Thursday, 2 July 2020

The Progress of Science

The Progress of Science - a sculpture at Glasgow University Engineering Building


Views over Kelvingrove Park from University of Glasgow
During the recent coronavirus lockdown, like many people I have spent more evenings wandering around the streets of my hometown, and maybe paying attention to some details that had previously escaped my notice. Now 12 weeks in, I think I have now walked up and down each and every street, lane and park within a 5 mile radius of my house. One place I keep coming back to is the University of Glasgow building on Gilmorehill, either enjoying the views over Kelvingrove to the south, sheltering in the university cloisters, or just wandering about the various buildings. 

Western quadrangle, University of Glasgow
Cloisters, University of Glasgow

One of these buildings that I have looked at more closely than ever before is the James Watt Engineering Building. This sits just east of the main University building. The chemistry department was previously found here, but with the prevailing wind blowing from the west, their fumes were regularly being blown all over the main campus. So at the start of the 20th century the chemists were moved to new premises further to the west, leaving a prominent spot for the faculty of engineering to move in to.

I spent 7 years as a student at Glasgow University, and the James Watt Engineering Building was never one that I paid much attention to. Work started on it in 1899 and it was opened in 1901 by Lord Kelvin, to the north-east of the main Gilbert Scott building. Over time various extensions were added and between 1957-59 a further large extension was added, a functional, and rather non-descript building designed by architects Keppie, Henderson and Gleave. Its otherwise undecorated ashlar south-facing surface was decorated with a 30 foot high frieze carved in Portland stone. 

James Watt was born in Greenock in 1736 and was working as a mathematical instrument maker at Glasgow University on the High Street when he came up with the idea of his steam engine that would make his name. In recent times his name has been linked to the money his father made from rum, sugar and cotton produced by slaves on Caribbean estates. James Watt himself was also involved in a case of selling a slave boy to his new master in Scotland. More light has been cast on these facts in recent weeks as the spotlight from the Black Lives Matter movement spreads into previously overlooked aspects of our collective history. The "James Watt School of Engineering" at Glasgow University has been quick to flag up these issues on its website, whilst continuing to ally itself to the "innovative spirit of Watt".
James Watt (south) building in front of the main University of Glasgow building

The architects of this new building specified a relief sculpture of some kind should be an integral part of their design from the outset. The University authorities suggested that the subject of the sculpture should be "the development of engineering relative to the University". Their initial suggestion was for abstract shapes, inscribed with various important names and dates, "a unified composition of small units", rich in texture to match the Scott Gothic of the neighbouring University main building.

In the correspondence between the University authorities and the architect it is clear that the University quickly fear that none of their plans are being listened to and they complain that "the plaque is unlikely to seem a good £3000 worth", and that it does "nothing to tie the New to the Old as claimed." It would be fair to say that the building as a whole adds little to the beauty of the University of Glasgow campus, but it was the images on this frieze that caught my eye as I was walking past it today. 

James Watt building, south extension. Not the prettiest building on the university campus.

Eric Kennington - artist


A cursory look at the relief on the southern face of this building shows you that the finished sculpture bears very little comparison to the brief laid out by the architects. Entitled "The Progress of Science" it stands about 30 foot by 10 foot in size. Instead of describing the "development of engineering relative to the University" it in fact has only one scientist in it, who stands in Arabic robes, and lots of imagery from nature, religion and mythology. 
 
The Progress of Science, by Eric Kennington
The architects in their early reports to the University authorities described their plans for the sculpture and in their 1957 "Notes On Bas-Relief Sculptural Panel". With no explanation given, they recommended a "non-Scottish sculptor".They suggested Eric Kennington for the job, as the "British sculptor most likely to make an outstanding job of the panel."

In a letter to the architects from the assistant secretary to the University court, disquiet that the architects favoured Kennington to a Scottish sculptor, suggesting "What about Hew Lorimer or Benno Shotz?" Benno Shotz had recently completed a 15 foot high tablet on the side of the new chemistry building of Joseph Black, and Hew Lorimer was commissioned to sculpt the facade of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. 

Joseph Black by Benno Schotz
In the end Kennington was given the commission for what was to be his final work. The work had to be completed by September 1959 for the official opening, and when Kennington took ill in June 1959 he headed back to England and his assistants, Eric Stanford and Archibald Robertson, who had been working alongside him for 2 months on the job, completed the sculpture. Kennington died, aged 72, before the work was completed.

Eric Kennington was born in 1888. After attending the Lambeth School of art he enlisted in 1914 and was injured while fighting on the Western Front. After 4 months in hospital he returned to France as a war artist. After the war he met T.E. Lawrence who had come to an exhibition of his paintings, and they became lifelong friends. In 1921 he traveled through Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria drawing portraits or Arab subjects and many of these were used as illustrations in T.E. Lawrence's book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

One of Kennington's illustrations from the 1935 edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that belonged to my father-in-law
In 1935 he was one of T.E. Lawrence's pall bearers and sculpted the bust of Lawrence for his tomb. Throughout the 1920s and 30s he was increasingly working as a sculptor. During World War 2 he was again commissioned as a war artist, working mainly for the RAF. 

Parachutes, 1941, by Eric Kennington
After the war he continued to work and was elected as member of the Royal Academy. His sculpture for the University of Glasgow in 1959 was his last work. 

