Rivers are being coaxed back into life by a series of projects which aim to repair the damage caused by industrial progress. Sandra Dick finds out more

Encased in concrete and hidden from view for over 50 years, an entire generation has grown up alongside one of Glasgow’s rivers without ever seeing it.

Now a major project to revitalise Tollcross Burn in the city’s East End is set to begin, alongside work to improve dozens of other Scottish rivers, many of which had been sacrificed in the name of progress and development.

In some cases, the enhancement and restoration works will help return long-lost fish and other wildlife to waterways left almost bereft of life because of manmade structures, industrial and agricultural pollution.

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Most will see rivers once considered little more than a dirty blot on the landscape reborn to become a thriving artery at the heart of communities.

Some 45% of Scotland’s 2000 rivers are classed by environmental regulator SEPA as falling below good standard with concerns over poor water quality, physical condition and habitat.

Of that number, around 15% – equating to some 300 rivers – have been identified as having been adversely affected by manmade alterations such as weirs, culverts and barriers which negatively impacted on fish migration and in some cases raised the risk of flooding.

The £2.1 million Tollcross project is among 15 river improvement schemes currently being carried out by SEPA in tandem with local authorities and other partners under the Scottish Government’s Water Environment Fund.

The fund, which has received £19m from the Scottish Government since 2013, aims to rejuvenate and repair damaged rivers, improve water quality, enhance the natural environment for local communities and improve fish stocks by removing barriers that have closed rivers to migrating fish for generations.

It has already helped revitalise rivers across Scotland, among them a barren stretch of South Calder Water within the Stane Gardens area of Shotts in North Lanarkshire.

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Shunned by locals for years as an ugly and unpleasant eyesore and with the river re-routed through an open concrete drain, it is now an attractive watercourse with gentle meanders and rippling flows. The surrounding wasteland has also been transformed into a landscaped valley featuring paths and sculptures which recognise the area’s industrial heritage.

Other projects have included the creation of the UK’s largest rock ramp, a fish ladder which connects the lower and upper reaches of the River Almond at Howden Bridge Weir in West Lothian. Opened last month, it allows fish to travel upstream for the first time in over 200 years and is one of a series of projects which has opened 100km of river to migratory fish species and improved overall river quality.

The Tollcross Burn project will restore a section of the previously covered waterway which was culverted through Sandyhills Park in the 1950s to make way for a now demolished housing project.

Work will start this month to remove it from its concrete case, so it can once again become a focal point for park visitors, stimulate biodiversity and also provide natural flood prevention.

Francis Hayes, SEPA’s WEF Restoration Specialist, said: “In terms of what you can do to a river, putting it in a concrete pipe and burying it is the worst.

“Tollcross Burn was culverted in 1950s and diverted. Since then, people have been living next to a river but had no idea it was there, they weren’t able to see it or enjoy it.

“As a river, it’s dead,” he added. “Fish don’t like to travel in dark spaces and can’t go up a smooth concrete channel, there’s no habitat for insects that are vital for river wildlife and no light. So it’s very difficult for animals and plants to survive.

“We want to make it a living, thriving river.”

The improvements, which are being carried out in partnership with Glasgow City Council and have received £1.2m funding from Glasgow and Clyde Valley City Deal, will introduce a new 525-metre open channel which will follow the original course of the burn.

As well as improving the natural surroundings, it will help reduce the flood risk caused by the climate emergency and extend the area’s sewage capacity. There are also plans to restore and tackle historically contaminated ground in the area.

At the same time, work is set to start on measures to return migrating fish to Garrell Burn beside the Dumbreck Marsh nature reserve at Kilsyth.

The burn was canalised and while the previously industrial area has now developed into a valued wetland used by runners, walkers, cyclists, pet owners, children and commuters, manmade structures prevent fish from migrating.

Work will be carried out by SEPA, North Lanarkshire Council and Scottish Water to naturalise the river, helping to restore flood plains and create fish passes.

Dozens of river improvement projects, many of which remove barriers that prevent fish from accessing spawning areas and raised the risk of flooding, have been carried out since the Fund was introduced in 2013.

They include work at Gottar Water Weir at Quarrier’s Village, Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire, where a post-industrial weir had blocked access to 9km of habitat for migratory fish species such as Atlantic salmon, sea trout and eel for over a century.

The existing weir is to be partly lowered, increasing the downstream water level and improving the water quality, as well as providing new community leisure opportunities.

Mr Hayes said there are hopes that improvement works can be carried out at most – if not all – of the 300 rivers negatively affected by manmade structures before 2028.

The improvement works could help correct two centuries of damage to Scotland’s rivers caused by industrial and urban growth.

Prior to the rapid growth of industry and urbanisation of the 1800s, Scotland’s rivers were regarded as being of very good quality. However, river quality deteriorated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, largely due to the discharge of sewage, and agricultural and industrial pollution, and manmade efforts to alter their course which have led to the loss of habitat and prevented fish migration.

Since 2013, the Water Environment Fund has helped open up more than 1000km of rivers to salmon and other fish species, while flood prevention work has also been carried out to help make rivers more resilient to the impact of the climate emergency.

One of the largest projects is an ambitious partnership plan to revitalise the River Leven, West Dunbartonshire, and turn land which once housed several hundred mills and factories into a ‘go-to’ leisure and tourism destination.

The project includes removing barriers to fish migration and improving water quality.

Mr Hayes said: “People were smart in the past but they had different information and different knowledge from today and we are suffering from that legacy.

“Roads, services and railways were being built and rivers were seen as an inconvenience. They were pushed out of the way and then it was a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’.

“We have damaged rivers and blocked them off to fish. We don’t want to hand that legacy to the next generation, so we are trying to do something about it.

“By pulling resources and sharing expertise we can bring a better landscape in often deprived areas. If we restore a river it becomes a nice, natural place people want to be in, it promotes sustainable transport with cycleways and it’s a good thing for health and well-being.”