The Tale of Two Cities’ Rivers

Rob Brown on why the Water of Leith was transformed while Polmadie Burn became a Erin Brokovich-style disaster.

Never has any city’s sobriquet seemed more open to merciless ridicule. A Glasgow burn fenced off from the public because dangerous levels of a toxic chemical have turned it a neon shade of green. So that’s why they called it the Dear Green Place, eh?

Never slow to hook readers with a Hollywood-inspired headline, Clydeside’s shrinking pool of newspaper sub-editors preferred to pounce on the obvious parallel with Erin Brockovich – and not just to glamorise this grim yarn with archive pics of Julia Roberts in her prime.

The chemical that has disturbingly altered the colour of the usually grey Polmadie Burn is chromium-VI, the very same substance made infamous by the box office smash hit about a legal secretary who took up the cause of cancer-sufferers in a small California town.

Whether any group litigation (the UK term for class action lawsuit) will gradually wend its way to a Glasgow courtroom remains to be seen. We can be pretty sure, however, about one thing: if the children who built Tarzan swings across this burn, or the older folk who walked their dugs along its banks, have been exposed to a potentially serious health risk, it is because of where in the west of Scotland they were fated to live.

The Victorians knew what way the wind blew, so were mindful to locate the vast majority of factories spewing out noxious waste and fumes (as well as terrible noise pollution) on the eastern side of the Second City of the Empire – safely away from the elegant sandstone terraces in the leafy West End.

From its site in Rutherglen – a town which has switched back and forth in the past four decades between Glasgow and South Lanarkshire’s municipal boundaries – J&J White Chemicals not only serviced the production of paints, plastics and textile dyes. In the process, this proud family firm also from the 1820s to the 1960s dumped countless tonnes of waste from chromium ore into pits, quarries and mines.

While most compounds in the metal chromium itself are not hazardous, one form of the element hexavalent chromium (Chromium-XI) has been proven to be not only poisonous but carcinogenic.

Industrial injuries don’t come much more grotesque than those inflicted by J&J White Chemicals. Throughout the factory’s long existence, a considerable number of its employees developed lesions on their skin dubbed “chrome holes”. Others became known in the local community as “White’s whistlers” because of the damage done to their nasal passages.

The firebrand founder of the Labour Party preferred the more damning term “White Slaves”. Keir Hardie took up the workers’ case and castigated the company for casually breaching new health and safety regulations introduced in 1893 – the same year its owner John White III picked up a peerage. (Lord Overtoun’s philanthropy was later immortalised in Rutherglen’s Overtoun Park).

Successive generations of Tommy McAvoy’s family – starting with his grandfather and continuing down to his brother and a couple of cousins – worked at White’s. After he became the Labour MP for Rutherglen in 1987, however, he had no hesitation in striving to force the firm to cough up for a clean-up.

Tommy himself grew up just a few hundred yards from the chemical works and was never put off from playing in the Polmadie burn by the weird colours that often flowed through its currents. “One did not realise the dangers at the time,” he explained in a Commons debate in 1995. “It was only later that one realised the environmental mess that the place was in.”

(As you might detect from that brief extract from Hansard, the former storeman and shop steward was also on an ascent to the upper chamber of our London legislature, becoming Baron McAvoy in 2010).

Long before he could ever have fantasised about anybody at the old Hoover factory in Cambuslang calling him M’Lord, Tommy was far from alone in messing about in the tributaries of the Clyde. Archie Hind’s multi award-winning novel The Dear Green Place is in large parts about a boy’s relationship with that heavily polluted waterway:

He knew every waste pipe that gushed its mucky sediment into the river, every path along its bank, every forsaken spot and lonely stretch where no one but children every went…narrow paths that led merely from one dumping ground to the next. Here he had played as a child in the oldest industrial landscape in the world, amongst the oldest factories in the world, and it had been through this landscape that he had walked when he had once felt so unaccountably happy.

That last upbeat bit won’t come any shock to those who have ever viewed Oscar Marzaroli’s enchanting monochrome portraits of hundreds of post-war Glaswegian weans making a heaven out of a midden. But neither Oscar (whom I worked with on a few journalistic assignments) nor Archie were dewy-eyed nostalgists.

