The Falkirk Wheel is a ‘must-have experience’ for visitors to southern Scotland. As the first rotating boat lift in the world, it offers visitors a way to visualize the Clyde River of the past with its system of canals and 44 loch gates connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh. I found it easy to understand the importance of the now buried lochs for the movement of goods and people across the countryside when I saw the difference in levels of the water. The wheel, completed in 2002, replaces lochs that had not been used since the 1930s. It lifts and lowers tour boats, gondolas, private boats and hire vessels through the 34 meters between the Forth and Clyde Canal and Union Canal. How does it work? Put simply, the wheel was designed on the Archimedes Principle wherein a body in water displaces water equivalent to its own weight. This weight of water is used to balance the wheel.
Revival of interest in the canals in the 1970s led to a canal restoration scheme with the proposed solution for Falkirk presented in 1994. The Falkirk Wheel received Millennium Commission Funding. The 1,200 ton structure of the wheel, said to be inspired by “a Celtic inspired double-headed axe, the spine of a fish, ribcage of a whale and the vast turning propellers of a Clydebank-built ship” looked more graceful to me than most modern engineering feats. To my mind, it resembled the arms of a compassionate parent lifting a tired child. Sitting in the boat as it was lifted, I felt like a child on a Ferris wheel, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhilaration of the opening vista through the glass windows to a boundless Scotland. The purported view includes Ben Lomond and the beginnings of The Trossachs, the Wallace Monument in Stirling, the Ochil Hills and the River Forth through to Grangemouth Docks.Falkirk is accessible by train from Glasgow and Edinburgh and reasonably well-signed for road traffic, even though we did seem to take the long way around. Don’t worry if this happens, the surrounding countryside is lush and the small villages and roads are quaint.
Even if the engineering details elude you, the fun and relaxed atmosphere of what has become a contemporary tourist attraction is appealing. The restaurant is located in an ideal position overlooking the wheel and if you manage to grab a table by the window you can watch the boat lifted out of the lower canal and placed on the canal above. There is a gift shop and spacious grounds to walk and become immersed in the local history and landscape. If you are brave enough (and this does not take too much courage), you can buy a ticket and enjoy the thrill of being in the boat as it lifts you above the scenery, with views across to the distant hills, and places you on the higher canal. The guided boat tour then takes you for a ‘wee’ ride through the Roughcastle Tunnel before bringing you back down.