Staff blog: Keeping the Forth & Clyde Canal flowing

Lesley first started out as a lock-keeping volunteer on our Love Your Canal project in North Glasgow, and now helps lead the team as a volunteer supervisor! In her latest blog, she talks about her experience as a Scottish Canal volunteer, when she joined the water team at for a day to learn more about how the team keep the Forth & Clyde Canal flowing

Being one of the volunteer supervisors with Scottish Waterways Trust with the guys at Maryhill Locks has definitely gained me plenty new skills. Given the opportunity to elevate in our ever growing canal, being part of the canal that lies on my doorstep and has done for years. Learning about its heritage how to maintain it with good practice and the correct tools. I just want to experience more and more! The Love Your Canal volunteers have most definitely given this canal love. Throughout these months since April we’ve opened and closed the Maryhill flight of locks with pride. The passing narrow boats, barges, cruisers, yachts and motorboats be it the 9am boat or afternoon one from Bowling we guys have took high ownership of our flight, keeping our area clean and well maintained. From the painting to the Lock beams, litter picks, pruning, the stone work and being absolutely great hosts! We are also responsible, well mannered and all the volunteers bring an individual touch giving it a whole different experience!

Always willing to learn more about the canal I knew I was going to be filled with even more barrels of knowledge when I invited myself along for a wee day out with one of Scottish Canals finest….


It was a crisp stunning morning and the sun was creeping up from behind the mushroom factory, the water at Applecross was still and calm. I bounced over to the yard where I met the big dog from Water Control. Pre warned that Tam was a heavy duty Prince fan I turned up with a Prince t-shirt! He was delighted and amused, I told him I was psyched raring to go and couldn’t sleep the night before! It was going to be an awesome day for sure! Tam showed me about the yard and work area. This is where Scottish Canals kept all the main tools, canal maintaining equipment, the weed cutter, protective equipment and there was a canteen too! Having a peek in the cupboards I unluckily came across not one biscuit?! Tam gathered the stuff he needed for the day; log book, some sort of ruler and water measuring apparatuses, life jackets and of course the keys for the truck as we were heading to numerous locations all over the North East we most certainly required a set of wheels!

Just after 8am at the base we took the first water readings checking the water level at Applecross Basin was vital, also if there was any rainfall from the previous night. Taking readings and noted it in the log, I was unsure of why we were measuring the water but it all started to make sense throughout. We left the yard and headed round to Pinkston to take our next reading. It was all new to me but the day was looking to get interesting! Not before breakfast from the wee van at the industrial estate got back into the truck we got straight onto the M8.

Thomas has been working on the canal for 33 years now and he undoubtedly knew it like the back of his hand! Growing up in Ruchill with his brothers and sister he used the canal frequently most days walking along it to school; St Columbus of Iona Secondary which was demolished in the early 90s. At the age of 16 Tam found work on the canal yard helping mend machinery and participate maintenance works. That’s where he met a couple of other young local lads Jimmy and Davie. Throughout their teenage years the boys learnt so much, gaining so much experience, skills and now a vast understanding of the Forth and Clyde Canal. 33 years later the guys now run the show, enthusiastic and happily sharing all that they have learnt over the years to the new recruits.

We reached Cuilhill and downed the measurements, making sure the right amounts of water was travelling from A to B. B being the Forth and Clyde. The Forth and Clyde’s sources its water from a set-up of reservoirs, rivers and streams. Each time a boat passes through the Maryhill Locks thousands of litres of water are used. Tam’s job is to insure water levels are checked and topped up regularly otherwise the boats will run aground!




Back in the truck I took charge of the i-pod listening to some sixties music as we scooted along the A roads to the east: Lilly Loch, Hillend Reservoir and Black Loch. Also stopping at the old Monkland Canal which is now in active for boats. Checking levels and making on the spot decisions. Primarily at the base we took the reading at Applecross basin and Tam knew how much water he needed for the canal. With a forecast of rain the next couple of days and passing boats booked in for the weekend he was thinking ahead. It was such a nice day for getting out and about I was enjoying the newness of it all. This water control practice has been in place for over 200 years to ensure the correct balance between the supply and demand for water to the canal. Weekly the reservoirs have to be checked. A reservoir is like a big massive bath of water which is stored and if it gets over a certain level it can weir over! It’s crucial this is monitored or floods can happen but Tam is all over it so we are all safe!  Also recording how many lockages are taking place on the canal being aware of future traffic passing and what amount of water we need to supply them. This was info overload for me I was in need of some lunch and it was Tam’s shout again!

The Forth and Clyde being one of four canals in Scotland and the 2nd longest being 35miles long running from Grangemouth to Bowling took over 18 years to build! Constructed from 1968 until 1790 with a few delays the man made channel was up and running! It was crazy thinking back then at how much hard work must have been put in the effort and time it took to build canals. ‘This great and difficult work, performed in twenty years, in a remote district; and under a variety of other disadvantages, is proof of what may be accomplished’ Thomas Telford 1828. The canals where now allowing freight boats to travel further into the main areas of Scotland. With rivers being naturally inconvenient to get transport inland due to waterfalls, irregular depth, width and of course water levels. I was in reality starting to appreciate this canal more!

After lunch it was time to go to the main source of water supply, last but not least the bad boy reservoir. Singing along to Bad Moon Rising we headed north. The Birkenburn also known by the locals as Jonnies Dam has a water capacity of 780,592m in other words; heavy hunners a water! The Birken lies high up in the Kilsyth hills I was beginning to find out as Tam put the truck into 4×4 mode we began the climb. There was no more road just a dirt track, cattle and the most amazing view! I could just make out The Queensferry Bridge but over to the west far in the distance I could see the Westercommon Flats! My phone was fully charged so it was right out for a few photies! Nearing the top after a 2 and a half mile ascend it seemed so quite I didn’t know what was up here, how it was going to look, I just knew most definitely I was going to see more water but in what form and at the top of hills in the middle of nowhere!? I was astonished to see a massive reservoir on my left it was isolated away up here. We drove adjacent the mass supply of water to the big taps and got out the truck. The place was total mute. We brought out a big heavy T shaped key from the back of the truck and opened up the valve with big forceful turns then all you heard was a harsh flurry water!  We let out heaps of water even though it seemed like a wee dribble. After a few minutes Tam closed the valve the air pressure from the reservoir and between the massive tap like structure gave a elongated thunderous whistle and rumble like it was going to explode I was reassured that that was normal!

It was a long and interesting day, the water let out from Birkenburn would reach Applecross in 24hours readying for the weekends boats! I was part of making it happen and can’t wait for another adventure with Water Control and I will be taking along my own c.ds and biscuits next time (hope you like Jennifer Lopez Tam)

….Cruising back in the Scottish Canals mobile listening to some Prince and scoffing the Cadbury Heroes.  My day was well spent with great company and a man full of knowledge of The Forth and Clyde. Tam was unquestionably The King of The Canal.

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