Union Canal: 200th Anniversary

– in the Scottish Parliament on 19th May 2022.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-03839, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Union canal and its contributions to Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the economic, environmental and social value of the Union Canal in 2022, its bicentenary year; commends the measures taken by Scottish Canals to mark this historic occasion with a year-long calendar of events; understands that this year will feature a blended programme of community activities as well as digital and in-person events that include a flotilla on 21 May, led by Scottish Waterways for All, a 20th birthday party at the Falkirk Wheel on 28 May, the EventScotland-funded Dandelion initiative taking to the water in June, and an online event inviting everyone to sign up for the Canal Challenge 200, to walk, cycle, wheel or paddle 200 times, for 200 days or 200km throughout the year across one or all of Scotland’s canals; commends all the staff and volunteers at Scottish Canals for their hard work and dedication over the years in creating flood prevention measures, undertaking regeneration and youth work and preparing for a new marina at Winchburgh; further commends the work of Linlithgow Union Canal Society, which has cared for and developed the canal in the Linlithgow constituency for modern use, as well as undertaking other work, including the Millennium Project; recognises what it sees as the joy that the canal and its routes bring to the local community, and the reported increasing number of walkers, cyclists and boaters, and wishes the whole team at Scottish Canals well for all its future endeavours.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am delighted to bring my members’ business debate to Parliament this afternoon to mark the 200th anniversary of the Union canal, which flows through my constituency, and to celebrate its economic, environmental and social value to the communities that it connects. I have crossed the bridge at the Linlithgow canal basin almost every day for 25 years, and it is a very special place to me. I would also note the 200th anniversary of the Caledonian canal.

The celebration extends to the contribution that has been made by the many staff and volunteers who are involved in the upgrading, maintenance and championing of the Union canal, and to the boaters. I welcome those from Scottish Canals and the Linlithgow Union Canal Society who are in the public gallery today. I also thank the MSPs who signed my motion.

Our infrastructure connects us from place to place, but it also connects people. It connects communities, ideas and livelihoods, and, if done correctly, it has the power to change the world. The Union canal is no different.

The Union canal was conceived in 1793, as part of the industrial revolution, to be a direct route for the people of Edinburgh to access cheap sources of coal from the west. It was named the Union canal because it connected Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1813, a survey was undertaken to link the proposed canal to the Forth and Clyde canal, and construction was approved by Parliament in 1817. The 30-mile Union canal was built between Edinburgh and Falkirk in just four years, and it opened in 1822.

I also want to pay tribute to those who built the canal. The construction of the canal was hard, laborious work with horses, carts and shovels, and men lost their lives building it. It is said that the red paint on some of the canal bridges marks those deaths in constructing the canal.

The increase in use of rail and road led to a steady decline in use of the canal, and it was formally closed in 1965. It reopened in 2001 as part of the £83.5 million millennium link, and was the largest canal restoration anywhere in Britain.

I had the pleasure of attending the touching ceremony at the Broxburn basin in 2001, where the late Mel Gray, one of the founders of the Linlithgow Union Canal Society, extended a finger to connect with the finger of the captain of a boat that had travelled from Edinburgh—a dramatic moment reminiscent of “The Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel—which marked the first time in many years that boats could travel from Falkirk to Edinburgh.

The Falkirk wheel was built in 2002, reconnecting the Forth and Clyde canals for the first time in 70 years through the Union canal. This Saturday, to mark the last 200 years, we will see a flotilla of 200 boats pass through the Union canal.

It is clear that canals were the lifeblood of the past, and they firmly have a place in the future.

The Union canal supports the protection, conservation and enhancement of the biodiversity of the waterway and is an integral part of the green infrastructure that promotes sustainable active travel. Scottish Canals, working with partners on pioneering projects, is helping to combat flooding and is driving positive transformation in some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas.

The Falkirk wheel, along with the Kelpies at Grangemouth, are two of the most significant contributors to tourism in Forth valley. They are worth £110.2 million to the local economy and support 2,000 jobs. The Falkirk wheel replaced 11 lock gates and cut the travel time between the two canals from almost 24 hours to just 10 minutes. Both the wheel and the Kelpies are within the top 10 of Scotland’s most visited attractions.

