COLUMN: HOMEWARD REFLECTIONS

The Falkirk Wheel – a triumph of engineering

I’ve recently found myself wondering how our infrastructure helps to shape our environment and behaviours. We take most of the built networks for granted, mumble when some fall into disrepair and shake our heads when promises of the future are unfathomably delayed.

After long considering the challenge, I decided to run home to Edinburgh after a day at my client’s offices in Glasgow. The Wednesday evening’s prognosis was for fair weather and a near full moon. Butterflies flitted in my stomach. I was relishing the approaching shift in space and time within the confinement of the busy Central Belt and between one workday and the next. At the back of four pm, I gave thumbs up to my colleagues and left the building.

Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow
Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow
Befitting a love of the outdoors, I chose the Forth & Clyde and the Union canals as the route. As my pace began to settle through Lambhill, I thought about how life was before, during and after the construction of the waterways. Without the combustion engine, it would have been an enormous challenge to excavate the dolerite, cart off the debris by horse and bring in materials to strengthen the banks. A temporary society would have congregated by the corridor, with farriers and wheelwrights, tinkers and hookers. Interim bridges might have connected the people between the good and bad sides of the trench.

As the afternoon sun dropped and a six-stride crossing of Kirkintilloch’s Cowgate came and went, I began to imagine the impact of the canal. It linked (the rich), divided (the poor) and enabled interaction between all strata. Furthermore, it influenced the transit of goods, services and ideas, and affected, ever so subtly, the prevalence of flora and fauna. The change was irreversible. The same is true of the creation of subsequent train, tram and asphalt networks and the designation of today’s urban developments. Clever modern routes involve multi-level crossings, like those used in Canada to let moose pass under the parkways. My opinions on the best of planning initiatives are best left to another journey, another post.

Wildlife on the Union Canal
Wildlife on the Union Canal
I ran on and on. Backcasting anglers focused on their translucent lines, which ended in miniature concentric circles on the calm of the drink. Endless reflections of poplars and ash and oak contrasted only with the canalside gardens that spilled out onto the towpath. Assumptions that our canals are ribbons of discarded shopping trolleys and floating Pilsner bottles must be shattered. No, there is pride on the canals of Scotland these days. You only have to read about the Helix by Grangemouth and Falkirk and the fabulous Kelpies sculpture. It’s a M9 white-line drifter between junctions five and seven.

For ten miles I ran along with a friend. We chatted about this and that. Despite the technical difficulties, it might have been easier to get large projects completed at the end of the eighteenth century than it is now. The efficacy of change decreases with increasing democratisation, it seems. In formerly ‘backward’ countries like China, the government can decree that a route shall be built. And it will. In Britain, our multi-layered society lets royalist, religious, feudal, merchant, government and capitalist models dance the Gay Gordons with interest groups and quangos. The result is a cacophony of developmental paralysis. Although it’s frustrating, perhaps this is actually the right path for us and is the price to pay for stability beyond the reach of most nations.

The Union Canal at the top of the Falkirk Wheel
The Union Canal at the top of the Falkirk Wheel
At the Falkirk Wheel, a triumph of engineering that opened after the Millennium, I climbed the grassy bank to join the younger Union Canal. It was immediately darker and narrower. My sore feet pounded the compacted earth. The moon rose. Owls began to hoot. I found it tremendous that, beside the old Lothian coalfield villages, a shaft of water and light and foliage could give such pleasure to the weary commuter.

The half-miles clicked by in the half-darkness. Across Britain there are dozens of canals, with just a handful in Scotland. The Caledonian stitches up the magnificent fault line of the Great Glen. Meanwhile, the Crinan gives light work for sailors otherwise rounding the Mull of Kintyre. The Monkland is a smaller resource that links with the Forth & Clyde. So that’s a total of five, each extremely valuable for nature and recreation.

Less known is the planned-but-never built scheme to move Dreadnought-class battleships from the Clyde to the Forth. Two routes were proposed before the Great War, either of which would have matched the Panama in depth and breadth. The finances meant that those chipping their influence into the arms race had to pick between more boats or a new shipping mechanism. If the canal had been started, it’s my guess that the imperative would have galvanised the mission. You can look at the Alaskan Highway to understand what people can do when the cause is unequivocal.

The Union Canal near Winchburgh
The Union Canal near Winchburgh
At Linlithgow, I caught the sound of church bells on the water and the bogeys of the 21:59 for Waverly departing a minute late. The railroad was, of course, the next era in our transport history and must have caused headaches for those who were making their life from the canal. It’s hard adapting to change, that’s for sure. We only have to compare our own situation, as society copes with pressures from all sides, not least in the movement of information. But by this point, approaching 40 miles on my run, I was too tired to engage in philosophy.

Finally, a light from afar cut a swathe through the night. It was a friend who’d ridden out from Edinburgh. After high fives, he turned to pedal behind me and illuminate my figure. It created a giant running man whom I could never quite catch up. I boosted my stride length and stoked my arms, but still I wasn’t quick enough. At Winchburgh, I stopped running. We left the water’s edge and immediately found houses, pavements, roads, taxis and kebab shops. I’d had an adventure that seemed on another planet, yet suburbia had never been more than fifty yards away all night.

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Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline