Sitting watching a HoC broadcast early this afternoon and yet another example of Ian Blackford, SNP leader, being shouted down and barracked by a bunch of braying gammon faced Tories, I question how anyone in Scotland would show any pride in or want anything to do with being part of this British "union". The previous day the DUP were telling Scots that they should “just go to the chippy” when the SNP leader highlighted the very real threat of food shortages after the UK leaves the EU. Ian Blackford is the same MP and leader who was told to “go back to the Isle of Skye” and “Fuck off” by MPs from other parties when he mentioned independence in the House of Commons.
I decided it was time to go for a walk.
I’m lucky enough to live very close to the Union Canal, the union between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which is a great place to walk either into town or west towards Ratho. I decided to walk along the towpath towards Colinton. There’s a great walk along the towpath and then through Colinton Dell and on to Balerno with lunch and a pint at the village pub. Today I was just walking to the Slateford Viaduct, stopping off at Sainsbury’s for some messages and something for my tea.
It had been very cold overnight and parts of the canal had frozen over. A boat had already made its way down the canal and had broken a path through the ice and this reminded me of a different "union" and a job I once had. Many years ago I had a part time job driving the “Pride of the Union” restaurant barge and venue for weddings and parties. I’m not sure that it runs anymore but at the time it ran between the Ratho Inn and the Almondell Aqueduct. The path through the ice today reminded me of the times I stood on the bow of the barge throwing an empty beer keg at the ice in order to break it up. Despite being made of steel, 55 feet long and weighing over 25 tonnes, the barge was a bit under powered and unable to break through ice any thicker than a couple of centimetres. It was a great job, hard work, but I loved it - it was well paid, great fun and I was fed on sirloin steak during my shift! I worked two or three nights and a bit more during the summer holidays.
Up until 1999, the canal was only navigable in short stretches. Large sections were so silted there was just a few centimetres of water, sections of it were built over at Wester Hailes, the 11 locks at Falkirk connecting the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal were silted up and in a terrible state of repair and a bridge carrying the M8 had a clearance of just a few centimetres. With the help of a National Lottery Millennium Grant in 2000, the entire length of the canal from Hopetoun Basin in the heart of Tollcross, Edinburgh to Falkirk and the magnificent Falkirk Wheel is now navigable and it is once again possible to travel by boat from Edinburgh to Glasgow and on to Bowling and the River Clyde. However, at the time I drove the barge the only stretches free from silt were the sections between Ratho and the Almondell Aqueduct and a short section at Linlithgow. Later another section going east from Ratho to the aqueduct over the city bypass was dredged and opened up.
It was impossible for the barge to push its way through any sort of silt due to the lack of power and as well as this natural hazard there were many others in the form of rubbish tipped into the canal, household appliances, shopping trolleys, bicycles, prams, rope, fencing wire and many other things that would bring a halt to passage. There was a weed hatch at the stern of the barge which gave access to the propeller. I often had to lie down and lean over into this, head first with my arms in icy cold water up to my shoulders trying to free something from the prop. I remember this one occasion the engine stopped and I undid the hatch to find out the problem, which was large refuse bag filled with all sorts of rubbish. I freed most of it and stood up to catch my breath when I saw a head of hair floating to the surface. As you can imagine, I nearly shit myself, but it turned out to be a blond curtly wig!
You can read more about the history of The Union Canal here.
I had a great walk along the canal, it brought back some fond memories of my time driving The Pride of the Union and I got a nice bit of Scottish salmon for my tea. One of my photographs struck me as the perfect metaphor for the UK Union – the Independence lifeboat duck floating safely away and the remnants of the union with its pomp and flag slowly sinking.