A canal on a hillside – the Greenock and Kelly Cuts

Kat has reached Wemyss Bay on the Clyde coast on her 20th day of walking Glasgow’s Green Belt. This walk brings the joy of a perfectly level walk through mountain country – along the historical Cuts built to bring water to the Greenock Mills and a discussion on climate, renewables and our landscapes.

The Greenock cut is a well-known and popular walking route. It has all the attributes of the perfect walk: beautiful views, good ground underfoot, it’s circular and, to add to the bonus, it is almost entirely flat. It is a walk along some of the west of Scotland’s most interesting industrial history – a lade cut across an entire hillside in 1827, six and a half kilometres long, and gathering water from streams and lochs in the Muirshiel hills to direct it to the mills of Greenock and Port Glasgow. A second channel, the Kelly cut, is less well walked, and was built 20 years later to extend the water-gathering further west.

Together these walks allowed for a perfect 15km point to point walk with train stations at either end for the return journey. I met up with my friend Julie at Drumfrochar station, presumably meaning hill or ridge of the heather, high above Greenock. Drumfrochar is now surrounded with housing estates, rather than heather, but it is some considerable way up the hill so we had very little ascent to do before we met the start of the Greenock cut. 

The weather was not as good as I’d been hoping for.  It was that rain that Scotland specialises in, which doesn’t seem that hard but soaks you through in minutes. “Aggressive drizzle” as Julie called it later in the walk.

“Sorry about the weather” I said, as I donned my waterproofs.

“Don’t worry, I would never cancel a walk because of the weather” said Julie. It turned out that Julie was a seasoned walker – I’d chosen my companion well for the most unremittingly wet walk of the green belt circumnavigation so far. As we zipped up jackets and pulled cords tight on our hoods, we agreed that walking, with your hood up, braced against the weather can be a really peaceful and meditative experience taking you away into another world. 

The sides of the lade were perfectly built up in brick-sized stone sets and, although the industrial origins of the construction were still evident, it had settled into the landscape of scrub and rough moorland like it had always been there. The cut contoured around the hillside, taking a hairpin bend to pass one of the cleughs, the steep valleys worn in by streams. The cut also marked the edge of the greenbelt, a convenient line on a map to use for the purpose.

There was a well-constructed path alongside the cut and I thought of the thousands of people who would have passed this way: walkers, workers and water engineers. Robert Thom, the designer, would have surveyed the route walking the wet, boggy hillside to find the line for the cut. Every few hundred metres we met a sluice and channels bringing water in from one of the small lochs in the Muirshiel hills.

Julie and I had met during COP26, the international climate summit, when I was heading up Scotland’s civil society climate coalition, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland. My role was to bring together the operation to host global civil society as they came to Glasgow to campaign for a liveable planet for the future. Two weeks of fighting for another world, while trying to demonstrate that another way is possible – offering the radical hospitality of the COP26 Homestay Network, sharing venues, bringing together ‘the Climate Fringe’ to showcase a thousand civil society events.   

As we walked, the ninth day of COP28 in Dubai was underway, two years since our own COP experience. We chatted a bit about the impact of the work supporting civil society at COP26, and our low expectations of a COP hosted by an oil-state. While we peered from our dripping hoods out into the rain, in Dubai it was 28 degrees with July temperatures there having reached nearly 50 degrees.  

We had high hopes of a hot drink at the visitor centre we encountered at the halfway point of the walk, but the café had closed years ago.

“It must have been a very, very long time since you were last here,” said the Ranger on duty, laughing. “We now have only two rangers in the Park. I got moved from Castle Semple, but they pay my travel expenses so I don’t really mind. I can still take my dog with me and that’s what matters.” His border collie wagged her tail enthusiastically from behind a toddler gate.

We sat on large leather sofas and ate our sandwiches while looking at a table of garden ornaments made from tiny logs. A row of flowerpot men climbing ladders were on sale for £10 each.

Interpretation panels in another room explained the purpose and the history of the Cut. The reservoirs and lades were built in 1827 to supply the mills of Greenock with energy, and the town with drinking water. Robert Thom was contracted to bring 34 cubic metres of water per minute to the mills. Twenty years later the demand for water had risen and so Kelly cut was built.

A quote from Robert Thom was printed on a panel. “My scheme will supply enough water to impel machinery at least equal to what is impelled by steam in and around Glasgow”. Even at the very moment that coal was being harnessed to accelerate the industrial revolution, Thom was innovating in renewable energy from the hills.  

Nearly 200 years later we are feeling the dire consequences of the result of fossil fuels dominating two centuries of development and industry. 2023 was the hottest year since records began and 1.4 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average. We are a hair’s breadth away from the 1.5 degrees of warming that the world’s leaders pledged to stay below in the historic Paris agreement at COP21.

