Public sector vandalism of historic canal towpath must stop right here

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This and other photographs below show an act of quite shocking vandalism to the historic towpath on the Crinan Canal. This appears to have been carried out by Sustrans and Scottish Waterways with no public consultation – although this is a public and a heritage amenity.


A section of the towpath from east of Lock 9 and on down west to or beyond Lock 11, has been sheeted and coated with a thick gob of tarmac. A long section stretching further east towards Cairnbaan has already been sheeted and is ready for tarmac surfacing.


This is the equivalent of slapping white PVC windows in a historic house for sheer convenience.

The tarmac surfacing grossly urbanises a charming and historic piece of industrial architecture which, until now, has retained its authenticity.

The canal and the towpath run through the National Nature Reserve at Moine Mhor which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an open, estuarial flatland of unique beauty. This surface could not be more alien in this place.


It turns a historic engineering achievement, still in valuable use today, into a suburban walkway – and potential driveway.

Barnakill Farm, on this northern side of the canal, has had to use the towpath for its vehicular access, with some vehicles and machinery too big and too heavy to use the unique sliding bridge between the two gates at Lock 11.

There is no doubt that the farm’s usage – which is unavoidable, had left this section of the towpath markedly potholed – and the argument for what has been done is clearly practical, if brutally and damagingly so.

With this errant section surfaced to the dimensions of a single track road, the risk now is that more traffic will try an easy and ‘surreptitious’ access down the canal by this facility.

There is no real way back from what has already been done because, as our photographs show, the underlying historic gravel path has been ‘sheeted’ to prepare for tarmac surfacing and is now structurally damaged, in terms of any hope of restitution.


The issue now is to make sure that any thought that Sustrans and Scottish Waterways may be entertaining to tarmac the entire towpath of the Crinan Canal to save themselves the bother of maintaining it properly, cannot be contemplated. This would be quite unacceptable.

None of the other sections of the towpath sustain the impact of farm traffic as this does, so there is no reason for other than normal maintenance of the traditional gravel path elsewhere.

The experience of being outdoors in the natural world, which fewer and fewer people enjoy, means, amongst other things, different textures below the feet.

Tarmac is the default experience for the majority of the population these days.

Its unnecessary application in situations like this one is yet another example of the reduction of a richer experience for those who at least take advantage of outdoor and scenic places that are easy to reach , like this one.

We understand that Historic Scotland, supposed custodian of Scotland’s historic built structures, has already been asked for its view and its intentions in respect of this unalterable change to the canal towpath. Were they consulted beforehand?


There is, of course, also now a real safety risk that did not exist before for those talking and looking around them as they walk along the towpath, as such places invite.

Where the traditional towpath, hardened for farm traffic in this section, was level with and ran into the grass at its margins, this slab of black icing stands proud within those margins, leaving a nasty little drop at its edges that can wreck an unwary ankles in accidental falls. Such a trip and fall off the edge of this standing slab – or a bicycle running off it while swerving to avoid a stumbling runner or a dog -  has the capacity to take someone down the canal bank and into the water.

The way the tarmac slab has been slapped down on the surface of the path undoubtedly increases the probability of an accident. Given that this is a path along which people walk, walk dogs, run, cycle and compete in public athletic events, what risk assessments were done before this specific process was deployed?


The state of the towpath today in this regard, can be compared with the photographs here of the way it was, only a few months ago, at the Crinan Canal Water Festival, run by Heart of Argyll Tourism Association.


Anyone doubting the possibility of a ankle wrenching tumble off the edge of this slab and a pitch into the canal has only to look at the crowd in this same section below Locks 10 and 11 at the 2012 Water Festival, when the path was flat.


In the ‘slab of black icing’ analogy, we understand that Sustrans intends to ‘dust’ the surface of the tarmac with some grit, to pretend it isn’t what it is.

This may, of course, only make it more dangerous for cycles and runners, in the way that dusting the new tarmac surface of roads gives them the same grip as an ice rink.

In the end this is all about creeping urbanisation, about manicuring our landscapes and walking places beyond reality, banishing darkness and the textures and experiences of other places – doing nothing but changing the views, living a virtual life in someone else’s photostream.

It is bitterly ironic that in this Year of Natural Scotland, our public sector agencies are busily and unaccountably making it ever less natural.

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23 Responses to Public sector vandalism of historic canal towpath must stop right here

  1. I asked Sustrans last week what they were doing, and was told it was a special surface designed to ‘weather in’ to be in character with the towpath and canal. Having seen it on Saturday, aye – pigs can fly and the Pope’s not retiring.

