National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Canal Records

Canal Records

At National Records of Scotland (NRS) the records of canals are found in a number of different series. The original impetus for the development of canals was to improve transport and revitalise local trade routes. Scotland's natural waterways were notoriously difficult to navigate and land transport was slow and unreliable. By the mid 18th century the expansion of trade made transport improvements a necessity. The Forth and Clyde Canal was the first to be completed, in 1792, and the next four major canals that followed were all completed by 1822.

After nationalisation of all waterways on 1 January 1948, there was growing pressure for canal closure. In 1958 a Committee of Inquiry into Inland Waterways reported on the future of the canals (The Bowles Report). The NRS holds government records relating to this. (NRS reference DD12, DD17 and AF62). Up until recently the Caledonian and Crinan Canals were the only ones that remained navigable. Parts of the lowland waterways were filled in. These waterways were also used for supplying local industries with water. All are now used principally for leisure purposes. In 2001, as part of a multi-million pound project, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal was re-opened.

Company histories

The Caledonian Canal Surveys for a canal from the Moray Firth to Loch Linnhe were made in 1773 and 1793. In 1803 Thomas Telford reported on the feasibility of a canal through the central Highlands of Scotland in his Survey and Report of the Coasts and Central Highlands of Scotland. An Act of Parliament establishing the Caledonian Canal Commissioners was passed on 27 July 1803. The canal finally opened to traffic in 1822. In 1848 the Commissioners were made a corporate body. The Caledonian and Crinan Canals were leased to private undertakings in 1860. Both were transferred to the Ministry of Transport in 1920, when the Commissioners ceased to exist (see NRS reference MT1). In 1947 the canals were transferred to the British Transport Commission. The British Waterways Board took over responsibility under the Transport Act, 1962.

The main series of records in the NRS cover the period 1804 - 1907 (NRS reference BR/CCL). Correspondence and other papers, 1803 - 1921 are in the Ministry of Transport papers (NRS reference MT1).

The Crinan Canal

A survey for the Crinan Canal was made by James Watt in 1771. An Act of Parliament of 1793 established 'The Company of Proprietors of the Crinan Canal'. The construction of the canal, from Ardrishaig to Loch Crinan in Argyllshire, commenced in the same year on plans prepared by John Rennie. The canal, though incomplete, finally opened in 1801. From the beginning it was beset by financial problems. In 1811, a heavy gale washed away the principal embankment of a reservoir to the Crinan at Glen Clachaig and water rushed into the canal, sweeping away part of the road, closing it to navigation. This and persistent repair work meant that between 1799 and 1816 several statutes were required to authorise advances of public money (£74,400 in all) towards the completion and improvement of the canal, the revenues of which were assigned to the Exchequer. (See NRS reference E307/15, E307/20-21 and E307/26-28). The final advance was made to the Caledonian Canal Commissioners, who were to oversee the expenditure of the money. By an Act of Parliament of 1848 the Crinan Canal was vested in the corporate body entitled the Commissioners of the Caledonian Canal.

Both the Crinan and Caledonian Canals were transferred to the Ministry of Transport in 1920, when the Commissioners ceased to exist (see NRS reference MT1). In 1947 they were transferred to the British Transport Commission. The British Waterways Board took over responsibility under the Transport Act, 1962.

The main record series held by the NRS covers the period 1792 - 1935 (NRS reference BR/CRI). Correspondence and other papers, 1803 - 1921 are in the Ministry of Transport papers (NRS reference MT1).

The Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal

The canal was incorporated under an Act of Parliament of 1817. In 1849 the canal company was vested in the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, which then amalgamated with the North British Railway in 1865. The NRS holds the main series of minutes of the Committee of Subscribers, 1813 - 1922 (NRS reference BR/EGU/1/1-9).

Forth and Cart Junction Canal

The canal company was incorporated under an Act of Parliament of 1836 to construct a canal extending from the Forth and Clyde Canal at Whitecrook to the River Clyde, opposite the River Cart. Work on this short stretch of canal was transferred to the Forth and Clyde Canal Company which became vested in the Caledonian Railway in 1867. The canal closed in 1893.