We took a detour through a lovely piece of bog woodland on slippery board walks, on the way to the Kelly cut. It was only a few hectares in size now, but was probably the habitat that would have been found along all the streams and glens before sheep grazing became the predominant land use of the hills.  The hills stand bare now, but I can’t help thinking that woodland would have naturally grown on these slopes to the tree line, birch predominating on the higher ground, oak and hazel on lower slopes. A view of a natural treeline in Scotland is now a rare and precious thing – a look back in time: sometimes hundreds of years, sometimes thousands.

On the Kelly cut, things got markedly more bleak. The rain continued and the wind got up – there was less shelter. The landscape was purple moor grass and tussocks, signalling to me that this was pretty overgrazed. The path was muddy underfoot and bog and rush seemed to cover it much of the way.

A couple of days before our walk, the Guardian had reported that there were a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28, four times as many as there had been in Egypt the year before.  They outnumbered every country’s delegation apart from the host nation and Brazil, host of COP30.

We have known that burning fossil fuels causes climate change for more than 100 years, since the first research papers were published in 1896, and the name ‘Greenhouse Effect’ was given in 1901. However fossil fuels have never been named in any summit agreements, unbelievable as that may seem, despite being responsible for 86% of CO2 emissions. The fossil fuel lobby has been consistently effective at defending their huge profits and keeping us dependent on them. With COP being held in an oil state, we were feeling very pessimistic that campaigners would be able to turn the tanker round this time.

Even now, when we not only know that fossil fuels are causing climate change, but are experiencing the impacts, leaders seem paralyzed to act. As rain dripped around my hood, drawn fast against the weather, I thought about the sheer challenge of the task we are up against in dealing with the urgency of climate change, and wondered about Robert Thom’s vision from the visitor centre.

Since Robert Thom’s time, our economy has developed under a condition of ad libitum and cheap fossil fuel energy. Consequently our economy is inefficient in its use of energy, and our housing stock is the least efficient in Europe. We have relied on the high heat intensity from gas and oil to heat draughty and badly insulated homes. Meanwhile the externalities are not counted – the impacts on the environment, people and planet. It all goes into the profits of the fossil fuel companies. In February 2023, Shell posted annual profits of £40 billion dollars. Climate Scientist Katharine Hayhoe pointed out on social media that “You could have made $53,000 (£44,000) a day or $20 million per year since Jesus was born and still not make the profits Shell did in 2022″

Since Robert Thom built the innovative engineering of the Greenock Cut to create mechanical energy from water as a rival to the power from coal in Glasgow, we are living in a new world. It is one where the supremacy of coal, and now oil, has taken us to the brink of climate catastrophe, but it is also a world where the inheritors of Thom have created incredible innovations in efficiency, energy generation, and materials. But, unbelievably, despite our knowledge of the damaging effects of fossil fuels, and the knowledge of how we can eliminate them and stop our slide towards an unlivable world, we are nowhere near starting to reverse it. The number of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP, and in every Parliament in the world, explains some of this, and lobbyists are also working against better building standards in houses, better efficiency of devices, against a circular economy, against heat pumps and retrofitting insulation in homes, against safer cycling and walking infrastructure, against regulation ensuring a longer life for devices, against an end date for petrol and diesel cars, against 20 minute cities, against road pricing. In short, corporations are lobbying against the very interests of humanity and our planet.

It is often said that “there’s no economy on a dead planet”. Our whole economy depends on, and operates within the bounds of, our planetary home. However this is not how many economists and almost all politicians see the situation – growth has become a political dogma. This plays into the hands of those lobbyists because, if there are no limits to raw materials, we don’t need to worry about a circular economy, if there are no limits to the earth’s capacity to absorb pollution, we can keep chucking our waste into the atmosphere, rivers and soils, and if there are no limits to land, we can keep developing wherever we want, expanding into nature, and we can plant infinite carbon-offset forests so we don’t have to change our carbon-intensive economy.  We have the illusion of growth, because the growth in GDP has come at the expense of our planet’s ability to support us. We have simply become very efficient at turning the life-support systems of our planet into profit. The depletion of our planetary assets simply has not been included in the equation. It really shouldn’t have got past the accountants.

But there are limits. We know we are way past them with regard to atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases. Something needs to change urgently.

The IPCC  has stated that “limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees would require far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”1 (1.5 degree report).  This is serious stuff, we are “on the highway to climate hell” as Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres said at COP27. We need to act now.

The National Planning Framework, interestingly, brings some clarity to the situation. Previous National Planning Frameworks were centred on delivering economic growth as their central purpose, but the recently published NPF4 offers a departure from this. With a statement that reflects the language in that 1.5 degree report it says “We must embrace and deliver radical change so we can tackle and adapt to climate change, restore biodiversity loss, improve health and well-being, reduce inequalities, build a well-being economy and create great places.” It has six outcomes2, none of which is economic growth.

So what do these ‘radical’ and ‘unprecedented’ changes mean for Scotland’s countryside and landscapes? APRS has always recognised that our countryside and landscapes are constantly changing and has strived to ensure that land-use decisions bequeath, to future generations, a countryside that is at least as beautiful, biodiverse and rewarding, as that which we enjoy today.

