Document of the Month - February

Speedy Transport in Central Scotland in the 19th Century - Canal Swift Timetable, 1839

In 1830, one William Houston was returning his empty passenger boat to its berth along the Forth & Clyde Canal when the horse pulling the vessel was startled and bolted. Thinking the resistance of the boat in the water would eventually tire the horse, Houston made no attempt to stop it. He was somewhat alarmed when the bow of the boat rose out of the water and it picked up speed, rushing along until the horse eventually did tire. It was the revelation that this was possible and the fact that the higher speed eliminated the previously damaging ‘stern wash’ created by slower-moving passenger boats that made the ‘Canal swift’ services advertised here possible.

The Forth & Clyde Canal opened in 1790 with the Union Canal link to central Edinburgh following it in 1822. This made travel around Central Scotland relatively quick when compared to cumbersome coach travel by road. The technological advance represented by the new ‘Swift Class’ passenger boats; long, light iron boats with wide sterns modelled on a racing gig shape and capable of travelling at 10 or 12 miles per hour when pulled by two horses,as opposed to the previous 4 mph, allowed canal travel to become really speedy. You can see from this 1839 poster that the time for the journey from Port Dundas in Glasgow to Edinburgh was a mere 7 ½ hours. This may seem a long time to us but it was a marked improvement on the time for the coach journey. Canal Swift operated an integrated service to and from many places in Central Scotland by using coaches that would meet the passenger boats. Prices were relatively low and represented good value, especially as it is specifically stated that travellers did not have to tip the coach drivers. It is recorded from the accounts of the company that by 1835, 323,290 passenger trips on these routes were being taken each year and this figure tripled in the late 1830s.The company also ran sleeper services along the Glasgow – Edinburgh route known as ‘Hoolets’ owing to the noise made by the hooters carried on each vessel.

Note that the time for the boats leaving Port Dundas is given as ‘at the hour, taking the time from the Tron Church Clock’. At this time, there was no nationally agreed standard time, each locality had its own, local time, measured from when the sun was at its highest in the sky, which differs depending on the longitude of the observer. It was only with the coming of the railways that a standard time, known as ‘Railway Time’, was implemented to ensure that timetables for railway services could be adhered to.

The Scottish Central Railway line between Glasgow and Edinburgh opened in 1842 and the link to Stirling arrived on 1st March 1848. The coming of the railways with their fast and reliable service meant the decline of passenger travel on the canals and the end of the ‘Canal Swift’ service.