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Missing a Trick

Jonathan Mosse, IWA’s Scotland representative, reflects on a missed opportunity…

I doubt my mother had so much as a millilitre of Scottish blood coursing through her veins but she brought me up to believe that Scotland did things a little better than the remainder of the United Kingdom!  Having lived north of the Border now for something like 15 years I think she was right, certainly in the areas of health care and education that she was most fond of citing. However, unlike her son, she had little interest in the inland waterways in general, or their freight-carrying potential in particular. If she had, then she would almost certainly have had cause to modify her perceptions.

Essentially, there is little fundamental difference between the tidal Thames – from its estuary up to Teddington – and the tidal River Clyde from Tail O’The Bank (Greenock) through to Glasgow Green, and the lifting tidal weir that parts salt water from fresh. Except, that is, that the former heaves with river traffic in myriad shapes and sizes, while the latter … well, … doesn’t!  Apart, that is, from regular deep-sea shipping bound for the Clydebank oil terminal or King George V Dock and associated wharfs, which handle general cargo, close to the city centre. If you discount the occasional Multi-Cat workboat there is absolutely no local traffic, be it bulk, waste, passenger or ‘last mile’.

[Photos by Jonathan Mosse ]

Running pretty much west–east, from Glasgow city centre to Greenock, the tidal river is paralleled on its south bank by the M8 motorway and on the north bank by the A82, much of it busy dual-carriageway.  To be precise, the M8 actually crosses from the north bank to the south just down-river from the city centre, on the multi-lane Kingston Bridge which, in common with most the motorway system in that area, becomes gridlocked during morning and evening peaks.  Close to this crossing, the relatively newly constructed M74 joins the M8 having shadowed a large chunk of the non-tidal Clyde through what remains of Glasgow’s industrial heartland. The only boats you’ll find here are propelled by oars and the occasional paddle!

To complete the picture, a quick look at the aforementioned tidal weir is required. Separating salt from fresh, it can be opened when the water on each side makes a level, to allow navigation. How long this window of opportunity is available depends on the tide, be it spring or neap, and it currently represents a significant constraint to using the full navigable length of the river above the city.


Interestingly enough, in more enlightened times, there was a lock here constructed in 1852 and removed when the earlier, fixed weir – seen as responsible for severe erosion downstream – was replaced in 1879.  So today with the River Clyde, viewed as a clean sheet of paper in local navigational terms, there is everything to play for in transforming the area’s carbon-heavy transport system into something more aligned with the sort of blueprint envisioned at last year’s COP26 which, somewhat ironically, was hosted on the very banks of this criminally underused, climate-friendly, freight asset.  Over the past five years, a significant percentage of the Thames bulk river traffic has revolved around spoil removed (with return loads of concrete lining rings) from the Tideway Tunnel, pivotal in remodelling the Bazalgette’s ageing Victorian sewerage system: both ground-breaking projects of their time.

New to the Clyde, and already at the enabling works stage, is the construction of a swing bridge, designed to accommodate sea-going vessels navigating to the nearby King George V Dock, one of its regular visitors being Yeoman Bridge. This massive, self-unloading vessel carrying granite products from Glensanda Quarry, is a regular visitor: one that will probably be transporting a significant tonnage of the materials required to complete the Renfrew Bridge.

[Photo: Arklow Viking below Erskine Bridge]

One can only speculate as to whether Transport Scotland included any stipulations within the procurement process around moving what will be a considerable amount of aggregates, the short distance between dock and work site by barge, rather than by lorry along the M8 with its attendant negative, environmental impact.

Comparisons may well, in many walks of life, be seen as odious but the alternative, in terms of our climate emergency, is potentially terminal. Transferring goods – whether that be bulk aggregates, waste or ‘last mile’ parcels traffic – onto water is the low-hanging fruit of a move towards a carbon neutral existence. If it works for England, it can work for Scotland … and my mother can rest easy in her grave!

[The text for this article first appeared in Towpath Talk – December 2022, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor]

[Photo: ‘Doon The Watter’ by Morag Brown]