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The Monkland Canal

by Alastair Ewen

formerly with NLC as North Calder Heritage Trail Officer

In the late eighteenth century in Britain, canal fever was in the air. City magnates and tobacco barons in Glasgow decided to build a canal to the extensive coalfields of Monklands and bring much needed cheap coal to the city.

James Watt, the famous engineer and inventor, was commissioned to build the Canal. Work began at Sheepford, Coatbridge, in 1770 but after a couple of years money ran out and the whole project was nearly abandoned.

Progress only really came in the late 1780s when Andrew Stirling, a Monklands landowner and entrepreneur, took control of the Canal.    He struck a deal with Forth and Clyde Navigation to join the two canals together in Glasgow and to extend the Monkland Canal eastwards to North Calder Water and Calderbank.   The photograph below shows the area known as Sheepford where the construction of the Monkland Canal began in 1770.

In the 1790s the Canal was extended eastwards, a set of locks was built and it was one of only two lock systems on the whole of the Canal.  Sheepford Locks were built as part of the extension to Calderbank.  The two locks were separated by a basin and raised the canal some 20 feet.  This  was one of only two lock systems on the whole of the Canal.    At the same time a road bridge was built over the Canal to carry Locks Street. (You can still see this iron road bridge today). The photograph (c1940s)  shows an aerial view of the Sheepford area - the road in the middle - running from left to right is Locks Street.  Note part of the canal below the bridge is covered in algae because of the non usage.

sheep.jpg (31803 bytes)

Sheepford Locks
At the top of the picture is the Lock Street Railway Viaduct. It was built in the 1880s and carried the Caledonian Line between Rutherglen and Airdrie. Its piers were orientated in an unusual way to accommodate the Monkland Canal underneath.   The road on the left is the road leading to Coatdyke

These improvements were completed in 1794. The Monkland Canal had taken 24 years to complete.

Once it was complete,  coalmasters along the route of the Canal opened up numerous mines and the trade in coal began in earnest. Faskine and Palacecraig Estates (between Sheepford and the eastern end of the canal) were among the first areas exploited for coal.

The Canal became increasingly important in the nineteenth century as the main mode of transport for the ironworks that set up in Coatbridge.    The route of the canal was determined by the need for  the canal to remain on level ground - it twisted and turned on its journey from Calderbank and Coatbridge to Townhead in Glasgow.   On the other hand, Airdrie was built on higher ground and missed out on being directly involved in the Iron and Coal era.

The canal route (using todays placenames) was from Calderbank, through Faskine, Palacecraig, Coatdyke (Sheepford) near the B&Q, Coatbank Way, South Circular Road, crossing under the road to run parallel with Main Street and King Street, through Drumpelier, Cuilhill to Easterhouse, Ruchazie, Riddrie, Blackhill, Blochairn and on to Townhead (The M8 motorway was built on the canal from near Easterhouse to Townhead).   

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The Bridges at Coatbridge Fountain  

                palacraig.jpg (12653 bytes)                Palacecraig

The Canal competed successfully with the new railway companies well in to the nineteenth century - the traffic on the Canal reached a peak in 1850s and 60s, transporting over 1 million tonnes of coal and iron a year.

Passenger boats operated from below Sheepford Locks to Blackhill whre passengers were obliged to walk to another boat to complete the journey to Townhead.

By the 1920s however traffic on the Canal had reduced to just 30,000 tonnes a year. In the 1940s the Canal was abandoned and in the 1960s the Canal was mostly filled in and covered by the M8.

North Calder Water

North Calder Water attracted industries to it. It was particularly attractive because Forth and Clyde Navigation controlled the flow of water along it as early as 1799 with the building of Hillend Reservoir.

The industries along the river were concentrated at Calderbank, Moffat Mills, Gartness, Caldervale, Plains and Caldercruix. The industries here changed over time and used the river in different ways.

Early on the river was a source of power for grain mills making flour and waulk mills which made woollen cloth.

Water was used for power and for soaking in Flax mills which made cotton cloth.

The next types of industry were forges and ironworks, which used the river for powering hammers and for cooling.

Lastly there were paper mills and print mills which used the river for soaking, washing and as a source of power. The last mill to disappear was Caldercruix paper mill in 1970 putting an end to 400 years of industry


Monklands was one of the first areas in Scotland to be developed with railway lines. The earliest lines were short private "mineral lines" owned by companies for the conveyance of coal via horse drawn carriages. The next development came with the opening of the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Line in 1826 between Monkland Canal at Palacecraig and the Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch.

It was the second public railway line in Scotland but in many respects it was the first modern line in Scotland. The line used new Birkenshaw rails, which were much stronger than other rails in use at that time. Stronger rails meant that in 1831 the line became the first in Scotland to successfully run locomotives. The locomotives were the first to be built on the Clyde (a model of the locomotives can be seen in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh).

Unfulfilled Dreams -

The Monkland Canal was constructed during the period 17701781 for the purpose of carrying coal cheaply from the Monklands area to Glasgow. The canal prospered until the late 1860s but from then the traffic on the canal began to decline and by the 1930s it had practically ceased. An Act of Parliament extinguished rights of navigation in 1952 and from that time until the late 1960s it was generally considered that the derelict canal was proving to be an obstacle to the proper replanning of Coatbridge. Consequently, over half of the original canal and branches were either piped or infilled.

With the formation of the Scottish Development Agency in 1975 the way was set to establish a comprehensive programme of improvements for the derelict canal corridor under the Monkland Canal Land Renewal Project.

In 1978 the District Council approved the report which proposed that a comprehensive walkway system be established along the entire canal corridor within the District. The report also proposed that a length of navigable canal be created from Bargeddie to the Fountain Cross by rehabilitating the open water stretch of the canal and by reopening the culvert section from Blair Bridge to Fountain Cross. It was established at that time that nothing should be done which would prejudice the eventual reopening of the remainder of the canal. It was anticipated at that time that the cost of carrying out these rehabilitation works would be considerable and the District Council agreed in association with the
Scottish Development Agency and the Countryside Commission that the works would be phased over a number of years in order to implement the programme.

Where it has been feasible, stretches of canal have been reopened and water reintroduced to give the effect of the former canal and in many cases where it has not been possible to reopen the canal a linear walkway system has been laid out. Along some of these linear walkways the potential exists in the future for water to be introduced into certain parts of the canal beds and once the rehabilitation programme is complete it will be possible to walk from Calderbank to Bargeddie (Cuilhill Road) following the line of the former Canal much of which will have been restored to its original form.

The most recently completed section of canal work is at Bank Street Coatbridge, where, between the large railway bridges, water has been reintroduced and the foundations laid for further stretches of canal to be opened.

In August 1984 the District Council decided to proceed in principle with the Summerlee Heritage Park Development and an essential ingredient of this proposal was the reopening of the Monkland Canal from the Heritage Park westwards to Blair Bridge thus permitting the passage of boats between Summerlee,  the Monklands Leisure Centre and Drumpellier Country Park to open up a major recreational attraction in the District.

This attraction will be further improved by the construction of the Time Capsulea major water-based leisure project adjacent to the Indoor Sports Centre at Bank Street. The reconstruction of the canal between Summerlee and the District boundary at Cuilhill would create a total navigable length of 3,500 metres allowing at least an hour's return trip by canal narrow boat. This comprehensive facility may well have a capacity to attract in excess of 2 million visitors a year, only rivalled in both regional and national terms by developments like the Burrell Collection and Strathclyde Water Park.

We dream on!




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