Independent research shows that spending time on or by waterways can make people happier and improve life satisfaction and social wellbeing. The Union canal towpath is regularly used by my constituents for cycling, walking and wheeling, which encourages physical health and mental wellbeing. The national cycling and walking network runs along the Union canal towpath.

The success of the Union canal would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of a number of people. I again welcome those who have joined us in the public gallery from the Linlithgow Union Canal Society and from Scottish Canals.

The late Mel Gray, whom I mentioned previously, was a driving force in revitalising the Union canal long before the millennium link project, and the education centre at Linlithgow canal basin is named in his honour. Another founding member is the formidable and remarkable Barbara Braithwaite MBE, to whom I send my best wishes. Chris Matheson, the current chair of LUCS, has been in post since last year, and I wish him well for the future in his role.

I also mention Pat Bowie, manager of Re-Union Canal Boats Ltd, which aims to encourage communities to engage positively with the canal; Richard Millar, the brains behind the Falkirk wheel and the Kelpies; Billy King, who worked on the canals for decades and has been responsible for upkeep and maintenance along the Union canal; and George McBurnie, who was instrumental in the reopening of the waterways as part of the millennium link project and has played a crucial part in the work on the Union canal for the past 40 years.

The late Ronnie Rusack MBE, owner of the Bridge Inn in Ratho, created in 1974 a floating dining experience on the canal and became chairman of the Seagull Trust. Ronnie was instrumental in the reopening of the Union canal, receiving an MBE for his efforts in bringing press and Prime Ministers alike to its banks to drum up support for it. He was also chair of Scottish Waterways for All until he passed away in 2020. That organisation itself should be commended, as should the Seagull Trust, which was formed in the 1970s to offer free boat trips along the canal for people with disabilities.

Scottish Canals, of course, is a key stakeholder in the £1 billion Winchburgh development. The Union canal is at the heart of that project in my constituency. The new canal marina includes residential houses, as well as moorings alongside, and will be an attractive and central part of Winchburgh as it grows.

Countries across the world look to Scotland for inspiration, innovation and education on many things, and our impressive canal structure is certainly one of them. They look to us because we are a nation that puts place making at the heart of our infrastructure; we put communities and people at the heart of planning.

I commend the work that has been undertaken by Scottish Canals and local groups such as the Linlithgow Union Canal Society, of which I am very proud. I look forward to working with them to ensure that the Union canal remains vibrant and accessible, paving the way for the next 200 years.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I thank Fiona Hyslop for bringing the motion to the chamber. It is a very long motion, which covers a lot—but there is a lot to say.

I have not written out a speech, because I just want to say what I think about the canal. I might be the only person in the chamber—I could be wrong; we will put it to the test—who has actually cycled all the way along the canal from Edinburgh to Glasgow. If anyone else has, they can raise their hand—but it looks as though I am the only one who has done it.

Afterwards, I made the mistake of cycling back to my home in East Kilbride, which is uphill, and that rather ruined what had been a very fine day. I have done bits of the canal, as well. I really love the Union canal bit, but the Falkirk element of it is particularly special.

Fiona Hyslop mentioned the 20th birthday party of the Falkirk wheel, an incredible structure that links the two canals. If you are coming from Edinburgh, in order to get to the Falkirk wheel you have to pass through the Falkirk tunnel. It is quite long and could be quite eerie, but it is lit. It is 630m long, 18ft wide, 19ft high and it has a 5ft-wide towpath.

At one end of the tunnel, there is a plaque which tells us that the mass murderers Burke and Hare worked on the tunnel. The local interest is that Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, was a local girl. Of course, Burke and Hare then went on to murder 16 people and sold their bodies to an anatomy school. It is thought, rather concerningly, that they also disposed of bodies in the canal, although I am sure that they are not there anymore. I mention that story because both the Union canal and the Forth and Clyde canal have a rich history.

For me, the value of the canal is in getting people out in the open air. It is such a great resource to have on so many people’s doorsteps from Edinburgh to Glasgow, with the two canals now connected. The canal is fantastic—people can walk it; I have seen people fish in it; and the great flotilla will be a marvellous sight to see this weekend.

