Edinburgh Outdoors: The Union Canal
Another one of my favourite places to enjoy the Edinburgh Outdoors is the Union Canal. Not everyone even knows or realises that we have a canal here in the city. It’s not as grand or glamorous as, say, Amsterdam or Venice, but I do think it has its own particular charms and always recommend it for folks who have a few extra days to say in the city.
The thirty mile canal was built in the early 1800s as a transportation canal. As other more cost effective and efficient options came into use, and the canal eventually closed due to lack of maintenance. The last two decades have seen a huge revival in the canal’s status, with amenities being built along the route and the entire path now clear for sailing journeys.
The canal is a ‘contour canal,’ which means it was built taking into account the natural landscape that was already there. In other words, it wasn’t a forced straight line (like freeways sometimes are), but instead curves with the natural features. This is one of the reasons it’s such a lovely walk.
You can access the canal from Edinburgh’s Tollcross neighbourhood in a place called Edinburgh Quay (map) – also known as Lochrin Basin. There are cafes and coffeeshops nearby, such as Two Thin Laddies, so if you’re making a day of it, you might want to grab something takeaway to enjoy on the way in case you get hungry or thirsty.
Quickly, you’ll notice how the canal seems to be a world of it’s own, despite the city rising up around it. There aren’t that many access point onto the path, for one, and the ones that are there are kind of hidden, which adds to the mystique I think.
The views change so quickly too. One minute you’resort of in a light industrial area, and then you’re looking into the windows of flats who are lucky enough to have a waterfront view. Then you’re in the middle of parks and playgrounds, then a forest. It’s simply lovely.
Sights Along the Way
The canal has lots of lovely sights along the way. The most interesting to me are the aqueducts – canal bridges. These narrow bridges carry a lane of water over roads and valleys to keep the canal level nice and smooth. We normally think of an aqueduct as carrying water to drink, but indeed you can sail down them too.
Other interesting places along the route:
- Row Club: There’s a row club that operates not far from Edinburgh Quay. It’s always fun to see what they’re up to, and their simple but old world clubhouse is beautiful.
- Railway Bridges: For many portions of the route, the railway line runs parallel but a bit in the distance. This affords some fantastic views of the railway bridges – you don’t have to go to the highlands to see some of the most gorgeous ones.
- Public Art: During the Millennium Project, which finalised the restoration of the entire route to pristine condition, a lot of public art was installed. Much of it is perplexing, and it’s often hard to spot since all of it is brown (blends in). But keep an eye out.
So, the path is only on one side of the canal, you can’t head down one side and back the other – you’ll have to double back on yourself if you want to end up back in Edinburgh Quay. But that isn’t so bad, to be honest.
In my Historic Walking Guide, I actually suggest you walk the route all the way to the Almond Viaduct (map), which is beautiful, but it also provides stairway access to the Water of Leith, which you can walk back into town. This is where the Water of Leith visitor’s centre is, so you can stop for restrooms and refreshments. (Or you can catch a bus here too.) If you choose this option, you’ll be gone for the better part of a full half-day, so be sure to consider carefully as once you’re this far along the route the opportunity to change your plans will not present itself!
The Union Canal carries along all the way to Falkirk, and ends at the unique boat lock called the Falkirk Wheel. It’s not possible to walk there in a day (most walkers split it up into three different portions), but you can walk pretty far and still enjoy yourself. If you want a full day out, I suggest you let your feet take you to Ratho Station (map) where a pub and a bus stop are waiting for you.
Photos Copyright Andy Hayes, from the Edinburgh Historic Walking Guide
ALochrinFountain Bdge Road, Edinburgh EH3 9RU, United KingdomView Details and Book
BWater Of Leith Conservation Trust24 Lanark Road, Edinburgh EH14 1TQ, United KingdomView Details and Book
CRatho Station, Newbridge, MidlothianRatho Station, Newbridge, Midlothian, Newbridge, , GBView Details and Book