Life as a Navvy

In 1820s Edinburgh, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.

In 1820s Edinburgh, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Work was completed on the Union Canal in 1822, linking Edinburgh to Glasgow. This was a major transportation breakthrough as the railway line between Scotland’s largest cities wouldn’t open for another twenty years. Coal, iron and other goods could now be brought from the West of Scotland to the capital. The canal basin was in an industrial area at the top of Lothian Road. From there, horse-drawn buses took travellers down to Princes Street, past smoky factories.

William Burke and William Hare came to Edinburgh from Northern Ireland and worked on the Union Canal. Navvies built railways or in this case, canals – this was dangerous and very hard work. Dynamite was used every day and if navvies were injured (or worse) there was no compensation.

According to the Falkirk Community Trust, ‘Their work was to forge out the path of the canal with picks and shovels and make it watertight. The method used by the navvies to do this was called ‘puddling’. A clay ‘puddle’ was made by mixing loam with sand then adding water. The navvies would then trample on the mixture to create a watertight material which was spread along the sides and bottom of the canal.’

Listen to Navigator by The Pogues
Scottish Canals
Union Canal Unlocked

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