Saturday, June 12, 2010

Och aye the new

Heaven forfend that I should get sucked into the offensive laziness that is national stereotypes - but it does seem appropriate that I've just managed to squeeze another story out of my trip to Scotland three years ago. Nothing wrong with a bit of frugality, it's how I was brought up, and there isn't any Scottish heritage in my ancestry - that I'm aware of, though they did scatter far and wide, thanks to the auld enemy south of the border, in its upper-class landowner incarnation.

Anyway, one of the things in the story was the Falkirk Wheel, which I visited on the recommendation of a Burke-sympathiser in the Surgeon's Museum in Edinburgh (he thought grave-robber/murderer Burke had suffered from bad press). "It's the 8th Wonder of the World!" he claimed, so off I duly trotted, getting snarled up in a horrendous town by-pass system that had more roundabouts than you could shake a stick at. I swear I went at least seven sides of an octagon to get there.

But it was worth it: an astonishing piece of modern engineering built to rescue an old one. The Union Canal, finished in 1822, was designed to follow one contour all the way from Edinburgh to Falkirk, using aqueducts and tunnels to keep level so that no time-consuming locks would be necessary. But then the railways took over and the canal system languished for a hundred years till recreational boaties came along.

The Wheel is designed to lift a boat and the water it's floating on up 35 metres to where the Forth and Clyde canal stops in mid-air, where with some whirring and clanking it's able to transfer, while another boat on the other side does the opposite. It's crazy, ingenious and impressive - and also surprisingly economical (if you discount the £17.5 million it cost to build). In what always seems to me a sweet and typically British shorthand, each rotation of the wheel uses only the power that it would take to boil 8 tea-kettles.

And besides the engineering marvel, there are also a couple of fabulous artworks of Kelpies - mythical water-horses - that one day, Lotto funds willing, will be incorporated on a much larger scale (30 metres high) into the Wheel itself.

Worth seeing: go there. Falkirk is halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

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