The weather, strong currents and island-strewn western coastline of Scotland meant sailing around it was risky as well as time-consuming in the 18th century. The idea of building a canal across the narrowest part of the Scottish lowlands to connect the Firth of Clyde and Forth gathered momentum and the Forth and Clyde canal was born.
The engineer, John Smeaton, carried out most of the design drawing on advice from, among others, the geologist, James Hutton. The canal was constructed between 1768 and 1790 bringing new opportunities for trade and manufacture to the communities along its banks. Small ocean-going vessels could carry goods along it. Branches off it led into Glasgow and Edinburgh. Shipbuilding yards were established at Bowling and Kirkintilloch, mostly building the small steamboats, known as Clyde puffers, which plied routes along the canals and rivers and out to the islands. The most famous of these was the Vital Spark in Neil Munro’s Para Handy stories. The puffers had to be less than 20m long to fit in the canal locks.
The Canal was soon rivalled and then superseded by the railway. Management of the Canal was taken over by the Caledonian Railway in 1853. It was nationalised in 1948 and then closed down in 1963. The canal restoration and construction of the Falkirk Wheel was one of Scotland’s largest Millennium projects. The canal reopened in 2001.