By Corey Buhay
“Hiya, where you goin’ thar?” a man shouted from the shore. I looked up from my paddling and spotted him—a perplexed-looking, middle-aged Scottish local—standing on the mossy stone bank of the Forth and Clyde Canal. He was holding a fishing rod with one hand and scratching his head with the other.
“Edinburgh,” I replied. His eyes bugged out, and for good reason: I was right smack in the middle of a four-day, 58-mile kayaking expedition across Scotland, and Edinburgh was still another 35 miles off.
“Edinburgh?” he gasped. “That’s a fair country mile, innit?” Long after I waved my farewell, he kept muttering to himself: “To Edinburgh in a canoe? Aye dinnae ken.” (That’s Scottish for “I’m not too sure about that.”)
Truth be told, a few weeks prior, I didn’t know it was possible, either. That’s because most paddlers flock to the lochs in the Scottish Highlands or put in alongside its rugged sea cliffs. But to a novice paddler like me, the choppy waves and jet-force winds of Loch Ness sounded a bit beyond my paygrade. That’s when I discovered the Glasgow to Edinburgh Canoe Trail, Scotland’s greatest Class-I paddling adventure, hiding in plain sight.
The canoe trail bisects Scotland, drawing a line straight from Glasgow to Edinburgh across the island’s narrow waist. It’s comprised of two linked canals. The easternmost, the Forth and Clyde Canal, was built in the late 1790s. Its other half, the Union Canal, was opened in 1822. The good news for paddlers? As a “contour canal,” the Union remains at the exact same elevation for much of its length (read: very little portaging).
Another bonus? If you’re a budget adventurer like me, you don’t even need a car to do it. My partner and I brought a couple of Oru Kayaks—which folded up into backpacks that we could bring on the train from London to Glasgow—and walked straight from the station to our put-in. We assembled our boats, hopped aboard, and followed the canal from town to town, staying in pubs and inns along the way. Every morning, we’d stuff ourselves with jam and scones before spending the day counting swans, ducklings, and newborn lambs along the canal’s flowering banks. And every evening, we’d wander small rural towns hunting for castles and toast to the day with local Scotch.
Scottish locals might not have caught on to the suburban expedition scene quite yet. But between the easy navigation, idyllic views, and easy logistics—well, it’s only a matter of time.
How to Paddle the Glasgow to Edinburgh Canoe Trail
Getting there: You can fly into either Edinburgh or London, and take a train to Glasgow. (We took the LNER train from King’s Cross Station in London to Glasgow Queen Street Station.) From there, the easiest put-in is Spier’s Wharf, about a 20-minute walk north of the station.
Obstacles: There are five locks total, all of which involve short, straightforward portages, often on paved or gravel walkways. You’ll also have to book passage on the Falkirk Wheel—essentially a giant ferris wheel for boats—to switch from the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal just outside the town of Falkirk.
Where to Stay: We stayed in Kirkintilloch, Falkirk, and Linlithgow, which broke the trip into four manageable chunks. If you don’t have foldable or otherwise portable vessels, I would recommend staying at the Boathouse Hotel in Kilsyth, the Star and Garter Inn in Linlithgow, and The Bridge Inn in Ratho, all of which are close to docks, basins, or other potential storage options. For Falkirk, the best option is to try to find boat storage close to the wheel, or hail a ride-sharing service. Otherwise you’ll have to portage about a dozen locks to get into town where all the hotels are.
Renting and Storing Boats: If you’re local, you can bring your own boats and shuttle a car. Foldable or inflatable kayaks do well on the train, though it’s nice to have a place to store them; consider contacting the Linlithgow Canal Centre and the Scottish Canals’s Falkirk Wheel team to inquire about local storage options in these towns.
Must See: When you’re in Falkirk, you can download the Forth Bike app and rent electric bikes canalside. Zip a few miles east along bikeways and towpaths to see the Kelpies—the world’s largest equestrian statues. In Linlithgow, be sure to take a lap around the Linlithgow Palace, the 1500s-era birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots.
More Info: https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/