The Progress of Science

Top of Kennington's sculpture

The main features in his sculpture seem to have little connection to Glasgow, to science or to engineering. At the top stands Hermes, messenger to the Gods of Greece, with his winged feet, and his staff with entwined snakes about it in his right hand. As the Roman god Mercury he often carries his staff in the left hand, so I am going to stick with the Greek versions throughout. Also I suggest that a major source of ideas for the sculpture was Belgian scientist George Sarton. He is credited as largely being the founder of the discipline of the history of science. He wrote extensively on Greek scientists, such as in his book "Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries BC". This book was published in 1955, just in time for any artist in 1957 who was looking for ideas for a work on the history of science to find inspiration.  

In this book he talks about one of the greatest scientists in the Greek world, Eratosthenes. Eratosthenes became chief librarian at Alexandria, he was known as a critic of Homer and he made some of the earliest calculations of the size of the Earth's circumference, and the tilt of the Earth's axis. He also wrote poetry, and Sarton quotes his Hermes as "his masterpiece. Such poems satisfied the scientific curiosity as well as the love of metrical words of the Ptolemic aristocracy." 

Beside Hermes can be found motifs from mythology and the natural world. Pegasus the winged horse, a swan, the sun with rays coming across towards an eagle, who seems to be bowing down. Above the eagle parachutes are falling, and Pegasus was the emblem of the newly formed British parachute regiment in the second world war. Is the eagle the German Reich succumbing to the British forces? A compass is found in the background here, and the word "PROGRESS".

Progress of Science, or memories of war?
To the left is found a kite (is this Benjamin Franklin's kite that he flew in a thunderstorm to experiment with electricity), and a quiver with an arrow (I can only guess that these belong to Artemis, goddess of hunting). A cloud of smoke adds to the mystery of this collection of items.

A quiver and a kite
Perhaps the clue is that Zeus, king of the Greek gods, and the god of thunder and the skies, stands in the middle here, ready to cast down a bolt of lightening, science explaining the mythology.

In the lower half of the panel the god Hephaestus stands at his anvil, below a volcano, with his other symbols, his hammer and tongs, in his hands. Hephaestus was the god of blacksmiths and metalworkers, forges, fire and volcanoes, artisans, stone masons and sculptors. Hephaestus epitomises George Sarton's life work, trying to combine the humanities and sciences. By creating a history of science he wanted to create a "new humanism". He felt that without science the humanities are incomplete, and without the arts, history, philosophy, religion that a life of science was empty. He looked for this in the world of ancient Greece, of Homer and in the medieval Arab world. Like Kennington he traveled around the Middle East as part of his work, learning Arabic as he sought to read original manuscripts of the Arab scholars.

Lower part of The Progress of Science
Carpenters' tools, farming implements, gears, chains and pulleys lie between the figures and below it all a boat that looks suspiciously like Noah's ark, floats on a sea filled with a whale and a shoal of fish. Other scientific instruments such as protractors, possibly an Archimedes screw, and a governor mechanism are dotted about. 

Also several words are seen. "PROGRESS", "PER MARE, PER TERRAS" (by land and sea - motto of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland), "SCIENTIA ET INGENIO" (motto of the Society of Civil Engineers), "DISCE DOCE" (learn, teach- motto of the Institution of Electrical Engineers). These mottoes hint that some of the symbols in the sculpture may be nods to the emblems of engineering societies - the swan way in fact be the crane from the Civil Engineers crest, the caduceus of Hermes, his staff, is found in the crest of the Electrical Engineers, as is the winged horse.

The one mystery that did have me scratching my head was the man on the left, standing atop some steps, his calipers measuring an orb of some description. Out of keeping with everyone else depicted he is in Arabic robes, a ghutrah or keffiyeh on his head, and a beard and moustache similar to those Kennington has drawn in his pictures for T.E. Lawrence's book, such as the portrait of Auda Abu Tayi above. This figure is the only one taken from history, and the only scientist depicted in the sculpture. 

The solitary scientist in the sculpture


Arabic scientist, but which one?
Again I have gone back to the writings of George Sarton to find out, as I suspect that Kennington found a lot to agree with in Sarton's book An Introduction to the History of Science. Over several volumes he had taken this from the time of Homer up to the 14th century by the time of his death in 1956. Like Kennington he traveled extensively in the Middle East in the 1920s as he investigated the area where many of our modern scientific ideas originated. As Professor Jim Al-Khalili points out in his book "Pathfinders. The Golden Age of Arabic Science" for 700 years the language of science was Arabic. Their scholars began translating the works of the Ancient Greek scientists and thinkers such as Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes, and Ptolemy in the mid-8th century. They examined and improved some of these ideas with the technologies available in their time. 

The vocabulary of these ancient scientists survives in our English words, such as alkali, azimuth, alcohol, algebra, elixir, nadir, zenith, and alchemy. Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician and astronomer, wrote his Almagest, his theory on the movements and sizes of the planets and the sun. He laid out his ideas on celestial motions, his solar and lunar theories and catalogues the stars. His Almagest was translated into Arabic (and we still know it from its Arabic naming, 'The Great Book') and in the 9th century the caliph of Baghdad, Al-Ma'mun, commissioned a huge observatory to be built in Baghdad to allow his scientists to check Ptolemy's observations. With the necessary state funding behind them, a team of astronomers, mathematicians and geographers. They improved upon Ptolemy's observations and drew up charts of planetary motions and made more accurate estimates of the Earth's circumference. They also placed the Sun at the centre of the planets, with the Earth and other planets revolving around it. More accurate calculations of the Earth's circumference were made by Al-Biruni, using algebra to look to the distant horizon from the base and summit of a mountain. Born in Khiva in modern Uzbekistan, he was Persian, and wrote on physics, mathematics, anthropology, religious history, astronomy, and came up with te idea of dividing the hour into 60 minutes and seconds. His calculations on the circumference of the Earth are merely 1% out from modern measurements. Of the three giants of medieval science who all lived in the same era, Ibn al-Haytham who developed new theories of optics, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the father of early modern medicine and al-Biruni, it is the latter who we see depicted by Eric Kennington with his calipers out, measuring the size of the Earth. In a book I suspect Kennington was reading due to their shared interest in the Middle East, George Sarton says in his Introduction to the History of Modern Science, the first half of the eleventh century was "the Age of al-Biruni".

