Freight back on the Union Canal after 150 years

A historic first happened in Linlithgow recently, with the return of freight to the Union Canal.

Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 6:17 pm
Iain Withers of Narrowboat Farm with Wee Spark skipper Jimmy MacFarlane
Iain Withers of Narrowboat Farm with Wee Spark skipper Jimmy MacFarlane

For the first time in about 150 years, the canal was once again used to transport produce from farm to market earlier this month.

The produce, grown at local market garden ‘Narrowboat Farm’ was transported into Linlithgow on the replica ‘Clyde Puffer’ Wee Spark, a smaller version of the vessels made famous by the tales of Para Handy.

It has been 200 years since the canal was built and local farmers took advantage of being able to smoothly transport their produce to local markets, including Linlithgow.

The Wee Spark makes its way along the Union Canal laden with produce. Pic: Jonathan Mosse

No more bone-shaking cart journeys ruining produce.

This heyday was short-lived and by the end of the 19th century the practice had all but died out with the advent of trains and better roads.

However, Narrowboat Farm has brought this back alive in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the Linlithgow community.

The produce was loaded onto Wee Spark, the world’s only one-third replica Clyde Puffer, built at the turn of the century.

At the time of building, it even gave Jimmy MacFarlane, who was 60 at the time, and his late pal Archie Rennie, who was 80 at the time, the honour of being the fourth biggest steel shipbuilders on the Clyde!

In the celebrations to mark the reopening of the canals, Wee Spark became the first vessel in decades to carry a cargo from Edinburgh to Glasgow by canal.

Originally built between 1856 and 1939, these stumpy little steamboats achieved an almost mythical status thanks largely to the short stories Neil Munro wrote about the Vital Spark and her captain Para Handy.

Wee Spark berthed at Linlithgow Canal Centre for the day and unloaded hundreds of vegetables using its onboard crane.

Hosted by Linlithgow Union Canal Society, a long queue quickly formed and by mid-afternoon all of the vegetables had sold out.

Narrowboat Farm and the ‘Veg Boat’ is the concept of Iain Withers.

He said: “What a beautiful sunny day we had to recreate this little piece of history in Linlithgow.

“It’s been our ambition since we started Narrowboat Farm a few years ago, to bring this tradition back alive.

“It was extra special being able to use Wee Spark to do this first trip. After the success of this one, we’re hoping to make it a more regular feature in 2020.

“We like to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future at Narrowboat Farm. We farm the way it was done 200 years ago, naturally, without the need for synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. Now we also deliver the way it was done 200 years ago, which is a lot of fun.

“Oddly enough this backward-leaning way of doing things chimes perfectly with the challenges that face the future generations to move away from a reliance on chemicals, fossil fuels and vehicles and towards sustainable practices.”

To learn more about Narrowboat Farm visit