Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Lock what's turned up in the union canal


Scotsman.com News

FINDING something which has lain hidden at the bottom of the Union Canal for decades could potentially be a very gruesome business.

After all, Edinburgh’s infamous body snatchers, Burke and Hare, were once employed to cut the historic waterway through the city.

However, when archaeologists stumbled upon a dark, solid mass during an investigative dig in the heart of the city, it emerged that what they had uncovered was not a body, but a barge.

And while it might not sound instantly gripping to a gore-thirsty public, experts hope to reveal fascinating secrets about the lives of Edinburgh’s "boat people".

Tomorrow, a team of city archaeologists at the specially drained site at Viewforth are giving people a rare chance to see the historic 70ft barge and quiz experts as they move into the second week of a five-week excavation.

Russell Coleman, project manager at Edinburgh-based Headland Archaeologists, says: "Most people think of barges as covered, narrow boats, but this barge, or scow, is one of the earlier ones. I don’t think one of these has ever been found in a canal like this before, although they are found in estuaries in England where you can see them sticking out of the water. "We think it was built in about 1840 and was probably used to carry coal and lime into Edinburgh and to take manure back out to the fields.

So far, we think it was used for about 50 or 60 years. "There is lots of evidence of running repairs; you can see patching where extra bits of wood have been attached as the owner has obviously decided it was not worth buying a new boat. "When the railways came in the canal went into decline and we think that around about the First World War the barge was just abandoned, lying there hidden ever since."

The dig which revealed the wooden vessel, which has been largely preserved in silt and mud, was commissioned by Edinburgh Quay Limited, a consortium of British Waterways Scotland and Miller Group which is behind a new housing development at the Edinburgh end of the canal.

The barge was found when the canal was drained for engineering works. The canal was built in the early 1800s to transport coal into Edinburgh from outlying areas in a bid to break the monopoly of the Edinburgh coal masters and Midlothian mine owners. It took four years to complete the 32-mile waterway linking Edinburgh to Falkirk - where it joined the Forth & Clyde Canal.

At first the barge business thrived, with numerous boatyards in the Edinburgh area. But the advent of the Glasgow to Edinburgh railway, which opened in 1842, sent the canal into rapid decline.

In 1861, the canal was bought up by the North British Railway Company, and in 1921 Port Hamilton and Port Hopetoun were filled in. While the dates of openings and closures are recorded, little is known of the reality of the life and work of Edinburgh people on barges during the Industrial Revolution because records were either not made or not kept.

WHILE the Union Canal barge is definitely a trade boat, some believe it may have also been used for pleasure cruises. Sandra Purves, engineering historian and spokeswoman for the Edinburgh Canal Society, says: "It would not have been a [full-time] passenger boat, but there are pictures of barges [like this one] crammed with passengers. "They were probably on Sunday school outings.

The furthest they would have gone would probably have been Ratho, which in those days would have been quite an adventure." Meanwhile, the barge’s future looks uncertain.

The team is in discussion with "several museums" about moving the boat and exhibiting it once the excavation is over and water is allowed back into the canal site. But if that does not happen, the boat faces being destroyed because it must be moved to make the waters safe.

Coleman says: "We have spoken to various museums, but it is a large vessel [to accommodate]. Either it will go to a museum or it will have to be broken up." The Edinburgh Canal Society is also urging people to take up the opportunity to see a piece of history.

Purves says: "It is a chance to see a bit of history that has been hidden for a long time. You don’t often get the chance to see the skeleton of a boat, to see how it was built, and to speak to archaeologists about it." •

Anyone interested in seeing the barge should go to the Union Canal by St Peter’s Place, Viewforth, between 10am and 2pm tomorrow where the archaeological team will be on hand to answer questions

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