Engineering with impact: Q&A with George McBurnie

As Scottish Canals’ Official Partner of the 200th Anniversaries of the Union and Caledonian Canals we’re celebrating the role we play together in preserving Scotland’s canal heritage and engineering its future. We spoke with George McBurnie, Senior Project Manager at Scottish Canals who embarked on his canal career over 40 years ago to gain an insight into how the canal network has changed over the decades.


What is your current role, and can you give me a bit of background about your career history at Scottish Canals?

I am the Senior Project Manager for Scottish Canals focusing mainly on major civil engineering projects. I joined the business in 1981 when it was still British Waterways and have been with the business through its transition to Scottish Canals. Back then there was very little vision for the future of the canals but year on year that started to change, and we’ve been on a long journey of regeneration, transforming the canal network into vibrant blue and green spaces for the benefit of communities across Scotland.


Can you tell me about some of your most notable canal projects with Mackenzie Construction?

Some of the very early projects we worked on were major towpath upgrades. This was a result of considerable third-party investment with the aim of promoting active travel and spanned many years. This saw us improving over 110km of the lowland canal towpath network from soft to hard, providing robust all-weather towpaths, connecting Edinburgh to Falkirk and Grangemouth to Bowling across the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals.

I also worked closely with Mackenzie Construction on the Caledonian Canal lock refurbishments. This project has seen us replace 12 lock gates to better secure the middle district of the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus. This was crucial for the local economy with the canal being the centre for tourism but also important for ensuring sea to sea safe transit for the many leisure and commercial boats that use the waterway.

More recently we have been working to treat our high-risk embankments given the threat posed by the climate emergency. The Union Canal breach at Muiravonside only reinforced this need and the mitigation and remediation response along with the subsequent infrastructure upgrades is testament to the collaborative partnership we have with Mackenzie Construction.

Do you feel like you’ve been exposed to the canal heritage from working on these projects?

The canals in Scotland are around 200 years old and when you think back to how they were constructed, with none of the technology that we have today, it’s mind-blowing. I feel very privileged to play a role in conserving this infrastructure which is a huge part of Scotland’s heritage.

When we dewatered the canal at Fort Augustus we had five empty chambers so you could clearly see the quality of the stonework with some of the masons’ marks from 200 years ago still clearly visible from the day the blocks were laid. These masons’ marks were their timesheets of the day so it’s amazing to see the contrast between the engineering of the past and how we work today.


How do you feel that the projects you have worked on with Mackenzie Construction have impacted the communities around them?

Whilst undertaking these projects we are very conscious of the local community and strive to engage them at all stages. Our ultimate goal is to improve the local infrastructure for the generations of today.

The Fort Augustus lock gate replacement project is a good example of this. With the lock chambers dewatered, we invited the public to experience what it’s like in the bottom of the chamber. A highlight for myself was the local school children coming to experience what the canal looks like from inside the chamber. Those children and their children are the next custodians of the canal so it is important to make them aware how sensitive the heritage is.

Since I started working on the canals, the way in which the local communities use them has changed drastically. In 1981 the canals were weedy, stagnant waters and the towpaths just muddy tracks so you saw very few people utilising the spaces. Over the years we’ve seen that change and having now diversified into greenspace projects such as The Claypits in North Glasgow, we are further widening how the canal network is used and enjoyed.

It’s not a case of ‘what are these canals for?’, it’s ‘who are these canals for?’, and the answer is everyone.

What do you enjoy most about working on canal projects?

With canal projects the work is very varied and presents many different challenges. This means every day is a school day and there’s always something new to learn. Having seen the use of the canal network change so drastically over my career it’s a personal high for me to see people enjoying and promoting the canals in such diverse ways.

The sense of ‘We did that’ and creating a legacy by improving the canal infrastructure is a real high.


What is your biggest career highlight?

If I had to pick one, it would be meeting the Queen at the opening of the Helix’s Queen Elizabeth II Canal having delivered the canal infrastructure over two years onsite. It was a great privilege to introduce the technical team who had worked on the project and escort Her Majesty, introducing each technical team member. Her smile was radiant, and that memory will live with me forever.