I will end here, Presiding Officer. I thank Fiona Hyslop again. The canal has a great future, and Scottish Canals must be commended for maintaining it and keeping it going. I hope that more and more people get the opportunity to go see it and use it.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

I thank Fiona Hyslop for introducing the debate. The Edinburgh and Glasgow Union canal, to give it its full name, runs through my constituency of Edinburgh Pentlands—from Slateford to Kingsknowe, and Wester Hailes to Ratho in the west. The canal joined Edinburgh to the Forth and Clyde canal, thus linking Edinburgh to Glasgow and uniting the two cities.

The canal was planned by Hugh Baird so that it would follow the 250 ft contour line along its 31-mile length. The fact that it is on a level means that it has no lock gates, which makes transit along its length quicker. To achieve that, three aqueducts were required—over the water of Leith at Slateford and over the River Almond near Linlithgow and at Ratho.

The canal opened in 1822 and was initially successful, carrying minerals from the mines and quarries in Lanarkshire to Edinburgh. However, in 1842, the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway opened and the canal fell into slow commercial decline and was closed to commercial traffic in 1933, before being finally closed in 1965.

The building of the Wester Hailes estate in my constituency began in 1967, at Dumbryden. Over a mile of the canal from Dumbryden Road to Calder Crescent was filled in and a culvert piped out water through the new estate, due to concerns about child safety.

In 1994, British Waterways, after neglecting the canal for more than 30 years, decided to restore the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals to link up the west and east coasts of Scotland with fully navigable waterways for the first time in more than 35 years. There was a problem, however. The Wester Hailes section needed to be re-opened, with a new channel, new bridges and diverted roads. Work began in late 1999 and took nearly two years to complete.

During that period, as a new channel was being built, it was found that the original stone arch Hailes bridge had been buried inside the Dumbryden Road embankment in the 1960s. It was repaired and is now in use as a footbridge over the canal.

Tomorrow, Scottish Canals will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Union canal in Edinburgh Pentlands by organising a flotilla of canal boats accompanied by musical performances, which will travel from Lochrin basin in central Edinburgh to the Bridge 8 Hub in Wester Hailes. The aim is to celebrate the on-going commercial, social and historical value of the canal to the economy and the local community, by bringing together canal users and canalside communities in a celebration of past, present and future use of the waterway. As part of the celebrations, there will be the world premiere of “Union Caledonia 200” at Harrison park—a song that has been written to commemorate the Union and Caledonian canals’ bicentennial—as well as a variety of musical acts on and off the water.

In my constituency, Wester Hailes residents, supported by Whale Arts Agency and Edinburgh Art Festival, have organised local activities to coincide with the passing of the flotilla, including a canal trail stretching from Hailes quarry park to the Bridge 8 Hub and the Paddle cafe, with a treasure hunt, raft building, art activities with artists Pester and Rossi and a free community meal at Whale Arts.

When I came to Edinburgh in 1982, the Union canal was a neglected ribbon of water through the south-west of the city. It is now a valuable leisure space, whether one is walking, cycling, canoeing or holidaying in one of the canal boats. What a transformation in 40 years. Long may it continue.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I thank Fiona Hyslop for giving us the opportunity to debate and celebrate 200 years of the Union canal. As she said in her speech, it is an incredible piece of engineering infrastructure. We must all ensure that it continues to get the investment that it needs, whether that is to keep the canal bridges usable or to make the canal navigable for canoeists and canal-boat users.

I have been interested in the Union canal as a part of our history and culture, and as a fantastic connecting route through central Scotland, since being a Central Region town planner and through my time as a minister in Donald Dewar’s Cabinet, when I was privileged to see the plans for the Falkirk wheel and to be part of the millennium project. In 1999, Donald Dewar cut the first sod of turf at the start of the project to reconnect the Forth and Clyde canal and the Union canal.

As an Edinburgh resident, I love walking and cycling beside the canal. I say to Graham Simpson that my route goes from Linlithgow to Edinburgh or from Falkirk to Linlithgow: that is quite enough for me. The point about the canal is that we can choose our route and how long we want to follow it; it is accessible for people. That is what we celebrate today.

