Falkirk Wheel and Stirling Castle

Today was an early start. We’d booked a day tour of Falkirk Wheel, The Kelpies, Stirling and Doune Castles, The Trossachs and Loch Lomond. The good news was that Marg’s ankle, which had been swollen and bruised when she went to bed, looked much better in the morning. The swelling had gone down and the bruising had gone. She was still hampered by it, but not to the extent that she was yesterday. Our driver, Robert, arrived right on 8.30 am in a spacious, comfortable vehicle. He’d taken the effort to wear a kilt and sporran. He was Glasgow born and bred and he had a smile on his face from the time he picked us up until he dropped us off after 6 pm at the end of a long, but excellent day. We took an instant liking to him.

Our first stop was the Falkirk Wheel, an engineering marvel. It was only built in 2002, but in many ways it was a link to the many great engineering marvels that came out of Scotland during the Industrial Revolution. Scotland’s canal network had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 20th century. It had been a long time since it was the preferred transport system for moving goods between factories and the seaports. And for a time after that, holiday makers enjoyed leisurely canal boat journeys through the countryside. But eventually the canals, barges, locks and towpaths succumbed to wear and tear and were largely abandoned. A resurgence of interest in the canals led to the design and construction of the Falkirk Wheel. Today it links the Forth-Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, allowing canal boats to once again traverse the waterways of Scotland.

There are two gondolas suspended on the spokes of the wheel, 180 degrees apart. When a canal boat moves into one gondola and a gate is locked behind it, it displaces water which has an equivalent weight to the canal boat. If a second boat enters the gondola, the amount of water displaced will be equal to the combined weight of the two boats. Because of this principle, there is always an equal amount of weight in each gondola, regardless of whether or not it is carrying canal boats. This preserves the balance in the wheel. It essentially turns by gravity, and only requires the power generated by 8 kettles to turn. As the wheel turns through 180 degrees, the canal boat is raised to the level of the upper canal. This takes five minutes. It’s a very smooth, almost silent ride to the top. The upper canal is 27 metres higher than the lower canal.

We took our seats on the canal boat and enjoyed the views as the turning wheel lifted us higher into the air. When the gates opened at the upper level, our boat moved forward into the Union Canal. Almost immediately it passed through a tunnel beneath the ancient Roman Antonine Wall, before turning where the canal widened and heading back the other way. As we made our turn, another canal boat passed through a lock and followed us back through the tunnel and into the gondola. As the wheel turned another half circle, moving us back to the lower level, we shared the journey side by side with the other boat, which was carrying holiday makers. We watched as that boat entered another lock which would bring it out onto the Forth-Clyde Canal.

Our next stop, just six km down the road and still in Falkirk, was to see The Kelpies, two huge metal sculptures of the mythical water horses from Scottish folklore. The Kelpies were said to have lured children onto their backs and then ridden off with them down to the depths of the sea. The children were never to be seen again. The names of these two sculptures are Duke and Baron, named after the real life Clydesdale horses that were models for the sculptor.

The drive from Falkirk to Stirling was relatively short. Entering Stirling we passed the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, where the army of Scottish king Robert the Bruce defeated the English army in 1314. Stirling is a really beautiful, historic town, so I thought I should post a few shots taken from the car as we headed towards Stirling Castle.

Stirling Castle is one of the biggest castles in Scotland, and it has played an important role in Scotland’s history. Although parts of the castle date back to the 12th century, most of what we saw today was built between 1490 and 1600. On a number of occasions, the castle was under siege. For a time, it was held by the English, but after Robert the Bruce’s decisive victory at nearby Bannockburn, the castle was back in Scottish hands once again. Most of the current buildings were built during the reigns of the Stewart kings – James IV, V and VI.

When James V died here as a young man, his infant daughter Mary was crowned as queen here. Her mother reigned for a time as Regent, while young Mary was sent off to France. Mary returned as a young woman to rule Scotland. Today we know her as Mary Queen of Scots. Her son James VI was baptised here. He ruled Scotland from 1567 (still an infant) and England (as James I) from 1603. There are many other important moments from Scottish history that I cannot summarise here, but I hope it’s clear that Stirling Castle played a pivotal role in some of the country’s most historic events. My good mate Paul told me that his father was stationed at the castle throughout WWII as a serving member of the British Home Guard.

We spent just over an hour at the castle. It’s quite an imposing structure, set high on a crag overlooking all the countryside for many miles in every direction. The most authentic part is the structure itself, where the original walls and stairways appear to be still in place. Most of the royal chambers now seem to be adorned with replicas of murals, artefacts and furniture which are based on recorded accounts of life in the castle in days gone by.

We passed by Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace and his forces defeated the British in 1297. Wallace is a Scottish national hero. He was played by Mel Gibson in the movie ‘Braveheart’. The Scots I’ve spoken to tell me the movie was great, but its historical accuracy was a long, long way from the truth. We took a brief detour to look at the Wallace Monument, which dominates a nearby hilltop.

It was another short drive to the village of Doune. Here we made a brief photo stop at the famous Doune Castle. It has been used as a castle setting in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, ‘Outlander’ and ‘Game of Thrones’. Restoration works are currently underway here to ensure that visitors to the castle will not be injured by falling objects.

We took a long, winding journey back to Glasgow through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. It was very hilly. The countryside was dense and wild in places. In other places it opened up to green pastures and grazing sheep. We drove through some charming villages that Rob said are often visited by Glaswegians out for Sunday drives. We even sat behind a guy bravely pedalling a bicycle up a very steep hill for a while. When we reached the shores of Loch Lomond, Rob invited me to take a photo featuring ‘the most photographed tree in Scotland’. I laughed at the time, but I see what he means. Its presence improves the photo.

If you’re at all interested in the tour we did today, it was a private tour with About Scotland. You can read the details here – click this link. We had a fantastic day and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

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