Canal towpaths are suitable for everyone but please cycle considerately!
Building the Union Canal started in 1817. The chief engineer was Nicol Hugh Baird who had been the resident engineer of the Forth-Clyde canal. The canal was to run from Port Hopetoun near Lothian Road in Edinurgh to Falkirk whre it would meet the Fort-Clyde via a series of eleven locks (this is what the Falkirk Wheel now replaces). The canal would be 32 miles long and it would have no locks; instead its sweeping curves would follow the contours of the hills. Highlanders and Irishmen provided most of the labour. Two of the Irishmen, Burke and Hare, would become famous as murderers. They set themselves up as procurers of human bodies to satisfy the demand of Edinburgh's medical schools. Initially they stole bodies from graveyards but eventually decided to eliminate the middle step. The canal opened in 1822 and became popular for passenger traffic as there were no locks to cause delays. Like the Forth-Clyde it went into decline with the railway age.
In 1994 British Waterways announced its intention to seek lottery money for restoration of the Forth-Clyde and Union Canals. Since then all the breaks in both canals have been repaired and the Falkirk Wheel constructed to reconnect the two canals together. The Wheel is just the most obvious part of a massive engineering project which included removing 33 obstructions, including over a mile of the Union Canal which had been filled in at Wester Hailes in Edinburgh, dredging and renovating old locks and bridges, repairing the banks, constructing a new link to the River Carron at Grangemouth and improving the towpaths.
Canal towpaths are flat of course, and cars are mostly absent. Ideal for cycling perhaps, but there are other problems: pushchairs, dogs, toddlers, fishermen. The Union Canal towpath is quite narrow in places too. Most of the time there is no problem, but start your bike ride nice and early so that you are clear of the urban sections before they get busy with pedestrians.
You should use the following advice when cycling along tow paths:
Avoid cycling where your tyres would damage the path or verges (e.g. when they are wet or soft).
Consider others: Anglers, walkers and boaters also use our towpaths
Give way to others on the towpath and warn them of your approach. A polite 'hello' and 'thank you' mean a lot.
Watch out for anglers' tackle and give them time to move it before you try to pass.
Dismount under low or blind bridges
Never race one another or perform speed trials.
We recommend you have third party liability insurance and equip your bike with a bell or equivalent.
Access paths can be steep and slippery. Join or leave the towpath with care
You must get off and push your cycle beneath low or blind bridges, and where the path is very narrow.
If you really have to cycle the towpath after dark, use front and rear lights (you will need lights on this route for the Falkirk Tunnel).
Thorny hedge trimmings can cause a puncture. We recommend Kevlar-reinforced tyres
You can of course join the towpath at any point but in Edinburgh it starts at Port Hopetoun (Fountainbridge) near Lothian Road. Originally the canal basin here would have been piled with coal brought in by canal boat. Now it's the site of a leisure complex. You pass the Leamington Lift Bridge then roll along past tenements then though Harrison Park. Take care at the narrow sections under the bridges. Shortly after this you go over the high aqueduct which carries the canal over the Water of Leith - walking is recommended! The canal was broken at Wester Hailes but this is now joined up again as part of the Millenium Link project. After this you pass over the dual carriageway city bypass and you are in open countryside.
The Bridge Inn at Ratho is an obvious stop. There are picnic tables and the Inn itself does morning coffee, bar lunches etc. If you want to find food further on in Broxburn or Winchburgh you will have to leave the canal towpath. There is a canal basin at Linlithgow and the Linlithgow Canal Society operates boat trips in the summer. There is also a canal museum with a tea room. Shortly after Linlithgow you pass over the Avon Aqueduct and cruise eighty-six feet above the river. As you approach Falkirk the route becomes more urban again, but still attractive with views of back gardens. Before you get to the Falkirk Wheel however you have to pass through the Falkirk Tunnel. This is 636 metres long and quite dark, bike lights recommended - a waterproof jacket is a good idea too. It's impossible to cycle but there is a handrail. After this there is blinding daylight again and the Falkirk Wheel. This rotary boat lift is unique in the world, and impressively large too. Needless to say there is a restaurant, shop and visitor centre. You can continue cycling west on the Forth-Clyde Canal towpath to Glasgow and beyond, see Related Routes above.
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