The canal is at the heart of the city of Edinburgh and is an incredibly popular green space. The city centre has been regenerated where we used to have an historic brewery, which, at one time, produced 2 million barrels of beer a year and was a key local employer. In recent years, we have moved on from that, with Boroughmuir high school opening in 2018, new homes having been built and the opening of cafes and art venues, including the Edinburgh Printmakers gallery.

Most recently, I have been involved in an inspiring project that was proposed by the late Chris Wigglesworth, who was a Labour councillor, geologist, church minister and community activist. He came up with the fountain for Fountainbridge project, which uses the Archimedes’ screw principle for a gravity-fed fountain. We managed to get the fountain included in the development plans and proposals to provide new homes and regenerate the area, for which I thank Fountainbridge canalside initiative members and other community activists. I also thank Heriot-Watt University academics and students for their work; they took Chris’s project, developed it and told us how we could implement it.

I thank all the local activists not just for their commitment and support on the fountain for Fountainbridge project but for all the work that they do in promoting access to the canal. It is a key part of our community. It is a mixed sustainable environment: it is biodiverse, it improves people’s quality of life, it is socially inclusive and it gives us a wellbeing neighbourhood, which is something to celebrate—and that is just the city centre part of the canal.

Like Gordon MacDonald, I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s flotilla celebration. It was organised by Scottish Canals, which I thank for all its work. I am looking forward to networking with our new councillors, our local community and local businesses.

I want us to continue to maximise the positive impact of the canal as a fantastic feature. As Fiona Hyslop’s motion suggests, it brings joy to all the people and communities who use and access it. Let us hope that it continues to do that for years to come.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

As other members have done, I thank Fiona Hyslop for securing this debate to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Union canal.

It is important to celebrate our canals not only as historical structures and visual testaments to our industrial heritage, but as thriving waterways that are increasingly being used to drive community regeneration and to provide an important amenity for communities near canal towpaths. That is certainly the case for the Forth and Clyde canal, which winds its way through my constituency of Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn. I thank Fiona Hyslop, again, for allowing me to say a little about that.

The Forth and Clyde canal was first discussed during the reign of Charles II, but work did not commence until June 1768, and the canal fully opened 22 years later. By 1775, the canal had been opened as far as Stockingfield junction in Maryhill. That is hugely significant because, later this summer, a new £13.7 million bridge will open there, funded by the Scottish Government, to complete the canal towpath network. The bridge will connect the communities of Ruchill, Maryhill and Gilshochill for the first time, and it will be the final link in completing the canal towpath.

Our canals will once again connect communities—not cut them off. I pay tribute to Scottish Canals for the work that it has done to champion improvements, and I reiterate the passion of Richard Millar, who is here today, and who Fiona Hyslop mentioned earlier.

Many members will be aware of the wonderful work that Scottish Canals has done at the Claypits reserve on the Forth and Clyde canal, the north bank of which sits in my constituency. It is Glasgow’s only inner-city nature reserve; it is magnificent parkland with breathtaking views. It is also the area from which clay was extracted to line the Forth and Clyde canal more than 200 years ago. Members should visit it. Of course, they should visit the Union canal first, because it is what today’s debate is about, but they should also visit the Claypits reserve, which is stunning.

However, the Claypits reserve is not just to be commended for its views and vibrant habitat, but because it benefits the communities that are on its doorstep, including Hamiltonhill and Wester Common in my constituency. The Claypits reserve is a key community asset of national significance that is right in the heart of areas that have been impacted by deprivation and associated issues for many years.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I whole-heartedly agree with Bob Doris about the Claypits. It is a wonderful area, but Sustrans and Glasgow City Council should also be commended for some of the new routes to the canal, which enable people in Bob Doris’s constituency to get to it more easily.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Mr Simpson is absolutely right, and I am pleased with his intervention. Because of time constraints, I cannot talk about all the partners that have supported that wonderful initiative, so I thank Mr Simpson for putting that on the record.

There has been an £8.8 million investment and there has been much community-led activity, just as was the case for the Union canal, as Fiona Hyslop said. Activity was community led through the Claypits local nature reserve’s management group. I want to put that on the record.

Commencing this year at Hamiltonhill, where there is much derelict land because of demolitions in years gone by, more than 670 new homes, including hundreds of social and mid-market rent properties, are being built by Glasgow City Council and Queens Cross Housing Association working in partnership. The canals network being used for positive change, and the smart canal being used for flooding solutions will mean that more than 3,000 homes will be built in the area in the years ahead.

