Scotland’s Canals – a refuge

With the hills out of reach, outdoors enthusiast Nina Smirnoff tackles the towpaths on her doorstep to escape the strains of the pandemic.

Canals were once the lifeline of central Scotland, transporting goods and connecting people, as important then as the roads and internet are today. Struggling with modern stresses and the constraints of lockdown, those same canals have been a very real lifeline to me centuries later.

Nina on the Forth and Clyde canal path

Since 1790 and 1822 when the Forth & Clyde and Union canals respectively opened, they were vital to business and communities in the Central Belt of Scotland. Connecting the North Sea with the Irish Sea and Glasgow to Edinburgh. From the mid 20th Century they slowly fell into disuse and disrepair, a largely forgotten and unloved relic of the industrial revolution.

Thankfully, as part of the 2000 millennium celebrations both canals were given their own lifeline and were able to be regenerated using funding from the National Lottery. The regeneration included the building of the Falkirk Wheel, now a world famous feat of engineering and a hugely popular tourist attraction. The opening of the Falkirk Wheel in May 2002 has allowed boats to travel from Edinburgh to Glasgow again for the first time since the 1930s, when the original locks were filled in.

The final addition to the canal regeneration are the immense, 30 metre high horse head statues at the eastern terminus of the Forth & Clyde canal, the Kelpies.

The Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies are both local to me and have become firm favourites when, pre-covid, we had visitors who would always want to go and visit these two fantastic sights. A four mile walk along the Forth & Clyde canal connects the two.

The Kelpies from the canal that passes between them

I have always enjoyed exploring the industrial history and learning about the engineering that went into building the Falkirk Wheel, but to me the canals have only ever been a fairly utilitarian space to walk in. Great for getting a quick change of scenery, for watching the flora and fauna through the seasons and just an easy place to get some miles under my belt when training for some other adventure. A means to an end.

For me long walks and weekend adventures involved planning, organisation, travelling and scale. Hours would be spent pouring over maps researching routes, looking at contour lines and potential places to wild camp. Checking weather forecasts. Packing and repacking my rucksack. Early starts, late finishes.

Part of the excitement of going on a long distance walk or big day out has always been in the planning and organising. The drive to explore new places and see new things. Being immersed in an outdoor project from start to finish is where I have found fulfilment, stimulation and the greatest mental health benefits. I think it is one of the most mindful things I can do, whether that is becoming absorbed in reading a map or walking along a disused train line on the Speyside Way in the middle of the night listening out for noises, feeling the frost in the air and jumping at the reflection of my head torch in the sheep’s eyes in the field beside me. I am in the moment. All I have to do is put one foot in front of the other until I reach my destination. Once there my thoughts start to turn to a new project, a new adventure, another escape from the demands of every day.

Then came Covid and the first lockdown. I can’t deny, I thoroughly enjoyed kicking back with Netflix and too much chocolate, blissfully unaware of how long the pandemic was going to go on for and what upheaval it would bring with it. Then came my partner’s cancer diagnosis, furlough and a huge amount of anxiety about my job as I work in the hotel industry. To add to lockdown I was effectively shielding as well, only going out for an hour’s walk in the wee hours of the morning to avoid other people as much as possible.

The Falkirk Wheel

Finally, when the lockdown was eased I jumped in the car for what felt like a great outing; a run along the canal by the Falkirk Wheel. I remember clearly feeling so free and as if I was doing something slightly naughty when I pulled up at the car park at 6am on a gloriously sunny May day. The only other person there was a cyclist waiting for his training partner, also wearing a grin from ear to ear. All of a sudden the canal, once just another place to get some exercise, became the scene of a great adventure. No backpacks, tents or maps now. No routes planned or freeze dried meals packed. Just a very excited me and the canal. It felt every bit as special. Undoubtedly the sunshine helped, however the few people I passed as I headed west towards Bonnybridge were also smiling and enjoying the first signs of summer. I noted so many things I previously paid scant attention to, a couple of swans with their new cygnets, wild orchids just starting to grow out of the canal bank, the trees resplendent in their new foliage.

A couple of weeks later I finally got the chance to meet up with my best friend and walking buddy Jamie. As there were still travel restrictions in place we opted to meet at Polmont as it is close to the Falkirk/West Lothian boundary. After getting over the weirdness of not being able to hug and establishing appropriate social distancing we headed down to the Union Canal and walked eastwards towards Muiravonside. It was fantastic to be out walking in company after so long and one of the benefits of walking the canal paths became obvious pretty quickly. I did not have to navigate or pay attention to any path junctions, I could just amble, talk, listen and soak up the moment.

The Leamington Lift Birdge on the Union Canal – in Edinburgh

The ability to just be in the moment gave my mental health a massive boost. The brain chatter and agitation, normally only calmed or silenced by the wilderness, cleared and remained quiet for days at a time. My weekly walks with Jamie very much became a time to focus on me or conversely to completely forget about what was going on for me. They were my therapy, my release and I do not think I could have come through 2020 with all it’s emotional challenges as well as I did without them and without the safe space that just walking side by side gave me.

It was those canal walks that helped me work through the fear of my partner’s cancer. It was those canal walks that allowed me to offload all the anxiety I felt about the redundancy process I was facing. It was those canal walks that allowed me to process and dump so much of the life stuff that was really getting me down. It was those canal walks that allowed me to connect with humanity, with nature and with myself. They were an escape from everyday worries, from that feeling that life will never return to what it was.

After my initial canal walks with Jamie, I found myself arranging to meet for many more walks with friends along both the Union and Forth & Clyde canals. I explored sections of the Forth & Clyde I had either only seldomly walked or passed through in a hurry while completing a Glasgow to Falkirk marathon charity walk. Spending time getting to know the sections from Banknock to Auchinstarry with its marina full of colourful boats and from there further west towards Twechar with its views of the Campsies was tonic for the soul.

Towpath near Auchinstarry Marina

What became so much more important than a big adventure was the company of friends and paying attention to nature in the moment.

Eventually as restrictions eased Jamie and I started to roam further afield and higher up, going on some micro-adventures together. We picked the Fife Coastal Path for a night walk, setting off from Elie just after 2am with our head torches on. As we headed east, twilight broke within a matter of a couple of hours and each village we passed through was bathed in ever brighter hues of pinks and blues until eventually we walked into the sunrise. I am absolutely sure I would have loved that walk at any time but after months of constraints and worries it was exhilarating and had an almost spiritual quality about it. That outing along with walking a few local hills meant I did get to do some of my beloved planning and organising, just not on the same scale as previously.

The way I view the canals now is very different and as we endure what feels like the umpteenth lockdown, I am looking forward to ambling along them and shooting the breeze with friends again. In fact, as I am writing this I am planning to meet up with my friend Jamie for the first time since December for a walk along the, you guessed it, Union canal! The weather has been abysmal for over a week with downpours all day every day and it is set to be the same when we meet. We’ll be swaddled in waterproofs from top to toe but I can’t wait.

Happier times: Nina on Meikle Bin in the Campsies

Places like Colonsay, Iona and Skye will always be imprinted on my heart. My soul will always be in the Caledonian forests at Glenmore and Abernethy. I cannot wait for the day that we can safely travel there again but in the meantime the canals are my true life line.

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