Union Canal Towpath and Related Bicycle Trips

What can I say about the Union Canal Towpath? The canal is beautiful. The scenery is beautiful. The boats are beautiful. The flowers are beautiful. Even the bridges and beautiful. All in all, a lovely place to bicycle.

IMG_0216 IMG_0176 The Union Canal runs from Edinburgh to Falkirk where it meets the Forth-Clyde Canal that continues on to Glasgow. The canal is mostly without locks, but there is a boat "wheel" at Falkirk. The canal now has an accessible towpath running its entire length, but some parts have only recently been restored, and several guidebooks still mention the "missing" sections. The towpath is quite suitable for hybrid or mountain bikes, but road bikes are probably not a good idea. Tandems may have trouble negotiating the "chicanes", which are twisty passages designed to exclude motorbikes and other undesirables.

IMG_0393 There are very many trips that can be made on the towpath. The towpath itself is so pretty that it is worth just going out and coming back. A round trip to Linlithgow on the towpath is a moderate 45 miles or so journey. Going to Falkirk adds about another 20 miles to the round trip. At Falkirk it is possible to link up with National Cycle Route 76, and take this back to Edinburgh, adding about 15 miles to the trip. NCN76 goes along the towpath for a short distance just east of Linlithgow so it is possible to take part of NCN76 on a round-trip to Falkirk or to take the last part of a round-trip to Linlithgow on NCN76.

IMG_0210 It is just about impossible to get lost on the towpath. If you stay on the towpath you only really need a map to get to it. The part of the towpath close to Edinburgh is covered in the SPOKES Edinburgh Cycle Map, which also show the towpath at smaller scale all the way past Falkirk and also shows NCN76. The Spokes West Lothian Cycle Map should show the towpath and NCN76 at a larger scale. There is also a map of the towpath and its surroundings.

Union Canal Towpath, Edinburgh to Ratho

IMG_0173 The towpath starts in Edinburgh at Edinburgh Quay, just west of The Meadows. Getting to the start is likely to be the only difficult navigational exercise of the trip. The first section of the towpath is industrial, but still pretty. This section soon gives way to residential areas backing on the towpath. Soon this too gives way to a mixture of residential and open areas.

IMG_0353 The towpath crosses over the Water of Leith on a magnificent aquaduct, just next to an almost-as-impressive railroad bridge. If you want, you can climb down the stairs to the Water of Leith visitor center and to see the aquaduct from below. Just after the aquaduct, NCN75 leaves the towpath and heads up the Water of Leith Walkway towards Balerno.

IMG_0190 Continuing along the towpath, it will soon become evident that the canal was built more like a railroad than an normal canal. Instead of bending to follow a level course, the canal is built above grade where the land is too low, and below grade where the land is too high. The canal is sufficiently old that the valleys look almost natural, with many mature trees. Only the regularity of the valleys indicate that they are man-made.

IMG_0205 At the right times of year the towpath is surrounded on both sides with magnificent wildflowers. Sometimes these flowers even mostly obscure the canal from sight.

IMG_0223 There are quite a number of bridges to carry roads over the canal. The original bridges are quite pretty, and the new ones are, well, utilitarian. The canal also passes over a number of roads, sometimes quite high over the road. These short aquaducts are sometime easy to miss, but many of the provide interesting views.

IMG_0192 There are several boathouses on the river, and lots of canal boats, some of which are in poor condition, but most of which are quite pretty. At several places tours of the canal on canal boats are available.

IMG_0185 The first town outside of Edinburgh is Ratho. The canal center is located here.

Union Canal Towpath, Ratho to Linlithgow

IMG_0198 A few miles after Ratho the canal crosses the River Almond on another spectacular aquaduct, this time without a railroad bridge next to it. The canal then makes a sweeping S-turn to the north presumably to maintain level ground.

After the turn, NCN76 joins the canal for a short section. NCN76 and NCN1 can be used as an alternative route back to Edinburgh, and NCN76 can be used as an alternative route to Falkirk.

IMG_0227 The next town, and one certainly worth a stop, is Linlithgow, the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. Canal boats can be rented at Linlithgow. There are lots of places to eat in Linlithgow, particularly useful if you are not heading further. There is also the ruined Linlithgow Castle and (non-ruined) church, as well as a lovely loch, with many swans. These swans are considered to be so royal that they left the loch during the time that Cromwell ruled England (and Scotland).

IMG_0231 Linlithgow makes a good destination for an easy trip. The train station at Linlithgow offers twice-hourly trains back to Edinburgh. For a moderate day trip, just go back on the canal, possibly using NCN76 and NCN1 as an alternative for most of the route back.

There is also the option of heading south from Linlithgow to Beecraigs County Park and Cairnpapple Hill, which makes for a hilly extra 10 miles, round trip. It might even be possible to continue south to hook up to NCN75 and thus back to Edinburgh.

Union Canal Towpath, Linlithgow to Falkirk Wheel

IMG_0373 IMG_0362 Continuing past Linlithgow, the Union Canal passes through more countryside, with views over the countryside and lots of pretty bridges. Soon comes the Avon Aqueduct, the longest and highest on the canal, with a beautiful view of the railroad viaduct just downstream. The canal continues on and, shortly before its end, passes through the long Falkirk Tunnel. The tunnel was apparently needed because some landowner would not give permission for the canal to be cut into his lands.

