Union Canal section 4: Wester Hailes

For the first time in my current attempt to walk the whole length of the canal, I’m deviating from the sections we walked the first time, 30 years ago. In fact, we didn’t walk this section at all first time round, but in our defence we did have a very good reason… there was no canal there back then!

Here’s the view at the end of Hailes Park back in the early 1990s…

Blockage on Union Canal at Wester Hailes
The canal disappeared into the Dumbryden Road embankment

and here’s roughly the same view this morning. Better, huh?

Union Canal at Dumbryden Road
Union Canal at Dumbryden Road

Just over a mile of the canal was filled in here in the late 1960s to make way for the new housing scheme at Wester Hailes. The water flow was maintained through large underground pipes, with a pumping station to keep it flowing to the now-cut-off city section. (Contrary to popular belief, canals aren’t stagnant; a lot of water actually flows through them every day, so if you block one off, this water still has to go somewhere). I once read somewhere that the original plan for the housing estate was to keep the canal as a sort of linear park, but after some boys drowned in the nearby Murray Burn, the plan was changed and both canal and burn were culverted instead.

But by the end of the century, things were changing. There was increasing momentum behind the idea of reopening the canal and eventually its owners succeeded in obtaining a large grant from the National Lottery’s Millennium Fund that would (along with funding from other organisations) completely reopen both the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal as well as linking them together with an impressive new rotating boat lift (which we’ll come to in another 28 miles or so). After two years of painstaking construction work and many millions of pounds spent, the pumps at Wester Hailes were switched off in the summer of 2001, the water flowing freely through a brand new canal channel instead.

Union Canal at Wester Hailes
Union Canal at Wester Hailes

Thankfully the canal mostly flowed under roads and green spaces rather than buildings, which made restoration easier and less disruptive than it might have been. The only demolition required was an internet cafe and, other than at the west end where it’s been diverted slightly to the south to avoid Wester Hailes Education Centre’s playing fields, the restored canal mostly follows the same line as the original canal did before it was filled in.

I seem to talk about bridges in all of these posts, and this one will be no exception, not least because there are loads of them on this stretch of canal – six road bridges and seven footbridges, far more than anywhere else. The road bridges are all the same design as the one at Kingsknowe, though number 7 is noticeably chunkier since it carries the Wester Hailes Road dual carriageway. My favourite one, though, is this one next to Dumbryden Road, because it has a interesting story behind it.

Bridge rescued from inside embankment
The bridge that was rescued from inside an embankment

This wasn’t one of the original 62 canal bridges (you can tell as it’s lacking a number on the keystone), but it’s built to the same design so I think it’s a pretty early one. It also survived being buried in a road embankment for about 30 years! During that time, the only clue to its existence was a low, slightly curved stone wall next to Dumbryden Road that looked suspiciously like a standard Union Canal bridge parapet. The bridge was dug out and patched up during the restoration work and doesn’t look much the worse for its ordeal. The parapet on the other side, which would have been right under the road surface, was missing and a new one had to be constructed, though time has made the difference in the colour of the stone less obvious than it was at first.

You see a lot of dog walkers along this stretch, not surprisingly considering how much housing surrounds it. At one of the road bridges it appears some of the dogs couldn’t wait until the concrete surface on the towpath had set before using it.

Paw prints in the concrete
Paw prints in the concrete

Overall, putting the canal back seems to have been a success. It’s a nice green space for local people, especially now that it’s been here long enough for the vegetation to grow a bit, and obviously essential for boats to get in and out of Edinburgh. If its presence has caused major safety problems I haven’t heard about them – the water is pretty shallow with gently sloping sides and there are generally plenty of people around to help if anyone did get into trouble.

We turned back at the Westburn Footbridge where the former filled in section comes to an end and the original canal takes over. You can still see the entrance to the old culvert on the north side (you can at the other end too), but otherwise there’s not much indication now that this is anything other than a normal stretch of canal. Well, except for the big display board telling you about it, of course.

Culvert entrance
The entrance to the culvert that used to take the canal underneath Wester Hailes before it was reopened

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