central Belt has been an undoubted hit, attracting 22 million visits a year.

Restoration of the derelict Union and Forth & Clyde canals was an engineering marvel, with lengthy filled-in sections excavated and motorways spanned.

The centrepiece, when the “Millennium Link” was completed some 15 years ago, was the ingenious Falkirk Wheel boatlift, which now just needs a role in a Bond film to seal its fame.

Since then, further waves of visitors have flocked to the network’s latest attraction, the Kelpies – the world’s largest equine sculptures.

It’s now an instantly recognisable image, a symbol of the rebirth of the cutting-edge, inter-city links of their day.

Fine weather sees large numbers of people drawn to the towpaths. There are strollers, dog walkers, parents pushing buggies, wheelchairs, cyclists and anglers. But there’s one thing missing. Where are all the boats?

On some sunny Sundays, the huge numbers of fish which reside in the canals are troubled not at all by barges or any other vessel chugging through the aquatic landscape.

Scottish Canals says the number of boat licences on the two canals has risen, but it still stands at just over 100. There are a further 60 or so residential boats, which travel from time to time.

But perhaps more surprisingly, despite the numbers thronging the banks, there are no canal cruises available on many parts of the canals, especially in and around Glasgow.

The Forth & Clyde meanders through densely populated areas of Scotland’s largest city, with an arm reaching to the edge of the city centre.

However, there are no regular boat trips anywhere on the canal west of Kirkintilloch, to the north-east of Glasgow, according to Scottish Canals.

The Scottish Government-funded body, created after the break-up of British Waterways in 2012, is involved in a number of ventures to attract more visitors to the canals. These include the upgrading of nearly 30 miles of towpaths, completed in May.

At Bowling, at the western end of the Forth & Clyde, refurbishment of railway arches beside the canal basin is under way. It hopes this will attract shops and cafes, which are clearly lacking, considering the ready market of the many people drawn to the panoramic views of the Clyde. However, there would seem to be equal scope for entrepreneurial operators to fill the other gap in the market – and offer both tours and refreshments afloat.

Wouldn’t an informative boat trip, enhanced with the latest audio and visual technology, with comfortable seating and quality catering, be a promising tourist draw?