And climate change means that Scotland’s landscapes will change – coastal erosion and flooding will reshape our coastlines and watercourses, higher rainfall and warmer temperatures will affect what can grow and live, combined with new tree diseases, this will reshape our treescapes. Human infrastructure will be destroyed and have to be relocated.

And there will be changes to the landscape from policy decisions for climate mitigation and adaptation. In this equation, land is doing a lot of the heavy lifting – land is expected to provide offsets for companies and individuals to claim they are net zero, that same land is being counted by the Government under their own targets for tree-planting, land will provide sites for energy infrastructure and transmission, for increased food security,  for homes, increased biodiversity, place for leisure, National Parks and tourism, to protect and restore peatland – Scotland’s biggest carbon store, and meanwhile we have the most unequal distribution of land ownership in Europe.

Land has to be the most visibly limited resource that we have. As Mark Twain said “Buy land, they’re not making it any more”3. We need to use land wisely: these decisions around land use can enhance our landscapes and countryside but they can also diminish them.

We can choose to re-meander rivers and burns to attenuate and absorb flood water, or we can fortify hard barriers to flooding. We can choose to reduce grazing to allow vegetation and regenerating woodlands to reduce the likelihood of, and risk from, landslips. We can create salt marshes and wetlands on vulnerable reclaimed land by managed realignment to protect settlements from flooding, or we can build seawalls higher and higher. We can create energy networks that allow for smaller scale renewable generation close to where people live4 , avoiding energy losses through transmission and incentivising better use of energy and bring income to communities, rather than buttress the centralised system built originally for nuclear and coal power stations. We can reduce deer numbers to allow woodland to naturally regenerate where it would have once grown or we can plant deer-fenced blocks of dark sitka over whole landscapes. And we can create a resilient landscape with a mix of land uses and habitats. These choices bring the opportunity to enhance our landscapes and countryside. We should use them. We need to acknowledge that land is our most precious resource and have a planned and strategic approach for land use.

“We need to acknowledge that land is our most precious resource and
have a planned and strategic approach for land use.”

But will this be enough? Not if we continue with the imperative for growth -and don’t make those “far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. There will always be more demand for energy, for materials, for land use intensification, for ‘stuff’. We need to cease our extractive economy and work out how to create a regenerative economy. We need to see the limits and work with them.

Back on the hillside of the Muirshiel hills what might this mean? Well I just read that Loch Thom is about to be brought back into use to produce power again – with a pipeline taking water to create electricity. The hillsides, now heavily grazed with little or no regeneration of trees and scrub could start to naturally sequester carbon and bring back habitats, if that grazing were to stop. And what about wind power? Well the majority of the Clyde Muirshiel Regional park is designated as a Special Protection Area for hen harriers, which are a red-listed species and vulnerable to being killed by turbines, so wind power would not be appropriate for these hills. However, dare I say it, wind turbines – where they don’t affect important bird populations, habitats and landscapes – absolutely need to be part of the answer. Especially where they bring a sustainable income to local towns and cites to transform draughty cold homes, and the lives of many of whom live in fuel poverty, rather than profits to the huge multinational companies who take the bounty offshore. 

But the answer is not just about more renewable energy infrastructure (and at APRS we would say that there are many landscapes that do not have the capacity to accommodate industrial-scale energy infrastructure). We need a switch away entirely from fossil fuels and from the extractive mindset which takes resources from the earth, uses them up and then sends waste into our atmosphere, or rivers, our seas and our soils.  

Renfrewshire Heights SPA marked in purple hatching

It means that all the settlements that I can see (if I could see them through the heavy rain) – from Greenock and Port Glasgow below to Kilcreggan across the Clyde, would need to be transformed – the familiar themes: climate-neutral housing, renewable heat, world class public transport and active travel networks, thriving local neighbourhoods. I hesitate to describe what these could be like, or to paint a utopia here, the 1.5 degree report lays out what needs to be done (and indeed this is reflected in many of the policies of NPF4). 

We finished the walk down a steep path along a burn down to Wemyss Bay’s historic and beautiful station, and a welcome warm café and cup of tea. I took the train back to my car, and Julie waited on a ferry to take her back home to Bute.


If you’d like to read about the other green belt walks you can do so here

  1. ‘Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees’ Report IPCC Special Report https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ ↩︎
  2.  NPF4 is required by law to contribute to 6 outcomes:
    ·       Meeting the housing needs of people living in Scotland including, in particular, the housing needs for older people and disabled people,
    ·       Improving the health and wellbeing of people living in Scotland,
    ·       Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland,
    ·       Improving equality and eliminating discrimination,
    ·       Meeting any targets relating to the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases, and
    ·       Securing positive effects for biodiversity. ↩︎
  3. Although in Scotland that will be hard unless you’re a billionaire, as land prices have risen so much due to the ‘land rush’ created by the markets for carbon offsetting, and government incentives for tree-planting ↩︎
  4. On a previous green belt walk with an energy transmission engineer I learned how our networks run as a lagacy from a system made for highly centralised thermal power generation and don’t allow for smaller scale generation in a more dispersed network ↩︎

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