An engineering wonder – The Falkirk Wheel

The day we went to see the stunning mythical creatures the Kelpies, which you can read about here, we ended our day out by visiting another feat of engineering wonder, the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift – the only one of its kind in the world – connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal.

In the 19th century a boat had to negotiate a series of lock gates – a task which could all day to go from one canal to the other.  These were demolished many years ago and houses built where once the locks stood.

The Falkirk Wheel, opened in 2002, was created as part of the Millennium Link project to re-establish coast to coast navigation of the canals for the first time in over four decades.

We were lucky with our timing and were able to watch several boats going up and down. We also watched as each boat was manoeuvred into place to go up in the gondola.


We were highly amused by the antics of one weekend sailor. Somehow, the person (I am going to try to keep this gender neutral) steering couldn’t get the boat in close enough, nor straight so after one attempt the front stuck out and then the front was moved into place only for the back end to stick out. There was lots of engine revving and churning of water with the boatperson becoming increasingly red-faced and angry looking.

There was a fair bit of eye-rolling from the people who work there helping to get the boats into the right position – and from the boatman’s companion who looked like they might have done a better job had they been asked.

As I can’t begin to explain the engineering behind it – though I do just about grasp the Archimedes principle in that floating objects displace their own weight in water – here’s a YouTube video which does it so much better.

Just a short walk

One of my favourite walks, especially when I don’t have much time is round by Threave Castle, built on an island on the River Dee near Castle Douglas by Sir Archibald Douglas in 1369. Known as Archibald the Grim because of his fierceness in battle he was Lord of Galloway and one of the most powerful men in southern Scotland.

I always think of this route as

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Threave Castle

the osprey walk because it features an osprey viewing platform from which visitors can watch our pair of the ospreys on their nest across the river. That’s a post for later in the year when the parents – I hope – return to their nest.

Sometimes, I walk out from town, along the old railway line, which adds another forty minutes to the walk. On the days I don’t have much time but really need to walk I drive to the car park and do a quick circular route. Well, it’s quick if I don’t chat with the people I meet or spend too long gazing at the roe deer.

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Everyone loves the excitement of the short boat trip to the island and the castle.

The walk is only about 2.5 kilometres, though it can be extended by visiting the bird hide on Lamb Island. In fact there are several hides so binoculars are a good idea for bird watching. There is always plenty to see whatever the season. A heron is usually to be seen fishing and peregrine falcons have commandeered the top of the castle in recent years. The jackdaws which share the castle accommodation seem unconcerned when one of their numbers suddenly disappears to provide lunch for the peregrines.

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The roe deer are watchful but they know I’m too far away to be a threat.

Migratory geese including pink-footed geese are often to be seen. Dozens of whooper swans arrived on the river the other day – the day I hadn’t brought my camera.

The route is round well-marked pathways along the riverside (one short stretch is very wet and muddy), through woodland and beside farmland.

At a point where the path forks, there is a sign pointing the way to the castle, and here a robin has claimed the territory as his. He flutters onto the fence post and would like everyone to pay a toll of seeds as they pass by.

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This cheeky chap is one of several robins which have staked out their territories at various places around the walk.

The Kelpies – a grand day out

The DH and I enjoyed a grand day out last year when we decided to visit The Kelpies near Falkirk.

Created by sculptor Andy Scott, each one weighs over 300 tonnes and at 30 metres high, they are the world’s largest equine statues. They dominate the Helix, a fabulous park by the Forth and Clyde Canal. Apart from The Kelpies there is plenty to do with walks along the towpaths, play areas, a wetland boardwalk, eating places, visitor centre and shop – but it was the Kelpies we had come to see.

We were not disappointed. They are fabulous, absolutely stunning.


Standing sentinel on the Forth & Clyde Canal

Kelpies are mythological water horses or spirits which can change their shape. They haunt rivers and streams. A kelpie can appear as a docile pony but as soon as anyone mounts it he or she is stuck and will be dragged into the river, never to be seen again. Or, it can appear as a young woman to lure young men to their deaths. It can summon up floods and in its horse form it is a strong as ten or more working horses. It’s only weak spot is its bridle. Anyone who can catch hold of the bridle will have control over the kelpie.

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To give you a sense of the scale – I am the figure in the red coat standing at the foot of one of the majestic Kelpies.

Sculptor Andy Scott visualised his Kelpies as monuments to the great working horses and their role in Scotland.

Perhaps he also took for inspiration the Clydesdale horse called Carnera, reputed to be the largest in the world at almost 20 hands high. In the 1930s pulled wagons for the soft drinks company A G Barr who make Scotland’s other national drink, Irn-bru with its famous slogan Made in Scotland From Girders.

