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The Falkirk Wheel
VIDEO 13th–14th July 2009

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4 minutes


Falkirk Wheel

The Falkirk Wheel

(everything you were afraid to ask)


A MUST-SEE tourist attraction if you are in the Central Scotland Area. This technological marvel is centrally located between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling and has good public transport links.

Once upon a time, heavy things were moved in small quantities by horse drawn carts. This was slow and very costly. As the Industrial Revolution got underway, there was a need to move large quantities of heavy stuff like coal and iron over greater distances. People started to build canals.

The Forth and Clyde Canal cut Scotland in two with a line running from the river Clyde at Glasgow on the west coast to the river Forth on the east coast at Grangemouth.
I guess the folks from Edinburgh were feeling a bit left out. They decided to build the Union Canal, a sort of branch canal to join up with the Forth & Clyde Canal.
When the two canals met, there was an embarrassing height difference of 35 metres. Eleven lock gates were built to get the boats from one canal to the other.

Time passed and railways took over the function of canals. More time passed and big diesel lorries took over the tasks of both. Global warming, asthma epidemics and the like, were considered a small price to pay for speedy delivery.
The canals decayed. The eleven lock gates disappeared under housing developments and industrial sites. The last few miles of the Union Canal just vanished.

Enter the 21st Century with new ideas and new money from something called The Lottery. The Millennium Project was under way to reinstate the above canals. The original eleven lock gates would not be rebuilt. We would have a giant boat-lift — a Falkirk Wheel.

Falkirk Wheel boat AntonineNo expense was spared to entertain the visitors and two special boats were built to carry passengers up to the Union Canal and back down again — bit like the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ (it’s a British joke).

One boat is called the Antonine, after the defensive earth-wall barrier built by the Roman army 2,000 years ago and named after their leader Antoninous. The Antonine wall follows the Forth and Clyde canal fairly closely, cutting Scotland in two. It protected the wimp-like Romans from us fierce Northern Tribes of Britain.

Falkirk Wheel boat ArchimedesThe other boat is called the Archimedes, after the old Greek guy whose maid filled his bathtub to the brim. Archimedes jumped into the bath and ruined the new laminate-flooring when the water overflowed.
archimedes bathtubHe had just discovered the Law of Flotation and in his excitement he cried out, “Eureka !” His maid replied, “You’re no rose-garden yourself, Archi !”

Archimedes’ principles were used to produce a perfectly balanced rotating boat lift at Falkirk.
A Gondola (a huge bath tub), is fitted at each end of the one big spoke on the Falkirk Wheel.
Each Gondola weighs 300 tons when full of water.
Float a twenty ton boat in a Gondola and twenty tons of water spill out, keeping the Gondola’s weight at a constant 300 tons.

Falkirk Wheel graphic

If you are sitting in the boat, wondering what you weigh, when a smarty-pants friend tells you that the Falkirk Wheel turns clockwise, he is fifty percent correct. The other fifty percent of rotations is done anti-clockwise.
This is to promote even wear on the massive bearings. The direction is dictated by the Wheel Operator. This person, hidden away from public view, is psychic and knows which direction most of the customers expect the wheel to turn — then turns it in the opposite direction.

Bearing Warning ! — when your average Scottish person pronounces the word ‘Bearing’ it will often sound like ‘Bayrin’ or even ‘Bairn’.
‘Bairn’ is a Scottish word meaning ‘child’. The folk of Falkirk have hijacked this word to produce the term ‘Falkirk Bairn’ and if you meet someone who proudly declares that he is a ‘Bairn’, he is from Falkirk.

Falkirk Dictionary definitions:
Bairn — a person from Falkirk.
Bearing — a big round metal thing in the Falkirk Wheel.

Falkirk Wheel tunnelAfter about four minutes travelling round the wheel, you go for a short sail along the new aqueduct and through the new tunnel that cuts through the Antonine wall.
As the boat-driver brings the vessel about, you notice two individual lock gates that do the final climb to the Union Canal.

Immediately you realise that the Falkirk Wheel did not replace all of the original eleven gates.
The lily-livered bosses in charge of the railway company, famous for cancelling services when there are some 'wet leaves on the line', went into seizure at the idea of 'canal-boats overhead' and a compromise was reached — the canal travels underneath the railway.
Had the railway chiefs had the courage of their Celtic ancestors, we might have had an even bigger Falkirk Wheel with even bigger ‘bayrins’.

Falkirk Wheel Irn Bru play areaYou can just sit in the restaurant and sip your latté while watching through the ‘mother-of-all glass windows’ as others venture forth on their uplifting inter-canal experience.
There are areas to interest the kids but when it’s dry, you will be dragged up to the Irn Bru play area.

You can easily spend a full afternoon at the Falkirk Wheel and in theory you don’t have to spend any money — even the car-parks are free.

Get all the latest times and prices at the official Falkirk Wheel Website.

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