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  2. Nice that there’s public money available to tarmac what is someone’s drive; can they come and do ours? The gravel got quite rutted and washed out in the torrential rain we been having.

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    • A fair comment – Sustrans told me that surfacing 1 km of the Crinan towpath was costing £100,000. A network of long distance cycle routes that also creates local connectivity is surely an excellent idea, and Sustrans seems to be generally well managed and well funded.
      However, surely where they make use of existing assets (rather than, for example, the long-abandoned Connel – Ballachulish railway trackbed) they should respect what exists, or go elsewhere.

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  3. Ugh, what a depressing piece. No-one bats an eyelid when vast quantities of our countryside are concreted over for cars, but whenever anyone tries to do anything to help the poor, non-polluting cyclist, there are cries of “gross urbanisation” and “utterly unacceptable” and so on.

    Rather than taking the easy way out and pillorying Sustrans and Scottish Canals (not “Waterways”) for their work, you should ask why it is that the roads have been made so hostile that only hardened cyclists venture out onto them.

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    • In what way is tarmacing a perfectly serviceable gravel towpath helping cyclists? The only people being helped here are the farm owners, who should be spending their own money maintaining or improving access to the farm.

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      • The construction of the canal cut off access for several farms. These farms were assured appropriate access, but today they have to make do with a diversion (e.g. along this tow path), as the owners of the canal have failed to ensure that the planned access (e.g. across the “unique sliding bridge between the two gates at Lock 11″) is strong enough or wide enough for 21st century farm access. I do not follow why the farmers are now responsible for the alternative access provided by the canal.

        I am sure given a few months, the drop at the edge of the tarmac will be made up level (either by nature or man), and the stark black surface will have weathered into the landscape.

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        • If so then BW should be upgrading the bridge, not sponging off cycletrack funds to build a road where there was none to solve a problem that should never have been allowed to arise in the first instance.

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          • The bridge really is special – it’s a piece of this country’s history, and if you look at it you’ll understand that it couldn’t be upgraded to carry much heavier loads, it would have to be replaced – so, on balance, the tarmac (when it weathers in) is the lesser of the two evils.

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    • ‘Cyclist’ – are you seriously suggesting that the generally well maintained surface of the towpath is unsuitable for cycling? Or are you determined to make it as smooth as possible for the narrow tyres of a road bike?
      Another point is the regrettable failure of many cyclists these days to give audible warning of their approach; the first you’re aware of them is the sudden crunch of gravel or – on the new tarmac stretch – when they’re silently passing you.
      Maybe the next thing will be a white line down the middle of the tarmac, with pedestrian symbols one side and cycle symbols the other.

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  4. Whatever the rights or wrongs of using tarmac, the area in the third big photo, i.e. the slope beside Lock 9, was a death trap for cyclists heading west with big ruts at the bottom of a steep slope and I’m pleased it’s been fixed. You can’t tell now, but I think there was some old tarmac in this area.

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    • I haven’t cycled along here since early last autumn, when there was work in progress at this lock; the first stretch of the unsurfaced towpath from the end of tarmac at the Cairnbaan cottages was badly potholed, and needed heavy repair, but tarmac?

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  5. A large ” gob ” of tar no less.

    The photographs look awfully like someone has laid a tarmac surface to prevent deterioration of the path.

    Maybe, the surfacing should be removed from the old rest and be Thankful road so that it can go back to the old mud and metal road that it once was.

    Get the vehicles onto a slippy, rutted, pock marked, mud covered dangerous old road. That’s the stuff, looks the part, and ditto for cyclists and other users on the canal tow path at Crinan.

    What absolute drivel this blog puts out. Pure unadulterated rubbish. Ah but they’ll be a “reason” for this bilge. Yes, you get it at the end, it’s the unaccountable public service agencies…….and we all know who runs them. Eh
    AS and the merry men and woman of the SG perchance Newsie.

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  6. Tell you what, if a 1km section of surfacing to the tow path costs £100,000 maybe Newsie can tell us how much a cobbled tow path would cost.

    Cobbles, as was quite popular on tow paths might well be dangerous to cycle or even walk on. Indeed, the cobbles quite often got quite slippy with the horses doo doo as they pulled the barges along.

    That’s believe it or not the ” reason ” that they were called towpaths.

    Anyway, horses aside, cost considerations please. Initial capital costs, whole life surface costings, together with a risk assesment of the public liability issues too of one surface or no surface over an other.

    No ” reasonable ” critquies will be rejected

    And of course in keeping with Newsie’s attention to detail, can we also consider what the horses would prefer should they be re-introduced from food duties to barge towing duties. You never know, things are more complicated than you would have “reason” not to suspect.

