When I set off on my trip to Scotland, I was anticipating things such as heather on a hill, black-faced sheep, bagpipes, and even haggis. I wasn’t thinking about Scottish engineering. How could I have forgotten something so essential? I was quickly brought to my senses by a visit to the Falkirk Wheel. What a marvel! This was one of the most surprising and sensational venues that I visited during my trip.
A Little Background
I’ll try to keep this simple. Before the advent of a complex road structure, goods and people moved across the country via a series of canals. Once the big highways came along (as well as a few other impediments), the canals in Scotland were left to become little more than junk heaps. Some were filled in and the bridges demolished. In the 1990s an enterprising group realized that a boating opportunity lay right under everyone’s feet and started a project to renovate the canal system.
Boats could now once again journey from coast to coast. However, there was one hitch. The Union Canal, which comes northward from Edinburgh, is about 35m, or 115ft higher than the Glasgow canal, the Forth and Clyde Canal. In the past, a series of locks helped boats make the transition from one canal to the other. This process could take as long as a day; a solution was needed.
A Rotating Wheel?
That brings us to the present and the Falkirk Wheel. This is a rotating boatlift, which helps boats travel between canals in about thirty minutes.
The above photo illustrates how the wheel operates. On the left, a boat is in the gondola which turns as the wheel does. The permanent structure contains the first series of circles. These do not move! The wheel will swing up to a point at which the boat will be even with the water in the circles. Did that make sense?
The Wheel is tremendous, and I don’t use that word lightly. I decided I had to give it a try as our group took a boat ride.
In this photo, obviously on a cloudy day, our boat is on the low canal. The Scottish Canal sign is roughly the point where we will sail into the gondola. This gondola is part of the massive curved Wheel structure. The top of this S-curve contains a gondola filled with water. This will come down as we go up.
In the above photo, our boat and gondola have gone about halfway to the higher elevation. At the top of the S-curve, we can sail out again.
Photo tips for the boat: A plastic film covers the side windows. Rows of seats mean that if you’re in the middle of a row, you may not be able to see anything other than people. I was near the front and seated on the inner aisle where I could move slightly and shoot toward the front of the boat.
This is the only such boatlift of its kind in the world, so let’s give the Scots some credit. This is not only an engineering marvel, but it’s also a work of art.
I’ll leave you with a few tips as to other things to do in Falkirk after you’ve seen the Wheel.
- Visit the Kelpies. We drove past this on our way to the Falkirk Wheel. These horse sculptures are fantastic. I wish I had had time to stop.
- Take a tour of Callendar House.
- See the Antonine Wall. I’ve got to do this. It’s Rome’s northernmost border.
- Walk the John Muir Way. This is a long trail that crosses Scotland. Yes, it refers to the same John Muir who is so famous for his work in Yosemite.
Obviously, I’m going to have to visit Falkirk again.