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Forth And Clyde Canal, Bowling Harbour, Customs House

Custom House (18th Century)

Site Name Forth And Clyde Canal, Bowling Harbour, Customs House

Classification Custom House (18th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Bowling Basin; Canal House; Bowling Harbour, Lower Basin; River Clyde

Canmore ID 43326

Site Number NS47SE 72

NGR NS 45090 73555

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2024.

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Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council West Dunbartonshire
  • Parish Old Kilpatrick (Dumbarton)
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Dumbarton
  • Former County Dunbartonshire

Architecture Notes

NS47SE 72 45090 73555

Custom House [NAT]

OS (GIS) MasterMap, April 2009.

See also:

NS47SW 64.00 NS 4466 7358 Bowling Harbour (Forth and Clyde Canal and River Clyde)

NS47SE 59.00 NS 45191 73548 Upper Basin (Canal Basin)

NS47SE 113.00 NS 45032 73725 Canal House (Lower) Basin

NS47SE 71 NS 45119 73550 Railway swing bridge and approach viaducts

NS47SE 82 Forth and Clyde Canal, Bowling to Kilbowie

This building is a survival from the period when ships using the canal were involved in trading with overseas ports.

The Forth and Clyde Canal Guidebook 1991.

This 18th century Customs House is located to the W of the abandoned railway bridge (NS47SE 71).

H Brown 1997.

The Customs House is on the N side of the channel, formerly a lock (NS47SE 59.01, NS 4515 7356), between the upper (NS47SE 59.00, NS 4519 7354) and lower (NS47SE 113.00, NS 4503 7352) canal basins. To the W of it is the swing bridge (NS47SE 114, NS 4510 7354) of the dismantled railway and to the E is the swing bridge (NS47SE 71, NS 4511 7354) carrying the former Caledonian Railway.

Information from RCAHMS (MD) 1 August 2000.

2001 photographic survey material is stored under 'Forth and Clyde Canal' in the NMRS.


Desk Based Assessment (October 2001)

Archaeological desk based study carried out on Glasgow Harbour by FIRAT Archaeological Services.

Linear Account

NMRS Collection:

Microfiche material and photographic prints copied from 'The Civil and Mechanical Engineering Designs of John Smeaton, FRS', Volumes 5 and 6: Canal Works; Sluices and Harbours'.

Folios and loose sheets relating to the forth and Clyde Canal Project, 1768- (Copyright/permission to reproduce: The Royal Society). Original material held in the archives of The Royal Society, London.

NMRS reference numbers E 10904 - E 10971


This sea to sea canal was one of three constructed in Scotland in this period, the other two being the Caledonian and Crinan Canals. It was the first to be started and was the most successful of them. The proposal to link the firths across the narrow isthmus was a fairly obvious one and had been made on a number of occasions, commencing in the time of Charles II, when it was viewed as a possible passage for warships. Defoe raised the issue in his Tour (Defoe, 1724-6), noting the trading advantages it would bring and the ease of its construction. Surveys were undertaken in 1723 and 1761, but no action ensued.

The construction of the Bridgewater Canal near Manchester in 1761 began a commercial craze for canals. When commerce began to apply pressure for a scheme in the Forth/Clyde area, some forty years later, three distinct camps emerged. Firstly, there were those who were interested in Scotland's general prosperity. They were represented by the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Fisheries, Manufactures and Improvements in Scotland. Secondly, there were the Glasgow merchants, who were anxious to have trade centred on their city, and so wished to gain the trade of the E coast, which was essentially with Europe. A third group wanted a canal routed via Loch Lomond.

Smeaton (1724-92), the greatest civil engineer of his time in Britain, penned a report in 1763 for the Board of Trustees, which included estimates for a seven foot or five foot deep canal, running from the Carron to the Kelvin and linking with the Clyde at Yoker, thus basically not serving Glasgow. However, the Glasgow interests hired Robert Mackell and James Watt to make surveys for a four foot deep barge canal. When a Bill was introduced into Parliament seeking to authorise the latter scheme, protest meetings were held in Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen and petitions presented to Parliament. A subscription was raised for a deeper canal, preferably of nine feet draught, but a compromise was reached and approved by the Convention of Royal Burghs in 1767. In March 1768 the Act of Parliament (8 Geo.III, cap.63) was passed, enabling the Proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Navigation, the title of the company involved, to construct the canal. The preamble to the Act refers to it as a "navigable Cut or Canal" which would "open an easy Communication between the Firths of Forth and Clyde, as also between the interior Parts of the Country, which will not only be a great Advantage to the Trade carried on between the said two Firths, but will also tend to the Improvement of the adjacent Lands, the Relief of the Poor, and the Preservation of the public Roads, and moreover be of general Utility." Authorisation was given to the proprietors to take water from the Carron, Endrick and Kelvin Rivers, as well as from all lochs and rivers within ten miles of the new waterway, as long as water-supply to the mills on the Carron and Kelvin was not diminished. It was regarded as a prestigious piece of engineering, and the proprietors included four dukes, including the Duke of Queensberry as Chairman, six earls, the Provosts of Edinburgh and Glasgow and Sir Lawrence Dundas, whose estate straddled the proposed entry of the canal from the Forth.

