Spoiling Glasgow's old stonework

Until the 1960’s a big wasteland lay between Sighthill Cemetery and the Monkland Canal, with Port Dundas to the west and Springburn Road on the east. It was polluted by a factory on the Springburn side originally owned by Tennents, later acquired by Imperial Chemicals Ltd. This interesting district also held railway sidings, a slaughter house, a scummy green lake giving off sulphur fumes called the Stinky Ocean by local children, also a steep slagbing they called Jack’s Mountain. A more natural hill beside the canal had on the exact summit a fence of vertical railway sleepers surrounding a squat brick circular tower about ten feet high, that sometimes sent up puffs of smoke. The tower was hollow and surrounded a vent from the railway tunnel below. The smoke came from steam engines pulling trains from Buchanan Street station to Oban, Edinburgh or Dundee.

Years bring inevitable change. Most of the canal became the Monkland motorway –  the M8. The Stinky Ocean was drained, Jack’s Mountain flattened, the wasteland tidied, and on each side residential tower blocks were built. In the late 1960’s I heard that more housing would have been built had not the soil been polluted. The open ground between the tower blocks became Sighthill Park. It has a carpet of turf, clumps of trees and bushes, winding paths but has never had flower beds or keepers. The Glasgow Parks Department was reducing employees long before this park opened, so for over forty years it has been a nature reserve. The tower on the hilltop was demolished long ago and the vent from the tunnel filled in. Diesel trains don’t smoke.

In 1979 Glasgow City Council employed an official astronomer under Harold Wilson’s Jobs Creation Scheme. He was a friend of mine, the scientific and imaginative author Duncan Lunan. He wanted Glasgow to have a stone circle aligned with the astronomical heavens, and thought the summit of Sighthill Park a good place for it, as the hill nearly overlooked George Square, the city centre. Glasgow’s City Council (in those days known as The Corporation) accepted the idea, for the expense of getting the stones used hardly any of the rate payers’ money, and those who installed them were also paid by the governments Jobs Creation Scheme. The heaviest was lifted into place by a helicopter generously lent by the Royal Navy. Duncan carefully placed the stones to indicate the midsummer and midwinter solstices and phases of the moon. Above ground the stones were as high as the average eye level. Though much smaller than the Ring of Brodgar, compared with the modest prehistoric circle in Drymen they were spectacular, and the first of that sort to be built after three millennia.

In 2011 I revisited the Sighthill circle for the first time in many years. As none of the laid paths were near I reached it by an uphill struggle through overgrowth, though a couple of rough tracks showed that others still came there, and an empty beer can suggested at least one did so for a social reason. I was astonished to see that a change in ground level had left most stones no higher than my bum. I asked Duncan why. He said it had been caused by a landscaping accident, and a friend in Glasgow’s Land and Environment Services was seeking funds to restore the old level. He wanted the stones to look monumental again, but since the abolition of the Jobs Creation Scheme it was hard to employ extra labourers.

On the 1st of December 2012 I was told that Glasgow’s Department of Development and Regeneration intended to destroy the circle. It planned to have a road over the hill linking new buildings, in a multimillion pound scheme to renovate Sighthill. An article in The Herald said this was “part of Glasgow’s bid to host the 2018 Youth OlympicGames.” Whether or not the bid succeeds, the developers would demolish the tower blocks (where 400 families live) and build 830 low-rise homes instead, with a new school and campus. This would be used as a Youth Olympics Village if the bid succeeds, and be sold afterwards on the property market, or if the bid fails sold as soon as built.

This project is grimly familiar to old Glaswegians with good memories. After World War Two many Glasgow planners believed that to renovate they must first devastate – clear big areas so completely that blank sheets could represent them –  blanks they could fill with new schemes wholly their own and agreeable to their paymasters. In the U.S.A, the U.S.S.R and England tower blocks were fashionable new forms of public housing, so in Glasgow the tower blocks went up after blocks of well-built Victorian tenements had been acquired and demolished at public expense. Many of these tenements were in a slummy condition through neglect by their landlord, but the idea of renovating them at public expense was never publically discussed. If any planners and councillors had read the advice of Patrick Geddes, Scotland’s greatest town planner and writer on the subject, they saw that forgetting it would make their work easier. Geddes (1854-1932) designed much of New Delhi, a university in Tel Aviv, the layout of Edinburgh Zoo and the renewal of Edinburgh Old Town. He said that before improving a depressed district planners shouldsurvey it carefully, finding what bits were in good working order and what could be made so. Talking to folk who belonged to the district was essential to that survey, only afterwards should politicians and planners serve the public by changing what they only now could clearly see was wrong. This policy of his in the Old Town of Edinburgh removed its slummy aspects while keeping the historical buildings, well-built stonework, and nearly everyone who lived there.

We are still in a Margaret Thatcher era when it is fashionable policy, not to build but to demolish residential tower blocks, but not every such block is a vertical slum. Do our councillors and planners know how many of the 400 families in the high-rise flats want to go on living in them? By now many families must have lived and grown up there for years. The central park with its open spaces, trees and wild life not only makes the whole district look pleasanter than it was in the days of Jack’s Mountain and the Stinky Ocean, but pleasanter than it will be if covered by streets of low rise housing. But almost the only power left to our councillors since most local government functions have been privatised is to makedeals with big businesses  –  supermarkets instead of small retail shops, new, fewer and vaster hospitals and schools replacing many older, smaller ones easily reached from neighbourhoods throughout the country. Monetary accumulation now uses the politicians we elect as puppets. But they want to be action men  in the public eye –  exciting instigators of visible change  –  so they will remove all the historic monuments to great Scots from George Square, make it a space for commercial enterprises –  MacDonald’s, Coca Cola, popular concerts for a year or more – then bring them back or find it cannot afford to do so. Using compulsory purchase orders and powers of eviction enforced by the police, their Sighthill renovation scheme will get them grand publicity, especially if it contains a Youth Olympics Village. By leaving what is well enough alone they could save millions of public money and use it to stop children, women and men dying of homelessness. But that is what charities are created to do, and many are profitably managed by professional people, like the councillors.


When Duncan Lunan discovered what the Department of Development and Regeneration planned for his stone ring, he phoned his connection in Glasgow’s Land and Environment Services who had talked of restoring it. This friend was surprised by the news –  said the Department of Development and Regeneration made decisions that Land and Environment and many others in our local government were never told about. Some councillors too first learned of the scheme through newspaper, so it has not yet been given full official approval. Another reason given for removing the stones is to test the ground under them, and thereby assure the Olympics Committee that the ground is not contaminated. But that had to be established, and was done, in 1979 before the circle’s foundations were given planning permission!

O children, you do not know, cannot guess how little is the wisdom ruling us.