NRS has a notice to shareholders of the Forth and Cart Junction Canal about the proposal of the proprietors of the Forth and Clyde N to purchase their canal, 1855 (NRS reference BR/FCC). This notice includes brief remarks on the history and purpose of the canal.

Forth and Clyde Canal

The earliest and fullest set of canal company minute books in the NRS date from 1767. These are minutes for the Forth and Clyde Canal. As early as 1707 John Adair, the cartographer, had put forward detailed proposals for a canal between the Forth and Clyde. In 1763 the Board of Trustees for the encouragement of Fisheries, Manufactures and Improvements in Scotland (NRS ref: NG) asked the engineer John Smeaton to carry out his own survey. His reports of 1764 and 1767, with other papers on the canal, are in the Clerk of Penicuik papers (NRS reference GD18). After its completion in 1792, the Forth and Clyde Canal was seen as a great engineering achievement and a significant contribution to the economy of Scotland.

Although meetings were held in both London and Edinburgh until 1787, management of the company after 1775 was mainly exercised from Glasgow and minutes and reports were simultaneously produced in all three places, often duplicating each other. The surviving minutes, 1767 - 1850, are now amalgamated under the reference BR/FCN/1/1-97.

The Glasgow Paisley and Johnstone Canal

The canal was incorporated by an Act of Parliament of 1806 as "The Company of Proprietors of the Glasgow Paisley and Ardrossan Canal". In 1826 the company received powers to form a railway, but in 1840 an Act separated the railway from the company. The company was then styled "The Glasgow Paisley and Johnstone Canal Co." In 1868 it was vested in the Glasgow and South Western Railway.

NRS holds the company minute books, 1815 - 40 and records relating to undertakings, reports, rates etc (NRS reference BR/GPA). An earlier minute book, 1805-17, is among the Court of Session papers (NRS reference CS96/2002).

The Monkland Canal

The Monkland Canal gave Glasgow access to the mineral resources of North Lanarkshire. It was projected to provide the city with a plentiful supply of coal. James Watt began work on the canal in 1770. Work was finally completed by William Stirling & Sons of Glasgow in 1789. In 1790 an Act of Parliament was procured to allow the construction of a junction between the Monkland and the Forth and Clyde canals by a cut from the Forth and Clyde basin at Port Dundas to the monkland Canal basin. The Monkland canal was bought in 1846 by the Forth and Clyde Canal company (taken over by the Caledonian railway in 1867). The Monkland Canal was closed to commercial traffic in 1935 and was abandoned in 1950.

The records

The records which NRS holds on Scottish canals are scattered through the following archives.

British Rail (NRS reference BR)

Many canal companies were taken over by railway companies. The records may include minute books, deeds and contracts, reports, letter books, cash books, stock and share registers, lists of tolls, charges and classifications of merchandise, canal and wharf dues and public notices.

British Waterways Board (NRS reference BW)

Successor to the Caledonian and Crinan Canal Commissioners and the Ministry of Transport. Many records remain with the British Waterways Board. A catalogue of these records is available at General Register House. Crinan Canal records, 1878 -1959 (NRS reference BW1)

Ministry of Transport (NRS reference MT)

Papers of the Caledonian and Crinan Canal, 1803 - 1921 (NRS reference MT1)

Exchequer records (NRS reference E)

Records of the estates forfeited from the Jacobites (NRS reference E700 - E788). Listed under each estate. Crinan Canal Papers, 1799 - 1844 (NRS reference E331)

Private family and estate collections (NRS reference GD)

A source list of canal records in private collections is available in our search rooms.

Register House Plans (NRS reference RHP)

Maps and plans recording proposed canal sites and improvements.

Scottish Government files

Some files relating to canal affairs appear in the papers of the Development Department.

Court records

Court of Session and Sheriff Court papers will include material relating to legal cases.