Work began in June 1768 on a seven foot deep waterway, with a branch to Glasgow of the same depth. Whitworth increased the depth to eight feet and later it was increased to nine feet. The channel, twenty seven feet wide at the base, widened out to fifty six feet in width at the top. Construction work included making the canal watertight with clay puddle, and building locks (seventy feet long and twenty feet broad, with a rise of eight feet), embankments, culverts, sluices, aqueducts and bridges where required. Reservoirs and feeder channels supplied water, and a towpath, wharves, basins, stables for horses and houses for lock-keepers or other employees were also constructed. The planned route (a suggestion made by Smeaton to route it via Loch Lomond was regarded as too expensive) was via the Carron River near its entry to the Forth, constructing a first lock at the Grange Burn and then following the valleys of the Bonny and Kelvin Rivers as far W as Stockingfield (Maryhill), a point three miles from Glasgow. Originally it was proposed to terminate the canal in the W at Dalmuir Burn, but later a decision was taken to make Bowling Bay the terminus. Despite differences of opinion over exact routing in certain sections, including the entry at the East, work progressed steadily. By 1773, when water was first let into it, the canal, commenced in the E, had reached Kirkintilloch, goods for or from Glasgow using carts for the rest of the journey, and by 1775, it was completed as far as Stockingfield. At that stage, funds were exhausted, but Glasgow raised the necessary capital for the branch to the city, thus improving the commercial prosperity of that city while leaving the rest of Scotland frustrated.

John Knox then wrote a book advocating the completion of the canal to the W coast, on the grounds of it being advantageous to Scottish trade. The Government replied by advancing #50,000 to the company in 1784, utilising funds from forfeited Jacobite Estates and work was recommenced, taking the canal to Bowling on the Clyde, the engineer then employed being Robert Whitworth in place of Smeaton. His work included the four-arched aqueduct which took the canal seventy feet above the River Kelvin at Maryhill. The first vessel completed the Forth to Clyde passage in August, 1790, sailing from Leith to Greenock. The Glasgow branch was simultaneously extended to the new 'village' of Port Dundas, named after the governor of the canal company, Lord Dundas. The construction included twenty locks in the eastern section and nineteen in the west, a height of one hundred and fifty six feet above sea level being reached in the centre and the whole waterway measuring thirty-eight and three quarter miles in total.

The prosperity of the canal, a waterway thirty-five miles in length with an additional three and a half in the Glasgow branch, gradually increased. As well as providing a shorter and less dangerous journey between the East and West coasts for sea-going vessels, it furnished a commercial avenue for Central Scotland, conveying goods of all types, including coal, timber, iron, tin, copper, earthenware, beef, pork, flour, barley, wine sugar, tobacco and textiles, and from 1783, it carried passengers. Separate passenger boats were instituted in 1809, it being recognised that these provided a smooth and comfortable form of conveyance, and, although slower than coaches, undoubtedly safer. Industries were attracted to the canal, initially shipbuilding The Forth and Clyde Canal undoubtedly benefited from the additional traffic resulting from the building of the Monkland Canal in 1793, which linked with it at Port Dundas, and later from the construction of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal, which reached Camelon in 1822 and joined the Forth and Clyde at Lock 16 (Port Downie). In 1846 in fact the Proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Navigation took over the Monkland Canal.

Much industry was attracted to the canal, the first being shipbuilding, which took place at such locations as Falkirk, Kirkintilloch, Hamiltonhill, Maryhill and Bowling. There followed foundries, ironworks, engineering plants, distilleries and factories of various types, including glass and chemicals, sites occurring at such places as Bainsford, Wyndford, Kirkintilloch, Possil, Firhill and Port Dundas. Collieries, such as Twechar, were served by the canal and the importance of the timber trade is reflected in the numerous timber basins, important sites being Grangemouth, Kirkintilloch, Firhill and Port Dundas, and the sawmills which existed in such locations as Grangemouth, Bonnybridge and Firhill.

