Falkirk Wheel


Duration:3 years

Cost:£17m (£25.3m today)

Country: Falkirk, UK

What did this project achieve?

Reconnect the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal

The Falkirk Wheel is the only fully rotating boat lift in the world.

The wheel was built as part of the £85.4m Millennium link project to reunite the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals in Scotland. The canals had previously been linked by a staircase of 11 locks which took nearly a day to pass through. The locks were dismantled in 1933.

The wheel uses 2 gondolas which raise boats by 24m. As the Union Canal is 11m higher than the aqueduct at the top of the wheel, boats then go through 2 locks to reach the canal.

The Falkirk Wheel is one of two boat lifts in the UK – the other is the Anderton boat lift in Cheshire, north west England. Built in 1875, the Anderton lift closed in 1983 and was restored and re-opened in 2002.

Difference the wheel has made

Before the Falkirk Wheel was constructed it wasn't possible to get from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde by boat. It now takes about 10 minutes for a boat to be lifted from the Forth and Clyde to the aqueduct 24m above that leads to the Union Canal.

Since the wheel was opened by the Queen in 2002 more than 5.5 million people have visited it - benefiting tourism and the local community.

How the Falkirk Wheel was built

The Falkirk Wheel was designed to last 120 years. 1000 people took part in construction, including several ICE members.

Early challenges included tar and mercury contamination as the ground had previously been used as a mine and tar works. Other early stage work included laying 600m of access to roads to get plant and materials to the site.

Once the area was cleared, engineers dug deep foundations for the structure and used 22m concrete piles socketed onto the bedrock for support.

The wheel was constructed and fully assembled at the Butterley Engineering plant in Derbyshire. It was then dismantled and driven to Falkirk in 35 lorry loads. Workers reassembled it into 5 sections which were lifted into place.

As the wheel rotates in alternate directions, the changing load can cause stress to parts of the structure. To avoid fatigue – weakening caused by repeatedly applied loads – engineers bolted sections together instead of welding them.


Of all the weird and wonderful things the Queen has declared open during her reign, few can have been as inventively novel as The Falkirk Wheel.

The Times

25 May 2002

Fascinating facts

The Falkirk Wheel is 35m tall – the same as 8 double decker buses stacked on top of each other.

1,200 tonnes of steel were used in its construction. The wheel has more than 15,000 bolts, matched to 45,000 bolt holes. Each bolt was tightened by hand.

Each gondola, used to raise the boats, holds 500,000 litres of water, the same amount as an Olympic swimming pool.

People who made it happen

  • Designers: British Waterways Board
  • Consultant engineers: Arup, Butterley Engineering, Tony Gee & Partners
  • Architects: RMJM

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