Friday, January 19, 2018

The storm of '68.

On the Fourteenth of January 1968, the central belt of Scotland was hit by a storm. A big one.
Now, it will be nothing to those who live in climates of extreme weather but this was Scotland, a country that grinds to a halt with two millimetres of snow. 

That day was a Sunday. Towards the end of the day it got a little blowy. Around midnight there were reports of dogs being blown over, and being strung out on the end of their leads. Folk were unable to walk without holding on to railings. Patients in the Western Hospital thought that the windows were going to blow in. They were right.
By one am, the lights started to go out all over the city.
In one of the Sunday newspapers there was a wee cartoon called 'Iris'. 'Iris' told you what the weather was going to do that day in your part of the country. On that Sunday she said 'be prepared', but didn’t say for what.
During that Sunday a depression was growing in the North Atlantic. It was supposed to float to the north, but at the last movement it came straight forward, right into the two million people who lived in the central belt, lying in bed and thinking that it was getting a little gusty out there.
The dredger Cessnock, and its barge was tied up at  Greenock that night,  by four inch lines onto shore. It got a little noisy and a little rough. So the crew attached extra ropes. They then attached the four inch ropes. When they snapped the crew realised they were in a little trouble.  By then the two vessels were floating in the Firth of Clyde devoid of power. By Monday morning, the dredger was on its own. The barge had turned turtle during the night, unheard in the screaming noise of the wind. All those aboard had drowned.

I recall it vaguely. I remember being woken up by my dad. My sister and I  spent the night on the settee, in the front room, with the settee pulled away from the window. Our bedroom window was on the ground floor, very close to an old Anderson shelter.  That shelter had survived all the Clydeside bombings of WWII, it didn't survive the storm.  I was very, very young but I know I wasn’t allowed to play outside for ages as the slates on the roof were hanging by a thread.  I was also cross as my imaginary pony lived in that Anderson shelter.

On the night of the storm, a couple living in a flat at the top of Hill Street in the west end suffered severe damage as  they famously witnessed the windows of their flat bending. The man closed the shutters over with their double brass hook and eyelet catch. They watched in horror as the shutter began to jump back and forth, the power of the wind straightening the brass hook and the shutters flew open again.  They said it was like a monster trying to get in. If he had been  of a Stephen King mind, his career may have turned out differently.  He became a fashion designer.

During the night, the wind was gusting to 120mph.  Chimneys came down, people in their beds were crushed , families like ours had taken their chances. Some guessed it right, some guessed it tragically wrong.
The next morning, roads were blocked by trees, the emergency services couldn't get through. People were trapped, neighbours clawing at bricks with their bare hands. Overnight, 1000’s were made homeless. 

Glasgow was one of the biggest slums in Europe at that time. It was overcrowded, disease ridden,  dirty, insanitary.   The city was black with smog and pollution and the solutions to those problems had been on the city planners minds since the turn of the century.
The city planners were determined to flatten the tenements and rebuild modern flats with toilets and heating.  The population of Glasgow had increased tenfold in the 1700's with the potato famine and the Highland clearances. Two hundred years later, the city was crammed tight with the influx of workers for the war effort.
Seven or eight people lived in a room and kitchen with no hot water. No inside toilets. Some people were still living like that in the early 70’s. My aunt and uncle had two loos at the bottom of their garden, shared by nine families. I remember the big warm wooden toilet seat, the door had a gap top and bottom and, there was a newspaper on a nail on the inside of the door. I thought people read it. Maybe they did.
The plans to flatten the city and start again were taking far too long. Glaswegians were breeding faster than they could be rehoused. In the 50's and 60's the powers that be drew up 29 areas of the city to be flattened totally and the populations moved out to areas like Pollok and Easterhouse.  The flats were nice, roomy, warm, but that’s all there was. Flats- no shops, no  playparks, no doctors, no pubs….. just houses. And within two years, the typical problems developed when a community is torn apart and the kids have nothing to do.
That was the culture that grew the infamous ice cream wars.

However, the storm of 1968 made the city planners rethink. They had to move fast to house those left homeless and to do something with the damaged housing stock. Agencies had to work together as there was such damage to all the housing stock. They relooked at the tenements, the words conservation and refurbishment started to be heard. The tenements were internally remodelled,  into beautiful, and now incredibly valuable flats. Three flats were knocked into two, and hey ho- a bathroom!
The city planners began to recognise the old Victorian buildings as works of art, the lovely West End where I set my books was largely saved.  Some of those that had gone before were not so lucky.
So from the slum of early 1970’s, Glasgow was awarded European City of Culture in 1990- the year after Paris!
The storm, for all it was a terrible tragedy, really did save the city.

Caro Ramsay 19th Jan 2018


  1. Glasgow has always intrigued me -- so much character, so many populations.

    Gordon Ferris mentioned the Jewish community there, including bakers, after WWII.

  2. Like many big cities Glasgow has always had a influx of other nationalities but - to my mind anyway- it has happened in such great numbers and for so long that migrants are absorbed to become Glaswegians- even if they are called Alfredo Porrelli. The highlanders and the Irish, then the Italians, the Chinese, many Poles, a hearty Jewish community and more recently Asians and those from previous Eastern Bloc countries all live together with very little tension. Previously, the tension was Sectarian of course but we are gradually getting over that.

  3. Now that's a story that should earn you the key to the city, Caro. Though perhaps you'd prefer turning it into the sort of Stephen King thriller you suggest, and from the royalties buy the city instead--or at least the neighborhood.

  4. What a fascinating piece of history. I'd never heard of this storm, or (obviously) its impact on Glasgow. Thank you for sharing it - and I agree about the Stephen King bit . . . I'd have been thinking monsters in the wind for sure.