By 1830, when the depth of the canal had been increased to ten feet, the company was booming, with experiments of various kinds being undertaken, such as haulage by chain laid along the canal, and shipment of market carts and railway wagons, without need to tranship their contents. It considered itself less exposed to competition than other canals due to the fact that the majority of its trade stemmed from 'the direct passage of sea vessels through the canal or between the city of Glasgow and a number of British and foreign seaports' (Lindsay 1968). Nonetheless this prosperity was diminished by the rapidly developing railway system, initially by the opening of the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, and later by the construction of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway. Although improvements to the canal system continued, for example the extension of the terminal basin at Bowling and the building of an extra lock and an outer harbour there in 1846, the expansion of the railway system was gradually beginning to diminish the significance of the canal. In 1867 the canal was purchased by the Caledonian Railway, mainly for the sake of acquiring the harbour at Grangemouth. As the Union Canal fell into the hands of the North British Railway, the two companies vied with each other for rail traffic and, although statutorily obliged to maintain the canal system, understandably lacked the motivation to enlarge or improve it.

By 1907, when a Royal Commission enquired into the canal system of the UK, traffic in coal had largely been lost to rail, although there was still considerable movement of general goods between Leith and Port Dundas. However, the difficulties of enlarging the canal were stressed by the general manager of the Caledonian Railway. Although in terms of volume of trade, the Forth and Clyde Canal was regarded by the 1909 report of the Royal Commission as being the most important Scottish waterway, it also noted that it was at a disadvantage in competing with the railways because of its isolation and small locks.

Traffic on the canal was greatly affected by World War I. The closure of the Firth of Forth and Grangemouth to civilian shipping led to a notable reduction in traffic on the canal, a reduction from which it never fully recovered, particularly with regard to goods traffic. By the 1920s even the railways were suffering from steadily increasing motor transport on the roads. In World War II further decline was precipitated by the suspension of passenger services on the canal.

The canal remained in the hands of the railways until 1948, at which time the British Transport Commission took it over. A Commission report of 1955 viewed the canal as an important provider of water for industry but regarded it as having little value as a means of transport. British Waterways Board gaining possession of it in 1962, the year that Parliament decided on its closure. The closure reflected the problem of the canal obstructing road construction, with the exception of the Bowling basin, which furnished moorings off the Clyde. All rights to navigation ceased on 1 January, 1963. The usefulness of the canal had been declining since its acquisition by the Caledonian Railway. Its annual tonnage was merely 27,571 in 1942, as opposed to 817,836 in 1908 and 3,022,583 in 1868 and by 1952, its use as a sea to sea canal had virtually ceased. Although still used in the 1950s by fishing boats and yachts, its use for trade had become minimal, as ships of such low tonnage as the puffers which utilised it were no longer regarded as large enough to carry economic loads except for specialised freight.

The canal was infilled at Grangemouth and throughout its length the water level was lowered by approximately three feet to reduce the expense of maintenance. The East end of the canal was effectively made inoperable. Many of the opening bridges along the canal were fixed and where bridges constituted an obstacle to motor traffic they were removed and the canal culverted. Locks were only maintained in order to retain the water level of the canal, but gradually the gates disintegrated and rubbish began to gather in the chambers. Much industrial archaeology was lost; for example, nearly all the bascule bridges have disappeared, the majority of lock gates are no longer in working order, and some workshops and stabled blocks have been demolished.

However, in the early 1970s a campaign for restoration was started by enthusiasts, a campaign with a wider backing than most as the waterway could be used by sea-going boats as well as small cabin cruisers. The notion of it being restored for navigation was initiated by two reports, dated 1972 and 1974, by William Gillespie and Partners, Landscape Architects. In 1980 the Forth and Clyde Canal Society was founded. As well as acting as a pressure group and becoming involved in draft plans for restoration, it encouraged canal trips, rallies, galas and other events which had been started in the 1970s in order to promote the campaign and the voluntary working parties which cleaned up sections of the canal. Throughout the 1980s the campaign increased in scale, the Ferry Queen, a former Clyde passenger ferry commencing pleasure trips in 1982 between Kirkintilloch (Glasgow Bridge) and Bishopbriggs, and others soon following. The rebuilding of bridges, restoration of canalside buildings, construction of new ones and other general improvements are being carried out by British Waterways and the Local Authorities. Often the bridges create problems due to having been designed to be movable in order to accommodate tall masted vessels, and these having now become immovable. The details of bridge restoration have often proved a bone of contention between Local Authorities and the Forth and Clyde Canal Society.

The work of restoration is moving fast, the Glasgow Canal Project of 1988 constituting a notable step forward, as it saw restoration operating on a commercial basis. This project proposed reopening twelve miles of the canal, from Temple to Port Dundas on the Glasgow Branch and to Kirkintilloch on the main canal, although unlimited air draught was not to be re-instated. The fixed bridges to be constructed where culverted bridges were to be restored were to be given a minimum of ten feet headroom. This was in line with the Forth and Clyde Canal Local Plan, adopted in 1988, and prepared jointly between the local authorities bordering the canal and British Waterways. By 1989 there were six boat trips operating on the canal.

