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The history of water in Glasgow by George Wyllie

George Wyllie MBE
(31 December 1921 - 15 May 2012)

Renowned Glaswegian artist and sculptor George Wyllie sadly passed away in May 2012. Watch our film about the history of Glasgow's water that George presented for us back in 2005 in his own inimitable style.

Milngavie Water Treatment Works, as part of the Katrine Water Project, was switched on in October 2007. Since then, the 700,000 customers it serves in Glasgow have been enjoying an improved water supply.

Video Transcript

Water, the story of how water gets from up there and into the homes of Glasgow, is a story of visionary ingenuity, and it starts 150 years ago, but it’s not a history lesson; it’s an on going story, with a new chapter, about to begin.

Glasgow, in the mid 1800’s, was desperately in need of a good, clean, safe water supply. Diseases were rife, including cholera, which is waterborne. The city fathers instigated a search for the best source, and this is where they found it. Loch Katrine was capable of supply the estimated 50 million gallons of water that was needed every day, and being upland water, it was very clean. The only problem was how to get the water from here to Glasgow, 35 miles away.

The answer was something that is in infinite supply, and doesn’t cost a penny: gravity. In the 1850’s, three thousand workmen built a pipe 26 miles long, from Loch Katrine to Milngavie, where they built two man made reservoirs. In order for the water to travel, they had to make sure the pipe dropped ten inches for every mile of its length, and if there was a hill in the way, they went straight through it, and out the other side. Thirteen miles of the pipe went through hillside.

In order to start the water flowing, they had to raise the level of the water, and they did this, by building a dam. The damn was completed in the 14th of October 1859, only three years after they started, and then, they were able, to turn the handles. Which opened the gates to let millions of gallons of water rush into that pipe, and it carried it 26 miles to Mugdock.

On completion, John Frederick Bateman, the brilliant young engineer in charge of the project, said “I leave you a work, which I believe will, with very slight attention, remain perfect for ages, which for the greater part of it, is as indestructible as the hills through which it has been carried”. And Bateman was right, and this wonderful piece of engineering has remained perfect for ages.

But in 2002, an outbreak of the stomach bug cryptosporidium was detected in Glasgow’s water supply. This was a reminder that as phenomenal as the Victorian system was, it is not a museum piece; it is a working water supply system that has to be updated for a new generation.

No one could deny that a twenty first century treatment plant was urgently needed, the questions became 'Where do you put it? Where were the best access roads? What was going to be the affect on people living here? What was going to be the affect on the environment?'

Scottish Water set in motion the largest research and development project ever undertaken in Scotland’s water industry. More than 100,000 hours were spent examining the engineering, environmental, and financial issues. More than 100 experts from 25 different disciplines were consulted, 17 potential development areas were looked at in great detail before it was decided that Mugdock Park in Milngavie was the best place for the new treatment plant.

Mugdock Park, a great natural space on the edge of the city of Glasgow, where the citizens there can come along and enjoy walking, jogging, cycling - people come here to get away from industrial buildings, not to look at them. The treatment plant is screened from view by a line of trees. With the trees at their full height the building will not be visible, because part of the building has been sunk below ground level.

Understandably, people were concerned about the changes that needed to be made, and Scottish Water had to involve the local community in all the details of the project, and people had to see that Scottish Water were as determined as the local community was to ensure that the area could continue to be enjoyed by their children, and their grandchildren.

Scottish Water is spending £1million on landscaping and planting new trees to ensure that this beautiful park stays that way, which is why this plant is being planned and built in order to be as unobtrusive as possible. They even managed to reduce the number of buildings that were in the original plan. The project is also involving the next generation in the historic legacy of Glasgow’s water supply. Scottish Water have adopted the children at a local primary school to involve them in the Katrine water project. They’ll follow the three week project through from start to finish, and learn about the amazing feat of engineering involved in the building of the water treatment works.

When this young fellow is my age, he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren all about this wonderful feat of engineering taking place in front of his very eyes.

The completed works supplies the water in this tank which is then used in the showers, baths, and kettles, and so on, in these flats, all the way over there.

As with the original Victorian project, the engineering statistics here are staggering. Seven thousand tonnes of steel bar will be used in the buildings and treatment works - that’s enough steel bar to stretch from here to Canada.

This is the main holding tank for the site, which can hold the equivalent of 1,200 double decker buses, if you felt inclined.

So Scottish Water has tried to be considerate to all the locals however big or small. Mud snails have been native to Scotland for thousands of years, and now, Scottish Water are going to re-introduce them to this site. Someone else you might never meet, but has been here an awful long time, is the Pipistrelle Bat, and Scottish Waters conservation policy ensures that they’ll be here longer than any of us.

Scottish Water is committed to protecting the environment around the new treatment works. Specific wet land areas are being created for wildlife and fauna, with birds and other wildlife being encouraged into the area, to ensure the survival of this glorious environment for future generations.

The story of Glasgow’s water now spans three centuries. It’s a story which we should all take pride in. The investment at the treatment works continues the grand Scottish tradition of visionary engineering. In the twenty first century that engineering is vital to improve the service to more then 700,000 customers by providing them with safe, clean, high quality drinking water, for this generation and generations to come.

This is the jewel in the crown for Scottish Water, the single biggest and most important improvement that the organisation has made since it was created in 2002. It proves that Scottish Water is working for the people of Glasgow, and the people of Scotland.

The history of Glasgow's water presented by renowned Glaswegian artist George Wyllie.