/ Articles / Sea to Sea on the Scottish Canals: Centuries of Infrastructure Innovation Culminate in the Ever-Changing Now

Sea to Sea on the Scottish Canals: Centuries of Infrastructure Innovation Culminate in the Ever-Changing Now

Sean O'Keefe on June 5, 2023 - in Articles, Feature, Featured
Creating a ‘Smart Canal’

In September 2022, Informed Infrastructure Editorial Director Todd Danielson went to the Autodesk University conference in New Orleans where he interviewed Colby Manwaring, vice president of water solutions at Autodesk.

They discussed in detail the sensor and digital twin technology behind the Scottish Canals renovation, which created a “smart canal” that can protect against stormwater flooding.

The full video interview can be viewed at bit.ly/3LXyfX4

A fundamental fabric of the human experience, infrastructure can be understood as any system of public works or resources required to organize human activities. Roads, bridges and highways come to mind immediately, but the list includes every sidewalk and drainage basin ever built as well as the endless slew of interconnected utilities we use to power, flush and broadcast our lives worldwide. Cooperation among many is essential to collective community betterment, so the need for such a framework stretches back to the very beginning of human existence.

And while the challenges of the 21st century seemingly pit us against unsurmountable forces, we must—like those before us—understand that infrastructure remains the way toward a brighter future for all.

Since its opening in 2001, the Falkirk Wheel has become a symbol of national pride and the promise of an invested public. Standing approximately 105 feet tall, the Falkirk Wheel rotating boat lift catalyzed a much-needed resurgence in appreciation for Scotland’s canals.

Historically Significant

Such is the story for Richard Millar, head custodian of one of the world’s longest-surviving pieces of infrastructure, an asset so old it has now catalyzed an entire culture twice. As interim CEO of Scottish Canals, Millar finds himself at the switch for Scotland’s heritage infrastructure: Scottish Canals.

“Scotland’s canal network is a collection of five separate canals that run through the heart of Scotland and have been instrumental in the lives of Scottish people for centuries. Today, we are all very proud to play a part in reviving them to a state of active reuse,” says Millar.

A civil engineer by trade, Millar has been with Scottish Canals for 24 years. Having had a hand in dozens of major public-works projects required to resuscitate the canals from paralyzing stagnation, Millar and a small staff take satisfaction in stewarding a community regeneration program that touches many lives in many ways. Although Millar’s story of infrastructure modernization through adaptation is indeed the way forward, he wisely insists on starting at the beginning, which was 1768.

Dating back to 1812, the canal house at Port Dundas still stands and today enjoys life as a commercially let office space on the banks of the Forth & Clyde.

“Scotland’s canals arose from the need for sea-to-sea connectivity across the Central Belt of Scotland,” he notes. The first canal was the Forth & Clyde, which traversed 34 miles from the River Forth in Grangemouth Harbour on the eastern edge of Scotland through Glasgow in the country’s center and out the western end at Bowling’s Harbour near Dumbarton. The Forth & Clyde Canal was the masterwork of the world’s first self-proclaimed “civil engineer,” John Smeaton (June 8, 1724-Oct. 28, 1792).


At the Glasgow terminus of the Forth & Clyde Canal, Port Dundas became an industrial center during the canal’s original economic lifecycle. In 1859, a brick chimney built at Port Dundas stood 454 feet tall and was considered the world’s tallest chimney at the time.

“Built as a ship canal, the Forth & Clyde connects a series of natural bodies of water and uses locks 66 feet long and 20 feet wide to summit a hill,” adds Millar. “This avoided a long and dangerous trip around the top of Scotland.”

Often referred to as the “father of civil engineering,” Smeaton pioneered the use of hydraulic lime in the 18th century, which led to development of Portland cement and thus modern concrete. Among hydraulic lime’s revolutionary advances, it allowed concrete to set underwater. Smeaton designed the Forth & Clyde Canal in 1768 and watched the project struggle through funding delays for more than 20 years before the canal finally opened in 1790.