We have here our scientist, al-Biruni, possibly

I think that this sculpture by Eric Kennington, his last work before his death, combines many elements of his life's work, his ideas and experiences. As a churchwarden in Checkendon, Oxfordshire he was a religious man and bible references can be seen in his work. He served as a war artist in both world wars and elements from that can be seen also, particularly his World War II experiences with the RAF. Parts of the sculpture try to connect the humanities and science, with classical references and the Greek god of sculptors prominently displayed. This is a theory explored by George Sarton, whose books were in circulation in the 1950s when the sculpture was conceived, developing a history of science, a similar task to that which Kennington was set. And finally we have the sole scientist portrayed in the piece being not a graduate of the Glasgow faculty of Engineering, nor a Copernicus, Einstein or Galileo but a man who would be little known to Westerners who had not spent time in the Middle East, or delved deep into the history of the Islamic world.

This therefore is my hypothesis of the motifs and characters portrayed on the sculpture of the Engineering building of the the University of Glasgow, based on my own observations and the limited evidence I have been able to find. I particularly must cite Roy MacKenzie's excellent book "Public Sculpture of Glasgow" (2002), which my mum picked up in a Brighton bookshop for £1. As with any scientific hypothesis please feel free to correct my mistakes with your own insights. 

I will leave the last words to al-Biruni, as he shakes his fist at those who would hide their own ignorance by mocking science and scientists, perhaps saying such things as "Britain has had enough of experts."
"The extremist among them would stamp the science as atheistic, and would proclaim that they lead people astray in order to make ignoramuses, like him, hate the sciences. For this will help him conceal his ignorance, and to open the door for the complete destruction of science and scientists."

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Pandemic Times - How did we get here?

As I write this in early May 2020 the United Kingdom has sadly become the European country with the highest death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak. This made me look back to see how we ended up in this position. 

The viral infection first came to light in the Wuhan province of China when WHO reported deaths from an unusual type of pneumonia on 31st December 2019. A new coronavirus was identified as the cause, later named COVID-19, and on the 24th of January 2020 a paper in The Lancet described human to human transmission of the virus. It advised of the potential for a pandemic to occur, recommended personal protective equipment for healthcare workers due to airborne transmission, and the need to develop testing. On 30th January the WHO had declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern

South Korea and Taiwan soon reported cases and took measures to screen the public for infection, to trace and isolate contacts of those with the disease, and these countries quickly got control of their outbreaks. In Iran and Turkey the disease became more widespread.

The virus was first documented in Europe when two Chinese tourists tested positive in Rome on 31st January. A second cluster was found in Lombardy 3 weeks later, and in this region the infection rate escalated dramatically, overwhelming local health services. The first cases in the United Kingdom were in Newcastle on 31st January, and in Spain on the same date a German tourist in the Canary Islands tested positive, 4 days after the first case had been found in Germany. At this stage the disease was clearly present in many countries across Europe, but national governments chose different policies to contain the disease. 2500 Spanish football fans from Valencia attended a Champions League game on February 19th in Bergamo, the centre of the Italian outbreak. By the end of February the British media watched in horror as the Italian situation was getting out of control. Soon we would go past Italy's trajectory while the Prime Minister of our country incomprehensibly states "many people are looking now at our current success". 

As countries around the globe stepped in line with the WHO advice on testing and quarantine, Britain remained out of step with everyone else. On March 4th Boris Johnson suggested, under the searing questioning of an ITV morning television programme, that Britain should "take it on the chin". Meanwhile government press officers leaked suggestions to their unquestioning media friends, such as Robert Peston who on 12th March ran with their story about the benefits of "herd immunity". This type of  kite-flying briefing, which told you what the preferred government policy was without anyone actually having to state it on record, was greeted with horror from the scientific community. The principle with herd immunity is that if you make enough people immune from a disease, the disease can no longer spread through the community. This is best dome by mass vaccination. You don't need everyone immunised against measles, but if you keep vaccination rates up above 70% you will create herd immunity in the country and stop it spreading to those it may kill. To do that for a disease with no vaccine you have to let the illness just rip through the country, "taking it on the chin" and just letting enough people get it to stop it spreading any further. I suppose in principle you could lock all the most vulnerable people away somewhere separate from this viral tsunami, such as in nursing homes perhaps, to prevent them getting it. (Hint: that won't work). 

The problem with a new disease that has a mortality rate of about 1% means that the estimates for the deaths this policy would cause were in the region of 250,000 to 500,000. These numbers came from modelling by Imperial College London published on March 17th. At that time the WHO advice was for countries to act aggressively and speedily in order to halt the virus spread. Other scientists were voicing concerns at the British policy. On March 13th Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University and chair of Global Public Health stated "the UK government is getting it wrong...Other countries have shown speed is crucial".

