The Waterman’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Waterman’s Tale

by Sir Robert Stewart

Told in the first person, as spoken by Sir Robert Stewart, at the Mugdock Reservoirs.

This spot has particular resonance for me, in that my great-great grandfather, whose name I share and with whom I feel a particular connection, was responsible for these works.

Mugdock Reservoir
Mugdock Reservoir

In early Victorian times – Dickensian times, in the worst sense of that term – Glasgow and its satellite towns suffered the worst imaginable conditions of poverty, squalor, misery, over-crowding, ill-health, insanitary living, long working hours and premature death.

Not everyone suffered, as there was a thriving merchant class, who made fortunes on the back of cotton, sugar and tobacco from the colonies, and coal, iron and engineering based on local resources. These fortunes were built not only on the availability of raw materials but on the availability of cheap labour, a commodity of which there was no shortage, as successive waves of people flooded into the city following the break-up of the clan system after 1745, the coming of the industrial revolution, the return of servicemen after the Napoleonic Wars and the failure of the Irish potato crop in the 1840s. It was an employers’ market, all these people coming to the city being displaced, disadvantaged and distressed and consequently desperate for employment, shelter and food. Such were their circumstances that they were forced to accept whatever was on offer.

In pre-industrial times, people relied for water on springs and wells in the open countryside surrounding the relatively small settlement which Glasgow was originally. As the city grew, absorbing surrounding villages, demand for water increased in tandem with increased pollution of the supplies, arising from increased population and from ignorance of the connection between clean water and good health. As in third world countries today, the collection of water became a burdensome daily chore which other pressing needs forced into second place. Faced with this tedious task, people were tempted into making do with less and less. Such open streams as there were were used to flush away sewage and other refuse. Diseased water then became the medium for the spread of cholera, typhoid and dysentery, which in turn led to sick people being unable to work and losing their jobs, which in turn led to lack of food, the acceleration of illness and – too often – premature death. Ironically, there were always replacements on hand to fill any vacancies.

In the early 19th century, private companies tried to address the problem. One company created a reservoir upstream of the city, at Dalmarnock, impounding water from the River Clyde and pumping it to other reservoirs close to where it was needed. Another company served the west side of the city. However, these were commercial companies, and there was much dissatisfaction with the service they offered; for example, they only laid pipes in areas where they thought they would make a profit from the fees charged. Unfortunately, cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1848 showed that these efforts were far from sufficient.

In the 1850s, the feasibility of bringing water from Loch Katrine first began to be investigated, but these early plans were blocked by objectors who cited, inter alia, the reduction in the natural flow of water from Loch Katrine to the Firth of Forth and the consequent effect on naval shipping there! These objections were ill-researched and groundless, but it took time to overturn them.

This was the time when my great-great grandfather came into the picture. He was Lord Provost of the city at that time and put forward a Parliamentary Bill which eventually received assent in 1855, thus by-passing the objections and enabling works to commence in May 1856. He later stepped down as Provost and became Convenor of the City’s Water Committee, which enabled him to see the project through to its grand completion three years later.

It is 27 miles from Loch Katrine to the holding reservoirs at Mugdock, including 13 miles of tunnelling, in addition to which it was a further 7 miles to the city centre. 3000 workers were employed, some from the Welsh mines, some from Yorkshire and not a few from Ireland, all living in camps along the route of the pipeline. The pipe itself was 8 feet in diameter and could deliver 50 million gallons of water per day.

The grand opening (at the Loch Katrine end) was on 15th October 1859. Queen Victoria and other royals attended, Highland regiments provided a guard of honour, thousands of spectators assembled in Callander and a 21-gun salute was fired. At the Mugdock end, where we are standing now, the reservoirs have a capacity of 500 million gallons and they were finally connected to all parts of the city in 1860. My great-great grandfather lived to see the completion of his dream, and eventually died in 1866.

From my family’s point of view, the final chapter was the building of a Stewart Memorial Fountain in Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow, completed in 1879. In fact, there was a final final chapter, in that the fountain was recently refurbished and I was pleased to have been present at its re-opening in 2009, precisely 150 years after the 1859 event.

Sir Bobby Stewart
Sir Bobby Stewart

Sir Robert Stewart was knighted in 1982 for public services including holding the position of Lord Lieutenant for two counties in Scotland. He is a retired farmer, still actively involved in public service. Sir Robert’s great-great-grandfather was the person responsible for the building of the Mugdock Reservoirs, which provided Glasgow with a clean water supply for the first time.