Bringing the Past to Life: Reviving the Monkland Canal

The most successful of Scotland’s waterways, the Monkland Canal once linked the coal mining villages of present-day North Lanarkshire with the heavy industry of Glasgow. In its heyday in the mid-19th century, the Monkland Canal moved more than a million tonnes of coal and iron ore each year. The rise of the railway sounded the death knell for the Monkland and in 1942 it was closed, with much of the once-proud waterway filled-in to allow the construction of the M8 motorway.

But, with the support of our partners, funders and volunteers, we’re working to breathe new life into the sections that remain, celebrating the Monkland’s 200-year-old heritage and improving access to the canal corridor for everyone to discover its incredible stories, abundant wildlife and picturesque environments.

In the past few years, we’ve helped to reconnect people with the Monkland through an array of innovative projects, from the creation of blue wildflower meadows to show the lost route of the waterway, to the upgrade of pathways and new landscaping to allow easier access to the remaining sections, and even the creation of a superhero sculpture with the help of Kick Ass writer Mark Millar – who grew up near the banks of the canal!

Made up of thousands of pieces of painstakingly shaped steel, the archway leading to the canal at Blair Bridge was fashioned by renowned sculptor Andy Scott – creator of The Kelpies – and was inspired by Mark’s award-winning work and ideas generated by students at his childhood school, St Ambrose High. The six metre high sculptural steel archway features Captain Coatbridge and two female superheroes holding the moon, stars and sun aloft and is a tongue-in-cheek welcome to the Monkland Canal and a reminder of the heroic feats that are helping to safeguard it for future generations to enjoy.

The Monkland Canal has countless stories, but one of the most interesting is that of the world’s first iron hulled boat – the Vulcan. Named after the Roman god of forge and fire, the design of the 63-foot-long vessel was considered revolutionary when it was launched on the Monkland Canal in 1819, inspiring the development of iron riveted ships and transforming Scotland’s shipbuilding industry.

Thanks to the support of our partners, the local community and our network of volunteers, a full-scale replica of the Vulcan has returned home to the Monkland Canal at Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life in Coatbridge. Following an extensive internal refit, the vessel has taken up its new role as an interactive educational exhibit. Utilising a range of media and artefacts, the attraction celebrates the history of the canals, ironworking in North Lanarkshire, and the Vulcan’s role in revolutionising shipbuilding.

From the Black Hill Inclined Plane and The Falkirk Wheel to the Kelpies, Scotland’s canals have a history of inspiring revolutionary engineering. That all began with the Vulcan almost two hundred years ago when designer Thomas Wilson was widely ridiculed for daring to propose that an iron vessel could float. History, of course, proved him right in spectacular fashion.

The vessel was launched in 1819, scything through the water of the canal with grace and changing the shipbuilding industry forever. The horse-drawn Vulcan plied her trade on the Forth & Clyde Canal, ferrying passengers along the waterway until she was scrapped in 1873. A replica of the famous vessel was constructed for the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1986 before being brought to Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life following the event.

The replica, which closely follows the design and construction of the original, is significant in its own right as the last boat built on the Clyde using traditional riveting techniques. Its construction marked the end of a trade that had flourished for the intervening 160 years since the original was built. Now, visitors have the chance to literally step into history, engage with the rich history of the Monkland and learn some of the many stories of the lost canal.

But we’re not finished yet. The Vulcan is the centrepiece of phase two of the restoration of the Monkland Canal but there’s so much more we can do, so many more stories to tell, and so many more ways we can help people to engage with the rich heritage and environments of the waterway. Think about volunteering or donating today and help us safeguard the future of this incredible waterway and transform people’s lives through the power of our canals.