In Celtic folklore, kelpies were believed to take the form of fearsome, powerful horses. When one of those beasts was seen, it would be easily identifiable by its white and sky blue colouring and constantly dripping mane.
It was also believed a kelpie could swim, keeping just one scary eye out of the water before changing its form to become a beautiful woman, all the better to lure men into a trap.
The Kelpies seen near Falkirk of late may therefore have been wrongly named as large numbers of people have been getting up close, unafraid, craning their necks for a better look!
These particular Kelpies, representing two horses’ heads, are a massive work of art made of thousands of pieces of stainless steel. Glinting in the sunlight, about 30 metres tall, they stand on either side of a new extension of the Forth and Clyde Canal.
From some angles, perhaps like the mythical creatures they have been named after, they appear benign, caught in two vaguely realistic poses – one head is downturned while the other reaches for the sky. And possibly because the sculptures are so big, some curious visitors are happy to pay to take a guided tour to ‘see the horse’s insides’ as it were.
As well as being monumental, complex pieces of engineering, artist Andy Scott’s Kelpies also commemorate the thousands of heavy horses that worked with their handlers during the construction of the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals.
The cutting of the first sod signalling the start of this endeavour took place in 1768 near Grangemouth at the River Forth end of the excavation that would become the Forth and Clyde Canal. It would be 1790 before this vast undertaking was completed at the village of Bowling on the River Clyde. As well as being a magnificent feat of engineering, this linking waterway between two great rivers was of immense importance in Scotland’s industrial past.
The Union Canal was built later, mainly to carry coal and building stone to Edinburgh. Goods and equipment could then be hauled across country between Glasgow and Edinburgh by barges pulled by heavy horses while sailing ships were saved a long, often arduous journey, round the north coast.
For the itinerant labourers who dug what were essentially elongated trenches, conditions must have been desperate. Consider the enormity of their task when picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, plus a few horses and carts were the available tools.
Labouring across this ‘waist of Scotland’ was nothing new, of course. Centuries earlier, the Roman Army had built a line of forts roughly parallel to where the Forth and Clyde Canal now runs. To better these defences against enemies to the north, Emperor Antonius Pius in AD140 ordered the building of a wall. It consisted of a wide, deep ditch and an earthen rampart interspersed with new forts and platforms for beacons. Though it was abandoned some 20 years later, the Antonine Wall replaced Hadrian’s Wall for a time, as the far northern frontier of the Roman Empire.
After circling the Kelpies, you might want to extend your walk or cycle (the sculpture is no distance from the Helix Park car park) along that part of the Forth and Clyde Canal in the immediate area, or explore the extensive paths in the newly created Helix Park.
Another option is to take a bus, or drive the four miles, for a look at the remains of the Antonine Wall on your way to the iconic Falkirk Wheel. In the passing you might notice the Union Inn, sited where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal were first connected by a flight of locks at Lock 16.
It was from the basin at Lock 16 that the Charlotte Dundas, the world’s first practical steamboat, headed for Glasgow in 1803.
By 1836 the number of passengers travelling on the canals had risen to 200,000. Just as today, some of them would have enjoyed a meal or perhaps a small libation in the Union Inn beside Lock 16 before continuing their journey.
Sailing between Edinburgh and Glasgow took around 7 hours in boats called ‘swifts.’ Slower night boats, the ‘hoolets’ (Scots word for owls) were popular with honeymoon couples.
In 2002, the No.16 Lock gates were superseded by the Falkirk Wheel when the world’s first rotating boatlift was opened by H.M. Queen Elizabeth. Like the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel is a marvellous feat of engineering. From a basin off the Forth and Clyde Canal, it can lift 8 boats at a time (more usually 1 boat full of visitors) and deposit them some 25 metres higher on the Union Canal.
While gazing up at this mechanical marvel, also keep in mind there may be objects still more mysterious overhead. This area, particularly the town of Bonnybridge, west of Falkirk, has a reputation for witnessing many occurrences of unidentified flying objects.
The canal towpaths can be walked in sections or on one long trek from end to end. Considering that the waterway runs through some of what was Scotland’s industrial heartlands, much of it is now gratifyingly rural with expansive views. From the Union Canal towpath you can look over Falkirk to a distant, silver sliver of the River Forth, to the Ochil Hills beyond and further still to the peaks of the Highlands.
Swans and herons and a variety of ducks seem unperturbed by passing footsteps while stretches of woodland on each side are alive with noisy birdlife. Anglers are welcome, as are other water users such as rowers and canoeists.
In places, speeding trains on the nearby rails are reminders of the progress that led to the early demise of these canals. But in a recent turnaround, for the first time in years, material has been transported by barge instead of by road or rail.
With the opening of the new Forth and Clyde Canal extension which runs between the Kelpies, the waterway is now ready for vessels arriving from or making for the North Sea and beyond.
The Kelpies were officially opened to the public on the Easter Weekend of 2014 with a spectacular sound show and late evening blaze of lights.
Days later, the John Muir Way, running between the towns of Helensburgh in the west and Dunbar in the east, was also opened.
Now this latest long distance trail which makes use of some sections of the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals is ready for walkers, cyclists, or riders on horseback.