With the time that I have left, I will take members back up to Stockingfield bridge in my constituency, where I started. I encourage members to walk the towpath up there, carry on up past Cadder woods, which the council has agreed to turn into a local nature reserve—although much work still needs to be done—and head on up to Lambhill Stables, which is a wonderful community anchor facility. If members do not want to walk that far, they should stay in the Maryhill area and go to Maryhill Locks and the White House, where they can look up at Osprey Heights of “Still Game” fame.

The area below is known affectionately as the Botany, which is short for Botany Bay, because it is where people who were deported to Australia used to start their journeys, many years ago. No such fate awaits visitors from the chamber—or, I certainly hope not. It is just one part of a great walking day out to celebrate the Forth and Clyde canal network in Maryhill and Springburn.

I will finish by saying that it is remiss of me not to have walked along the Union canal. I assure Fiona Hyslop that I will rectify that, and I thank her for lodging the motion and reminding all members in the chamber and beyond of the wonderful legacy of Scotland’s canal network—not least, the Union canal.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Doris. I am sure that Ms Hyslop will hold you to that undertaking.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I, too, thank Fiona Hyslop for bringing the debate to the chamber. It is poignant and right that we are debating the issue this afternoon.

As we have heard, Tuesday 3 March 1818 was a poignant day in the history of Scotland’s canals, as the first pickaxe was struck to mark the beginning of the construction of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union canal. It was a monumental project at the time—a contour canal designed by the engineer Hugh Baird and supported by the great Thomas Telford.

The new canal was to navigate from Edinburgh, through the lands of Lord Buchan, eventually joining with the Forth and Clyde canal at Falkirk and opening in 1822. Routing the initial plans from Edinburgh, it followed the contour line of the land and traversed through Ratho and Broxburn. Then, just after Linlithgow, the construction met with a hurdle—the basin surrounding the river Avon that crossed the path of the new canal’s route.

Hugh Baird consulted Thomas Telford on his plans to overcome that hurdle, which led to a hugely innovative design that resulted in the construction of a 12-arch ad—I cannot even say it—aqueduct, which, at the time, was the second-largest in Britain and the largest in Scotland.

An amazing achievement came more than 30 years after the Forth and Clyde canal was initially opened when Baird decided to join it with the canal from central Edinburgh at Falkirk. Thirty miles of lock-free level towpath was constructed, along with river crossings, with the canal finally dropping down to a single flight of 11 locks to the top of the Forth and Clyde canal’s 16-lock flight.

Canals bring truly fantastic engineering to the fore. As we have heard, the linking of the two canals was a magnificent idea. We have heard how the Falkirk wheel, which opened 20 years ago this month as part of the millennium link project, came about. It was the largest engineering project to have been undertaken by British Waterways in Scotland, which resulted in £78 million being spent on the Forth and Clyde and Union canals. It succeeded in linking the west and the east coast of Scotland with navigable waterways for the first time since the 1960s. Funded by the Millennium Commission, the millennium link has been invaluable in kick-starting public interest in such attractions and their microeconomies.

Lockdowns and the entire pandemic brought many acute difficulties to the fore, not least the isolation, loneliness and poor mental health that many people have experienced, all of which can be dealt with through the availability of resources such as the Union canal. Society needs to have such attractions close at hand, because they provide communities with the opportunity for joy.

The canal has generated interest among many visitors and organisations. As has been said, walkers, cyclists and boating enthusiasts have all taken part in celebrating its anniversary. In turn, many others are learning about our famous canal infrastructure, which, it is poignant to note, was once the envy of the world and was unquestionably fundamental.

The volunteers and partner organisations that have participated in the anniversary celebrations and supported the canal down the generations all need to be congratulated on their work and commended for what they have done. Along with British Waterways Scotland, Scottish Canals, the Scottish Waterways Trust and the lowland canals volunteer group have all played their part. It is thanks to them that we can enjoy the Union canal and participate in the celebrations that we are debating today, and I hope that we can continue to enjoy the canal for many years to come.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

In common with other members, I thank my friend and colleague Fiona Hyslop for bringing the debate to Parliament and for paying such a fitting tribute that managed to fit in all aspects of the subject, despite it being such an all-encompassing motion.

