Rivers and Waterways Week

Rivers and Waterways

Period: 25-30 January 2021

This week we are going to be finding out about rivers and waterways. Where do they come from? Why do we need them? If you live near the River Tay you will understand just how important rivers are for transport and industry and of course wildlife and leisure. We all love a walk along the beach or along the side of a river. Some people like sailing or kayaking.

There are different kinds of waterways such as rivers, canals, estuaries and lochs.

The term waterway is often used to describe an inland transport route - a large enough body of water that a load-carrying boat can travel on. Smaller rivers that cannot take a boat are called watercourses.

Let's start with rivers - where do rivers come from - they have to have a source they don’t just magically appear.

River Devon Community Hydro Project, Scotland, UK
River Devon Community Hydro Project, Scotland




So where does it all start - little streams, often in the mountains, feed into bigger streams known as tributaries and these tributaries feed into small rivers which then feed into large rivers! As they get bigger and wider the water flows faster and creates more energy.

Rivers shape our landscape and as they flood due to heavy rain they can create extra curves and ponds. We know that the Tay has caused bad flooding in Perth and further north. Many different tactics have been used to prevent flooding.

See what you can find out about flood defences, as they are known. We are going to talk more about these later in the week!

Check back to Weather Week when we looked at extreme weather leading to flooding.

As streams and rivers travel through the countryside the water carries sand and rocks with it which are moved and broken up. Have a look at the stones washed up on the beach or riverbank - they are often smooth and round - all the hard, sharp edges are worn away by the water rubbing it against the sand and other stones.

Please show us what you find when out on your daily walk.

Our own River Tay is the longest river in Scotland and the seventh longest in the UK.

It flows from Ben Lui near Tyndrum starting out as a wee spring - 83 miles away from where it meets the sea!

It then meets the North Sea at the Firth of Tay right on the doorstep of the Dundee Science Centre!

You may have heard this often referred to as the Tay Estuary - where freshwater from the river meets saltwater and tides from the North Sea.

The tides are why you will see sandbanks with lots of seals having a bit of a sunbathe as the water moves in and out. When the tide is out there is much more beach to explore and lovely rock pools to spot tiny fish and crabs - remember our rock pooling guide in the summer!

Think of how wide the river is at this point - just how long are the Tay Road and Rail Bridges - can you find out?

Canal & River Trust - Stay Safe Near Water
Stay Safe Near Water Canal & River Trust
Lost Valley Trail, Glencoe, Scotland
Photograph by B K on Unsplash
The Most Erosive Area on the Padma
The Most Erosive Area on the Padma (NASA)
All About Rivers
All About Rivers (PDF)

Why Are Rivers Important?

Towns and cities are often built on the banks of rivers or the sea coast, as they have long provided an easy source of food and water.

Rivers were also great for transport in days when roads were not very well made and took a long time to get anywhere. River transport was quicker and safer! No highway robbers!

See if you can make a twig raft and let us know if it floats.

Think of the largest cities in Scotland - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee - all with water nearby to support industry and transport. Allowing ships from all over the world to deliver goods and people!

Nowadays rivers are used to supply water to homes, farms and factories. We often harness energy from rivers in hydro projects which we spoke of in week 1.

There is an abundance of wildlife on rivers and at estuaries - what have you seen down at the river's edge? Have a look here and see what’s going on under the water.

Learning from Home: What Lives In A River?
Scots - Teeny Tiny Twig Rafts
Scouts - Teeny Tiny Twig Rafts
Dunkeld, UK
View towards bridge over the River Tay in Scotland

River Tay

Our River Tay is designated as a special area of conservation. This is mainly due to it supporting Atlantic Salmon!

What about the beavers on the Tay - do you remember what their favourite thing to do was?

Have a go at River Bingo - watch the video about the longest river in Britain - the Severn - and listen for the words in the table.

