TRANSPORT bosses have pledged to “explore” a rescue package for Scotland’s canal network amid fears parts of it will close to boats.

Scottish Canals said a major cash shortage meant maintaining navigation across its routes was “unsustainable”, with barges facing being banished from key sections such as around the world-famous Falkirk Wheel.

But critics have blasted the plans, insisting it would leave parts of the ancient network no more than “stagnant ditches”.

They accused those in charge of squandering a £79 million fund to modernise the waterways at the turn of the millennium.

Labour’s shadow Scotland minister Paul Sweeney branded the proposals “an absolute scandal”, and called on SNP transport minister Humza Yousaf to intervene and guarantee that navigation on the canals will be maintained.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said it was in regular contact with canal bosses “to discuss the opportunities and the challenges around maintaining these historic assets”.

He said: “Scottish Canals have been allocated £11.6m in the budget for 2018/19 with an increase of £0.5m – 16 per cent – in the capital allocation to £3.5m.

“We recognise the challenges faced by Scottish Canals and will continue to work in partnership to support the organisation in their operations and to explore potential sources of funding.”

In comes after Scottish Canals revealed the future for parts of its 137-mile network “may not necessarily include navigation”.

In a strategy document, it said the two main canals will be the Caledonian and Crinan, which between them see some 85,000 boat movements a year. In comparison, the Forth and Clyde Canal between Glasgow and Bowling sees just 200.

Campaigners have condemned Scottish Canals’ handling of the network, insisting the lack of investment threatens jobs and tourism. Former canals boss Steven Dunlop has just taken over as the £168,000-a-year boss of Scottish Enterprise.

Scottish Tory MSP Alison Harris said plans to shut sections of the network were a “completely unacceptable state of affairs”.

She said: “Scottish Canals has failed to invest in maintaining its core product – the canal itself – and now we’re seeing the cost of that.

“This means even more revenue will be lost from tourism, there’s a risk the water quality will worsen through lack of use, and that businesses who rely on the canal will either close or relocate.”

Catherine Topley, Scottish Canals’ interim CEO, said it simply did not have enough resources, meaning “hard decisions” were inevitable.