I hope that my short contribution brings some further insights, including the need for imagination and ambition for the future as we address the economic needs of Scotland today.

When it was first built, the Union canal was a tribute to the ingenuity and innovation of the designers and the builders of the day. Thirty-one and a half miles long and Scotland’s only contour canal, it was known locally at the time as “the mathematical river”, for good reason. It followed that 240-foot contour throughout its length, by way of 62 fixed bridges. That was a remarkable innovation, which allowed traffic to flow at speed and rendered locks unnecessary. The importance of that cannot be overestimated. What would be a considerable feat of engineering today was utterly remarkable and inspiring all those years ago.

The canal meanders through my constituency of Falkirk East—I must lay claim to the fact that it was Burke who worked on the canal at Maddiston in Falkirk East—from Westquarter in the west, traversing Polmont, running on towards the east side near Muiravonside and eventually heading across the remarkable Avon aqueduct and onwards to Edinburgh. Much of that has been covered today.

Not only was the canal a source of employment for many people in communities that are now part of Falkirk East, it smoothed supply chains, created spin-off enterprises and supported community development. It is remarkable to think that such a huge infrastructure development, with its innovative design built around the ambition to improve and facilitate trade, remains a great symbol of Scotland’s imagination and skills. That ingenuity and innovation are reflected today in the wonderful year-long programme of events that has already been mentioned.

We should aspire to be similarly imaginative about the future. I would like Falkirk East, and indeed the Forth valley, to become the hub for new investment aimed at sustainable international trade. We must set ourselves the task of emulating the foresight and drive that were so evident in the design and building of the canal 200 years ago.

I pay tribute to and thank the many people involved, in particular the leadership and board of Scottish Canals. Given my debate last week on the subject of women in business, it is inspiring to note that such an innovative programme is overseen by a board on which four of the six members are female, with Maureen Campbell as chair and Catherine Topley as chief executive.

Much of the debate has focused on the history of the canal and on the many celebration events. Here is my plea: the greatest tribute that we can pay to all those who have been involved from the time when the canal was merely an idea through to today is to mobilise such imagination, knowledge and skills once more in a major and ambitious programme to better engage Scotland with the wider world.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

My goodness! I find myself in complete agreement with Michelle Thomson. We do not always agree, but on this occasion I completely agree with every word that she has said.

I congratulate our colleague Fiona Hyslop on bringing the debate to the chamber.

I love campaigning. One of the many wonderful upsides of campaigning is that you get to know the area that you live in and represent so much better. That has been true of me and Falkirk in the past few months. I have been given the opportunity to really appreciate the importance of the Union canal to the Central Scotland economy, particularly in Falkirk, as Michelle Thomson so ably described.

The Union canal is home to the Falkirk wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. When it was opened by Her Majesty the Queen, as part of her golden jubilee celebrations in 2002, it connected the Union canal to the Forth and Clyde canal for the first time since the 1930s. Her Majesty the Queen visited Falkirk again 15 years later to officially open the Queen Elizabeth II canal, Scotland’s newest inland waterway, beside the Kelpies. The Queen Elizabeth II canal is a world-class marine hub, which shows the economic importance of our canals, including the Union canal. The Falkirk wheel and the Kelpies show how Scotland’s canals remain among our great tourist attractions, with both venues receiving more than half a million visitors a year before the Covid pandemic.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I suggest to Stephen Kerr that he might want to take advantage of the Forth bike hub at the Falkirk wheel. He could cycle by electric bike from the Falkirk wheel to the Kelpies and back again. The bike hub is a great resource. Michelle Thomson might want to do likewise.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am attracted to the idea of riding an e-bike. I enjoy riding e-bikes, as long as that does not involve returning to East Kilbride up all the hills that Mr Simpson described.

I will come to the importance of active travel on canals.

Despite the success that I was describing, we cannot afford to become complacent. We must continually seek ways to promote the benefits that the Union canal brings to the people and economy of Falkirk. That is why I was delighted to hear that the Falkirk growth deal, signed by the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments and Falkirk Council, will result in the development of lock 16 in Camelon. The development will see the Union canal directly resulting in job creation, training and community engagement throughout the Falkirk area.