IMG_0392 The Union Canal used to continue past the Falkirk tunnel, connecting to the Forth and Clyde canal in Falkirk by means of several locks. However this connection was removed some time after the canals became obsolete. Fortunately, a new connection, with a good cycling path, has recently been constructed. This connection takes the canal about a mile past the original connection point and involves two sets of locks and the Falkirk Wheel, actually closer to Camelon than Falkirk. The Falkirk Wheel is an immense rotary structure with two boat basins that makes up most of the height difference between the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde canal. It is certainly worth a stop.

Returning to Edinburgh on the towpath would make a long, but very enjoyable, day trip, just about 65 miles in all. It is also possible to bike into Falkirk and take a train back. There are actually three possible train station that could be used, Grahamston, in downtown Falkirk; Falkirk High, near the Falkirk Tunnel; and Camelon, nearer to the Falkirk Wheel. The best one to use is probably Grahamston, as the Forth and Clyde canal passes quite near it. To get there, take the Forth and Clyde canal towpath east into Falkirk. The station should not be hard to find.

Another alternative route would be to take the Clyde and Forth Canal Towpath all the way to Glasgow and then take the train back. The Falkirk Wheel is actually closer to Glasgow than it is to Edinburgh.

Clyde and Forth Towpath and NCN76, Falkirk, to Union Canal Towpath

A different route back to Edinburgh can be done by following the Clyde and Forth Canal to its end at the River Carron and then picking up National Cycle Network Route 76 back to the Union Canal. This route requires some tricky navigating as NCN76 was not well signed when I took it, and there may even be parts that are not signed yet. As well NCN76 was not on the Spokes West Lothian Cycle Map.

IMG_0401 The Clyde and Forth Canal is bigger than the Union Canal. Its towpath is quite a bit wider, at least through Falkirk and to its end. This section of the canal is not as pretty as the Union Canal, but still interesting.

About a mile along the canal, there is the original point of the junction with the Union Canal. Then follows a sequence of ten closely spaced locks that drop the canal closer to sea level. These locks are still all hand-operated. The canal continues on and ends at the River Carron where there is a boat basin and some facilities for boaters. It looks as if the last bit of the canal has been rerouted to avoid the M90 motorway.

The end of the Clyde and Forth Canal is only a very short distance from NCN76, which here travels for a short distance on A905. However, there is no direct connection because of the motorway. To get to NCN76 you have to take the access road for the boat basin. Continue on until you reach a main road and turn left to get to a roundabout under M90. Then take A905 West until you reach the River Carron. Look for signs for NCN76, which leave A905 just east of the River Carron on a pathway.

The cycle route continues on minor roads and pathways through Grangemouth. Be very careful navigating here as there are a couple of places where the route is not obvious. A detailed map showing the cycle route would help a lot.

IMG_0416 After Grangemouth, NCN76 continues on a path next to major roads for a while. The views to the right are nice, but the views to the left include a large petrochemical complex. However, NCN76 eventually gets on to some rural roads that, although hilly, provide some very nice views of the countryside and the Firth of Forth. The cycle route then leaves even these rural roads for woodland trails leading to a ruined stately home just west of Bo'ness.

IMG_0423 NCN76 then supposedly continues through Bo'ness and links up with the Union Canal Towpath just east of Linlithgow. However, I couldn't find any signs, and left NCN76. I headed down to the firth and travelled through Bo'ness on a series of paths that run along the shore of the firth. I then took major roads, including A904, to get back to Linlithgow and there picked up the Union Canal Towpath. I didn't see any signs for NCN76, although I should have intersected it at least once.

NCN76 and NCN1, Union Canal Towpath to Edinburgh

IMG_0236 NCN76 and NCN1 form an alternative route back to Edinburgh, through rolling hills, past magnificent estates, and under the Firth of Forth bridges. NCN76 well, but somewhat sparingly marked. NCN1 is well marked with many markers. The only tricky part of the trip is where you have to switch from NCN76 to NCN1.

IMG_0245 NCN76 cuts off the canal towpath up a set of stairs to a pretty country road. It travels generally north and then east towards the Firth of Forth. An off-road section goes past Hopetoun, billed as Scotland's finest stately home. Hopetoun is part of the National Trust and is open every day.

IMG_0255 After passing under the Firth of Forth road bridge NCN76 travels on an old railroad right-of way. NCN76 then continues south to Newbridge. The junction with NCN1 is not marked and NCN1 passes over the right-of-way on a bridge. The bridge in question is the bridge just before A90, which is just before NCN76 goes along a road for a short distance.

NCN1 heads east to Edinburgh, passing by the Dalmeny Estates, another stately home, but still owned by the earl, and only open a few days a year. NCN1 then continues into Edinburgh. After passing between two golf courses, NCN1 goes on some quiet streets past some very expensive-looking homes, and then on another old railroad right-of-way into central Edinburgh.