Falkirk Wheel

Falkirk Wheel. Opened in 2002, the world's first and only rotating boat lift re-established the link between the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal.


22 December 2011


NS 85257 80131; 56.00033°N, 3.84144°W


The 35-mile-long Forth & Clyde Canal was built between 1768 and 1790 to provide a shipping route across central Scotland from the Firth of Forth in the east to the Firth of Clyde in the west. A route from its eastern end to Edinburgh — a distance of about 31 miles — was created with the construction of the Union Canal between 1818 and 1822. The two canals were connected by a flight of 11 locks at Falkirk, where their difference in height was 35 metres.

Competition from the railways spelt the demise of the canals. Commercial use of the Union Canal came to an end in the 1930s and the flight of locks at Falkirk was filled in and built over. The Forth & Clyde Canal ultimately fell into disuse in the 1960s when it was closed in order to avoid having to build a motorway crossing.

British Waterways, with support from a number of sources, including National Lottery funding via the Millennium Commission, led an £84.5m project to revitalise the two canals. The Millennium Link was the UK’s largest canal restoration project and its centrepiece was the Falkirk Wheel — the world’s first and only rotary boat lift.

The Falkirk Wheel was officially opened in May 2002 and cost £17.5m. Its overall diameter is 35 metres and its shape was inspired by a Celtic double-headed axe. Boats can transfer through the lift in about 15 minutes, with a half rotation of the wheel taking 4 minutes, during which time a water-filled gondola at the lower level swaps position with its counterpart at the upper level. The wheel is always in perfect balance due to Archimedes’ principle — a floating object displaces its own weight in water — so as a boat enters a gondola, a volume of water equal to the weight of the boat is forced out, preserving the original net weight of the gondola plus water. The energy required to operate the wheel is only 1.5 kWh, roughly equivalent to that needed to boil 8 kettles of water.

The upper level of the Wheel is connected via a reinforced-concrete aqueduct to a 180-metre-long tunnel ending in a basin which in turn connects to the Union Canal via a double lock. The Roughcastle tunnel was built when the Wheel was constructed so as not to disturb the Roman remains of the Antonine Wall, under which it passes.

The Falkirk Wheel (thefalkirkwheel.co.uk); Falkirk Wheel (Wikipedia)

Falkirk Wheel.

Wheel rotating at 1/8 rpm. It takes four minutes for the upper and lower gondolas to change positions. The whole operation, from a boat entering on one level to leaving on the other, takes 15 minutes.

Wheel rotating at 1/8 rpm. The Wheel is always in perfect balance - there is no net change in the weight of a gondola when a boat enters as it displaces an amount of water equal to its own weight. The energy required to operate the wheel is equivalent to that for boiling eight kettles of water.

Upper gondola. The gate at the end folds down inwards when the gondola is in position in the canal.

Falkirk Wheel

Falkirk Wheel with the 'Archimedes' berthed next to the visitor centre

Falkirk Wheel. The lower basin is connected via a lock to the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Upper gondola

On board the Archimedes. The Archimedes and her sister vessel the Antonine provide 50-minute tourist excursions from the lower basin up via the Wheel to the aqueduct and on through Roughcastle Tunnel and then back again.

Emerging from the North Portal of the Roughcastle Tunnel heading towards the upper level of the Wheel. The 180-metre tunnel passes below the Antonine Wall and also a road and the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway. It leads to a basin joining via a double lock to the Union Canal. It was named after the nearby Rough Castle Fort, a Roman defensive position on the Antonine Wall.

Looking towards the South Portal of the Roughcastle Tunnel

Roughcastle Tunnel North Portal

On the aqueduct heading towards the upper level of the Wheel

Tied up in the upper gondola waiting to be carried down to the basin at the Forth and Clyde Canal side of the Wheel

Archimedes emerging from the upper level

Archimedes heading towards Roughcastle Tunnel

10 thoughts on “Falkirk Wheel

  1. A fabulous set of shots. I wondered what you would make of this site and you haven’t disappointed. The “Archimedes” has a certain brutish charm from the front. The whole wheel is a superb bit of engineering, with such clean lines. Form following function and all that. Great!


  2. Thanks for the comments everyone. It was a drab, overcast Scottish winter’s day when I visited – so the diffuse light was perfect for some monochrome shots to try to capture the forms of the structures. I found the place fascinating and would certainly recommend a visit for anyone who has not already been if you ever get the chance.


  3. Really great series, wonderful study of some fantastic engineering. Very well captured and explained. wonderful work!
    On an unrelated topic, It has been a long since I have been in Falkirk is the nightclub FK1 still open :0


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