The Falkirk Wheel
Not many Scottish visitor attractions can claim that over 1100 fish visited the site in the first six months, but the Falkirk Wheel can do just that. This stunning feat of engineering has once again linked the Forth and Clyde canal with the Union canal so that fish can swim in the clean waters between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Like all good ideas, the concept of the Falkirk Wheel is straightforward. The Wheel simply lifts boats from one level to the other by way of two water-filled gondolas which revolve like a ferris wheel. To demonstrate the principle, the architect, Tony Kettle, used his daughter’s Lego to build a model. The project may have been simple in concept and design but it was a massive undertaking in the building. Over thirty years of neglect and decay had caused the canals to silt up and the locks linking the two to fall into disrepair. And the fish had gone too.
The Union Canal had to be extended at Falkirk; a tunnel, 180 metres long, built under the Antonine Wall and an aqueduct constructed to lead on to the Wheel. And then the Wheel itself had to be built. At 35 metres high (the equivalent of 8 double decker buses) and weighing 1800 tonnes when full of water, it is an impressive sight rising between the two canals. The gondolas take seven minutes to rotate, carrying boats from the lower Forth and Clyde canal up to the Union canal. The weight carried by the gondolas is equivalent to that of 100 elephants but the power required is very small. The BBC TV programme, Tomorrow’s World, ran a test on it and proved that the power taken to rotate the Wheel was the same as that for eight electric toasters. This is achieved by a system of gears and by keeping the gondolas in perfect balance.
Visitors can experience the Falkirk Wheel for themselves. A ride on one of the specially built boats starts on the Forth and Clyde canal, then on to one of the Wheel’s gondolas. The Wheel lifts the boat up to the level of the aqueduct, from where it sails through the Roughcastle Tunnel under the Antonine Wall and on to the Union canal. Then the whole process is reversed, the trip taking a total of 45 minutes. Commentary of the dry, pithy type favoured by Scots is provided by the crew. One boat, the Enterprise, carries a stout branch – yes, it’s the captain’s log of the Enterprise.
The Queen officially opened the Wheel on 24 May, 2002. In its first year it attracted over half a million people. Already, the visitor centre is being extended and plans are underway to enable wheelchair users to participate in the experience. The whole area along the canal is being regenerated with a multitude of small businesses being set up, directly connected to the tourist influx.
And the fish are coming too. At the first maintenance inspection, four very healthy brown trout were discovered along with roach, pike and perch, some specimens even being found in the water in the gondolas, making their way between the canals and onward to the cities.