River Severn Source to Mouth
Tay Catchment Video by Rebecca Wade

What if we want to store water and make use of the power that the water brings as it moves along.

This is called a dam. There are many kinds of dams - find out more next!

A photograph taken from Dundee Waterfront, Scotland
A photograph taken from Dundee Waterfront, Scotland - Photo by Thomas Mills on Unsplash
River Bingo
River Bingo (PDF)
Dawn on the Tay Estuary
BBC News - Source of River Tay 'pinpointed'
Source of River Tay 'Pinpointed' (BBC News)


People have been building dams for more than 5000 years.

The earliest dams were built to hold back water to be used for irrigation. This is where water is channelled into fields to help crops grow where the climate was sometimes dry.

They were also used to make it easier for boats to sail up and down rivers.

Nowadays, dams are built for all sorts of reasons. Irrigation as in ancient times, but also to create drinking water reservoirs, to generate hydroelectric power, to help control floods, to fill canals with water and still to help boats navigate rivers.

Dams can be built from different materials.

The smallest dams might be built of wood using wooden or metal posts and wooden boards. Larger dams might be built of earth, stone or concrete.

All modern dams have ways to take water out or let water pass using valves (like taps), bypass channels and spillways. These and the main dam have to be very carefully designed by civil engineers to avoid being damaged or washed away when the water behind the dam becomes too high due to heavy rain and flooding.

In Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, the safety of dams is protected by law and all dams over a certain size have to be inspected by specially trained civil engineers. In Scotland there are nearly 270 dams protected by this law.

Cruachan Power Station

The earliest of these dams in Scotland were built to store and channel water into the canals, but later ones were built to store drinking water or for hydroelectricity.

Did you have a go at building a dam like the beavers?



Do you know what a canal is?

A canal is a human-made waterway that connects two larger bodies of water. Most were built back before faster transportation was available, and they made it easier for people to move items and people from one side of the country to the other.

Did you know Scotland has five canals which total 137 linear miles of waterway network.

  • 60 miles - Caledonian Canal
  • 9 miles - Crinan Canal?
  • 35 miles - Forth and Clyde Canal?
  • 2 miles - Monkland Canal?
  • 31 miles - Union Canal

Find out more about the heritage and history of the Scottish Canals at Scottish Canals web site.

Where is your closest canal?

Imagine this: You are riding along the canal when you reach a large hill. What is going to happen to your boat?

Thankfully, there is a way to keep your boat from plunging into the waters below: a lock and dam system!

Think about the dams we have just heard about? This is a similar idea! Boats sail into an area where dams then close them in. This chamber is called a lock. Once the boats are inside the lock, the operators can then either let water in so that they rise up or let water out so they lower to meet the next waterway. Watch how it works here:

Scottish Canals
Scottish Canals
Canals - Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Challenge Time

Now you know about canals, build your own canal at home with objects you have in your house.

Then, create a video story of your canal. Bonus points if you can include a lock in your video!

Upload your video to enter the competition

Enter Competition

Video Challenge
Video Challenge Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash

Falkirk Wheel

We have learned how locks work but sometimes, if a boat came to a very large hill, they would have to go through a series of locks. The Forth & Clyde and Union Canals used to be linked by 11 locks which took nearly a day to travel through. In the 1930s, these locks were taken apart, but in 2002, something new replaced them!

The Falkirk Wheel is a kind of boat lift that boats can sail into and then ride down like a Ferris Wheel to the canal below.

Watch the videos below to learn how it works.

Archimedes and a Boat Lift: the Falkirk Wheel

Water Displacement Activity – Try out this activity to see why the level of the water remains the same in the gondolas on the Falkirk Wheel no matter how big or heavy the boat is inside!

Falkirk Wheel
Falkirk Wheel
Water Displacement Activity
Water Displacement Activity (PDF)

Also see our other Home Learning Topics information and our Learning Resources.

If you have enjoyed these activities please share them with your friends and family.