Scottish Innovation

Falkirk Wheel

Scotland has four canal systems, the Caledonian Canal, the Crinan Canal, the Forth & Clyde Canal, and the Union Canal. These waterways consist of lochs (lakes) and locks. They work together. When two lochs are at different elevations, the lock lifts or lowers the boat from one to the other.

When the elevation differential is large, a series of locks is required. Currently the longest staircase lock can be seen at Banavie, a village north of Ft. William. Named Neptune’s Staircase (part of the Caledonian Canal), this series of 8 locks raises and lowers boats 62 feet over a quarter of a mile in about 90 minutes. Not bad.

Prior to 1933, there was an 11-lock staircase between the Firth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal. It took nearly an entire day to transit this staircase. Spending a day in a loch staircase was tolerated in the 1800s, not so in the twenty-first century.

Water transit between Glasgow and Edinburgh was interrupted for several decades when this staircase lock was dismantled.


In 1998 the Falkirk Wheel took shape. The genius of imagination (based on the very old Archimedes Principle) conceived a new solution for the former 11 locks. The design is nothing short of an engineering miracle.

That day-long lift between the Firth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal is now accomplished in 5.5 minutes using the world’s first and only rotating boat lift.

The Falkirk Wheel is a moving sculpture inspired from the Celtic past. The shape recalls a double headed ax.

Construction of the Falkirk Wheel involved:

  • repair or reconstruction of 500 structures (bridges, lochs, aqueducts) along 114km (71 miles) of canals
  • 1,200 tons of steel
  • 1,000 construction staff
  • 15,000 bolts matched with 45,000 bolt holes, each hand tightened
  • 79 feet tall
  • diameter of the wheel – 115 feet
  • 1.5 kWh of energy for each rotation (equal to the amount of energy needed to boil 8 kettles of water)
  • rotates 180 degrees in clockwise or anti-clockwise direction (Scots say anti instead of counter)
  • each gondola holds 500,000 liters of water (132,086 gallons)
  • 600 tons of barges can be held in each gondola
  • opened in 2002
  • designed to last 120 years
  • cost of Falkirk Wheel £20 million ($27,038,000)
  • cost of entire project £84.5 million ($114,236,000)

But, you really MUST see the Falkirk Wheel

To see how it works, go here

To see it work, go here

And when you hear the Scottish brogue of the narrator, you won’t be able to resist a trip to Scotland to experience it for yourself.

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