Canals and shipbuilding local history

The CanalImage of Boats on Canal

The idea of making a canal across central Scotland had been put forward as early as the reign of Charles II but nothing really was done until the middle of the eighteenth century.  The Forth and Clyde Canal  - The Great Canal, as it was called in its early days -  was the result of a compromise between Edinburgh promoters, who wanted a canal "big enough to take seagoing costal vessels", and Glasgow merchants, who wanted a smaller, cheaper canal.  In fact the latter feared they would lose trade if the canal by-passed Glasgow, and so when a branch to the city was added to the plan they gave their consent. Work began on 10th June 1768.  The canal was built from east to west, and the whole construction took 22 years, including a seven year break during which no work was carried out because of shortage of funds. The canal extends from the Forth at Grangemouth to Bowling on the Clyde, with a short branch to Port Dundas in Glasgow.

Kirkintilloch's canal basin at Southbank was an important canal site.  In 1826 the Monkland & Kirkintilloch Railway established a terminus at Southbank, for shipment of coal from the Monklands. The basin was laid out in the 1830s and iron foundries were later established nearby.  Raw material and fuel were brought in and finished castings sent out by boat.

Other industries were also set up beside the canal. Bellfield Works, originally a calico printworks, was taken over by the Springbank Chemical Company, who manufactured fertilisers and other chemical products.  It later became a whisky distillery.  F. McNeill and Company were based at the foot of Luggiebank Road and made roofing felt.

The world's first practical steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, sailed on the canal as did Scotland's first iron vessel, the Vulcan.  The canal gave birth to the puffers of Vital Spark fame and played host to a delightful fleet of pleasure steamers, the Fairy, May and Gipsy Queens.

Kirkintilloch grocer James Aitken introduced these famous pleasure steamers in 1893.  Cruises on the Queens between Port Dundas and Craigmarloch were popular as summer evening and weekend afternoon excursions.

The last of the Queens stopped sailing in 1939 and in 1963 the canal was closed.  It was then seen as a dirty, decaying relic of an industrial past. During the 1970s, however, dynamic revival began.

Cruising returned to the canal in 1981 when the Forth and Clyde Canal Society began sailing the Ferry Queen from Glasgow Road Bridge, near Kirkintilloch, to Bishopbriggs.

The Forth and Clyde Canal is part of the huge redevelopment project known as "The Millennium Link".  The canal was reopened from coast to coast in May 2001, and a year later the 'Falkirk Wheel' was opened, as a boatlift linking the Forth and Clyde to the neighbouring Union Canal.


A boatbuilding yard was established beside Townhead Bridge, Kirkintilloch by Samuel Crawford, in 1866.  Crawford launched only one ship, the lighter Rainbow, before relinquishing the yard to the brothers James and John Hay - otherwise known as J and J Hay.

J and J Hay began in 1867 at Townhead. They were mainly concerned with the construction of the famous 'puffers'.  Puffers were small steamships that carried cargo to and from the Western Isles. The name came from a puffing sound made by the vessels in their original form.

Puffers were made famous by the books and television programme featuring Para Handy and his puffer the 'Vital Spark'.  The 1953 film 'The Maggie' had a Kirky puffer as its star.

Peter McGregor's shipyard operated from 1902 to 1921 at the Canal Basin.  During this period an estimated 118 vessels were built at the yard. The output included tugs, launches, ferries, puffers, pinnaces, barges, motor coasters and canal steamers.  Some were exported as far afield as Russia, France, Chile, Brazil, Egypt and India.

Launches in Kirkintilloch were spectacular. As the canal is very narrow the ships had to be launched side-on (see above).  Large crowds of people turned out to see the event, but those watching from the opposite bank had to be careful if they wanted to avoid a soaking.

Only small vessels could be built on the canal. With modern transport systems it was no longer economic to build ships there.  Kirkintilloch's last ship was launched from Hays' yard in 1945.