Historically, the two canals had been joined at Falkirk by a flight of 11 locks that stepped down across a distance of 1.5km, but these were dismantled in 1933, breaking the link.
The Millennium Link, which this project was part of, was an ambitious £84.5m project with the objective of restoring navigability across Scotland on the historic Forth & Clyde and Union Canals, providing a corridor of regenerative activity through central Scotland.
The Falkirk Wheel is the world's first and only rotating boat lift but the original concept of a wheel to act as a boat lift actually dates back to 19th Century Europe, but it was first seriously considered as a solution for Falkirk in 1994. Dundee Architects, Nicoll Russell Studios presented a Ferris Wheel type design that was used to secure Millennium Commission Funding for the Project.
This outline design was then reappraised to create a functional lift that could raise and lower boats swiftly whilst celebrating the reconnection of the two historic canals with a structure worthy of a new millennium.
Ideas and concepts were numerous, and varied from rolling eggs to tilting tanks, giant seesaw to overhead monorails and included some complex counterbalanced structures. The final outcome was The Falkirk Wheel, which successfully combines both function and design, creating a stunning piece of working sculpture.
The unique shape of the structure is claimed to have been inspired by various sources, both manmade and natural, such as a Celtic double headed spear, a vast turning propeller of a Clydebank built ship, the ribcage of a whale or the spine of a fish. The canal network as a 'backbone' connecting Scotland, east to west seems appropriate and there is a true beauty in the repetitive sweeping shape of the aqueduct. The arches over the aqueduct also add to the drama of the structure, forming a complete circle with the reflection in the canal to extend the feeling of the tunnel. The fact the canal literally ends in mid air creates a thrilling sense of sailing off the edge in to the spectacular scenery of the horizon.
The various parts of The Falkirk Wheel were actually constructed and assembled, like one giant Meccano set, at Butterley Engineering's Steelworks in Derbyshire. A team there carefully assembled the 1,200 tonnes of steel, painstakingly fitting the pieces together to an accuracy of just 10 mm to ensure a perfect final fit.
In the summer of 2001, the structure was then dismantled and transported on 35 lorry loads to Falkirk, before all being bolted back together again on the ground, and finally lifted by crane in five large sections into position. The total 600 tonne weight of the water and boat filled gondolas imposes immense and constantly changing stresses on the structure as it turns around the central spine. Normal welded joints of steel would be susceptible to fatigue induced by these stresses, so to make the structure more robust, the steel sections were bolted together. Over 15,000 bolts were matched with 45,000 bolt holes, and each bolt was hand tightened.
How does it work?
The Falkirk Wheel lies at the end of a reinforced concrete aqueduct that connects, via the Roughcastle tunnel and a double staircase lock, to the Union Canal. Boats entering the Wheel's upper gondola are lowered, along with the water that they float in, to the basin below. At the same time, an equal weight rises up, lifted in the other gondola.
This works on the Archimedes principle of displacement. That is, the mass of the boat sailing into the gondola will displace an exactly proportional volume of water so that the final combination of 'boat plus water' balances the original total mass.
Each gondola runs on small wheels that fit into a single curved rail fixed on the inner edge of the opening on each arm. In theory, this should be sufficient to ensure that they always remain horizontal, but any friction or sudden movement could cause the gondola to stick or tilt. To ensure that this could never happen and that the water and boats always remain perfectly level throughout the whole cycle, a series of linked cogs acts as a back up.
Hidden at each end, behind the arm nearest the aqueduct, are two 8m diameter cogs to which one end of each gondola is attached. A third, exactly equivalent sized cog is in the centre, attached to the main fixed upright. Two smaller cogs are fitted in the spaces between, with each cog having teeth that fit into the adjacent cog and push against each other, turning around the one fixed central one. The two gondolas, being attached to the outer cogs, will therefore turn at precisely the same speed, but in the opposite direction to the Wheel.
Given it’s design a very small amount of energy is actually then required to turn the Wheel - just 1.5kWh – equal to about 6 kettles!
Alongside the attraction of the Wheel there are a number of other facilities including a children’s activity zone, visitor centre, boat trips, cycle hire and woodland walks. Events held at the Falkirk wheel include photography workshops, falconry displays and an origami dragon boat race and walking and cycling tours
For more information on opening times, events etc please Tel: 08700 500 208 or check details on the website
The Falkirk Wheel is about a 45 minute drive form any of Cooper Cottages self catering holiday cottages and would provide a very interesting family day out while staying in the central Scotland area.