Meanwhile over the weekend of March 10th in Britain almost 200,000 spectators attended the Cheltenham Festival, and on March 11th around 3000 Spaniards arrived in Liverpool to see a Champions League game between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid. On 12th March hundreds of German fans came to Ibrox to watch Rangers vs Bayer Leverkusen. Two days later the Spanish government imposed a national quarantine as their national death toll approached 500 from COVID-19. At this stage the British government advice was for us to wash our hands while singing God Save The Queen, advice Boris Johnson was simultaneously telling us not to bother with as he spoke about "there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody you will be pleased to know.

On March 12th government policy changed from "contain" to "delay", later admitting this was due to insufficient resources being available to test all new cases and quarantine contacts. The new advice was for symptomatic people to self-isolate at home for 7 days, and the rest of us to continue using hand-washing and handkerchiefs. The government press release of that date specifically states that "in the coming weeks we will introduce further social distancing...If we introduce this next phase too early, the measures will not protect us at the time of greatest risk." The only justification for this delay was if the policy remained at this stage to let a large proportion of the population get infected, and later immune, thus speeding up the exit from the inevitable lock-down. In effect we were prioritising restarting the economy over preventing deaths. On 26th March the weakness in the government's cunning plan was plain for all to see, when the Health Secretary, and the Prime Minister managed to contract COVID-19, Boris Johnson eventually ending up seriously unwell in ITU. One further example in a long list of people in positions of power in this crisis who failed to believe their own advice, or heed it.

As Professor Sridhar and others said at the time, this delay was wrong. On 26th March Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said on BBC's Question Time programme "we knew in the last week of January that this was coming. We knew that 11 weeks ago, and then we wasted February". No social distancing was imposed until 18th March, and from 23rd March gatherings of more than two people, travel restrictions and unnecessary outdoor activity were forbidden. The Scottish infection rates began climbing a week or so behind the UK figures. The first confirmed case in Scotland was March 1st, in Dundee, and the first death was on 13th March, at a time when 85 cases had been confirmed. Scottish policy appears to have been in step with UK-wide advice, following the same general programme of actions. However the impression is that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is at each stage slightly forcing the hand of the UK government by enacting policies when they are proposals in England, eg announcing a ban on gatherings of 500 people on 12th March (meaning the Rangers vs Celtic game planned for 15th March was cancelled), announcing school closures on 18th March. Unfortunately no separate policy was taken on ramping up testing capacity, establishing teams of contact tracers or planning for increased testing and shielding of vulnerable adults in care homes. As of today, 6th May, 2795 deaths have been recorded in Scotland with COVID-19 mentioned on the death certificate as a contributing factor, 1703 of those deaths with a confirmed test for COVID-19 as we still struggle to extend testing beyond those admitted to hospital. The confirmed deaths for the whole of the UK is now over 30,000, with many more deaths suspected as being due to the virus.

Unfortunately we are just at an early stage in this outbreak, as it may yet be another year before an effective vaccine is developed. As it is a new illness it is not yet clear how much immunity is retained by those exposed to the virus who only develop mild symptoms, and as we emerge from lock-down, all the modelling predictions expect an increase in infection rates to develop. We maybe did not have the geographical distancing that have enabled Iceland, New Zealand and the Faroe Islands to be examples of good practice, but Vietnam, and South Korea appear to have managed it with densely populated countries (recorded deaths in Vietnam is zero, and South Korea, population 51 million, is 255). What about a European neighbour that I know quite well, Greece? The first case in Greece was on 26th February, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, where I worked in a hospital as a student. Fearing that their health system which was stretched before a decade of severe cuts, would not cope with a widespread outbreak, the country acted early to minimise spread of the disease. After three cases were confirmed in the country, all large events were cancelled. On March 10th with 89 cases in the country and no deaths, all educational institutions were closed, three days later all cafes, bars and shopping centres were closed. On March 16th two villages with cases were quarantined, and all religious ceremonies stopped. From 22nd March non-essential movements were banned. If you were going out, a central number had to be texted to justify your actions before you ventured out, health systems were changed to allow prescriptions to be sent as text messages. These strict measures are now beginning to be stepped back. A country of 10 million people, with a similar geographical population spread, has now recorded 147 fatalities from COVID-19. This country with twice the Scottish population had its first case 5 days before we had a case in Scotland. At present their total fatalities from COVID-19 are 5% of the Scottish numbers (which are terrible, but are better than the figures in England). 

The one thing the Greeks did was "follow the science", the advice that was there from WHO for everyone to decide whether or not to follow. 


Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Coast to Coast. Greenock to Weymss Bay

Coast to Coast. Greenock to Weymss Bay


Over the space of several weekend runs, I had been trying to jog across Scotland, a proper cross-country run.

However, there are more important things on the go just now with the Covid-19 pandemic, and as I write, we are only just at the beginning of this. Part of the reason for me writing these blogs was to flag up various lesser-visited parts of Scotland, that can be beautiful, and always have a fascinating history. It was for my own personal curiosity, but I hoped that people would maybe use the blogs as a prompt to head off somewhere different for a Sunday drive, or a walk with the dog, maybe buy some lunch or a coffee when you were there. I fear people often overlook these places, and we quickly forget the damage that 20th century political decisions brought to various Scottish industrial towns. All along my route across the Central Belt of Scotland, from Fife to Ayrshire, whether it has been shipbuilding, or coal mining, sugar refining or car making, I have found community after community abandoned when the local industry moved on elsewhere.