In another first, the 250-year-old Forth & Clyde Canal is also a “smart canal.” Whenever the forecast calls for heavy rains, water levels can be lowered by as much as 4 inches to create a passive stormwater-management system.


“That was very much the start of proper civil engineering at that scale,” continues Millar. In addition to Smeaton, James Hutton, often referred to as the “father of modern geology,” played a key role in the Forth & Clyde. Hutton expanded his geological knowledge through extensive site inspections as the work progressed to help excavators better understand soil conditions as they went.


The butterfly effect spawned by the regeneration of Scotland’s canals that turned eye-sore areas into vital assets to human health and wellbeing brought both boats and people back to the banks.

“Workers would have been cutting through these large tracts of land by hand,” says Millar. “They would have encountered soils and rocks they had never seen before. It was a period when people started thinking about the world in a bigger way. The infrastructure they built proves it.”

Indeed, the organizational advantages of cooperation among many in building the Forth & Clyde led to a much-improved ability to move massive loads of freight from one side of Scotland to the other—20 or 30 times the volume with less than half the effort. A key cog in the industrial revolution, the mechanized transfer of goods and services via water sparked trade among the many towns and villages along the Forth & Clyde’s banks. Ultimately, in its heyday, the Forth & Clyde became a community catalyst of which the economic and cultural seepage would be difficult to truly articulate beyond saying this was a modern highway nearly a century before the first car.

Through time, four more key canals were assembled through Scotland: Caledonian Canal, Crinan Canal, Union Canal and Monkland Canal. “The canals enjoyed their glory days until the introduction of the railways around 1850,” explains Millar. “From there, unfortunately, they suffered a slow decline and went from being somewhat unused to becoming places of decay. Sadly, in many areas, what was left were these rotting waterways that were dangerous and unpleasant.”

The government decided to close the Forth & Clyde Canal in the 1960s due to maintenance costs of the bridges crossing the canal long exceeding the revenue it brought in. The route through Grangemouth was drained and backfilled to create a new roadway for vehicular traffic through the port in the late 1960s. Eventually the M8 Motorway took over some of the canal’s alignment in the eastern approaches to Glasgow.

A tapestry of opportunities exists at the intersection of adjoining infrastructures. Scottish Canals partners with one of the UK’s largest fiber-optics providers to use the canals’ pedestrian paths as routes for their lines.


A New Beginning

“When Scottish Canals got involved in 1990, there were 36 major obstructions to the Forth & Clyde and Union canals,” continues Millar. “At that time, there was a lot of interest in making civic investments to celebrate the forthcoming millennium, and interest in revitalizing the canals began to grow.”

The result of the public upswell was yet another revolutionary piece of infrastructure engineering that also doubled as an economic catalyst: the Millennium Link. Undertaken to reconnect the Forth & Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, the Millennium Link features an astonishingly elegant piece of modern infrastructure: the Falkirk Wheel. Rather than simply recreating the historic lock flight, planners instead created a dramatic 21st-century landmark: the world’s first and only rotating boatlift, which stands 35 meters tall and features two gondolas. While the wheel provides essential vertical transportation to boats passing between the two canals at Tamfourhill Falkirk in central Scotland, in making it an engineering marvel, the majestic boatlift sparked a much-needed
reappreciation for the importance of the canals in everyday Scottish life.

“When the Falkirk Wheel opened in 2002, it became a symbol of regeneration for Scotland, and thus the further regeneration of these canals,” says Millar. “The focus of the Millennium Link was reopening these canals for their original purpose, nautical navigation. However, it delivered so much more for the communities along its banks. Although the number of boats using the canals never quite reached the expected volume, suddenly the towpath next to the canals was really busy. People were enjoying the canals in new and exciting ways.”

The need to reclaim these nearly forgotten canals for heritage’s sake instigated a reinvigoration of place that once again spread outward along the banks. Today, the Forth & Clyde Canal is a tranquil respite meandering through the vibrant green corridors of Scotland’s industrial heartland. It’s an outdoor paradise of boating, paddling, fishing, cycling, running and walking returned to glory, stretching from sea to sea, unblemished. Commercial tour operators and local paddlers intermingle almost wavelessly as the blue-green waters weave their way through the center of Scotland unhindered. The Glasgow to Edinburgh canoe trail arranges a full paddle across the Central Belt of Scotland as a leisurely day on the water for adventurers of any age.

