Heydays of the old waterways

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
Old divers' gear, photographs and tales of yore have Deedee Cuddihy looking forward to a revival of the Scottish canals.

Locks, Stocks and Bodies in Barrels is the intriguing title of an exhibition about canals in central Scotland. The show, at Callendar House in Falkirk (which is always worth a visit), deals not only with the history of the canals but also with their exciting future.

Work is now under way on the pound;78 million Millennium Link, Scotland's largest-ever canal restoration scheme which will allow boat traffic to run, once again, between Glasgow and Edinburgh on the Forth and Clyde and Union canals. The Falkirk Wheel, the world's first rotating boat lift, costing an estimated pound;17 million, will provide the connecting link between the two canals.

This is a celebratory exhibition. "Locks speak for themselves," says curator Geoff Bailey, explaining the title, "stocks and shares had to be sold to fund the construction of canals and bodies in barrels were discovered one day in the 1820s on a sloop carrying cargo along the Forth and Clyde.

"A foul smell was coming from some barrels marked 'bitter salts' and when one was opened it was found to contain human bodies, sent up from Liverpool and destined for the anatomy tables at Edinburgh University."

The exhibition doesn't dwell too long on that area of the canals' history but there are other aspects which children are finding just as interesting. Many head straight for a display of canal divers' equipment dating from the 1940s. It was used when lock repairs and other underwater work had to be carried out. There is a vintage wet suit with integrated wellies - and the woolly jumper and long johns worn underneath - massive weighted overshoes, additional weights that were strung over the divers' shoulders and an old-fashioned brass diving helmet.

A near life-size photograph shows a diver, with helpers operating his air pump, preparing to lay electricity cables across the canal in Falkirk in 1948.

Three table-top models created especially for the show have also been a hit with children. Using them, visitors can build their own aqueduct, learnabout water displacement using the Archimedes' principle and have a great time messing about with a tiny sailboat on a miniature canal complete with working locks.

There are displays of boat builders' tools and other objects associated with the canals, including a torch used for signalling on the Forth and Clyde in the 1930s, stevedores' hooks for shifting cargo and souvenir pieces of the famous Falkirk-based canal steamboat Charlotte Dundas, which was launched in 1801. A three-quarter scale model of the boat is now under construction by Falkirk Museums.

Some marvellous illustrations show Falkirk's canals when they were still the focus of considerable leisure and commercial activity.

"Canals were the motorways of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, attracting industry to their banks," says Mr Bailey. "Photographs show many of the long-lost brickworks, foundries and distilleries that once populated the busy canal sides."

A small display of beautiful pencil drawings by one of Scotland's most renowned artists, Falkirk-born Elizabeth Blackadder, shows that even in the late 1950s, when the artist was in her 20s, there was still life on the canals.

The exhibition contains a lot of words attractively presented in a mock canal lock setting, though children will not want to spend much time reading them. There is, however, a canal trail to follow and museum assistants are on hand at all times to help with interpretation and make sure the table-top canal doesn't overflow.

Locks, Stocks and Bodies in Barrels, Callendar House, Falkirk, until October 28 tel 01324 503770

* Teachers who want to know more about the educational and recreational facilities which the restored canals will offer schools can pick up a free copy of the Millennium Link newsletter at Callendar House or contact British Waterways, who are in charge of the project, tel 0141 332 6936. It is full of information about community and school involvement with the link (education packs are already available), much of it co-ordinated by British Waterways rangers Andy Carroll and Helen Rowbotham.


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