The Union Canal

by Robin Laing

Fountainbridge to Falkirk, over Almondell,
By Ratho and Linlithgow, weaves a magic spell
Fountainbridge to Falkirk, over Almondell,
Follow the windings of the Union Canal
Follow the windings of the Union Canal

As a child I was enchanted, by swans among the reeds,
Tadpoles in my jam-jar, minnows in the weeds,
Gazing from the towpath on my hands and knees,
Sunlight on the water, the wind in the willow trees

Thinking on those early days, I was always there,
Swinging out on Tarzan ropes, dropping for a dare,
Summer was the magic time, but winter had its day,
Skating on the ice until the daylight slipped away

The Union is a quiet place, a relic of the past,
See the old stone bridges, they were made to last.
It’s just a sad backwater, lazy, deep and slow,
A sleepy road that used to be a moving picture show

For, once, the traffic pulsed along, a beat that had no rest,
Lifeline for the Lothians, a gateway to the West.
Passengers by the thousand, scows of coal and grain,
The Union carried everything before the railways came.

A casualty of progress, stranded high and dry,
The Union was discarded, left to waste and die,
Broken and neglected, falling to decay
All those weary winter years, lonely, cold and grey

Those winter years have passed now, the water feels the sun,
The fight against the brambles and the silting up is won,
Narrow boats and barges steer the old canal
Slipping through the countryside that I have known so well.

flat-bottomed boat for transporting cargo

Christine Kydd brought this song to Sangschule.

Robin Laing is a song-writer and performer originally from Edinburgh, still his ‘spiritual home’ according to his website, and now living in rural Lanarkshire. This song is on his first album, Edinburgh Skyline (Greentrax CDTRAY021) in 1989.
He is a member of New Makars Trust which aims to encourage local communities to celebrate their own history and culture in new songs.

Hamish Henderson on the sleeve notes comments on Robin’s “preoccupation with the transitory nature of things – with time, the passing of the seasons and the annual resurrection and rebirth which the folksong of the world celebrates.”

The Union Canal was built to link the centre of Edinburgh to the Forth and Clyde at Falkirk, between 1817 and 1822.This allowed first coal and then other goods to be brought into Edinburgh from Central Scotland. The canal is 31.5 miles long from Edinburgh to Falkirk.

To complete this great work, “navvies” came from the Highlands and from Ulster, including the Irish murderers William Burke and William Hare, although there is no sign that they ever met before their deadly partnership in Edinburgh.

From 1840 there was a passenger service between Edinburgh and Glasgow. There were “swift boats” in daytime drawn by 2 horses going at 9 – 10 mph. A “sleeper service” left in the evening and took 12 to 14 hours.

The canals could not compete for speed of transport with the coming of the railways and by 1965 sections had been removed and filled in. But by the 1980s when Robin Laing wrote this song, there was a push to preserve what remained and eventually to reopen and reclaim the canal for leisure activities. In 2000 this was one of Scotland’s Millennium projects, and the lost sections were rebuilt. In Linlithgow, Sangschule’s home, the active Canal Association holds events based at the Canal Basin, including regular sailings to the Falkirk Wheel, the huge mechanical lift which has reconnected the Edinburgh and Glasgow stretches.

A useful website for historical detail on the Union Canal is