The engineering achievement of the 226-year-old Kelvin Aqueduct has been honoured with plaque unveilings by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).
Designed by civil engineer Robert Whitworth and completed in 1790, the aqueduct is a major engineering structure on the Forth & Clyde Canal, and carries the main line of the waterway across the River Kelvin in the Maryhill area of Glasgow. The impressive 122m-long aqueduct boasts four masonry arches, rising 21m above the river. Building of the structure started in 1787, and on completion the aqueduct was recognised not only as the largest ever constructed in Britain, but also the largest in Europe.
The plaques were unveiled by ICE Glasgow and West of Scotland Chairman Graham Edmond and Scottish Canals’ Heritage Manager Chris O’Connell.
Mr Edmond said: “The Kelvin Aqueduct is an outstanding example of historic civil engineering and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to unveil this plaque commemorating its construction on behalf of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
“Most civil engineering, like the Kelvin Aqueduct, survives well beyond the lifetime of its designers. It’s vital that we, as the curators of that rich built heritage, do our best to celebrate these incredible structures in order to ensure they can be enjoyed by future generations.”
The contract for the building of the Kelvin Aqueduct was awarded to William Gibb and John Moir of Falkirk, with the foundation stone laid on 16th June 1787 by Archibald Spiers, the chairman of the Canal Committee. Work on the Forth & Clyde Canal had begun at the eastern sea lock in 1768, following a survey of a route in 1763 by civil engineer John Smeaton and construction was approved by an Act of Parliament later that year.
By 1775 the canal had reached just north of Glasgow – but as funds for the privately-owned canal ran out, work stopped. Two years later, city merchants had raised money to build a branch of the canal into the city but it wasn’t until 1785 that there were finally sufficient funds for the canal to continue its journey to the River Clyde at Bowling, completing the 35-mile waterway.
Chris O’Connell, Heritage Manager at Scottish Canals, said: “The Kelvin Aqueduct is a towering tribute to the significant engineering achievements of the Forth & Clyde Canal and played a key role in the industrial history of Glasgow. Today the aqueduct carries walkers and cyclists rather than the scows and Clydesdale horses that transported the products of the Industrial Revolution, but it continues to act as a vital artery through the heart of North Glasgow.”
In its heyday, the canal was used extensively for cargo, linking the Firth of Forth and Firth of Clyde and providing a transport route to the European continent. Linking with Edinburgh via the Union Canal and North Lanarkshire via the Monkland Canal, the routes were well-used by local collieries and ironworks. A variety of passenger boats ran on the canal from 1783, with steamboat trials between 1789 and 1803 resulting in the world’s first ‘practical’ steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas. By 1812, passenger boats had carried 44,000 customers. In 1819 the first iron-hulled ship, the Vulcan, was launched – the first ever built – and worked as a horse-drawn passenger barge on the canal.
As sea-going vessels increased in size and were less able to make passage, the canal suffered decline. The construction of railways caused competition for the transportation of cargo and passengers, and by the 1930s the canal was dormant. It was closed in 1963.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the Forth & Clyde Canal reopened, as part of the £83.5 million Millennium Link project – the largest canal restorations anywhere in Britain. Today, the canal is primarily used for tourism and leisure, attracting those wishing to explore Scotland’s industrial heartland and the canal’s vibrant green corridors – whether by boat, boot or bike. The canal is once again playing a vital role in bringing North Glasgow to life and sits at the heart of the city’s new cultural quarter. Locals and visitors alike are exploring the waterway and discovering the canal’s history and heritage – not least the Kelvin Aqueduct.