Hind hailed from Dalmarnock in Glasgow’s East End. With a novelist’s eye for telling detail, he described in his book how the little valley of the Molendinar Burn was “now stopped with two centuries of refuse – soap, tallow, cotton waste, slag, soda, bits of leather, broken pottery, tar and caoutchouc – the waste produce of a dozen industries and a million lives.”

Can’t imagine from that description that the Molendinar is much less polluted than the Polmadie burn. Or that there aren’t countless other vast tracts of the Clydeside conurbation riddled with lethal effluents. Since its inception in 1996, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) has been warned repeatedly about toxic timebombs lurking beneath our post-industrial landscape.

For now, as Glasgow City Council adopts the temporary solution of flushing J&J White’s neon green legacy into the Clyde, local Labour and SNP politicians have parked their differences to unite in pressing the Scottish Government to foot the estimated £60m bill for decontaminating the single stretch of water currently dominating the local headlines.

If the ministers or their mandarins at St. Andrew’s House have any big problem with that, they might also care to take into account how much taxpayers’ money has been saved through the clean-up of Edinburgh’s river, the Water of Leith – by an admirable army of volunteers.

Three decades back, local residents came together to form the Water of Leith Charity Trust and got stuck in to painstakingly turning a stinking eyesore into what is now a haven for walkers and wildlife. Herons, dippers and kingfishers can all now be spotted along its banks. If your luck is in, you might even be spot the otters which came back here to breed a decade ago.

Leading members of the trust recently got to warble about their fine deeds on BBC Scotland’s Landward strand. The nicely filmed and edited item was a rare reminder of how cramped, crowded and soot-laden our capital city used to be.

Auld Reekie – a sobriquet which actually stretches back to the beginning of the Middle Ages, when the man-made Nor’ Loch (now Princes Street Gardens) was one big open sewer – became even more apt in the Victorian age when large swathes of Edinburgh were swallowed up by heavy industries.

At one stage there were 70 mills dotted along its river, which runs 22 miles from the Colzium Springs in the Pentland Hills all the way down to the port of Leith. Eleven of these were clustered barely a mile from Princes Street amid a small forest of belching chimneys. Dean Bridge also had a tannery, skinworks, chemical factory, brewery and distillery all within a mile’s radius.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the Water of Leith became the city’s main sewer in the 1840s. A once lucrative form of commerce (and nutrient recycling) – flogging dung as fertiliser to farms around Midlothian – was suddenly killed off by the arrival of flush toilets. Diluted human excrement henceforth flowed into drains then onward to burns and rivers before causing disgusting pollution in the harbour.

So, don’t mock Edinburgh’s army of environmental volunteers. When they first donned their waders and fluorescent yellow vests, they had a colossal battle on their hands. Some might even see them as a splendid example of the “little platoons” extolled by the conservative thinker Edmund Burke – although there’s a real danger of slipping into the murky waters of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ with that one.

Remember when the Reverend Dave used to sermonise about voluntary groups, neighbourhood associations and local church congregations bringing back a “broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation” just like we had when Victoria was on the throne? The big problem for such repairers of ‘Broken Britain’ and advocates of ‘progressive conservatism’ (apart from the obvious oxymoron) is this: for Burke, such little platoons weren’t the sort of groups people might voluntarily sign up for; they were the social ‘subdivisions’ into which we are born.

If you want to understand why the Water of Leith Conservation Trust was created in 1988 and why its ranks quickly swelled, soon to be reinforced by the next generation, it is largely because of where on the social ladder and in which part of Scotland they live.

Edinburgh’s urban river was transformed for the same reason the capital (in stark contrast to Glasgow) was spared a six-lane motorway being driven through its heart: roused into action, the Edinbourgeoisie is a fearsome beast and instinctively territorial.

Dragooned by the likes of the Cockburn Association, they will erect impenetrable ramparts and repel any encroachments on their salubrious sections of the urban jungle. The fact that the financial incentives to do so just keep on growing – even the pokiest flat in one of the converted mills still standing in Dean Bridge is a des res – only makes them more and more defensive.

