Falkirk Wheel: Scotland’s entertainment and engineering marvel
Combining engineering brilliance and futuristic design that gives a nod to the past, the Falkirk Wheel is both awe-inspiring and stunningly beautiful. Nothing like it has ever been built before anywhere in the world. You can travel from one of the planet to the other and never encounter a piece of functional sculpture quite like it.
Engineers are amazing people. They can devine efficient solutions to a variety of challenges. The results are practical, effective, and frequently have the aesthetic appeal of a threshing machine. On occasion, form meets function in a way that is not only functional, but beautiful. The result is a functional work of art. The Falkirk Wheel in Scotland is just such an engineering feat.
Opened by the Queen in May 2002, the Falkirk Wheel, located between Glasgow and Edinburgh, is the crown jewel of the Millennium Link, a plan to refurbish the Scottish canal system.
Amazing sightseeing spot for family vacation
The Millennium Link required the complete refurbishment of the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal. Nearly every bridge and lock on the network was in disrepair and in need of major work. Segments of the canal system had to be dug up because they’d been filled in during the construction of 1960s housing estates in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. Even the M8 motorway had to be raised in one area to provide clearance not thought necessary when it had been built over the disused Union Canal.
But even those issues were dwarfed by the problem that had first been encountered in the 1820s: How to bring the two canals together. You see, there’s a 35-meter difference between the two canals. At the point where the canals met, the original solution had been a flight of 11 locks. OK for the 1800s, but not an effective solution for the 21st century.
A ‘must-see’ feature of any vacation in Scotland
The solution was the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boat-lift. Basically, a two-gondola ferris wheel for boats, the 115-foot-tall Falkirk Wheel loads one boat on the top, another on the bottom, then rotates using the weight of the water to exchange places.
It’s ingenious in that it utilizes water weight to make it function efficiently. Each gondola can hold up to four boats at one time and contains 300 tons of water, meaning that the wheel moves 600 tons on each lift. But because the gondolas are always in balance (because boats displace their own weight of water) moving them takes very little electric energy. In fact, our guide explained that the wheel costs about 10 pounds (around $20) in electrical energy to operate daily.
At the bottom of the rotation, the lower gondola opens into an attractive circular reservoir that features an elegant visitor center and a lovely park, ideal for children and dogs. There are even holiday boats available for rent.
Ideal stop on any vacation to Edinburgh
High marks go to the design team for combining form and function in such an elegant fashion. Because of its historic location next to the best preserved section of the ancient Roman Antonine Wall, the wheel’s designers chose to create the wheel’s main counterbalances in the shape of ancient Scottish axe heads. Thereby elevating a functioning solution to the level of industrial art, and creating one of the world’s top visitor attractions at the same time.
Most visitors arrive at the Falkirk Wheel by overland travel rather than by boat. Motorists will find that the location is well-marked from every approach to the Falkirk area. Entrance to the visitor centre is free, and inside you will find a range of background material on the Millennium Link and on the Falkirk Wheel itself. You will also find a large shop and a cafe selling a range of good value food.
One of Scotland’s top tourist attractions
Rapidly becoming one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions, the wheel is truly something to behold. Of course, simply seeing this fascinating structure is impressive, but let’snot kid ourselves; what everyone really wants to do is take a ride. Not surprisingly, that experience is available. On our visit, a crowd of tourists filled one of the barges and took the roundtrip ride from the bottom to the top, then back down again. All the while, our guide regaled us with a variety of facts about the wheel. All in all, a delightful trip.
As I said, the wheel is a huge tourist attraction, so please note: Advance booking of boat trips is highly recommended.
And if one wonder of its age is not enough for you, footpaths from the Falkirk Wheel take you a little over half a mile to Rough Castle Roman Fort, complete with one of the best preserved stretches of the Antonine Wall.