Transport routes for coal, iron, bricks, and other goods were difficult before the canals. Goods were carried along roads by horses and were subject to delays, accidents, high costs and most importantly, it simply took a long time. Since the Romans and possibly before, people had been making changes such as widening, deepening and straightening rivers to improve them. However, the first purpose built canal in modern times wasn’t made until Sankey Brook Navigation in Cheshire opened in 1757. But it was the Bridgewater Canal built in 1761 that started ‘canal mania’ in Britain, mainly centred in England.
From 1760 to 1820 more than one hundred canals were built including the two that ran through North Lanarkshire: the Forth and Clyde canal which opened in 1790 and the Monkland canal, completed four years later.
As the demand from Glasgow for cheap coal increased, ways to meet this need were explored. James Watt, was employed by the magistrates of Glasgow to survey and oversee the building of a canal from the coalfields of the Monklands to the outskirts of Glasgow. His cheaper scheme that avoided a long flight of locks was approved, an act of Parliament granted, and work began on 26th June 1770 at Sheepford.
The Monkland Canal was privately funded by a group of merchants, most with land along the route of the canal, but Glasgow town council also had a £500 stake – to try to ensure that the price of coal was kept down. However, by the time a cut was made to link it with the Forth and Clyde canal in 1791 the canal was mainly owned by the Stirling family which included Andrew Stirling of Drumpelier.
Unlike the Forth and Clyde Canal, the Monkland Canal was not designed for sea-going boats so it was smaller in size. Water for the canal was drawn from burns and other sources including man-made reservoirs created for the canal.
The canal itself was four feet deep and lined where required, with “puddled clay” which waterproofed the bed of the canal. The bottom of the canal was 16 feet (5 metres) wide, with sides that sloped at a 45 degree angle so the surface was 24 feet (7 metres) wide.
Settlements like Coatbridge exist because of the canal and the industry that followed it. Although the Monkland Canal was built to transport coal it was iron that made its money. In the 1830s when ironworks grew all along its route, the canal brought the raw materials to the furnaces and took the pig iron away. It was this phenomenal growth in the iron industry that changed its fortunes. Five out of the six main ironworks in Coatbridge were built along the canal or a canal branch. Profits doubled from £15,000 to £35,000 a year between 1828 and 1860. Though servicing industry was its main business, the canal also had a thriving passenger service.
Scotland’s first iron boat, the Vulcan was built on the Monkland Canal, at Faskine in 1819. In fact, it was commissioned for the Forth and Clyde Canal rather than the Monkland. As a passenger boat the Vulcan was unlike most of the barges that plied the canal network but reflects the important innovations in boat-building that were happening in Scotland at this time.
As canals proved a successful and profitable way to move good and people, the demand for goods and passenger transport increased even more. Wages and standards of living had increased for the ordinary worker during this period, and there had been a growth in new industries as technology developed in the coal mines and iron works. Where it was difficult and expensive to extend canals directly to pit-heads, tramways were built. These tramways started as wooden rails to carry four-wheeled trucks, they were later clad in iron and eventually developed to become cast and then wrought iron rails. With the advent of steam engines, the early experimental railways started. From Richard Trevithick’s first practical steam engine in 1804 it took only eight years until there was regular commercial steam haulage in Middleton near Leeds. Like the earlier frenzy of canal building – ‘railway mania’ started.
The earliest Scottish railway incorporated by an Act of Parliament was Kilmarnock and Troon in 1808, it was the first in Scotland to use a steam locomotive. The first public railway in Scotland was the Monkland and Kirkintilloch line, engineered by Thomas Grainger, and formed by the coal and iron masters of the district to provide a route from their works to the canal system. It carried minerals and passengers when it opened in 1826. It was followed in 1931 by the Glasgow and Garnkirk line. In between those two, in 1829 George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive set a speed record of 29 mph.
It was the speed of the railways that consigned the canals to their slow death. Railway companies began to buy up canal routes to control the competition. Investment was made in canal routes, such as the Blackhill inclined plane, to speed them but the nineteenth century drive for improvement left canals looking old fashioned. Even the steam boats on canals didn’t stop the changes. For the Monkland canal, the early success also lead to its early end – the source of its wealth in mineral transport was shifting to other locations as the early collieries along the canal were worked out.
Once Acts of Parliament were obtained to discontinue navigation on the canals, nothing much happened other than they fell into disrepair.
In the 1960s the Monkland canal was culverted and infilled. The canal bed was used for the route of the M8 motorway (appropriately named the Monkland Motorway to begin with) between Port Dundas and Easterhouse and in places for other smaller roads. The canal was left with water in places and these sections have undergone recent improvements that can still be seen in Drumpellier Country Park and between Coatbridge and Calderbank. The Gartsherrie branch which passes through Summerlee Museum is a good example of the variety of plant and animal life that can be found in the cleaned up and restored canals – heron, mute swans, mallards, frogs, minnows, badgers and bats have all been seen. There is also a wide variety of fungus, plants, trees and flowers. So in the 21st century the canals have found new purpose, this time for leisure and for nature.