So, please don’t mistake the capital’s possessing classes in their bight yellow vests for a Caledonian version of les gilet jaunes. If they’ve got a rake (or even a pitchfork) in their hands, they aren’t seeking to resurrect the auld alliance in any way. They’re simply making their surroundings even more desirable and pushing up the price of their properties even more. Both admirable and understandable.

As it happens, a brand-new property development has also been taking shape around the Polmadie Burn in south-east Glasgow. Rather less grand or expensive than most of the dwellings dotted along the Water of Leith, the Oatlands estate should eventually consist of hundreds of private homes and some social housing. However, the first families who have moved in are starting to fear they’ve been sold down the river.

Avant Homes took over the site from the original developer that acquired the former council scheme for just £1. Since the nearby burn began turning from grey to bright green, worried residents have been pouring over a chain of emails – sent back and forth between the company, Glasgow City Council and SEPA – to try to work out when precisely each of these bodies first knew of historic contaminants in the water.

If those who purchased a property at Oatlands can establish that Avant was aware of previous pollution problems and peddled the complacent line they were being remedied, the purchasers may seek their own legal remedy. The housebuilder insists it had no prior knowledge of the contamination risks until February this year.

What about those in the social housing? Alas, they can only hope and pray that the City Council or the Scottish Government will safeguard their interests.

Latin American development economist Hernando De Soto observed that “the state is the skin of the poor.” When any state anywhere fails to protect the weakest members of society, it can place at risk even the skin on their bodies – as we have seen from the awful disfigurements inflicted by J&J White Chemicals.

Those “chrome holes” were not just lesions. They were a lesson from history we should all be careful to burn into our memory banks.

Comments (23)

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  1. Arthur Cleary says:

    As a boy in the 1950’s I grew up on the north side of Glasgow and we played near an area of Sighthill known locally as The Stinky Ocean. This was a chemical sludge pit with the waste from the nearby Tennants Chemical works in Townhead which stank of rotten eggs from the sulphurous muck. When the works closed the area was infilled and the Sighthill multi-storey flats were built on the site of the old works. After a heavy shower today the chemicals still leech out of the soil and the distinctive rotten eggs smell pervades as any railway track worker who worked in the Queen Street tunnel will tell you when the polluted water would rush down the hill after heavy rainfall. There will be many old industrial sites around Glasgow and I believe the former Ravenscraig steel works site in Motherwell has similar issues.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      The Stinky Ocean – love it – although I’m not sure I’d have wanted my weans playing in it. Interesting what you say about that rotten egg odour. Seems to be quite pervasive in parts of the Dear Green Place, as pointed up also by Dougie Robertson in his comment below.

  2. Douglas Turner says:

    Mr Brown’ research is sound, with the exception of the reference to “Dean Bridge”. The Dean Bridge was a Thomas Telford project, designed to re-route northbound traffic to avoid Dean Village (once known as the Water of Leith Village).

    Having been born and brought up in Dean Village, and part of an active group of villagers who have worked actively to promote and capture the memories and history of the Village, Rob Brown would be welcome to talk to us.

    On a purely personal note, we were very young, but smart enough to confine most of our swimming upstream from the tannery. Although our homemade rafts were sailed upstream and downstream.

    Regards

    Douglas Turner

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Sorry for that slip-up, Douglas. Hopefully the editor can correct it. Over to you, Mike…

      1. Douglas Turner says:

        In the larger context of the article Rob, it’s not a big deal. It was great to see the story set in the context of the great work undertaken to improve the river quality.

        If you ever need details on the history of the Dean Village for future reference. You know where to find us.

        Regards

        Douglas

  3. Douglas Robertson says:

    An interesting read Rob, and interesting how the chromium issue is not capped and buried under the M74 extension, as was promised. Remember taking the housing students near there when we were looking at the Commonwealth Village, and we visited a site where rods all the way from Japan were placed in the ground to draw in the chromium so the site could be redeveloped. Wonder if that has happened?

    I was also told once that the rotten egg smell you get in the tunnel heading into Queen Street station has nothing to do with the trains brakes but rather is because of another old chemical site seeping waste into the tunnel. Wonder if there is any truth to that?