The optimist in me hopes that whatever damage the Covid-19 outbreak brings, government will realise it cannot just let market forces pick up the pieces this time. So, enjoy a virtual tour of Scotland by reading my ramblings, rather than making unnecessary journeys at this time. As I have already run it to Weymss Bay, I will stop there and await further developments before heading for a pokey hat in Nardini's to finish my route. Anyway...

Greenock


Having now run from Glasgow, across to Falkirk, then into Fife at Kincardine, and to the coast at St Andrews, it seemed only fair to turn my face the other way and head for the Ayrshire coast. It has given me a chance to find out more of the local history (and my own family history) along the way. My last run took me from Johnstone to Greenock.

Having now got to Greenock, for this stage I had a quick stoat about the town before I followed the coastal path, which took me through Gourock, on to Inverkip and then Weymss Bay. My original plan had been to eventually reach Largs, then complete a 10 mile race around the island of Millport that I'd applied for but, hey ho! Another time.

Greenock and its distinctive Victoria Tower, with the river Clyde and the Luss Hills beyond
My great-great grandfather moved from Kilbarchan, where his father was a handloom weaver, coming 15 miles up the road to Greenock in the 1850s. On one census he was working at the docks as a "boat ranger". By 1867, when my great-grandfather was born in Ingleston Street in Greenock, he was described as a "labourer (sugar)". Looking at the old Ordnance Survey maps from that time, there were three foundries, three mills and two sugar refineries within a 100 yards of their front door. Sugar refineries were one of the biggest employers in town by then.  

Sugar was refined from the 1700s in Greenock, but by the 1800s it was big business, while the tobacco trade had suffered with American independence. The port at Greenock, on the west coast of Scotland, provided favourable routes for merchants importing sugar cane from the Caribbean. This was being produced by slaves until the 1833 Abolition act was passed, and their sweat enriched Glasgow's merchants. By 1852 some 500 men in Greenock were employed producing 50,000 tons of sugar annually. Twenty years later, thousands of men (including my great-great grandad, Robert Speirs) were producing 250,000 tons each year, and supplying half of the UK's needs. Greenock docks were filled with ships from all around the world; Cuba, Brazil, Mauritius, the West Indies, and steamers coming from Belgium and France with cargoes of sugar beet for refining. As refining from sugar beet took off in Europe, demand for Greenock's sugar began to fall away, and slowly the refineries began to close. The last sugar refinery closed in 1997, the Tate and Lyle refinery on Lynedoch Street, although many of the warehouses built with multi-coloured brickwork that stored the sugar cane and tobacco arriving at the docks, still remain.

Former warehouse in Greenock
My great-grandfather was born in Greenock, but the family soon moved to Glasgow, where he trained as a plumber. His big brother (my grandad's uncle Bob) stayed in Greenock and worked in shipping. In 1881 he was an office boy in a shipping company. A few years later he had taken to sea and I have this photograph of him (below), taken in Bombay. The photographer's company in Bombay only worked under that name for a few years, so it dates the picture to the mid-1890s. The map of the world was covered in pink when he was growing up, with the British Empire offering trade, work and, in desperate times, opportunities to emigrate. 

The dock at Greenock was where thousands and thousands of Scots departed their homeland. People left for a variety of reasons, but for many it was destitution that drove them to seek a better life abroad in Canada, the USA, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The years of economic hardship and unemployment in Scotland were also the years of high emigration.

My great-great uncle Bob. Born in Greenock, ended up in Bombay
Part of the municipal buildings in the town, the Victoria Tower is the 245 feet tall tower visible from miles around, completed in 1886. When one shop owner refused to sell the land he was on, the building was completed around his shop, leaving a bite out of one corner, faced with two blank walls (seen in my photo below). Cowan's Corner as it was known was cleared of the shop when a German bomb landed on it in 1941 but the building has never been completed as originally intended. The Lyle Drinking Fountain outside the municipal buildings in the picture below was gifted to the town by Abram Lyle, businessman and one time provost of Greenock. Initially involved in shipping and cooperages, he bought a sugar refinery in Greenock in 1865. In 1921 his grandson merged his business with a Mr Henry Tate to form Tate and Lyle

Victoria Tower, Greenock
On the opposite side of Cathcart Square from the Victoria Tower stands "The Toon Kirk", or Wellpark Mid Kirk to give it its Sunday name. Built in 1760 it was the church used by a young James Watt and his family. 

Wellpark Mid Kirk, Greenock
The James Watt docks, the James Watt Pub, James Watt College. In case you were unaware of the fact, James Watt came from Greenock, the man who supercharged the industrial revolution with his invention of the improved steam engine. The son of a prosperous shipbuilder, James Watt was born in William Street, Greenock in 1736. A red sandstone building (The James Watt Building) stands on the site now with a statue of James Watt where his former home stood. When his mother died and his father's company struggled he set off to London, then settled in Glasgow, making and repairing academic instruments. Walking on Glasgow Green he was struck by an idea for how to improve the efficiency of the Newcomen steam engine, but lacking finances could not realise his idea. He was introduced to John Roebuck who financed his invention (in return for two thirds share). Roebuck had helped found the Carron Iron Works in Falkirk. It was after moving to Birmingham with a new partner that his engine found success, initially in collieries, but then in flour, cotton and iron mills. James Watt died in 1819, aged 83, a wealthy and famous man having made his last visit to Greenock three years earlier aboard the steam powered ship PS Comet. In 1882 a unit of mechanical and electrical power was named the Watt in his honour.

