The Falkirk Wheel

Tucked away up in Scotland between Edinburgh and Glasgow and named after the nearby town of Falkirk, stands a one of a kind feat of engineering. Read up on the what, where’s and how’s and why it’s a must-see destination.

What is the Falkirk Wheel and what is it used for?

In short, it is the only rotating boat lift in the entire world.

It is used as a means of reconnecting Glasgow’s Forth and Clyde Canal and Edinburgh’s Union Canal so narrow boats can meander between the two cities.

Though the canals run alongside each other, prior to the construction of the Falkirk Wheel there was no overlap or connect for a narrow boat to travel all the way from one city to the other. The difficulty was the 35 meter height difference between the two canals. Back in 1930 you could navigate an intricate system of 11 locks. It operated like a staircase and required tonnes and tonnes of water to raise the canal boats at each stage. It was a tedious and time consuming way to travel and eventually the route was soon abandoned and the locks de-constructed.

In its place now stands the Falkirk Wheel, which consists of only two locks and an extremely intelligent boat lifting system.

Who built it and how?

British waterways derived a plan which began with the rejuvenation of the Scottish canals. Part of their considerations was how to reconnect two great cities. After a coming together of many great minds from the British Waterways Board, engineering consultants the concept was born. It’s said that the final design was based on a Celtic style double headed axe and is considered a form of contemporary sculpture by the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland.

The Falkirk wheel was their solution and so they went about construction which consisted of:

Falkirk Wheel and visiter centre
  • 35 lorry loads of pieces of the wheel were transported from Derbyshire

  • 1200 tonnes of steel

  • 1000 construction workers

  • 15,000 bolts each of which were hand tightened

With all of that weight to carry it’s surprising it only uses 22.5KW of electricity, the same as boiling a kettle eight times.

How does it work?

Canal boat entering the Falkirk Wheel

The million dollar question about the Falkirk Wheel is how does it work? The wheel keeps balance by maintaining the same weight in the gondola at the bottom and the gondola at the top. Each weighs LOTS and when a boat enters the gondola the weight is kept consistent because of Archimedes’ theory that the displacement of water in each section is equal to the weight of the boat which enters it.

Once the boats are on board, steel gates shut the water in so everything is held in place. Hydraulic steel arms keep the Wheel locked still until everything is ready; once these are released the wheel can begin to rotate using hydraulic motors.

A system of gears keep the gondolas upright as the wheel turns so the boats do not tilt within their holding areas. The whole process takes around five and a half minutes, much quicker than the eight hours it would take to navigate eleven separate locks.

Canal boat holidays to the Falkirk Wheel

Over 5.5 million people have visited the Falkirk Wheel since it opened in 2002 and there are plenty of sights and activities to keep everyone occupied for a day. Here are just a few you should visit:

The Kelpies- The largest horse sculptures in the world are just a 14 minute drive or a short cruise in a canal boat from The Falkrik Wheel. The 30 meter high steel structures are a striking addition to the skyline and attract even more publicity to the canals.

Canal Boat Holidays- For the full experience you can rent a narrowboat for your holiday. They are fully furnished and ideal for short breaks.

Boat trips- If you’re not up for staying in a narrowboat or you’re only visiting for the day, you can take a boat trip along either canal. Some trips cater especially for those with special needs so it’s worth having a search on here if this is something you require.

Bike Hire- There are several points along the canals where you can hire bikes to explore. There is a children’s play area and a picnic spot as well as the visitor centre which are all free to visit.

Canoe hire- Discover the canals from a new perspective, hire a canoe and paddle your way along, great fun for adults and for kids.

Fishing- Nearer to Glasgow there’s an opportunity to go fishing in the Forth and Clyde Canal.

For more information on the Falkirk Wheel you can visit the official site at:

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