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Glasgow, Paisley and Ardrossan Canal

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The Glasgow, Paisley and Ardrossan Canal was a canal in the west of Scotland which ran between the towns of Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone. Despite the name, the canal was never completed all the way to Ardrossan — the termini being Port Eglinton in Glasgow and Thorn Brae in Johnstone — due to insufficient funds, competition from the new railways and dredging of the river Clyde allowing boats further upstream. An aqueduct over the river Clyde near the center of Glasgow to link up with the Forth and Clyde Canal was proposed, but this also was not built. Within a month of opening, in the Autumn of 1810, the canal was the scene of a major disaster.


The canal was first proposed by Hugh Montgomerie, 12th Earl of Eglinton in 1791. He wanted to connect the booming industrial towns of Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone to his new deep sea port at Ardrossan and his Ayrshire coal fields. Interest was also shown by Lord Montgomerie and William Houston who would also benefit from the canal passing through their lands and connecting their own coal and iron mines to nearby industrial consumers. In this pre MacAddam period, the roads around Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Ayshire were not suitable for heavily loaded traffic. The other alternative route, up the Clyde river estuary to Glasgow, was not navigable by large ships as the river was too shallow.

Engineers John Rennie, Thomas Telford and John Ainslie were employed to design the canal, survey a route, and estimate the costs. The original design was in three parts. The first section would be a contour canal of about 11 miles in length. Following the lay of the land, a contour canal is entirely level and requires no locks or lifts making navigation quick and easy. Additional, contour canals require only a small water supply since no water is lost to locks. However, this method of construction does make the canal longer than it need have been. The second section would see a series of 8 locks lift the level up to a summit near Johnstone. The third and last section would use 13 locks to bring the canal down to sea level at Ardrossan Harbour. When complete the canal have been just shy of 33 miles long. The dimensions of the cutting were to be 30 feet broad at the top and at bottom, 18 feet. The depth was to be 4 feet 6 inches.

The Company of the proprietors of the Glasgow, Paisley and Ardrossan canal was incorporated by an act of Parliament which received Royal assent form George III on the June 20, 1806. This bill allowed for funding to be raised by the sale of two thousand eight hundred shares of £50 each. Of these shares, £30,000 worth as bought by the proprietors, the Earl of Eglinton, Lord Montgomerie and Lady Jane Montgomerie. This made the capital available for the project a total of £140,000.

Construction began in 1807 and the first boat, the passenger boat, 'The Countess of Eglinton,' was launched on the 31st October, 1810. The passenger service initially only ran between Paisley and Johnstone. The full length to Glasgow's Port Eglinton was complete sometime in 1811. The original plans to extend the canal to Ardrossan were soon suspended. The costs of completing the first 11 mile contour canal had consumed all the available funds — the initial estimates having been grossly understated. Further estimates indicated that £300,000 additional funding would need to be secured to complete the project. Hugh Montgomerie, 12th Earl of Eglinton, had already spent £100,000 on a separate project to build a dead sea harbour at Ardrossan, at the proposed terminus of the canal. The Harbour project would eventually be competed by his son, the 13th Earl, for a total cost of £200,000.[1] Attempts were maid to raise extra funds but other major investors, such as William Houston, were reluctant to invest as the canal already linked his own coal and iron mines, around Johnstone, to Glasgow and Paisley.


Saturday 10th November 1810 was the Martina's Fair. Many people, with the day off work, took the opportunity to travel the short distance of 6 miles by canal between Paisley and Johnstone. As the boat, The Countess of Eglinton, docked at the Paisley wharf, there was a rush of people trying to get onto the boat. At the same time, people from Johnstone where attempting to disembark. Despite the attempts of the boat men to push off again, the weight of people pushing onto the boat caused it to suddenly overturn, throwing many passengers into the cold water of the wharf. Even though the wharf was only 6 foot deep, the coldness of the water and the shear sides of the embankments compounded the problem that few people of the time could swim. 85 people died in this disaster.

Another sad point to note at the beginning of the canal. The well known poet Robert Tannahill (Born in Paisley on the 3 June 1774) drowned himself in the canal in a bout of depression. A group of poems had just been rejected by an Edinburgh publisher. He was well know for periods of depression. He burned many of his writings at this time. His body was found on the 17 May 1810 in the Candren Burn Tunnel of the canal.