Statue of James Watt, Greenock

When I ran from Kirkintilloch (where the Lyle Water Fountain above was cast at the Lion Foundry) to Falkirk (where parts for Watt's steam engine were cast at the Carron Iron Works) I came to the site of the Battle of Bonnymuir. This was the place where a period of Radical revolt in Scotland came to a head in 1820, and a group of workers were captured as they marched towards Carron Iron Works, trying to seize weapons there. On April 5th these men were arrested, and their leaders later executed. This led to other Radicals being rounded up across the country. On April 8th 1820 the Port Glasgow Volunteers were bringing five prisoners from Paisley, to Greenock prison. Expecting hostility along the way they increased the armed escort to 80 men and successfully delivered the prisoners to Greenock prison.


As the Volunteers headed back to Port Glasgow a crowd had gathered on Cathcart Street and began shouting, and throwing stones and bottles at them. Apparently the firing of warning shots over the crowd was ordered, but two people fell down injured. Enraged, the crowd turned on the soldiers who fired indiscriminately into the crowd as they fled as far as Cartsdyke, roughly where Cappielow Stadium now stands. The crowd gave up the pursuit and turned back towards the prison. The wooden gates of Greenock prison were quickly forced open and the five Radical prisoners released (all the other prisoners were left in their cells- this was clearly not the work of people intent on anarchy). The prisoners and the crowd dispersed before reinforcements arrived.

The episode left eight people dead, shot by the soldiers, and many others seriously injured. Among the dead were an 8 year old boy, James McGilp, and a 65 year old man John McWhinnie. A 14 year old boy had to have a leg amputated due to his injuries, as did a 65 year old woman Mrs Catherine Turner. (source)

A memorial now stands at the spot where the incident occurred, at the junction of Bank Street and Cathcart Street. The 200th anniversary of this episode on 8th April 2020 will largely pass unnoticed amidst all the other events around the world at this time, but I still find it remarkable that this incident, a mere seven moths after The Peterloo Massacre is so little known. 

Radical War Memorial, Greenock commemorates events of April 1820


Greenock to Gourock


Ginger The Horse, by Andy Scott
James Watt's improved steam engine all but ended the days of the horse powered machine. This statue stands just off the A8 in the centre of Greenock, opposite the Police station. "Ginger" is its name, after the horse in the American novel about Scottish immigrants, Dancing at the Rascal Fair. In the book Ginger is a cart horse transporting sugar on the quay. Apparently based on a true story, when cart and horse accidentally tumble into the water, the owner is distraught and has now lost his beloved horse, and source of income. Ginger the statue, by Andy Scott (creator of the Kelpies at Falkirk), is here to commemorate the working men and horses that powered the growth of Greenock as docks, and ship building centre.

Custom House Quay, Greenock
Custom House and the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock
On the day I was in town all was quiet at the dockside, and it is impossible to imagine the bustle and activity that used to go on down here. Custom House Quay is where the Waverley still docks when it stops in town, but was once where Canadian timber for the shipyards, tobacco and fish from North America, wine from Spain and sugar from the Caribbean would be arriving. Also thousands of people left Scotland for the last time from here. All incoming goods had to pay government duty, and from 1714 Greenock was a custom house port. The current Custom House that stands here was built in 1818 and housed HM Revenue and Customs from then, until 2010. It has now been redeveloped as office space, and stands alongside the Beacon Arts Centre, a new building which opened here in 2013.

Heading west from the centre of town along the seafront you pass the Greenock Ocean Terminal, where ships unloading containers or cruise ships giving passengers a whirlwind visit to Scotland can dock. There is not much to it at present but a new terminal building has been given planning permission.

When Albert Harbour was excavated, the spoil was used to create the Greenock Esplanade, a pleasant place for a morning walk or run, with views north over the river towards the hills above Helensburgh and the entrance to Gare Loch. At low tides the wreck of "the sugar ship" can be spotted halfway to Helensburgh. The Greek owned, sugar carrying ship MV Captayannis sank in January 1974, and was grounded on the sandbank, The Tail 'o the Bank. 

This point on the river was often crowded during World War II as the merchant ships and naval vessels formed up here before heading off in the North Atlantic convoys, a vital supply line to Britain during the war. 

Greenock Esplanade
There were many gulliemots on the Clyde this crisp March morning
There is an excellent leaflet available here that tells you about some of the former residents of the grand villas that line the road behind the esplanade, including ship owners and shipyard owners, the Algie family of coffee and tea merchants, Abram Lyle of Tate and Lyle fame, and Henry "Birdie" Bowers, polar explorer and one of the men that died on Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.

Further along the path comes around the green space of Battery Park. As the name suggests this was where gun batteries were positioned. In the wars with America in 1812 it was decided to build defences to protect the Clyde from attack and a gun battery was positioned here in 1813. Fort Matilda was a military post here from 1818, and in 1907 land here was purchased by the government to create Britain's main torpedo manufacturing facility, using Holy Loch on the opposite bank as a torpedo test range. The Clyde Torpedo Factory opened in 1910, employing 700 people at that time. During World War II the factory switched entirely to torpedo manufacture and  anti-aircraft guns were again located at this point. Several batteries of guns were positioned around other potential military or industrial targets on the Clyde on both sides of the river. The factory carried on at this site as the Torpedo Experimental Establishment until 1959. The military looking buildings that now house Fun World Leisure are the only hints at the former military life of this corner of Greenock. 

