Freight returns to historic Union Canal with special vegetable delivery

Two centuries after it was built to transport coal, a market gardener is returning freight to the Union Canal by taking vegetables to market on a puffer.

Iain withers market gardener at narrow boat farm

for the first time in around 150 years, local produce will be transported from farm to market via canal barge. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Iain withers market gardener at narrow boat farm for the first time in around 150 years, local produce will be transported from farm to market via canal barge. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Iain Withers will pilot the new way of transporting produce on Saturday when it is shipped two miles to Linlithgow for a one-day sale.

He is comandeering the Wee Spark for the task, a working replica of a traditional Clyde puffer.

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The “Veg Boat” will carry some 15 types of vegetable from the first full season at Mr Withers’ canalside Narrowboat Farm, east of Linlithgow.

The chemical-free produce will include tomatoes, cucumber and chillis from a polytunnel, and cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, beetroot and beans from the fields.

Mr Withers said: “Back in the 1820s, when the Union Canal opened, farmers were beside themselves with excitement at this new, smooth, rapid transport system.

“Building jetties to load their crops for market, building special barges to get horse and cart on, and even a special dung boat which brought fresh smelly goodness back to the farms from Edinburgh.

“Fast forward nearly 200 years and we’re bringing this tradition back alive with our Veg Boat.

“It’s a beautiful wee boat which will get a lot of attention.

“I hope that, if it goes well, we will do it quite a lot next year.

“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be popular. It’s been shared a lot on Facebook and people are getting excited.

“My concern is getting enough vegetables from the fields to supply everyone who turns up.”

Mr Withers has previously sold produce from his four-acre smallholding via an honesty box at the farm as well as supplying local shops such as Grow Wild.

He lives on a narrowboat at the farm with his artist wife Sarah, balancing the work with managing The Clan cycle stunt team.

The Union Canal was opened in 1822 to bring coal to Edinburgh but lost out two decades later with the arrival of the railways.

Grain from farms in the Central Belt was also transported between towns along the canal such as Linlithgow, Falkirk and Edinburgh.

Scottish Canals said in exchange for coal, Edinburgh transported horse manure collected from the streets, which was weighed and shipped on barges to farmer’s fields outside of the city to be used as fertiliser.

There have been attempts to return freight to the waterway since it re-opened in 2001.

Waterway writer and photographer Jonathan Mosse applauded the Veg Boat move.

He said: “In fewer than four years, Iain Withers has transformed four acres of open arable corn land into a thriving organic market garden.

“Living on a narrowboat on the canal, Iain’s vision has always been to combine growing high-quality produce with making greater use of Scotland’s lowland canals.

“The chief beneficiaries of this inspiration are the local inhabitants, who now enjoy a regular supply of fresh produce, but also the boating 
fraternity as a whole, who have established community-owned moorings along the banks of the smallholding.”

Pat Bowie, chair of the Keep Canals Alive group and general manager of Re-Union Canal Boats in Edinburgh, said: “This is great news and will be a welcome addition to the Union Canal.

“Bringing produce grown canalside to the market by boat is a brilliant idea.

“This initiative is a great step forward and let’s hope for more activity like this 
along the canal, using the waterway for the purpose it was intended – moving goods from place to place but reducing the carbon footprint involved.”

Scottish Canals chief executive Catherine Topley said: “With the reopening of the Lowland canals for sea-to-sea traffic taking place earlier this year following vital repair and maintenance work, we are delighted to see the canals being used in such a varied and diverse way.

“From water sports to boat trips and now produce transport, Scotland’s canals have never been so well used and celebrated in modern times.

“We hope that the Wee Spark has a successful voyage along the Union Canal this weekend.”