In Andy Scott’s own words: “I see The Kelpies as a personification of local and national equine history, of the lost industries of Scotland. I also envisage them as a symbol of modern Scotland – proud and majestic, of the people and the land… As a canal structure they will partner the iconic Falkirk Wheel, and echo its grandeur. They stand testament to the achievements of the past, a tribute to artisanship and engineering and a proud declaration of intent for the future of Scotland.”

20170428_143828 (Small)We took the tour, led by a young woman from Italy who was passionate about The Kelpies. We even tried to take a selfie.

We were led inside one of the massive structures to let us see the – to me – mind-blowing engineering feat and design. 1200 tonnes of steel-reinforced concrete foundations per head has been used and 928 unique stainless steel skin-plates – and both Kelpies were constructed in 90 days.


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Inside one of the Kelpies.

Highly recommended! For more information about these magnificent creatures and what else to see and do check out the website:

Residential Writing Course


Some of the participants at one of the Durhamhill Creative Writing Courses

From March 13 to 15 I, along with historical novelist Margaret Elphinstone, am teaching on a residential creative writing course at Durhamhill, in a converted coaching house in the village of Kirkpatrick Durham, Dumfries & Galloway.

During spring and summer it is a very popular holiday let but outwith the season owner Juliet Caird has been hosting writing courses in March and November. There is a lovely paragraph on the Durhamhill website which reads: “When the weather is good, the courses can be conducted outside the house, in the inspirational surrounding countryside, perhaps at the giant stone circle seating area with views to the hills, or in the sunny, but more sheltered, orchard.” Not in Scotland in March or November, I’m afraid – though the countryside around is truly inspiring at any time of the year.

It doesn’t snow very often or very much here in south west Scotland so it was a surprise when the day before that first course towards the end of March 2013, it snowed heavily. It was a bigger surprise – shock even – to wake the next day and find the snow was still lying and even more had fallen overnight.


Alan prepares to start his quad bike taxi service

I drove very tentatively along un-cleared country lanes, not certain if I’d even make it through to the village, and slithered to a halt beside a car, half buried in a snowdrift at the foot of the single, uphill track to the venue. Juliet’s partner Alan appeared to transport me and my teaching materials the rest of the way on the back of his quad bike. I felt the tutor’s arrival was perhaps slightly lacking in dignity – but her feet were dry. Alan ferried several participants up the hill. We did not make use of the stone circle or the orchard.



Course participant Roger avails himself of a lift

Two to three workshop sessions are held on  each of the three days covering all manner of writing topics. We’ve had sessions on the need to pay attention to detail – which involves props which can be eaten afterwards – poetry, life writing, plotting, beginnings and endings. Time for one-to-one meetings so the participants can have feedback on their own writing is also included.

Margaret and I try to provide something for everyone attending, whether they are complete beginners or more experienced writers. We must be doing something right because we often have returnees. This is reassuring and flattering but does mean we constantly have to revise our workshops to avoid repetitions. What is also lovely is the feedback both immediately after the course and later when past participants let us know of their successes whether it be finally completing the novel or having a play produced or articles published.

Everyone works hard during the sessions but there is always a lot of fun and laughter, too. Participants eat together at the big oak table which ensures the discussions and fun continues into the evening – often aided by wine. Another converted building houses a studio which can be used as a games room or even a mini cinema.

There is something special about the Durhamhill writing courses (not only being taught by us – the M&Ms as we have been dubbed). Where else are you likely to learn about dialogue in the morning then have the chance to chat to some llamas? Or, go for an adventure in a motorbike sidecar or have an impromptu jamming session with drums and guitar.


I personally think you need to tighten it up, perhaps lose the first couple of pages – but what do I know, I’m only a llama. Any carrots around here, by the way?

Juliet’s llamas are a major attraction to the people who come on holiday in the summer, especially children who are allowed to help feed them and take them for walks – and of course writers find them irresistible. Last year she wrote to tell us how many people had signed up, adding: “The llama shed is getting a new surface outside. Alan woke me up in a panic at the crack of dawn to say a lorry driver delivering stones had let the llamas out through the gate. I staggered from bed to the drive with a migraine and fell flat over the load of stones – then had to finish sorting out my last year’s accounting stuff for the last minute dash to my long-suffering accountant but a hired hot tub for the hen party who were arriving this evening wasn’t heating up properly and Lettie [she’s a llama] was shivering because she had to be shut out in the wind while the builders sorted the stones around the llama palace. Fortunately she loves hot water and drank half a bucket and stopped shivering.”

Are you, as I am, wondering if it was the hen party’s hot tub water the llama drank? And don’t you just know a creative writing course hosted by this woman is going to be a wonderful experience?

For more information check out the Durhamhill website:

Juliet may not have changed the dates for this year yet! But the next course is March 13-15.