Open space at Battery Park, Greenock
Another reminder of the effects of World War II in this part of Scotland can be spotted on the skyline from here, on the brow of Lyle Hill. The Free French Cross memorial here, with the Cross of Lorraine combined with an anchor. In commemorates the 1500 members of the Free French naval forces who were based in Greenock during the war. It specifically commemorates several of their vessels which sank, and locally it unofficially commemorates the Maillé Brézé. While anchored in the Firth of Clyde in 1940, an accident fired off one of the torpedoes, sinking the ship, and killing 37 crewmen.

Lyle Hill shares its name with the Greenock family that brought the world tins of Golden Syrup, the only sugar by-product marketed with the image of a swarm of bees around a lion carcass filled with honeycomb. However, I cannot find out if Lyle Hill is specifically named after them, or even their teeth rotting products. 

Lyle Hill and Free French Memorial on the brow of the hill, from Battery Park
Views from the Free French Memorial at Greenock, from a previous visit
Following the path around coast towards Gourock, it comes around Cardwell Bay. The old jetty rotting away in the bay is known as Admiralty Pier, having been built by the admiralty to service ships during World War II. It was later used by US servicemen at the submarine base across on Holy Loch, landing here on "liberty boats" to enjoy some R&R on this side of the water. With the Americans departing in the 1980s it has been slowly rotting away since then. 

Gourock's Cardwell Bay
Admiralty Pier, Cardwell Bay, Gourock
Gourock grew from small fishing village to an important cross roads on the Firth of Clyde, with ferries from here going to numerous points from the 1600s. With the arrival of the railway in 1889 Gourock became a popular holiday destination and the Clyde steamer service here expanded. A gazetteer of 1882 describes Gourock as having...
"...so neat and cheerful an aspect, such snug and comfortable houses, such capital bathing grounds...to merit the character of a first-class watering-place."
One of the "first-class watering-places" that was around in 1882 is the Victoria Bar on Shore Street. On 25th January 1883 the Gourock Jolly Beggers Burns Club held its first Burns supper here. Local artist George Wyllie is commemorated in a small garden on the other side of the road from the bar, but surely such a fantastic sculptor merits something more grand from his hometown? A new terminal at Greenock for cruise ships is being planned to welcome visitors, and as part of this they aim to incorporate a gallery of George Wyllie's works. But Gourock looks like it needs a bit more of the great man's work about town. 
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Victoria Bar, Gourock
George Wylie Memorial Garden
An earlier sculpture, created by the residents of this part of the world approximately 4000 years ago, stands on the hill behind Kempock Street in Gourock. The Kempock Stone, or The Lang Stane, also known as "Granny Kempock", this monolith of mica-schist stands about six foot tall and vaguely resembles a shrouded figure...allegedly. Before all the houses here crowded around it, the stone was a prominent object for passing sailors. Fishermen and sailors of yore are supposed to have made offerings to the stone, and chanted as they marched around it in order to be granted a safe voyage. Many of the stories about the stone, including the quote on the plaque beside it come from the 1880 book by Revd. David MacRae, Notes About Gourock, Chiefly Historical (image below). He supposes that the site was once "an altar to Baai in druid times" but the good reverend seems to be the only source of many of these stories.

The Kempock Stone, Gourock
"Granny Kempock"
notes-about-gourock-low-res
Notes About Gourock, Chiefly Historical by Reverend D. Macrae
Sadly the stone is tied up in a more depressing episodes of local history. Just as I had found stories in the villages of Fife, and in Paisley of supposed witchcraft, the mania for finding witches in the 17th century also came to Gourock, and nearby Inverkip. Researchers from Edinburgh University have mapped the location of witch trials. They record the story of Janet Love from Greenock, who in 1632 was taken to Inverkip to be interrogated by being "pricked", and tortured on the "stocks", "bow strings", and "wedges on the shins". Over a period of 50 years, at least 30 people (mostly women) were sent to trial at Inverkip for witchcraft. 

One of the most well-known cases was that of Mary Lamont. In 1662 she was aged only 15 or 16 when she was accused of conspiring with the devil. She confessed to dancing around the Kempock Stone, and, with others, plotting to throw the stone into the sea to bring on bad weather and disrupt shipping. Found guilty of witchcraft, she was executed by burning, possibly outside the Auld Kirk in Inverkip.

A curious TV appearance from the Kempock Stone is in an STV drama from 1987, Shadow of the Stone, which features Shirley Henderson, and Alan Cumming. It is available on Youtube, but the trailer was enough for me to get the gist. 


Leaving behind a 4000 year old standing stone, I ran on past the fabulous Gourock Outdoor Pool, which sits down on the river's edge. Closed over the winter months I would encourage you to come and enjoy one of the few remaining outdoor pools in Scotland. Every Scottish seaside resort used to boast such a pool, Gourock's being first opened in 1909, often tidal pools right down at the water's edge. The pool at Gourock is now a bit classier than that, with the water heated, but still filled with salt water, which catches you by surprise when you get a mouthful of it.

Gourock Outdoor Pool, March 2020
There are spectacular views from the terrace here across the Clyde Estuary and if you haven't been for a while, I would encourage you to make the effort. I have always enjoyed swimming outdoors, but I am a mere amateur compared to my grandfather, who would jump into any river, sea or pool when he was outdoors. This photo below is him on the diving dale at Stonehaven Open Air Pool, in about the 1930s. That pool is still open, but the outdoor pool at Helensburgh that I can remember visiting with my grandparents, is long gone. 