By 1996 there were about eighty-five scheduled ancient monuments on the canal, including the Kelvin Aqueduct, which had been scheduled in 1968.

It was decided by British Waterways in October 1994 to apply to the National Lottery Millenium Fund for a grant towards restoring the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals to provide sea to sea passage and a link between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The scheme, known as the Millenium Link, involves the removal of approximately thirty-two navigational obstructions and incorporates the construction of a boat lift linking the two canals at Falkirk and being similar in design to a ferris wheel. Although the bid hit problems, particularly in matching funding for the #32 million offered by the Millenium Commission in early 1997, nevertheless by Spring 1998 the Millenium Link had been set in motion, much design work having been completed by then.

C Hadfield 1952; RCAHMS Stirlingshire Inventory 1963; J Lindsay 1968; I Bowman 1991; R Davies 1991; G Hutton 1993 and 1998; P J G Ransom 1999.

This historical summary predates the completion of the Millenium Link and also works which permitted the re-opening of the canal on 26 May 2001.

During the First World War the canal bank was utilised in the construction of an oil pipeline from Old Kilpatrick to Grangemouth. The oil pipeline was to allow the supply of fuel for the Grand Fleet based at Rosyth without having to transport it in escroted tankers around the Britsih Isles.

The pipeline was built using United States Navy (USN) personnel and technical knowledge with the British supplying tanks, pumping equipment and the actual ditching.

The pipeline opened during November 1918.

The installation was considered for re-use prior to the outbreak of World War Two, but tests conducted to see if it was still capable of the designed flow rates proved disappointing.

W M Brown 2004

Forth & Clyde Canal

The idea of a canal linking the east and the west coast of Scotland obviating the long and hazardous northern route via the Pentland Firth seems to have been first mooted in the 17th century during the reign of Charles II. But it was not until the onset of the Industrial Revolution that the concept began to make real progress with an invitation to Smeaton in 1764 to report on possible lines.

In 1767 Smeaton proposed a 7 ft deep canal from Carronmouth (now Grangemouth) via Dullatur Bog, Kirkintilloch and the valley of the Kelvin and across to Dalmuir on the Clyde. This project estimated to cost £147 349 formed the basis for the founding act of 1768. It was to accommodate small ocean-going ships with unlimited headroom by means of 43 aqueducts and 33 timber draw bridges and was referred to enthusiastically at the outset as the ‘Great Canal’ and favourably compared by Smeaton to the 17th century Languedoc Canal connecting the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas.

Construction from the east westwards began by contract in 1768 with Smeaton as engineer and Robert Mackell as resident engineer. By 1770 nine miles of canal 56 ft wide had been cut from the Forth and all 20 locks east of the summit were finished, each lock being 70 ft long and 20 ft wide. Mackell suggested an alteration in line taking the canal nearer to Glasgow even though this would require a major aqueduct over the Kelvin, and Smeaton agreed. The canal reached Kirkintilloch in 1773 and Stockingfield near Maryhill by 1775. Water for lockage to the 16-mile summit level was obtained by the construction of a new reservoirat Townhead, Kilsyth, and from several smaller sources. By 1777 the Glasgow branch canal from Stockingfield had reached Hamiltonhill Basin but, owing to lack of funds from 1777–85, the terminus at Port Dundas was not completed until 1791. The canal from Stockingfield via Maryhill Locks and Kelvin Aqueduct to Bowling was

completed to a depth of 8 ft by Robert Whitworth, Brindley’s former assistant, between 1787 and 1790, when the canal was opened from sea to sea. In 1791 it was connected via Tennant’s St Rollox chemical works to Port Dundas. The Monkland Canal, although now closed, still supplies water to the summit level. In 1822 the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal connected with the Forth & Clyde at Lock 16.

The navigation attracted considerable traffic from its outset and had an annual operating profit of the order of twice the annual expenditure throughout most of the 19th century. Its use declined in the 20th century with the development of railways and the canal was eventually closed to navigation in 1963. Some sections were filled in and opening bridges were replaced, but many fine buildings and old wharves remained.

The whole came back to life with the £78 million Millennium Link project, including the state-of-the-art Falkirk Wheel which restored navigation with the Union Canal after a break of 67 years. Both canals are now attracting increasing leisure traffic.

R Paxton and J Shipway 2007.

Reproduced from 'Civil Engineering heritage: Scotland - Lowlands and Borders' with kind permission of Thomas Telford Publishers.


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