24th May 2002

The Falkirk Wheel opens for business

The Millennium Link Project was an ambitious scheme to reinstate the canal between Glasgow and Edinburgh, which hadn’t been navigable since the 1930s. One of the biggest engineering projects ever undertaken in the history of British Waterways, it was launched in 1994, and work started five years later.

Falkirk Wheel
Falkirk Wheel

Part of the renovation involved the replacement of a flight of locks between the Union Canal and the Forth & Clyde Canal with a single, elegant rotary lift, known as the Falkirk Wheel, that moved canal boats, in a trough of water, between the levels. The £78m project was part-funded by a grant from the Millennium Commission. Supplementary funding was provided by British Waterways, the European Regional Development Fund, Scottish Enterprise Network and local authorities.

Important junction

The Falkirk Wheel, which marks the half-way point of the route between Glasgow and Edinburgh, is an elegant replacement for ten of the 11 locks that previously joined the two canals. One further lock is at the higher level, at the entrance of the Union Canal. Its opening significantly shortened the time taken to travel between the two cities by canal. Where it previously took a day to navigate the full stairway of 11 locks, on top of any additional journey time, it’s now possible to traverse from one canal to the other, by way of the wheel, in less than an hour.

Donald Dewar, who would later become Scotland’s first First Minister, cut the first sod on the construction site in March 1999. Upon its completion in 2002, it was opened by the Queen.

In the interim, the 1200 tonne structure had been built in pieces, in Derbyshire, fully constructed, then dismantles and transported to Falkirk by road. Upon its arrival, more than 1000 construction staff put the 25-metre-tall lift back together. The three-year building project required the use of more than 15,000 bolts, each of which was tightened by hand.

Impressive engineering

The completed wheel consists of a single rotating arm with a tank on either end. Each tank contains quarter of a million litres of water, weighing 500 tonnes, and is designed to rotate within a circular aperture at its end of the arm so that it always remains upright. When a boat enters one of the tanks, it displaces its own weight in water, so whether there’s a boat and water – or just water – in the tank, the weight will always be 500 tonnes, so both ends of the arm remain balanced.

Falkirk’s Helix Park and the Kelpies, which are around 23 miles from either end of the canal, were also developed as part of the same project. They sit beside a visitors’ centre and turning pool for canal boats.

Falkirk Wheel
Falkirk Wheel



Other events that occured in May

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