The Falkirk Wheel: The Complete Guide

Falkirk Wheel

 Brian Fairbrother/LatitudeStock/Getty Images

The Falkirk Wheel is the world's first, and only, rotating boat lift. It's a bit like a ferris wheel except instead of carrying passengers it carries boats floating in "gondolas" and their passengers as well. A Scottish millennium project about halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, it's a futuristic looking feat of engineering that's actually based on some very old science.

The History of the Falkirk Wheel

From the late 18th century, two canals—the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal—provided East/West navigation across the Scottish lowlands. They carried canal boats bearing goods between the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow and the Firth of Forth at near Edinburgh. In the 19th century, at the village of Falkirk, a series of 11 locks connected the two canals. It took almost a full day for a boat to be lifted through the locks. Not long after the locks were built, they were superseded by cheaper, faster means of traveling and carrying goods across the country, notably the railroads, as well as faster and safer ships, to navigate around the Scottish coast.

By the 1930s, the locks between the two canals were hardly used at all, and in 1933, they were closed, and they filled up with plants and soil and eventually became land on which houses were built. But the dream of creating coast-to-coast, navigable channels across Scotland gave rise to the Millennium Link Project, and the Falkirk Wheel is the result.

How the Falkirk Wheel Works

Early on, the designers realized that the energy required to raise caissons full of water (the gondolas), boats, and passengers the 115 feet between the two canals would take a tremendous and prohibitive amount of energy, whether driven by electricity or fossil fuel. So architect Tony Kettle and his team turned to an ancient principle discovered by Archimedes thousands of years ago.

Two boats in a caisson of the Falkirk Wheel
 Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Simply put, a floating object displaces its own weight in water. If an object sinks, it displaces its volume, and because it sinks, it is heavier than water and changes the weight of the container in which it sinks. But if it floats, it is essentially of an equal weight as the water it displaces. So a gondola full of water weighs exactly the same as a gondola containing one or more floating boats.

This balanced equilibrium, combined with a sophisticated arrangement of cogs and gears (to keep the gondolas level as the wheel rotates, so they don't tip over and spill out the boats and water), is what makes the rotation of the Falkirk Wheel possible. Scottish Canals video on the Falkirk Wheel website makes all this science very clear.

Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002, the wheel cost about £85 million to build. But to raise and rotate the two gondolas, each weighing 600 tons and carrying an Olympic swimming pool's volume of water (500,000 liters), is much cheaper. It uses the same amount of energy as it takes to boil eight household kettles—1.5 kilowatt hours.

Take a Ride on the Falkirk Wheel

You don't have to be on a canal boat cruise to experience "floating" up and down between the two canals, a distance equal to the height of a stack of eight double-decker buses. Fifty-minute trips on the wheel, starting and finishing at the visitor center, are offered throughout the year and bookable by telephoning the visitor center (+44 (0)8700 500 208). You can also purchase tickets online through the Scottish Canals website.

The trip is aboard an enclosed vessel, specially designed for the Falkirk Wheel gondola. Boat trips are typically scheduled for 11:10 a.m., 12:20 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:40 p.m., and 3:50 p.m., though there may be additional times available on the date you book your trip. Adult fares were £13.50 as of 2019. Concessions, children's, and family tickets are also available. Passengers leave from the visitor center and slowly ride up to the Union Canal. The half rotation of the wheel, from the Forth & Clyde Canal to the Union Canal, takes five minutes.

The canal boat then takes a short cruise on the Union Canal before returning to the wheel for another half rotation down to the bottom.

If you are taking a cruise along the canals in a privately licensed pleasure craft and using the Falkirk Wheel for regular navigation, use of the boat lift is free (though it must be booked).

More Things to Do

Families can make the Falkirk Wheel a full day of entertainment. The Visitor Center includes a cafe and gift shop plus, in warmer weather, the "Splash Zone" has Waterzorbing and canoeing, peddle boats, stand-up paddle boarding, and bumper boats. Bike hire and Segway Safaris are also available. And the two horses' heads known as the Kelpies are just five miles away—at 30 meters tall, they're the world's largest equine sculptures. The center is 23 miles from either Glasgow or Edinburgh with all the attractions they offer.

Essentials

Where: The Falkirk Wheel, Lime Rd, Tamfourhill, Falkirk FK1 4RS

When: Open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Getting there:

By car: From Edinburgh, take the M9 toward Stirling to Junction 8, then follow brown and white signs. From Glasgow, off the M80, then M876 and exit M876 at Junction 1.

By Train: The nearest train stations are Falkirk Grahamston, Camelon or Falkirk High Station. Taxis to the wheel are available from taxi ranks at the stations. See National Rail Enquiries for train times and prices.

By bus: First Bus has services from Falkirk town center and other station locations. Check their Falkirk Zone website for prices and schedules.

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