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Young People Lead Excavation of the Nationally Important Historic Lock Flight in Falkirk

22 October 2013

A two hundred year old lock flight which has been buried from view since the 1930s will be excavated by young students at the Scottish Waterway Trust’s innovative new canal college and brought back to life as a heritage attraction at The Falkirk Wheel.


The shallow excavation of one of the locks and the trial trenches designed to locate two other buried locks within the nationally important Falkirk lock flight, is the ‘signature’ project of the two year canal college initiative.

“Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Union Interreg IVB North West Europe project ‘Green & Blue Futures’, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish Canals, canal college has been designed by the Scottish Waterways Trust to help tackle youth unemployment in Falkirk and Edinburgh.”

Through the pioneering initiative, young people between 16 and 25 years of age, who have not been able to secure a job or place in further education or training, have the opportunity to gain heritage and environment skills through a wide range of practical projects outdoors on the Forth & Clyde and Union canals.

Falkirk Provost Pat Reid joined the young canal college students as they embarked on the project at the historic Falkirk flight, which featured eleven locks and connected the Union and Forth & Clyde canals until it was filled in between the 1930s, when the canals fell into disuse, and the 1960s, when they were officially closed to navigation.

Over the next two years, the young students on each of the 14 week long programmes will work on the first three locks at the top of the flight. These locks beside the Union Canal remain accessible though the lower section of the lock flight, beside the Forth & Clyde Canal, was built over during the 1960s.

During the excavation, which is assisted by Scottish Canals’ heritage specialists and Archaeology Scotland and supported by Historic Scotland, the students and their volunteer mentors will learn how to archive, research and survey buried locks and listed structures and discover the engineering behind the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, which are both Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

After revealing the coping stones and upper chamber walls during the vegetation clearance and shallow excavation, the students will survey and record the condition of what they find.

This baseline research will help Scottish Canals, which recently launched a new Heritage Strategy, as the organisation considers the long-term preservation of the lock flight.

Following the excavation and survey work, the excavated lock ‘bed’ will then be soiled and seeded with grass and wildflowers so that people can visit and enjoy this new heritage attraction going forward.

It is hoped that following the excavation, canal college students will also help create interpretation materials telling the story of the lock flight and its modern day counterpart, The Falkirk Wheel. These materials may include interpretation boards at the lock flight and guided walks from The Falkirk Wheel.

Falkirk Provost Pat Reid officially marked the start of the project saying:

“I know this spot very well having lived next to Lock 16 basin for several years as a child. In fact, the area was our playground and I can remember the remains of the old locks still evident in the undergrowth. At the time there was also still a spur off the main railway line, which served the distillery and the local cooperage. Consequently this canal college project in particular is of great personal interest and I looking forward to seeing the young people in action over coming months.”

Karen Moore, Chief Executive of the Scottish Waterways Trust, said:

“canal college has been designed to equip young people who are furthest from the job market with a wide range of heritage and environment skills. The learning opportunities of working on such an important and exciting live heritage project like this are fantastic.

“The students will gain invaluable experience in helping preserve an important part of the rich heritage of the Scottish canal network. They will also gain the satisfaction of creating a new heritage attraction which will be enjoyed by the communities of Falkirk as well as the 400,000 visitors welcomed by The Falkirk Wheel each year.”

Chris O’Connell, Heritage Advisor at Scottish Canals, added:

“Not only is this a very interesting and educative project for the canal college students, but it is an important initial investigation into the condition of the lock flight which will help inform Scottish Canals future approach to the maintenance needs of this historic canal feature, as well as enhancing the visitor experience.”

Rory McDonald, senior heritage management officer at Historic Scotland, said:

“This is an exciting and worthwhile project for which we were happy to grant consent.  The canal college will raise awareness of our historic environment and how we manage and conserve it among a younger audience. Hopefully they will enjoy the experience as well as develop valuable skills and knowledge as a result.”

Cara Jones, Archaeology Scotland Project Officer, concluded:

“Archaeology Scotland is delighted to be part of canal college. Not only is this signature project recording the baseline condition of a nationally important monument, it is helping young people develop transferable skills and gain a better understanding of Scotland’s very important industrial and commercial heritage and world-leading civil engineering.”

In addition to working on the signature project, volunteer participants and their volunteer mentors at canal college undertake a wide range of practical projects. Topics include landscaping, tree planting and vegetation management, wildlife conservation, trail creation, canal engineering, maintenance and management.

The students and their mentors also work towards a number of awards to boost their CV, including the Saltire Volunteer Award, John Muir Award (Discovery level), Youth Achievement Award (Bronze level) and canal college Award.

Help with job seeking and interview skills is also given.

Issued on behalf the Scottish Waterways Trust by Joanna Harrison: 07884 187404

Notes to Editors

The Scottish Waterways Trust (SWT)
SWT creates brighter futures for people and places across Scotland through our canals

By connecting people with the heritage, wildlife and green open spaces of the Scottish canals through innovative projects, SWT inspires people to get active, improve their health and mental well-being, employment prospects and community life.

These projects, which connect people with the built, natural and cultural heritage of the canals and include the creation of new and enhanced access, landscaping, interpretation and recreational amenities, help people make positive changes to their life whilst also improving and enhancing their canalside environment.

SWT has five strategic areas of activity: Communities and Regeneration; Learning and Skills Development; Health; Volunteering and Environment and Heritage.

Further information on SWT, including how to get involved or donate, can be found at  You can also keep up to date with news and chat to SWT on Twitter and Facebook.

About the Heritage Lottery Fund

Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) aims to make a lasting difference for heritage, people and communities across the UK and help build a resilient heritage economy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage.  HLF has supported more than 3,000 projects with an investment of over £611million across Scotland.   

The History of the Falkirk Lock Flight

The Forth & Clyde Canal opened in 1790. Known as ‘the Great Canal’ in the early years, the waterway connected east and west coasts, between Bowling on the Firth of Clyde and Grangemouth on the Firth of Forth, with a short spur into Glasgow.

The Union Canal, which extends between Edinburgh and Falkirk, was built to transfer coal from the west into the capital. The waterway opened in 1822 and connected to the Forth & Clyde Canal through the original flight of eleven locks at Falkirk.

When the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, both Scheduled Ancient Monuments, were reopened through the £83.5m Lottery funded Millennium Link Project over a decade ago, the top section of the flight of eleven locks had been built over so an alternative method of connecting the canals was sought.

Whilst the original lock flight took a day to travel through, the world’s only rotating boatlift, The Falkirk Wheel, now lifts boats between the canals in a matter of minutes using only the electricity required to boil eight kettles and Archimedes principle of water displacement.

The entrance to the lock flight at Lock 16 on the Forth & Clyde Canal at Port Downie became a hub for industries including metal and chemical works, distilleries and inns. These included the Union Inn which was listed on the first edition Ordnance Survey map of 1860 and which still stands today and is recognised as a B listed building.

Lock 10, the first lock to be excavated, was originally 69 feet long, 12 feet 6 inches wide and 10 feet deep.

Issued on behalf the Scottish Waterways Trust by Joanna Harrison: 07884 187 404