Part 4: Open cast mines and the biggest landfill in Europe

The fourth part of our Director Kat’s fundraising walk around the Green Belt of Greater Glasgow. This time from near Greengairs to Calderbank in North Lanarkshire.

This section was most definitely a walk of two parts. Even on the map the first half looked pretty trackless and unpredictable, an area dotted with coal mines and commercial peat extraction. I wasn’t sure where we could get access, and how long it would take, and whether it would be bog, thistle or path. It was the perfect place to meet up with Ben, a friend who lives down south and was in Scotland for a couple of weeks, and who I knew would relish a bit of peri-urban adventuring.

We met in a layby just outside Greengairs, and were delighted to find a food van open for business. As we ordered the breakfast rolls I got chatting with the proprietor. I was surprised to find it in, what I presumed was, quite an out of the way place, but evidently business was good. “I’ve been here for 30 years” she said. “We’re just next to the biggest landfill site in Europe so there are always lorries and trucks passing. We’re always busy”. She told us lorries often spend the night in the layby and last night there had been one from Aberdeen. “They’ve had to build a special access road to the landfill, as the trucks aren’t allowed through the village.”

Perhaps I should do my research a little more carefully before each walk, I told myself, as we set off along what was marked as a disused railway on my map, and happened to be the special access road that the woman at the burger van had told us about. In the few minutes we were walking on the route we didn’t see any articulated lorries heading for the landfill, just a man jet-washing his truck.

Greengairs is a village in a landscape scarred by coal mining and commercial peat extraction. The residents now have Europe’s biggest landfill site a few hundred yards from their doorsteps and several other landfill sites close by. The local community has campaigned against further waste facilities and an incinerator. But the odds are stacked against local people in the planning system.

Having worked on climate campaigning for a few years I am very familiar with talk about environmental injustice – that the impacts of environmentally destructive activities often fall on the most vulnerable and deprived communities. We often talk about this in terms of the impact of climate disasters falling on those countries who have done the least to contribute to climate change, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Greengairs is an example of environmental injustice on our doorstep: multiple levels of environmental destruction in an area with some of Scotland’s most deprived communities.

I had used the latest OS maps to plan a route this time, but it wasn’t that much help in the landscape we had to cross. I’d assumed that Drumshangie Moss, which was about 2kms of our route, would be a typical raised bog with some plantation forestry. However, instead of sphagnum and heather, and the stars of bog asphodel, there was rough grass and rush recolonising a post-industrial landscape. I couldn’t work out what had been there previously, whether mine or peat-workings, or landfill, but the map showed tracks into the centre which weren’t very evident on the ground as the vegetation had grown over and scrubland, with areas of planted trees, had grown up.  In some parts (mainly those we had to walk through) there was almost unpassable shoulder-high thistles and nettles.

Much of Drumshangie Moss, as I saw from the satellite images, was covered with striations: strips that must be about 10m wide and 100m long. I was puzzled, and tried to think what they could be. The bogs east of the landfill were also like that. Further east still, a brown scar stretched across either side of the road running from Longriggend to Greengairs. I realised that this must be a peat mine and the striations were what is left after the peat has been removed. A quick internet search and I find this method is called peat milling and involves digging parallel drains across the bog and letting the peat dry out before harvesting, during which process it emits carbon dioxide.

Longriggend is one of Scotland’s last commercial peat workings and has permission to continue mining until 2040 – only five years before Scotland has pledged to become net-zero.  The recent consultation on ending the sale of peat in Scotland notes Scottish Government policies to restrict peat extraction and that there are currently 1000 hectares of peatland being exploited for horticultural use.

The striations on Drumshangie Moss which we walked past
Similar striations and the peat mine at Longriggend, a couple of kms east of Drumshangie

A subsequent Freedom of Information request revealed that Longriggend is one of these, but the biggest is in Aberdeenshire with 400 hectares. One of the sites has permission to continue peat extraction until 2051, 6 years after Scotland must be net zero.  

Peat, like coal, is a store of CO2 from ancient atmospheres. While the plants that created the coal which was dug out of this area lived millions of years ago, the sphagnum moss, in the few remaining raised bogs of the central belt of Scotland, is still forming peat, and still sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Some of the raised bogs in central Scotland have 10m of peat in them which means that they have been accumulating since the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. But so many have been lost, central Scotland has only a tiny fraction of its peat bogs in tact, peat forming imperceptibly slowly, at the rate of 1mm a year.

We battled our way through the final few hundred yards of scrub and thistles and reached the road with some relief, congratulating ourselves on the decision to wear wellies. On the tiny single track road we turned left, heading out of the greenbelt, in favour of an area that looked like it had tracks and paths. The alternative was more ground like we had just crossed and the prospect of ‘Opencast workings’, marked on the most recent OS map.

The wooded area with paths and two lochs in the middle, which we had decided to head for, turned out to be a huge opencast coal mine. Efforts had evidently been made to restore the mine: the paths were good and there were young trees everywhere, perhaps 10 years old. Down at the base of the opencast the two lochs were almost dry, giving a rather melancholy feel to the place. Investment had obviously been made to bring life back to the bare sides of the opencast, but it still felt something was missing.