Old photo of my grandad at Stonehaven Open Air Pool
Gourock Outdoor Pool, Summer 2019
Gourock Outdoor Pool, Summer 2019


Gourock to Weymss Bay

My mum, her brother and sister, and my great-uncle Andy on holiday in Dunoon in the late 1950s
If I think of Gourock, it is "Gourock to Dunoon" that I think of. Ferries across the Clyde have ran from Gourock for hundreds of years. It is positioned at a strange point on the Clyde, where you can cross to Dunoon on the Cowal peninsula, to Kilcreggan on the Rosneath peninsula, or in the past, to Helensburgh. With train connections and steamers, Gourock and the coast around about became the holiday destination for Glaswegians heading "doon the watter" at the Glasgow Fair. This was the main source of income for these towns in the early twentieth century and led to their rapid growth.

There are still two ferry terminals in Gourock and the photos below are of the Western Ferries terminal at McInoy's Point at the western edge of town. 

Gourock to Dunoon ferry, at Gourock
Gourock Dunoon ferries on the Cyde, passing in front of Ben Ime and Gare Loch
Cloch lighthouse on the Clyde
At Cloch point between Gourock and Inverkip, the lighthouse was first lit in 1797, one of Robert Stevenson's early designs. Chains from a boom across the river between the Cloch lighthouse and Dunoon prevented enemy submarines coming further up the Clyde in both World Wars. On the frosty morning in early March that I ran down here there were dozens of birds up and down the coast. Colourful bullfinches in the bushes by the path, cormorants, guillemots, duck and swans in the sea and the most gorgeous views across to the snow-topped hills on the northern side of the Clyde. Coming around the bend at Cloch lighthouse, the snowy mountaintops of Arran came into view, with the distinctive shape of Goatfell.

Cormorant on the Clyde
Arran on the horizon, beyond Bute, as I came into Lunderston Bay
Lunderston Bay
Heading south now, the coastal path comes around Lunderston Bay which has a couple of sweeping beaches, and wonderful rock pools. In the past when Port Glasgow and Greenock closed down for their Fair fortnight this was one of the most popular destinations on the coast and a tent city would spring up on the grass behind the beach. There is a fantastic old photograph from those days on one of the information boards at the beach, where it looks absolutely rammed. 

The Isle of Arran in the distance
Beaches at Lunderston Bay, much quieter than in the past. 
Although I only knew Inverkip as the place where the marina is found, it is actually a very old settlement, with a church built here by the monks of Paisley Abbey in  1188. King Robert III, of the Renfrewshire Stewart line gave lands here to his son, Sir John Shaw Stewart, in the 1400s, who built a castle here. The Shaw Stewart family later built nearby Ardgowan House in 1798 and have lived there ever since. See what a few family connections 600 years ago grants you?

In the 1600s Inverkip, as mentioned above, was notorious for its zealous witch trials and several alleged witches were burnt here. Over the centuries the village was known as a hotbed for smugglers, transferring tea, tobacco and alcohol from ships travelling up the Clyde to port. The area at the mouth of the Kip Water river was excavated by army engineers during World War II to allow barges to be stored here. In the 1970s, building work for the Inverkip power station further down the coast involved dredging this area for sand and gravel to be used in the construction. This left a sheltered area of water that was converted in 1973 into Kip Marina. It has grown in size since then and can provide space for over 600 boats. A recent housing development beside the marina is a wee bit brutal, and not exactly to my taste. Presumably in part it provides accommodation for many people who may come and go to their boats here in the marina. 

Kip Marina
The path then skirts around Inverkip Power Station and reaches Weymss Bay. Since 1865 Weymss Bay has been at the end of the train line from Glasgow, allowing passengers to quickly disembark and hop onto the ferry to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. The current train station is surely one of the most handsome in the whole of Britain. Built in 1903, it has curving steel beams supporting tons of glass. A glass covered corridor sweeps passengers straight down to the ferry.

Weymss Bay train station
Glass roof of the Weymss Bay train station
To the ferry
Rothesay to Weymss Bay ferry
That brings me to the end of my run, and to the end of my run across Scotland, for now. Since I did this run, the Covid-19 outbreak in Britain has escalated and all unnecessary travel has to stop to reduce the spread of the disease. So I'm stopping. 

In 1849 a third of the people living in Inverkip died from a cholera outbreak. SO to avoid the same thing happening to all of us, stay at home and wash your hands. No more day trips for me until this is all over. Once we can travel again, I will finish my coast to coast run at Largs and do a lap of honour around Millport. Until then, look back over some of my other runs, and maybe plan your own next jaunt. 


While I am down in this part of the world I will leave you with one last old photo. This is my great-great granfather, James McKellar, and his fine beard. He didn't just go to Rothesay for the Glasgow Fair, he grew up there and, married my great-great granny Agnes Donaldson from Bo'ness. He worked as stone mason and moved to Glasgow, living on Hope Street in the 1860s, just where Glasgow Central Station would be built 15 years later. His daughter Flora McKellar married my great-grandad Andrew, the plumber from Greenock, that I mentioned above.

I have particularly enjoyed this run today, enjoying the views, remembering childhood day trips, and ferry trips. Remembering my grandad's love of swimming in the sea and pools down here, and remembering the lives of his parents and grandparents at sea, in the sugar warehouses and on the islands. I'll be back again soon.