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  7. ‘The Voice of Reason’ sounds like a very pretentious moniker for someone who doesn’t seem to know that the Crinan Canal towpath is predominantly gravel surfaced, with a centre of grass in places, a slightly rougher stretch near Bellanoch where a major leak resulted in bank reconstruction a few years ago, and a relatively short ‘urbanised’ tarmac stretch at Cairnbaan, forming the access road to the houses along the canal.
    The concern now is that Sustrans’ access to funds, and the temptation to see tarmac as an easy-maintenance surface, will result in incremental ‘suburbanisation’ of the full stretch of the towpath designated as part of National Cycle Route 78 (from Oban to Campbeltown), all the way from Bellanoch Bridge through to Ardrishaig.
    I don’t think that cobbles feature anywhere along the towpath – and the stone setts laid to provide a good footing for people opening and closing the lock gates seem to be a good example of thoughtful new design very much in keeping with the character of the canal – far more sympathetic than tarmac.

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    • The Voice of Reason’ sounds like a very pretentious moniker for someone who doesn’t seem to know…… a bit like ‘Willie’, ‘Dougie’ and the ‘Doc’ et al.

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  8. I live on the towpath along the stretch that has been resurfaced and would like to thank the bodies involved for taking action to sort out the potholed mess it had become. I walk along it, cycle on it, and drive along it on a regular basis because it is the only access route available to me. Quite simply, the towpath had become dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians to use, particularly at night when rain filled potholes covered its width and made it hard to judge what lay beneath the surface. As for the tarmac / other surface debate, Scottish Canals will have had to consult with Historic Scotland and SNH before proceeding so if they gave them the thumbs so be it. Afterall, tarmac has been proved to be an excellent preserver of historic relics recently. “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse (or some tarmac if no horses available, please”.

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    • The ‘potholed mess’ could have been sorted out long ago, without going as far as to lay tarmac, so why did maintenance of this stretch remain so neglected compared with the rest – obviously the wear & tear was greater due to its use for vehicle access (much like the ‘back bank’ between Oakfield bridge and the fringe of Ardrishaig). Is Scottish Canals in dispute with road users? – there’s a history of delays in agreeing public road repairs involving canal bank problems, and the current steel plate covering the towpath road edge collapse at Cairnbaan is just the latest example.

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  9. I have to correct my earlier comment about the canal towpath being generally well maintained; I walked from Lochgilphead to Cairnbaan this morning and although British Waterways made a good job of improving the towpath surface on this stretch a few years ago, it does look as if there’s been no maintenance since then. There’s one particular area of fast-breeding potholes, and I can’t believe that Scottish Canals subscribe to the third world habit of relying on donors to fund a ‘big bang’ upgrade, which is then allowed to go to the dogs until rescued by another outside donation.
    Human nature being what it is, I very much hope that Scottish Canals hasn’t decided that there’s no need to maintain the towpath because Sustrans will eventually unroll a carpet of nice thick tarmac all the way from Bellanoch to Ardrishaig.
    Incidentally, there are at least two colonies of fast-breeding moles having a field day in the canal bank between Lochgilphead and Cairnbaan, and thriving in the apparent absence of any move to control them. Good canal maintenance policy?

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  10. I’ve just learnt that Historic Scotland were formally consulted, last year, and approved the surfacing of the stretch at Dunardry that is open to public vehicular access and farm traffic.
    The tarmac is to be finished with material that will help ‘weather in’ the surface to be more in keeping with the character of the canal and the gravel surfaced towpath. Apparently Scottish Canals have had great difficulty in maintaining this stretch pothole-free, and have consequently been receiving complaints about the state of it.
    Historic Scotland don’t see approval of this as a precedent for surfacing the towpath elsewhere, where there’s no significant vehicle traffic.

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  11. With reference to destroying a historic site. Wiki says “Babylon, in 625 BCE, was the first city to have its streets paved with tar. More than 2,000 years later, John Loudon McAdam invented a road construction method called macadamisation.These roads were adequate for use by horses and carriages or coaches, but they were very dusty and subject to erosion with heavy rain. Methods to stabilise macadam roads with tar date back to at least 1834″. The fact that for so long the untarred path has been adequate and that the canal continuous to needs serious ongoing maintenance, would indicate that this tarring was done by yet another clueless committee committed to spending without reference to the bigger picture. It’s a no brainer that my transit fees will go up this summer.

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    • Hamish, the tarmac surfacing is a Sustrans funded project, so if your transit fees go up this summer it shouldn’t be because of this. Just don’t get knocked over by a silent speeding cyclist if you venture onto the towpath.

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