Canal records in NRS
Canal NRS References
Caledonian BR/CCL,MT1, E331, GD155, GD176
Crinan BR/CRI,MT1, BW1
Edinburgh and Glasgow Union BR/EGU, BR/GEN(S)/3/102/1 GD51, GD418, GD30, GD310, DD12/3125, DD17/1458, RHP92900
Forth and Clyde BR/FCN, GD18, GD58, AF62, DD17
Forth and Cart BR/FCC
Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone BR/GPA, CS96/2002
Monkland GD171, GD18, DD17/113, CS230/S.11/4, CS96/1127

Civil and industrial engineering

There are surveying plans relating to all four main canals, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union, Crinan, Caledonian, and Forth and Clyde. In private collections there is reference to construction of a bridge over the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal at Redding including specifications, conditions, schedules, form of tender and contracts (NRS reference GD310/27). Historical records relating to the Forth and Clyde Canal contain a plan of the passage boat 'Vulcan' built in 1818, which was the canal's first iron boat (NRS reference BR/FCN/3/1).

Local history

Evidence of Scottish trade is found in the accounts of the dues collected from vessels passing through a canal and their cargoes. The Crinan Canal's operations can be found in the British Waterways records held by The National Archives (London)(TNA) (TNA reference BW1). Regular cargoes on the Crinan Canal were coals, bricks, timber and barley going north, and slates, wool and kelp travelling south (NRS reference E 331/17-28 and BR/CRI/4/2-8). Information about cargoes may also be found in petitions recorded in minute books for reduction of dues, for example in pig iron (NRS reference BR/FCN/1/75).

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert travelled along the Crinan Canal in 1847. The NRS holds documents accounting for that trip (BR/CRI/4/1) and for other passenger journeys on the canals including tolls and rules and regulations (for example NRS reference BR/EGU/4/1-6).

NRS reference E730/21 contains material on the proposed construction of the Strathmore Canal. Additionally there is a memorandum on a proposed canal between the harbour of Arbroath and the town of Forfar, dating from a re-survey undertaken by Robert Stevenson (NRS reference GD16/38/52).

Family history

In the NRS there are no lists of employees who worked on the canals: lists of the proprietors and Commissioners are more common (e.g. NRS reference BR/CRI/2/1). The Caledonian Canal Commissioners were constantly being criticised for employing Irish rather than Scottish labourers. One of the main reasons for building the canal had been to curb the rising tide of emigration. Records of the Lord Advocate's Department reveal a small number of canal workers who found themselves on the wrong side of the law (NRS reference AD14/19-22). The Forth and Clyde Canal records include documents relating to uniforms issued to staff, holidays etc, 1904 - 1909 (NRS reference BR/FCN/4/10)

Social history

Minute books may include social detail, such as a complaint in 1892 that employees or their families were damaging the 'trade of licensed premises'. At Cairnbann on the Crinan Canal 'a lock keeper's wife places her table… refurbishments and cow almost directly in front of the Hotel and declines to remove'. (NRS reference MT1/226)

Other sources

Falkirk Museums History Resource Centre holds the records of William Forbes. He objected to the Union Canal passing within sight of Callendar House. In consequence a tunnel was built to house the canal for 700 yards through solid rock under Prospect Hill. The Resource Centre also hold a series of work diaries written by Thomas Wilson, engineer on the Forth and Clyde Canal.

The National Archives (London) (TNA) have Scottish canal records amongst the records they hold of Treasury Expired Commissions, the Admiralty and other UK Government bodies. These records relate to the Caledonian, Crinan, Forth and Clyde and Union Canals. British Waterways hold minutes, canal reports, accounting records and other papers relating to all the principal canals.

The Linlithgow Union Canal Society, which promotes recreational use of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal, has a museum. Further information can be found on their website.

Further reading

J Boughey, 'Hadfield's British Canals' (Alan Sutton, 1994)

D D Gladwin, 'An illustrated history of British waterways', (Spurbooks Ltd, 1977)

Jean Lindsay, 'The canals of Scotland' (David &Charles, 1968)