    1. Rob Brown says:

      There are doubtless countless such ‘mysteries’ to be investigated across our post-industrial landscapes, Dougie. I suspect they may be a contributory factor to the scandalously low life expectancy in places like Glasgow’s East End, which can’t all be explained by poverty and poor diet (serious scourges though these undoubtedly are).

      1. Douglas Robertson says:

        Rob – I have just found out that the Sighthill stink issue is now being addressed. A total of £100m is currently being spent to clean up the historic chemical waste, part of which seeps into Queen Street Station tunnel causing the noxious sulphar stink bomb smell. This work will also allow 64 new private houses to be built on the site. So its not just for the nausal benefit of commutors.

        To pick up on your point, until their demolition there were a series of Glasgow Corporation high flats on that site which over 50 years housed thousands of people. People may make Glasgow, according to the city’s corporate marketing, but clearly Glaswegians are valued very differently.

        There are thousands of such sites right across Scotland, and not just in the industrial central belt. Lead waste covers a section of the West Highland Way, and also contaminates Leadhills in South Lanarkshire. This waste needs treating, not ignoring.

    2. J Galt says:

      Oh yes that’s a well known fact – it’s not so much the tunnel but the cutting at it’s head which was cut through land that was occupied by ground that had been used as a dumping ground from Tennant’s original Glasgow works called the St. Rollox works, which at the time of the construction of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in the 1840s was the largest industrial enterprise in Glasgow.

  4. Fay Kennedy says:

    Thanks for that Rob. What an inheritence for the people of Glasgow the so called powerhouse of the industrial revolution. The same attitudes were transported and flourish here in Australia where neglect and downright skulduggery thrives. Nothing new under the sun. Heartbreaking for those who are the victims.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      You’re all too right, Fay. Reckless profiteers have left a trail of ecological degradation across the globe, as did their equally materialistic counterparts in the former Communist bloc, alas.

  5. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Awful: for wildlife in the area, and the locals. Let’s hope the containment at least removes risk to human health. We’ll be a long time healing the scars of industry.

    I note, though, that Glasgow’s other watercourses have been faring better than the Eastend burns. The Clyde’s got salmon again, and seals, already this year as far in as Rutherglen. Was there a basking shark in Govan a few years back? I can remember the White Cart Water when it supported no life bigger than guppies, and a few semi-feral weans in the summer. There wasn’t too much heavy industry upstream, but it was choked with human and farm effluent. There’s kingfishers, herons and trout now along the whole stretch from Pollock Park to Seedhill, and deer everywhere. SEPA and Scottish Water are due some credit for that.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Yeah, there does some to be some gradual rewilding of even some of the grittiest parts of the West of Scotland. But two swallows and all that…

      1. Jo says:

        It’s about more than two swallows. You’re being incredibly anti-Glasgow Rob. There has been an amazing amount of work done, and money spent, on cleaning up the River Clyde. It’s been going on for a long time. That is clear from the amount of wild life it now attracts. Credit where credit is due. That is why I too am horrified that it’s proposed to dilute this burn and let poison into the river again.

        On the chromium legacy from White’s people from the communities affected were active on this long before now. I recall a group called Carmyle, Cambuslang and Rutherglen Against Pollution being formed in the late 80s. We called the group CCRAP for short. Yes, really! Many existing community groups like Tenants and Residents Associations and Community Councils backed it. The group comprised mostly women. I’m certain Tommy McAvoy attended some of the public meetings. The work these women did was incredible. They had scientific reports done that were very detailed. They were ordinary folk who, prior to this, knew nothing about chromium. They educated themselves and taught the rest of us. At the time a “leukemia cluster” was identified in the Cambuslang/Carmyle areas.

        The blatant dumping done by White’s was unbelievable. Criminal. We were told that the construction of the new M74 extension would be a Godsend! It would seal the chromium in and make everything better! It tells you how stupid the authorities think we are.