Despite the disaster, the canal became a popular service for passenger transport. Fast, narrow, iron hulled boats of an innovative design and pulled by 6 horses allowed 80 to 100 passengers to travel at a rate of 10 miles per hour. An extraordinary speed at the time. The price of just one penny per mile for first class and three farthings per mile for the second class cabins was also highly competitive - less than half that charged by the new Liverpool Railway. At its height, in 1834, boats carried 397,375 passengers during the year. In July and August of that year, 2,500 passengers were recorded in just one day.[2]

Freight also made a significant part of the traffic on the canal. Basin dues were set at 2 pence per ton. Stone, dung and earth were charged at 2 pence per mile per ton; coal, coke culm and lime were 3 pence per mile per ton; Bricks, tiles, slates, orers, iron and metal were rated at 5 pence per mile per ton; and all other goods were charged 2 pence per mile per ton.[3] In 1840, the canal handled 76000 tons of goods.[4]

However, the initial costs were so high that the canal never made an issue of dividend on it's shares. Even after 20 years of operations, the accounts showed an outstanding debt of £71,208, 17 shillings and 6 pence.[2]

The coming of the Railways

In 1827, a second bill passed parliament and gained Royal Assent on 14th of that year. This bill allowed for the financing and construction of a railway from the Johnstone canal basin. This Railway was to have been 22 miles and 3 furlongs in length. Parliament dictated that due to the failure to complete the canal past Johnstone, that work on the railway should be started at the Ardrossan harbour end. However the line did not progress past Killwining before running out of funds. The railway, owned and operated by the canal company, was built to the Scottish gauge of 4 feet 6 inches. It used pairs of horses to pull carriages of up to 22 people each. The fairs were initially 1 pence per mile but in 1937, due to the application of a government duty, the fair was raised to 8 pence per 6 miles. In the 3 years preceding September 1939, the railway transported an average of 30,000 people each year. Apart form passengers, the main freight was coal form Eglington's mines.[5]

However, the dreading of the river Clyde and other navigation improvements, allowing ships to sail directly to the center of Glasgow, meant Eglinton's dream that, "Ardrossan would be to Glasgow what Liverpool is to Manchester."[6] would not be fulfilled.

A second railway line was opened, in 1840, by the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway Company (GPK&A), in direct competition with the canal. This new railway linked with the Ardrossan Railway near Killwining and later purchased the Ardrossan line and harbours. The canal continued to compete with the railways for many decades, but in 1869, the canal was purchased by the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company (the successor to GPK&A). In 1881, an Act of Parliament closed the canal. Much of the route was used to construct the Paisley Canal railway line.

Present use

The Paisley canal railway line was closed to passengers in 1983. The rails between Elderslie and Paisley Canal Station were uplifted in 1986. However, in 1990, passenger services resumed on a section form Glasgow Central Station to Paisley Canal Station. This line still uses the River Cart Aqueduct (which it crosses at a skewed angle). This makes the former aqueduct the worlds oldest railway bridge that is still in active use. Much of the abandoned rail line has now be developed into a cycle and walkway operated by Sustrans.

Short sections of the original canal can still be seen in the Millarston and Ferguslie Mills area of Paisley. Houses in Tenenter Way and Cropton Grove face across the remnants. Traces of the old canal are also visible in fields between Hawkhead and Rosshall.


  1. Lee, Sidney (2001). Dictionary of National Biography. Adamant Media Corporation, 465 pages. ISBN 1402170653. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Priestley, Joseph (1831). Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, Throughout Great Britain. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green;, 702 pages. 
  3. (1841) The Statistical Account of Lanarkshire. W. Blackwood, 968 pages. 
  4. White, Henry Patrick (1963). A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain. Phoenix House, Page 116. 
  5. Whishaw, Francis (1842). The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland Practically Described and Illustrated. J. Weale, 500 pages. 
  6. Slaven, Anthony (2006). The Development of the West of Scotland, 1750-1960. Routledge. ISBN 0415286190. . Originally published in London by Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975