This thread was originally written and published in April 2018. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
This morning I traced the routes of 4 canals that were proposed in the early 19th c. in Edinburgh to reach Leith Docks. John Rennie the Elder’s in yellow, Robert “Lighthouse” Stevenson’s 2 options in light blue and Hugh Baird’s extension to Union Canal in red
Stevenson proposed a route down the Dean Gorge but, also like Baird and Rennie, a route down a series of locks parallel to Easter Road. Baird and Stevenson both proposed routes through what is now Princes St. Gardens, which at the time was still the boggy remains of the Nor’ Loch. Such was the expectation that the canal would come through, a street was even pre-emptively named in its honour
A combination of that over-eagerness, the Railway mania that was soon to come and Edinburgh’s challenging geography resulted in no canal beyond Fountainbridge, but a very dry railway station called Canal Street!
I will revisit this later once I’ve looked out some more interesting canal trivia, but in the mean time, have a think of what the magnificent locks of Easter Road (“Begbie’s Staircase”?) might have looked like
This report highlights why Stevenson proposed 2 different routes. It was all about cost. By 1817, when this report was published, between Edinburgh and Leith stood a lot of new and expensive property, most of it owned by the kind of people who wouldn’t roll over for a canal. Stevenson’s survey found that the drop between the contour line that the main canal would follow and the prospective sea lock into the Leith Docks basin was a distance of 158 feet. This can be realistically overcome by 14 locks each of 12 feet 2 inches drop.
But whatever route you take, you have to either skirt around the south and east side of the New Town or go around the north and west of it. Hence, Stevenson’s 2 different lines. A tunnel was considered through Calton Hill to simplify that end of the eastern route, but it was estimated it would be cheaper to simply buy up and demolish property there and accept the diversion.
You don’t need to take my word for it, here are the great man’s own:
Now THIS is interesting. Stevenson gives 2 proposals for the route through the Prince’s (the old spelling) St. Gardens – one which would have re-flooded the western Nor’ Loch and the other which would have formed an ornamental basin to the east where Waverley Station now stands.
Notice how Stevenson, ever the practical man, appeals to the vanity and wallets of the New Town riche by implying his canal will bring them beauty and unearned wealth. I should point out here that Stevenson’s Plan was to connect to the Forth and Clyde canal by way of a level contour canal along the Almond Valley – not directly to the Union Canal at Fountainbridge. The Union Canal as finally built to Baird’s plan was to the north of this.
Stevenson didn’t stop there though, he further proposed his own contour route from the junction with the Forth & Clyde Canal all the way to Glasgow – “without the intervention of a single lock”. It was only to get down to the Clyde and Forth that (14 each) locks were required.
You have to remember that at this time the Clyde wasn’t particularly navigable by large ships. Stevenson’s reasoning was that industry and commerce would benefit from being able to discharge cargoes onto canal boats and then directly to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leith
Stevenson then goes off track a bit and pontificates about other schemes and the future of canals in general; he envisages his line as the primary highway between Glasgow and Edinburgh and other canal radiating off at either end into East Lothian, Ayrshire etc. Interestingly, there’s a glimpse of the future here; Stevenson mentions the prospect of lateral (canal) cuts, or rail roads, branching off the canal to take it nearer to coal workings, which were expected to be the primary revenue.
This is how engineers were thinking at the time. Railways were to be a cheap and quick way to connect lots of coal mines (which were pretty transient at this point, not big, fixed, long-term concerns) to more efficient methods of shipping. i.e. boats and ships.
Next we come to solutions to having to entice passengers through tunnels. Various schemes for lights in the tunnel or on the boats are described, lights and awnings would make the boats “both cheerful and comfortable”. Or better yet, why not make it a night time sleeper service!
You have to hand it to Stevenson, he really was quite a visionary. Having successfully made his boats comfortable and attractive, he now proposes how they might be propelled by steam (this based largely on a picture of one he had seen “in the hands of a gentleman”):
Of course, a canal this grand and important needs a grand and important name, and he proposes the “EDINBURGH AND GLASGOW GRAND JUNCTION CANAL“.
Anyway, back to coal. The early history of canals and railways in Edinburgh are largely all about getting coal into the city. The citizens of Edina had long been held to ransom by the carters who brought it from Midlothian or Lanarkshire, and it was cheaper to bring it in by sea
so it was very important to Stevenson that the Leith branch should and must be built, as that would allow Fife and East Lothian coal to arrive directly into the city along the coast and then via his canal.
Indeed he was even thinking about coal from as far away as north England (bringing it by sea was relatively cheap and easy compared to bringing it by road from Midlothian). He infers to the supply problems here also.
After all, Edinburgh and Leith were large (and growing) towns, with many people, and people needed coal. Lots of it. About 7.5 tons per family per annum indeed!
But you can’t eat coal. People also need food, and Stevsnson had an answer for that. His canal would bring you potatoes. And turnips. And et cetera. All the potatoes and turnips and et cetera you could eat!
This isn’t so much a plan for a canal, indeed he gets that bit out of the way quite soon in his document. This is basically a massive re-imagining of the supply and distribution system of central Scotland and the planning for a prosperous future. There is no reason why this canal, should not promote commerce wherever it goes and why anyone who invests in it should not become fabulously wealthy (in Stevenson’s humble opinion). Indeed, so profitable and industrious would it be between Edinburgh and Leith alone, that he is already mulling over widening it before he has even concluded writing his initial proposal.
I skim read the whole document hoping for more details on the route through central Edinburgh, although it really doesn’t provide any more than you can conclude from looking at a map. This was a high-level proposal, not a detailed scheme. But what is amusing (to me anyway) is Stevenson’s postscript where he hints that a “Committee of the Merchants and Inhabitants of Leith” may be partly behind his proposal being so strong in its conviction that Leith needed a canal.
While the citizenry of Leith are currently circling their wagons in defence or defiance of a tram line into the city, 201 years ago they were actively lobbying the pre-eminent light of Scottish engineering to dig canals though their front and back yards.
If you got this far, thanks for reading and I hope you learned something about the pre-Victorian Scottish canal utopia that never was.
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