Another part of the Falkirk growth deal is the commitment to create an active travel network that connects Falkirk’s tourist sites with its high street. That is very much needed. My Conservative colleagues in Falkirk and I believe that that network must utilise the Union canal, making it easier to walk, cycle and, indeed, use e-bikes, along its banks.

We also want to conserve the natural beauty of the Union canal so, during the construction of the active travel network, we must focus on a design that complements the natural beauty that the canal already provides. That means that we need to address something that has not been mentioned so far: the litter problem that we often find alongside the canal.

Recently, I walked along the canal, and I must confess that the sight was not as pretty as it should have been, because of the discarded empty drink cans and crisp packets, and all the other detritus that we sometimes find alongside the very beautiful sites that we have in Scotland. An appropriate way of celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Union canal would therefore perhaps be to launch a campaign to clean up alongside it. Local authorities should work with community groups along the whole of the canal to see such a project to its completion.

During its 200-year history, the Union canal has continuously demonstrated how important it is for central Scotland’s economic development and tourism yet, to echo what Michelle Thomson said, I do not believe that we are yet fulfilling its full potential. To support the Falkirk wheel, the Kelpies and the natural beauty of the canal, we must continue to invest in it by cleaning up the view that it provides to its visitors and by delivering a state-of-the art active travel network along its banks.

That must be music to the ears of the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights, who, I presume, will now speak.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We will soon find out. I call Patrick Harvie to respond to the debate.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

As other members have done, I warmly congratulate Fiona Hyslop on lodging the motion for debate.

Unless I am wide of the mark in reading the room, there has been nothing dry about any of the contributions. Members from across the chamber have taken real enjoyment in sharing their personal experiences of the Union canal and Scotland’s other canals, and in discussing not only their older history and the more recent history of their regeneration but the hopes for the future. I am therefore pleased to have the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Government, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Union canal and its contribution to Scotland.

Scotland’s canals have been on an extraordinary journey over those 200 years, and today provides a fitting opportunity to celebrate that impressive and enduring example of Scotland’s engineering past and the contribution that the canals make in the present and will continue to make in the future.

It is amazing, when travelling down what, today, is a relatively peaceful Union canal, to think of it as having once been the beating heart of an industrial revolution, transporting coal from Falkirk and further afield to power the factories of the capital.

The Union canal’s relevance has changed remarkably since then, but it is still very relevant. Its refurbishment back in the 1970s, when volunteers’ amazing efforts turned the canal around, is something that Scotland and those communities must be proud of. Its transformation over those years has led to its uses evolving dramatically, with the creation of fantastic outdoor spaces that are used in so many different ways.

My favourite recollection is from when I was convener of the Parliament’s Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. Back in those days, the Parliament’s committees were a little too enthusiastic about booking boring, sterile and overpriced meeting rooms in posh hotels for their annual awaydays. I thought, “How dull”, so I persuaded our committee clerks to book a canal barge, which was operated by a social enterprise and decked out as a boardroom, for the conduct of our awayday, and various slightly surprised committee members and expert witnesses discussed our work programme as we pottered up to Ratho and back. That was much more enjoyable than any committee awayday in a boring hotel room.

The Union canal is now the vibrant space that it deserves to be, in contrast to what it was 20 years ago, before the investment through the millennium link project. It was really encouraging and rewarding to listen to members, including Fiona Hyslop, Gordon MacDonald and Sarah Boyack, remembering the steps that have been taken on that journey towards the canal’s regeneration.

Today, people live on the canal. There are barges for private and community use. It is used by clubs and schools for canoe activities. People walk, wheel and cycle on the towpath in increasing numbers. That is replicated across our other canals in Scotland. About 115 boats are currently moored on the Union canal, and more than 70 of them are houseboats, which is fantastic.

The public value that we place on the Union canal is very different from the industrial purposes that it had when it was built, but it and the wider canal network are real contributors to some of the contemporary, modern themes that face Scotland. They are hugely important for tourism, health and wellbeing, sustainability and, as nature corridors, supporting biodiversity. As some members reflected, the importance of outdoor spaces during and since the pandemic cannot be overstated. Our canals and their towpaths have performed, and continue to perform, a major role in relation to that. That is true not only of the Union canal but of Scotland’s other canals.

