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The Union Canal is a 31.5-mile (50.7 km) canal in Scotland, from Lochrin Basin, Fountainbridge, Edinburgh to Falkirk, where it meets the Forth & Clyde Canal.
The project was headed by Hugh Baird as the principal engineer with a major contribution by the great engineer Thomas Telford.
The Union Canal is often described as a contour canal, following a 73-metre (240 ft) contour throughout its length. Originally, the only locks were those at Falkirk, to make the link to the Forth & Clyde Canal. Now, there is one lock just before the Falkirk Wheel and a double lock just above. There is also a new tunnel where the canal passes under the Antonine Wall. The canal maintains its level by embankments, cuttings and major aqueducts, rather than following the original contour. The canal has many aqueducts, including the Slateford Aqueduct that takes the canal over the Water of Leith in Edinburgh, the Almond Aqueduct near Ratho and the 810-foot-long (250 m) Avon Aqueduct near Linlithgow, the second longest in the United Kingdom.
The Edinburgh end of the canal no longer reaches quite as far as it did (to 'Port Hopetoun' and 'Port Hamilton' basins which were filled in after the canal closed). Instead, the canal stops at Lochrin Basin at Fountainbridge.
Many of the stone bridges have keystones on which is engraved the number of the bridge. However, the keystones of Viewforth bridge, the second bridge from the start of the canal at Edinburgh Quay, is emblazoned with the coats of arms of Glasgow and Edinburgh, facing west and east respectively.
It was originally known as the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal, to celebrate the uniting of the two cities by the new canal network, but this name is rarely used today. The canal was designed by Hugh Baird, who oversaw the engineering work while it was being built between 1818 and 1822. Two of its construction workers were the famous murderers Burke and Hare. The soliton, a form of wave, was first observed on the Union Canal in 1834, while its discoverer John Scott Russell was travelling along the canal in a horse-drawn boat. A modern aqueduct over the Edinburgh City Bypass is named after Russell.
Originally used for transporting coal, competition from the railways caused it to close to commercial use in the 1930s. The locks, connecting it to the Forth & Clyde Canal at Falkirk, were filled in and built over.
In 2004, an archaeological investigation by a team from Headland Archaeology uncovered the stern of a 21 metre long wooden barge. The vessel was discovered on the south bank of the Union Canal. The remains represent the final berth of an early to mid 19th century canal barge or scow, a type of horse drawn vessel that was the main freight carrier of the time. Typical cargoes included coal and lime from Lanarkshire although there were a number of passenger carriers too; the actual function of this vessel is unknown. The vessel was dismantled and removed from the canal in order to record the techniques used in its construction. Additional work will seek to identify the species, age and provenance of the timbers.
The canal is now used recreationally by canoeists at the Forth Canoe Club and rowers from schools and universities, e.g. the St Andrew Boat Club. The Edinburgh Canal Society, the Bridge 19-40 Canal Society and Linlithgow Union Canal Society promote general use of the canal. They hire rowing boats and narrowboats, and they provide regular boat trips on the canal for the general public. Re-Union Canal Boats operate a social enterprise building and maintaining a boat for hire.
The Millennium Link, a project to restore both the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals, saw the two canals joined once again at the Falkirk end of the Union Canal, in 2000, by means of the Falkirk Wheel. The Falkirk Helix is a new six year project which will connect the Union Canal with the sea, by way of another unique boatlift in the shape of kelpies, the mythical water-horses. This area is currently being redeveloped for commercial and residential use, starting with Edinburgh Quay.
British Waterways decided in June 2008 to market the area between Edinburgh Quay and Ashley Terrace Bridge as Edinburgh Canal Quarter. With the canal now largely restored for both boating and for walkers and cyclists on the towpath, it is enjoying new life.
Holiday barges are common in the spring and summer, while in area nearer the city centre there are even year-round residents living on narrowboats. A "floating restaurant" boat operates by arrangement, providing a meal whilst cruising. Raft races have become an annual event, having been held in Edinburgh from 2007 to 2010, and using found "junk" material for the rafts. The Linlithgow Union Canal Society has been hosting its cardboard boat race for many years, at the Linlithgow Basin.