#285 – Wheels and Water Spirits

The mountains of Assynt in the far Northwest of Scotland

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

2020 was a year to remember, but for all the wrong reasons!   The Covid-19 lockdown managed to coincide with the best spring weather conditions enjoyed in the UK for years, and it was frustrating to have to put a planned trip to the Scottish Highlands on the backburner.

The River Avon as seen from Tomintoul, with the Cairngorms in the distance

Travel restrictions were finally lifted in Wales in July, and plans were made to head north to Scotland.  The only factor to delay us was midge season!  Those who have never endured a full-on swarm of Scottish midgies can’t understand what a complete pain in the arse they are – suffice it to say that 20% of working days in the Scottish forestry industry are lost each year due to midge activity.

Glencoe – Gearr Aonach (left) and Aonach Dubh (right) with Stob Coire nan Lochan rising behind

The Scottish midge season is at its worst from the beginning of June to the middle of September, definitely a time to avoid the Highlands.   So we wouldn’t be going in July then!    On the other hand, delaying too long would bump into autumn, with the chance of the good weather going down the pan.   Then Chris had the idea of mooching up the East Coast of Scotland, seeing places we don’t normally see.

Coire na Ciste and the North Face of Ben Nevis on a murky day

The title of this blog (One Man’s Mountains – One Pillock’s Hillocks) is a bit of a clue as to where my main outdoor interests lie.   Still, we could set off for the (usually) midge-free East Coast and see some of the sights, before heading for the mountains when the midge season was over.    Which is exactly what we did, eventually taking a six-week trip where we visited all the places in the photos above and more besides (blog posts to follow).   But, before the mountains, we went to see a wheel and a couple of water spirits.

The Falkirk Wheel on a sunny day (© Sean McClean)

Not sunny on our visit! (Note the boat just below centre about to enter the Wheel)

The Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift which has been described as “the largest piece of functional sculpture you will ever see”.    It was opened in 2002 as the ‘Millennium Link’, joining the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal for recreational boating.   The lift is 35 metres (115 ft) high and replaces what was previously a series of eleven locks in the 19th Century.

The Wheel in action, with the gondola lifting the canal boat to the upper level

Closer view of the boat in the lift

The wheel consists of two gondolas, each containing 300 tonnes of water, meaning that the wheel moves 600 tonnes on each lift, but as the gondolas balance each other, the wheel can raise or lower the boats using just 1.5 kWh of energy, no more than it would take to boil the water in eight domestic kettles.   After watching a couple of canal boats making the transfer, it was time to give Border Collie ‘Mist’ a run – near to the Wheel is one of the best-preserved sections of the Antonine Wall, built by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago, and the engineering feat of its time.

A view of strange horses, seen from the M9 Motorway (© J Thomas via the Geograph Project)

As seen from the M9 Motorway (© unknown)

It’s about a 20 km (12½ mile) walk from the Falkirk Wheel to the Kelpies, but we were driving there as we had discovered that overnight parking in campervans is permitted.  Our route took us through a mundane urban sprawl that could have been anywhere in the UK, but for drivers travelling on the M9 Motorway between Edinburgh and Stirling, the view of two strange horse-like beasts is anything but mundane.

The Kelpies by day, an amazing sight

The two Kelpies are each 300 tonnes of structural steel with a stainless-steel cladding, standing 30 metres high (almost 100 ft).  The horse head sculptures, inspired by Clydesdale drought horses, depict shape-shifting water spirits, described in Scottish folk tales and myths.    Knowing that beforehand still doesn’t quite prepare you for an amazing sight.

Kelpies in myth and legend

Kelpies in myth and legend

In Scottish folklore, Kelpies are spirits usually in the shape of a horse, who are said to haunt deep pools in rivers and streams.   We are not talking about ‘My Little Pony’ here though.    They have the strength of a hundred horses, and anyone foolish enough to try to ride one will find themselves unable to dismount – once trapped, the victim is dragged into the river and eaten!   They may also materialize as a beautiful woman, hoping to lure young men to their death.    There, you’ve been warned!

Even more impressive at night

The two sculptures stand as the gateway guardians to the Forth and Clyde Canal, and if they are impressive by day, they are doubly so at night when they are illuminated.    ‘Mist’ was especially impressed, as a night visit for photographs meant yet another dog walk – good enough reason for the Border Collie to like kelpies.

The Kelpies at night showing the canal basin, the gateway to the Forth and Clyde Canal

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where indicated otherwise

p.s.  Yes, we did get amongst the mountains in the Highlands – drop into the next few posts for the stories

About Paul Shorrock

I've been mucking about in the mountains for longer than I care to mention. I started out by walking my local hills, then went on to rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Still doing it, and still getting a buzz. I'm now sharing the fun, through my guided walking business (Hillcraft Guided Walking) and by writing routes for other publishers, mainly Walking World and Discovery Walking Guides. Just to make sure I keep really busy, I am also currently a member of my local mountain rescue team.
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3 Responses to #285 – Wheels and Water Spirits

  1. I taught engineering design and robotics in middle school near Seattle and the kids did a project on the Falkirk Wheel. In 1987, “fidget spinners” were the must-have toy and I told the kids that Scotland had the biggest spinner in the world, weighing more than 600 tons and over 100 feet high. Some teachers banned them in class, but I let it be – except that you can’t be typing or drawing or building with one hand occupied spinning.


  2. Pingback: #293 – Going wild in Scotland – Beasties, mythical and otherwise | Paul Shorrock – One Man's Mountains AKA One Pillock's Hillocks

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