The Out About Scotland complete guide to The Falkirk Wheel
What’s this attraction all about?
The Falkirk Wheel is a mechanical marvel located close to Falkirk that’s famed as the world’s only rotating boatlift. This impressive example of Scotland’s world-leading engineering skills lifts boats over 115 feet into the air between the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, and since opening in 2002 it’s seen over 1.5 million people take a boat trip on this extraordinary lift.
Taking cues from the shape of Celtic axes, the Falkirk Wheel is a masterclass in modern engineering design and can lift up to six canal boats in a full rotation that takes only five minutes, as opposed to the full day that it used to take with traditional lochs. That’s pretty incredible, but it’s not until you take a trip onto the wheel for yourself that you realise what a monumental structure it is.
The ‘wheel’ (you’ll see why I’ve used inverted commas when you look at my photos of it), consists of two arms extending from a central axle with water-filled gondolas hanging off each end. Each gondola carries a combined weight of 500 tonnes and yet they’re perfectly balanced thanks to a system of computer-controlled valves and pumps that syphon off the same weight of water as the weight of the boat that sails onto it. It then takes only as much energy to rotate as is used to boil eight kettles of water – mind-boggling stuff.
You can experience a boat ride for yourself if you go to the visitor centre at the Falkirk Wheel but there are lots of other activities for families to enjoy including a children’s activity zone, a water play park and mini canal, canoeing, bike hire, and woodland walks. It’s a really good day out and if you’ve got any interest in engineering or you’ve got kids that love this kind of stuff then I think a visit there is a bit of a no-brainer.
What can you do there?
The highlight of a visit to the Falkirk Wheel has to be taking the half-hour tourist ride on one of the purpose-built barges that sails from one canal to the next, and to be honest it’s only by taking the tour that you’ll really get to appreciate this example of ‘big engineering’ in action. It doesn’t take long to get from ground level to the top of the next canal but there’s a good view once you’re up there and I enjoyed watching the mechanism as it completed its turn.
The only thing I’d have liked to have been able to do is take a look inside the central axle as it’s easily big enough to walk inside but I guess it would be too dangerous, but that’s ok because the visitor centre has got plenty of informative displays that explain how it all works. As visitor centres go the one at the Falkirk Wheel is pretty good and you’ll find loads of souvenirs and gifts in the shop that are reasonably priced, which is refreshing as most of these types of attractions tend to rip off their visitors.
The food stalls outside are good too (I had an awesome wood-fired pizza), but they’re a little over-priced in my opinion so you might want to take a picnic instead. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to eat al-fresco thanks to the lovely walkways along the canals and if the weather’s warm enough you can cool down in the water park near the visitor centre which has lots of valves, pressure pumps, and water wheels to operate.
If you fancy going a bit further out onto the water you can climb into a giant inflatable zorb ball and roll your way over it or you can paddle across the canal on a stand-up paddleboard if you want an activity that’s a bit more relaxing. Both activities have an additional fee (see the Falkirk Wheel website for details), but they’re reasonably priced and good fun – which leads me onto another family activity that might be worth paying for.
The Scottish Segway Centre provides off-road tours around the woodland paths that surround the Falkirk Wheel on those strange gyro-controlled two-wheeled scooters that you might have seen elsewhere, and I have to admit after a brief ride I decided I had to get one myself! They’re awesome little machines that are easy to get the hang of so they can be used by young and old alike, and gliding up to the vantage point at the top of the Falkirk Wheel was the highlight of my visit and something that I highly recommend you experience too.
They also do a ‘Segway Safari’ that follows the nearby Antonine Way which ends at the remains of Rough Castle – the former northern-most outpost of the Roman empire in ancient Britain. The only negative I have is that the tours are a bit expensive even though they’re great fun, with the safari costing £115 for two adults and two children. Still, it’s a unique experience and something that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
The history of the attraction
The story of the Falkirk Wheel begins long before its design stage in the late 1990s, and in fact stretches back almost one hundred years to a time when the Forth & Clyde and Union canals were linked by a series of lochs. Due to the 115-foot difference in height between the two canals, boats that wanted to sail between them had to pass through a total of eleven lochs, each of which would have to be filled with water before the boat could move onto the next in a process that could easily take the best part of a day.
By the 1930s the lochs were no longer being used and were eventually dismantled in 1933, rendering water-based travel between the two canals impossible. The final nail in the coffin of this once-important route across Scotland was the closure of the Forth and Clyde canal in 1962, with the Union canal being completely cut off from Scotland’s waterways in the mid-70s when it was blocked off at both ends.
Luckily for us tourists the link between the two bodies of water was deemed worthy of re-opening thanks to the funds offered by the National Lottery, and in 1999 a design was made that would allow boats to be transported vertically in a one-of-a-kind lift. This replacement for the old system of lochs was created over the course of the next three years and involved over a thousand people in its construction.
The amount of work that went into building the Falkirk Wheel is pretty amazing, with 8.8 million cubic feet of soil having to be excavated and over 2000 feet of access roads having to be installed, not forgetting the 520-foot canal tunnel and 66-foot aqueducts that were also built. It finally opened in 2002 at a cost of over £17 million and has since become the highlight of Scotland’s remaining canal network, with more than 5 million visitors coming to see it since its opening day.
What I liked about this attraction
- It’s amazing to watch the Falkirk Wheel in action
- The visitor centre is pretty good with plenty of food and drink stalls
- There are some really nice walks along the canals
What I didn’t like about this attraction
- The food stalls are on the pricey side
- Telephone: +44 870 050 0208
- email: NA
- Website: The Falkirk Wheel – Scottish Canals website
Prices and opening times
- Adult £13.50
- Concession £11.50 (anyone over 60, full-time Student or Falkirk Council Tax Payer)
- Child (3-15yrs) £7.50
- Child (under 3) Free
- Family (2 adults + 2 children) £37.00
- Family (2 adults + 3 children) £43.75
- Family (2 adults + 4 children) £50.50
- Registered Carers Free
- Winter opening hours: 1st November 2018 to March 2019, Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 4pm
- Summer opening hours: See website for updates