A Regeneration Butterfly Effect

“As these canals began to reclaim their usefulness in people’s everyday lives, developers took notice. Soon new cafes and shops began to line the banks, attracting even more people,” shares Millar. “Over the last few years, we have seen more than £1.5 billion in new investments; 10,000 new homes, 50,000 jobs created and a complete rethink of this infrastructure from eye-sore to asset. The banks of the canals have gone from being a place where people abandoned their old sofa to places of community pride for all to enjoy.”

All the renewed interest and a need to continually monetize the gains also led to 21st-century revenue streams from the canals. Scottish Canals is in partnership with one of the UK’s largest fiber-optics providers, which uses the pedestrian path as a route for its lines. Scottish Canals also sells water from the canals to local whisky distilleries, and approximately 120 people live on boats in the canals.

Many of the primary principles of civil engineering were born in Scotland, torn from the earth by men with hand tools, time and grit. Carved through the very center of Scotland, the fundamental function of connecting people to one another for the good of all remains essential to social success.

“North Glasgow was struggling, so regeneration was much needed,” adds Millar. “When I arrived in 1999, Scottish Canal’s office in Glasgow was like a fortress with high walls and barbed wire. Today, the walls are gone, we rehabilitated the historic building, and there are benches out front. Some 700 new homes surround us, Scottish Opera invested in a landmark asset around the corner, and the entire corridor has become this funky, creative place in the heart of the city.”

The First ‘Smart Canal’

As more activity takes place in and around the canals and more development happens along its banks, the capacity for this centuries-old infrastructure to become even more useful continues to increase.

“There were real challenges around public health and the level of deprivation in north Glasgow,” says Millar. “The land didn’t drain properly, and the drainage infrastructure was not meeting local needs. At that time, Scottish Water was working on a plan to resolve some of those issues. We suggested using the canals as a vital part of the stormwater system by engineering them to receive surface water from all the new developments surrounding the canals whenever it rains.”

In yet another infrastructure engineering first, the 250-year-old Forth & Clyde Canal is now not only the world’s first sea-to-sea canal but also the world’s first “smart canal.” The Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Development Scheme combines a digital twin of the canal with sensors and predictive weather technology to provide early warning of forthcoming rain. When the forecast calls for rain, water is released from the Forth & Clyde ahead of time to lower the depth by up to 4 inches. The increased capacity allows surface water to be funneled into the canal as a passive, low-impact, use-when-needed stormwater management system (see “Creating a ‘Smart Canal’” for more information on the technology used).

“We worked in partnership, designing a network of new urban drainage ponds and engineered channels that allow us to move water out of the canals in a controlled way to make room for the coming surface-water runoff ahead of time,” says Millar. “We can move 55,000 cubic meters of water out of the canal with this new drainage system rather quickly. This has unlocked 110 hectares of land for regeneration and development without flooding risks. We anticipate another 3,000 new homes in the coming years.”

The digital twin—powered by Autodesk technology InfoWorks ICM and ICMLive—synchronizes all of this. The model adapts to situational circumstances without following explicit instructions through machine learning. Using artificial intelligence, the technology can assemble and analyze disparate data points such as weather forecasts and surface-water accumulation for correlations or patterns, which make predictions about future states.

“We continue to look for new ways to unlock the potential of these canals,” says Millar of a conversation he expects will continue long after he’s gone—a conversation already centuries in the making. “Perhaps a network of ground-source heat pumps along the canals, a passive power plant threaded through the city. Whatever is next, Scottish Canals wants to be an exemplar for climate adaptation. This technology once again positions these significant pieces of Scottish heritage as economic, social and cultural catalysts for all the world to see.” 

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About Sean O'Keefe

Sean O'Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen; email: [email protected].

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