The day of Scotland's most deadly storm

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland News

Image source, Keystone
Image caption,
A car damaged by falling debris in Glasgow after gales of 103mph swept Scotland, killing 21 people

On a quiet Sunday night 50 years ago, no-one in Scotland suspected that a storm blowing in from the Atlantic was about to become the most deadly in living memory.

Forecasters had said that hurricane Low Q would pass far to the north of the country but as the depression deepened it moved south and by 18:00 on 14 January 1968 its ferocity was taking everyone by surprise.

In the path of the storm, which recorded gusts of 103mph at Glasgow Airport, were more than two million people in the cities and towns of Scotland's central belt.

Image source, Alamy Stock Photo
Image caption,
The high winds ripped away the wall of this Glasgow house

In total, 21 people died and 250,000 homes were damaged. More than 2,000 people were left homeless.

Unlike today, where weather warnings are issued and people can track changes via their mobile phone, in January 1968 everyone was completely unaware of what was on its way.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
The aftermath of the storm in Batson Street in Glasgow's Govanhill area

The west coast was battered first, with Greenock being badly hit.

David Bowen was one of five men who struggled to stop the winds from tearing a dredger and its barge from their mooring at Princes Pier.

He tells the BBC Scotland documentary The Storm That Saved a City that the 4in (10cm) ropes they used to tie up the vessels "snapped like shoelaces" in the storm and the dredger was left drifting in the Firth of Clyde.

The men on the vessels managed to weather the storm during the night but as dawn broke disaster struck.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
Storm damage in Glasgow's Bothwell Street

Mr Bowen, who was below decks on the barge, says: "We heard a horrible rumbling noise and we ran up on deck and we could not find the dredger. We suddenly realised it had turned over."

The dredger had been holed under the water line during the storm and had been taking in water for much of the night.

It turned over just before 08:00 and sank before anyone could escape. Three men died.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group Group
Image caption,
Mrs Winnie Hopper, of Arlingston St, being rescued by firemen from her house after the roof caved in

Meanwhile, at Bonhill in Dunbartonshire, a man died when his car ploughed into a fallen tree as he drove his expectant wife to hospital.

The pregnant woman was badly injured but two hours later she gave birth to a boy, their second child.

The ferocious storm also resulted in deaths in Kirkintilloch in East Dunbartonshire, Lugton in East Ayrshire and Cambuslang in South Lanarkshire.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
Damage to the roofs in Preston Street in Govanhill

As it battered the east coast, two people died in Edinburgh.

But it was Glasgow that suffered the most devastation and where nine people died.

The wind tore down shipyard cranes and electricity pylons, leaving the city in darkness.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
Most of the roof panels were blown off the 'Jungle' stand at Celtic Park

Church spires and school roofs were damaged as well as the grandstands at Ibrox and Celtic Park football grounds.

Jeff Jay, who was a medical student at Glasgow's Western Infirmary, tells the documentary how the wind blew in the windows of the hospital ward he was working on and nurses had to use candles because there was no power.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
A workman inspects the damage to a roof in Thornwood Place after a chimney fell through it

Marion and David Donaldson, who lived in a flat in Glasgow's Hill Street, say there was debris flying past their top-floor window.

"I don't think we'd ever experienced anything quite like it," Marion says.

"As the storm grew in intensity, we could actually see entire areas of Glasgow going completely black as the local power stations were hit."

Marion says: "The force was extraordinary. It was like some kind of monster."

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
A car lies under a shattered chimney at the junction of Gourlay Street and Palermo Street in Springburn in Glasgow

The poor quality of much of Glasgow's housing stock, which had been neglected for years, led to much of the devastation.

Tens of thousands of roof tiles were ripped off and chimney heads flew loose causing extensive damage and injury to hundreds.

The chimney heads on Glasgow's tenement houses were a particular problem.

They were large structures serving the flues from dozens of coal fires in the apartments below but, like much of the city's housing stock, their upkeep had been neglected for decades.

Dermot McQuarrie, who worked for his father's building business, says: "There was very little maintenance of these tenements and in some cases you could go up on to a roof and put your hand on to a sandstone chimney head and take a handful of it away."

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
A police mobile HQ outside a tenement at 555 Dumbarton Road where four people died when a chimney fell through the building

At Willowbank Street in Glasgow's Charing Cross, 38-year-old Molly Wiles was killed when a chimney head crashed through the roof above the flat where she and her 12-year-old daughter slept.

Further west at Dumbarton Road in Partick, four people died when the huge chimney serving an adjoining property fell on to the tenement.

It went straight down through the building's floors destroying all the rooms beneath.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
A workman inspects the damage inside a tenement building in Dumbarton Road

On the first floor, a 53-year-old woman and her family of four escaped just moments before it was completely filled with debris from the flat above.

Others were not so fortunate.

Nan Best and her three-year-old daughter Angela were only in Glasgow because they had travelled up from Swindon in Wiltshire for the funeral of Mrs Best's mother, who had died in a fire in Govan a couple of days before.

They were both killed as the roof plunged down through the property at 555 Dumbarton Road.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
Occupants of a flat at 555 Dumbarton Road are let back in to their home by police

Jean Gowran, 41, and her 10-year-old daughter Nancy died at the same time.

Peter Gowran, who was 16 at the time, was in the tenement flat when his sister and step-mother were killed.

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
Residents leaving the storm damage buildings on Dumbarton Road in Partick

He tells the BBC documentary: "We thought it was an ordinary storm. We had no idea what was coming our way.

"When the storm came through, my younger sister was afraid and she went into the bedroom of my dad and step-mum.

Image caption,
Peter Gowran's sister and stepmother were killed when the roof of their tenement flat collapsed

"My dad came out to check on us and that's when the chimney collapsed from the other building.

"There was a lot of banging and a lot of noise and then there was the loudest noise I'd ever heard and then everything collapsed from the roof down through to the lower levels.

"There was lots of dust and panic and lots of noise going on.

"My father said 'get out, get out of the house'."

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
Thousands of homes in Glasgow were damaged in the storm

In the days after the storm large parts of Greenock, Glasgow and Edinburgh lay in ruins.

Thousands were homeless and hundred of thousands of homes were damaged.

Journalist Ian Jack, who was a sub-editor on the Scottish Daily Express at the time, says the city was in a "semi-ruinous condition" even before the storm, a lot of the tenements were falling down.

He says: "I had a friend who said the great storm had been a help in waking up the city to the state of the buildings."

Image source, Courtesy of The Herald and Times Group
Image caption,
The morning after the storm and children rendered homeless by the storm are served breakfast by volunteers

Historian Fergus Sutherland says the disaster of the storm "focused people's minds on how poor much of the housing was".

Before the storm, Glasgow's policy had been to demolish its city housing and move people to tower blocks or new schemes on the outer edge of the city.

After the storm attention turned to improving the tenements, including remodelling them with internal bathrooms and concentrating on conservation, a new word in the Glaswegian vocabulary.

Architectural historian Prof Florian Urban says: "The storm of 1968 has been deemed an ill wind that brought new insight.

"In the case of the Glasgow tenements, people started considering tenements as an acceptable place of living."

Raymond Young, a young architect who pioneered an innovative approach to rehabilitating rundown tenements, says: "The great storm was a God who was fed up with a city not getting its housing right.

"He sent a storm to take off the roofs and make you realise the scale of the problem and get on with the job."