        1. Rob Brown says:

          Thanks for reminding me Jo there has been so much clean-up of the Clyde. Too easy to forget that when focusing on the chemical pollution of Polmadie Burn. But that neon green effluent will end up in the Clyde undoing some of the good work you rightly identify. Just to add, I’m not at all anti-Glasgow. I was born in Stobhill Hospital, studied on Gilmorehill and, even when working for Edinburgh-based newspapers such as The Scotsman, always insisted on being based in the Glasgow bureau. I draw attention to Clydeside’s dark underbelly sometimes because it grieves me.

  6. Willie says:

    The legacy of the past coming back to haunt us. But do we learn anything.

    Well no we don’t and the issue of global plastic pollution is a good example, with Big Oil actually increasing worldwide plastic production.

    Or closer to home, with the UK’s new build nuclear build in England having hit the buffers there is now intense pressure to reopen the shut down Hunterston B nuclear station despite there being serious concerns about cracking within the bricks that contain the control rods.

    With experts arguing that there is a risk in reactivating the reactor, even the MoD at Coulport and Faslane apparently had concerns.

    Not however that these concerns would be about the impact of a Fukushima on the door step of Scotland’s largest city, the MoDs concerns it seem were more practically predicated on the impact of loss of amenity of the UKs nuclear submarine and weapons base on the Clyde – should there be a major incident.

    And so Rob, it certainly seems we have learned little. Nothing has changed save that the scale has increased by a magnitude and then some.

    Profoundly depressing but then again do people, or should I say do the majority of people care. I don’t think so.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      The only way people might be made to care is if ecological degradation is spotlighted. The local press – principally the Herald and Evening Times – have done that in the case of Polmadie Burn but have not panned out to consider the wider toxic legacy of rapid deindustrialisation. That’s what I was trying to do in this article. I’m glad to see others amplifying – and qualifying – my interpretation of the situation.

      1. Willie says:

        Yes only by bringing issues into the public spotlight will anything be done. Otherwise it takes a disaster to change attitudes, by which time too late.

        The challenge is huge be it moving away from plastic, or the use of oil, or industrially produced fertiliser. Folks like their shrink wrapped sausages, personal cars, bananas from another continent, and indeed everything that goes with the modern world. And who wants to live in a cave anyway. No wonder it’s easy to look away.

        In fact few now would know what JJ White produced or what its legacy is.

  7. milgram says:

    I don’t know who Avant are but the chromium pollution around there was common enough knowledge. I remember a JAM74 video pointing out signs of it on one of the playing fields, something like grey-green oozing mud. And if you’re buying a chunk of land a mile from a city centre for a single pound, you know there’s a reason for that.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Sounds from the feedback here there should be many brownfield sites in Clydeside marked with giant warning signs. Caveat emptor – Buyer beware!

  8. Alf Baird says:

    Does no one here realise that the Water of Leith flows only into the impounded/locked Leith Docks, but not to the open sea? This is why the area between the Shore inland to beyond the Junction Street Bridge remains stagnant, and silted up. It is a river that has not been naturally flushed out by the 5m rise and fall of the Firth of Forth tide since the Leith Port lock and coffer dam were installed and blocked the river in 1969. Obviously the Murrayfield and New Town bourgeois have yet to notice. Neither it seems has the Water of Leith Heritage Trust, though I did mention this to them some twenty years ago, as they were busily putting wee fishes in upstream, yet seemingly oblivious to the fact they (i.e. the fish) were heading only for the silted river mouth and the impounded the docks, but not the open sea. The Water of Leith is as much if not more of an environmental disgrace as Polmadie Burn.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Interesting, Alf. Please tell us some more or supply relevant link(s) to info on this environmental disaster.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Rob, I suggest you look at any good map of Edinburgh which shows the docks are impounded and the river remains blocked from flowing into the sea. Then pay a visit to the Shore area where you will see that the water sits at a constant (i.e. unnatural) water level and the river is stagnant and silting up. Further on towards the port the famous swing bridge at the Shore is now fixed in place, beyond which Edinburgh’s and the port’s incompetent planners permitted a low road bridge to be built across the river, both of which have prevented vessels from entering the historic shore area which not so very long ago was full of ships. The current situation of the Water of Leith is a disgrace. As it happens I worked for a Leith shipowner so am familiar with the port and its environs, and I was Scotland’s only ever Professor of Maritime Transport/Business who researched and taught on port design matters for some years.

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