While doing some research online afterwards on googlemaps, I noticed a marker for the Stanrigg Memorial, a few hundred meters from where we had been walking, on a different track. It was the memorial erected for the centenary of the Stanrigg pit disaster. On the morning of July 9th 1918, nineteen men and boys were killed when the pit collapsed in an in-rush of peat. The dead included eight teenagers, two sets of fathers and sons, three brothers and three brothers-in-law.  An unimaginable tragedy.

The satellite images showed the sides of the opencast were bare so the restoration must have been quite recent – perhaps done to mark a hundred years passing since the disaster.

We made quick progress on the good paths and arrived at the edge of Airdrie, where a few fields of greenbelt is squeezed between Plains and Clarkston.  Wherever greenbelt buts up against towns, there seem to be numerous paths to follow, marked out by dog-walkers, and other locals. It was no different here, and we popped through a gap in the hedge beside a gate and walked along the edge of a recently-harvested hayfield. Following the route created by the feet of hundreds of local people we walked alongside some grand beeches, once a hedge, and headed through a bit of woodland on the edge of Clarkston to the main road.

Our chat switched to the subject of public access to land and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which gave us our ‘right to roam’. Ben talked about his experience of living in England, where access is limited to footpaths and bridleways. “During lockdown more people were walking locally and there was a great path that took you down to the river” he said “one day the landowner built a fence across it and put up ‘keep out’ signs”. Apparently local opinion strongly favoured keeping the access open and when, one night, someone went out and cut the fence, it was not repaired.

I promised to send Ben a link to a brilliant podcast I’d heard the previous week about the campaign for a public right of access in England. The Right to Roam campaign refer, in their activism, to the late David Graeber who said “Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free”.

It is good to be reminded that, in Scotland, we are already free to access the land. I can look on a map and see a burn, or a woodland, or track, or field boundary and go and walk there. I can decide to walk the circumference of Greater Glasgow’s green belts and then exercise my rights and responsibilities under the Scottish Outdoor Access code and go out and walk it. There might be bogs and there might be thistles, but getting out in Scotland’s countryside is both a privilege and a right.

We’d parked near to the Easter Moffat Golf Club and, once we were over the railway, we’d have a nice wander along a burn, through some remnant woodland and then round the golf course. We passed a ‘Private no access’ sign on the track. “Are you sure we can go this way?” asked Ben and I assured him the access code meant no access to motorised vehicles, but on foot we were within our rights to walk there. A ‘Danger Bull in field’ sign welcomed us to the final stretch. After we had a good look for the bull, we noticed the field had no fences on the side that led down to the burn and across the bridge, so it was unlikely to be a field containing a valuable animal.

Unusually the route back to the car was straightforward, there was some lovely beech woodland along the burn and a clear, but small, path. We came across several beautiful clearings, light trickling through the beech leaves and dappling the ground. But we weren’t the first to find this spot. In each clearing we found a couple of empty cans of Strongbow dark fruits, and Monster (the favoured drinks of teenagers – as I know from experience of my own). These paths were made by young people, who knew and loved this place too.

The next day I was out in the woods with friends who I’d got to know when I worked in the RSPB. Yvonne, who still works there said she felt that conservation organisations were missing a trick with teenagers – often they are the ones that are out in nature loads – finding places of their own to gather when they are too young to go to the pub and don’t have their space they can use at home. They certainly had found the most beautiful spots here on the Calder Water.

The second part of the walk I’d planned to do with friends who had two teenagers – and so had planned it to fit in with a section with a very definite path marked on the map – the Calder Heritage trail. I waved goodbye to Ben who went off in search of some pea gravel at the giant B&Q in Coatbridge, and I went to meet Jill, Will and Luka (Mica had stayed behind with Grandpa).

Jill and her family live in Switzerland but Jill is a native of Coatbridge. They were back in Scotland to visit her Dad, and so I thought this section of the walk would be ideal to do with them as we walked round the south of Airdrie and towards Coatbridge. As we shuttled the cars to either end of the route she pointed out the house of her Auntie (‘the best baker in the world’)

The Calder Heritage trail follows the Calder from Summerlee Museum of Industrial Life in Coatbridge to Hillend Reservoir in Caldercruix and was evidently once well sign-posted with steel sign posts and the odd bench. But many of the signs were now overgrown or missing. We were taking part of the route from Drumgelloch, and we managed to find our way, without too many mishaps, along the river to Calderbank. The industrial history was particularly interesting with many weirs for the textile mills in Airdrie and some spectacular columns that would have been the base for a huge viaduct crossing the valley.

We passed a bench that had the words ‘Spade Forge’ cut into the steel backrest. We were at the site of Monkland’s Forge which produced spades for the coal industry. In fact all the way along the river would have been steel works and blast furnaces, but almost nothing remains on the ground. The website of the Calder Heritage Trail says that much of the ground and banks were built up with slag from the furnaces, but today they are covered with wildflowers and orchids which love the low nutrient and well-drained soil.

As we walked Will picked up litter in a plastic bag he had found discarded on the path – something he always does on walks. I can’t imagine he finds much in Switzerland, but there is plenty to find on our way. I vowed to bring a larger bag for rubbish on future walks – the small bag I’d used in the morning walk was full almost immediately.

Before long we had reached Calderbank and the end of the day’s walk – a whole afternoon on a marked trail, and so much progress made. At this rate I might finish this walk before the winter sets in.

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

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