I have seen some of the fantastic work that has been undertaken by Scottish Canals and its partner organisations to build creative active travel infrastructure. In fact, the first visit that I made after taking on my ministerial job was when I had the pleasure of attending Bowling harbour for the opening of the bowline. An excellent piece of work was done there to redevelop 18th century infrastructure and transform a disused railway viaduct into a fully accessible active travel route that will benefit people in the local community and beyond. I very much enjoyed being one of the first people to cycle on that fantastic new linear park.

Not only as the minister with responsibility for active travel but as someone who uses the canal towpath regularly to visit family, I see the importance of redeveloping that outdoor infrastructure for the 21st century, improving people’s health and wellbeing and encouraging green commuting. I did not put my hand up when Graham Simpson asked about doing the whole Glasgow to Edinburgh route. Being based in Glasgow, I am more often found on the Forth and Clyde canal out to Loch Lomond and back. I have done the Glasgow to Falkirk leg and will do that again early in the summer recess. If I feel energetic, I might make the whole trip through to Edinburgh—who knows? However, it might feel a little bit too much like coming to work.

I also recently visited the Stockingfield bridge, which Bob Doris mentioned. That is another example of Scottish Canals working well collaboratively with others—in that case, to reconnect the three communities of Ruchill, Gilshochill and Maryhill in north Glasgow and complete the last linkage in the Forth and Clyde canal towpath. I do not particularly like the use of the word “iconic”—it is often overused for such structures—but I have seen the development of that bridge so far and am really looking forward to it opening. It will feel very special once it is there.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

The minister will be aware that vibrant community arts projects are wrapped around the Stockingfield bridge in order to get proper community buy-in. Does he agree that the use of community art for such large infrastructure developments is really important in getting proper community buy-in to such iconic structures?

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I could not have put that better. There is something important about encouraging people to celebrate, feel celebratory and feel that they have created something themselves. The Stockingfield bridge will be a very good example of that, and I encourage all members to go and see it for themselves once it opens.

Communities must play an important part in regeneration. It cannot just be done to people; it must be done with, by and among them. The people whom I have met on my ministerial visits have given examples of communities being involved in the way that Bob Doris described and have taken a sense of ownership of their local spaces. There are many such community groups along Scotland’s canals. They do great work, and some have been mentioned today.

There is also a strong boating community using our canals, and there are exciting developments to improve that experience. Fiona Hyslop noted the exciting £1 billion Winchburgh project, which is being developed with the Union canal at its heart, and which, once complete, will provide a new marina with residential houses as well as moorings. Other great examples of inclusive projects on the Union canal include Seagull Trust Cruises, which adapts boats in order to take disabled people out on the canal.

I take this opportunity to thank everybody—the people and the communities—who lives, works and is active on Scotland’s canal network. Through their efforts, they are making the canals the fascinating and colourful places that they need to be.

The way that you are looking at me, Presiding Officer, suggests that we are coming to the end of our time, but I want to make one final important point. Research clearly shows that the wider regeneration work around Scotland’s canals has a social purpose, too. For example, it has been shown that the regeneration of the Forth and Clyde canal has reduced mortality rates and lowered the risk of chronic health conditions for those living alongside it. We need to take responsibility for some of the issues that have been mentioned with regard to litter and, indeed, safety. Concerns have been expressed particularly about women’s safety on our canals; I make it clear that everybody has the right to enjoy these wonderful assets in an inclusive and safe way. The Scottish Government will continue to support Scottish Canals and many others in looking after these historic assets for the benefit of those communities.

I join everyone in celebrating the historic, economic, environmental and social value of the Union canal and others in its bicentenary year, look forward to participating in some of the activities that have been planned for the celebration, wish everyone taking part in tomorrow’s flotilla the very best and, once again, thank everyone who lives and works around Scotland’s canals for making them what they are. I look forward to seeing their relevance continue for many years to come.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you very much, minister. Your reading of body language is impeccable.

That concludes the debate. I suspend the meeting until 2.30 pm.

13:36 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—