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What Goes Around Comes Around

Jonathan Mosse, IWA’s Scotland representative, reflects on some movement of freight on Scottish canals

Apart from sheer economics, the elementary drivers behind freight by inland waterways can be pretty much boiled down to dramatically lowered emissions and reduced road congestion, in some cases combined with providing access to poorly served rural locations.  If, for the moment, we overlook the criminally underused River Clyde then the potential in Scotland, for the most part, largely embraces access … or rather a lack of it. A relatively small population (much of it centred on a few large towns and cities) means that whole swathes of countryside are comparatively inaccessible, as there is little need to build a trunk road network connecting a diversity of small, far-flung communities.

[Photo: Aircraft carrier section below Erskine Bridge on the River Clyde by Jonathan Mosse]


That doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that these vast, remote tracts of moor and mountain are totally unproductive and many a hillside can be regarded as an outdoor laboratory, devoted to experiments in the production of saw logs.  Following the end of hostilities in 1918, the newly created Forestry Commission (as it was then known) was assigned the task of establishing the different species of milling timber that could be grown in a diverse range of locations. And, also, to delve into the finer points of how one might go about the job. 

Enter JST Services (Scotland) Ltd: a company skilled in all aspects of timber extraction and one that leans heavily on water transport, shipping saw logs both locally and abroad. Based in Ayrshire, the company has an extensive operation throughout the West Coast forests and also covers extraction from the consideration acreage of timber planted across the neighbouring islands.  Each operation presents its own challenges but common to all is the poor communication provided by the local road infrastructure, alongside what is also often a fragile natural environment.

[Photo: Loading timber at JST Service’s mobile floating pier at Ardcastle, near the Crinan Canal, by Creel Marine Ltd]


At a political level, JST has worked closely with Government, while on the ground they have devise ingenious practical solutions, often funded by the Strategic Timber Transport Scheme which finances projects facilitating the sustainable transport of timber in rural areas. The fund typically contributes 50 – 70% of the costs of successful applications, with the remainder coming from local authority or forestry sector partners.

Little thought was given at the time to harvesting and extraction of the finished product, a detail that around 100 years down the line has become somewhat pertinent! So, what is now clearly apparent is that the suitability of the Scottish climate to producing good timber is in direct proportion to the unsuitable of the majority of the country’s roads in supporting its removal to market!

[Photo: A trial load of plant heading up Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal, courtesy of Scottish Canals

The key weapon in their armoury is the floating pier system they have developed. A mobile pier can be set up in a 12-hour shift allowing deep-water access for sea-going vessels of up to 3000 tons carrying-capacity, enabling them to be loaded directly from timber lorries. There are currently examples on the Morvern Peninsular, at Ardcastle near Adrishaig and on the Isle of Mull, outside Pennyghael.  These piers open up previously uneconomic forests, providing a means of combating diminishing returns and reduced viability due to their remoteness. JST makes the valid point that the concept could easily be applied to other materials, such as aggregates and in other locations (on the Clyde for instance) where it is important to eliminate road miles.

Elsewhere (as 2022 draws to a close) of the first barge load for the proposed Coire Glas pumped hydro storage scheme, situated alongside the Caledonian Canal. Both this first cargo of plant and, indeed, the initial stages of the project itself, representing a trial.  Before a degree of exploratory work is undertaken it’s impossible to determine whether the project – a grand form of renewable energy storage, on an epic scale, to tide the grid over those times when renewables are unavailable – is, in fact, viable.


[Photo: A trial load climbs Neptune’s Staircase, with views across Fort William, courtesy of Scottish Canals]

What isn’t in doubt, however, is that the local roads are in no way capable of carrying the relatively light plant required for the investigative work, let alone the heavy-duty equipment and materials eventually required should the project get the green light. 

JST make the point that their floating pier system has many potential applications, presenting endless opportunities to get freight off the roads and onto the water, not necessarily limited to the remote Highlands of Scotland.

So maybe if … and when … the Coire Glas scheme comes to fruition, we will see an armada of these structures sailing towards Fort William and then up Neptune’s Staircase, onto the upper reaches of the Caledonian Canal!

[The text for this article first appeared in Towpath Talk February 2023 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor]

[Photo: Yeoman Bank, a self-unloading bulk carrier inbound from Glensanda Quarry, transporting granite aggregates, below Erskine Bridge, by Jonathan Mosse]