100 Weeks of Scotland: the Union Canal

Canals have always been of interest to me. Even in school history I am ashamed to say I actually quite enjoyed the little bit we did on Scotland’s Canals. I couldn’t believe there were only five canals built in Scotland.
Union Canal in Edinburgh. Picture: Alan McCredieUnion Canal in Edinburgh. Picture: Alan McCredie
Union Canal in Edinburgh. Picture: Alan McCredie

Week Forty Eight

I just thought there would be hundreds. They seemed to be everywhere in the books I read and TV programmes I saw. When I watched telly as a kid people were always either falling in, being pushed in, or being beaten up down by the Canal. Basically if a canal made an appearance on Grange Hill, The Professionals, Johnny Briggs, Coronation Street or, god forbid, a Public Information Film nothing good would come of it.

We didn’t have them in Perth. I would have quite liked to have one as I reckoned that’s where all the scallywag ruffians would inevitably hang out leaving the nice grassy area by the tennis courts,

a) free for non-violent football, and

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b) free from the ever-present threat of being chucked in the nearby pond.

I blamed the railways. We would definitely have had a canal but for Stephenson and his damned rocket and I could have lived out my childhood in a soft-focus haze of eternal summer light. It wasn’t to be.

I think the first time I ever actually saw a canal was years later in London and it just didn’t fit the gloomy gasworks image that I had in my mind. It was all houseboats, barbecues and stripy-topped, long-haired troubadours strumming guitars, with fairy lights illuminating the towpath and perfect English pubs set back from the water.

Of course by the time I was old enough to know any better canals were making a comeback. Hundreds of miles of waterways, tunnels and locks were being restored to their glorious nineteenth century hayday and the supermarkets of Britain were enjoying a golden age of returned shopping trolleys.

The canal I know best is the Union Canal between Edinburgh and Falkirk. The images from this week are a very small part of a larger series of images of the canal that I am currently working on. These images are all taken within a mile of each other at the eastern end of the canal and illustrate really well the amazing diversity that can be found on an urban canal. New development springs up close to industrial, rural and rundown areas all within a few hundred yards of each other.

As this canal loops lazily through the fields and towns of West Lothian it stays, for almost it’s entire 31 miles, at 240 feet above sea level. Then, after a couple of lock gates, and a short tunnel it emerges blinking into the light and the magnificence of the Falkirk Wheel – as fine and as graceful a piece of engineering as anything the canals original builders came up with.

I recently walked the stretch of canal from Falkirk to Linlithgow on a perfect summers day. It was utterly deserted but, to me, the canal was filled with echoes - overflowing with the sounds and sights of times long gone. Who came this way all those centuries ago? What were the names of those who lived and died in its construction? They are beautiful, peaceful stretches of quiet water now but the stories they could tell, and the things they must have seen…

(I am still utterly, utterly terrified of falling in them).

• Alan McCredie began the ‘100 weeks of Scotland’ website in October last year, and it will conclude in Autumn 2014. McCredie’s goal is to chronicle two years of Scottish life in the run-up to the independence referendum.

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McCredie says ‘one hundred weeks...’ is intended to show all sides of the country over the next two years. On the site, he says: “Whatever the result of the vote Scotland will be a different country afterward. These images will show a snapshot of the country in the run up to the referendum.

“The photos will be of all aspects of Scottish culture - politics, art, social issues, sport and anything else that catches the eye.”

Watch our slideshow of some of the photos from ‘one hundred weeks of scotland’ above, and follow the project at www.100weeksofscotland.com. You can also follow Alan on Twitter.

All pictures (c) Alan McCredie/ 100 weeks of Scotland