It was Derek, fellow marathon runner and rugby player of earlier days, who told me about the Greenock attraction, “walking the Cut”. As a local boy, and now a retired Civil Engineer, he was the obvious person to be my guide.
Thanks to the deep offshore waters of the Firth of Clyde, Greenock rapidly developed into a port and shipbuilding centre, home base of the west of Scotland`s largest herring-fishing fleet, and in the 19th-century principal departure point for emigrants.
The high moorland to the south was the source of many a well and stream providing clean water for domestic use; supplemented in 1773 by a piped water system designed by James Watt. However, with an increasing demand for water powered mills, a further solution was required.
Robert Thom, a civil engineer, prepared a scheme to turn a freshwater lake, Shaws Water, into a reservoir (now named Loch Thom) from which a 5½ mile long canal-like aqueduct would take the water, with an almost imperceptible drop, to Overton, overlooking the town. Opened in1827, the aqueduct is now known as the Greenock Cut.
With ever growing domestic demand, the Kelly Cut was constructed in 1845 to bring water from the Kelly Burn and Gryfe Reservoir to the east was built in 1872.
Greenock is accessed by train from Glasgow though the most convenient station, Drumfrochar, has only an hourly service. We arrived by car, saving a ten-minute uphill walk from the station, by Papermill Road and Overton Road, to reach the small Overton car park, map ref 266749.
Head up the tarmac then gravel road, passing on the left an impounding reservoir and the water treatment works, now served by underground pipes. Continue uphill to the gap between White Hill and Jock`s Hill. Ignore the tarmac road on the right which leads to the communications mast at 277m and descend to gain the first views of the massive reservoir. Note the warning sign….deaths have occurred at reservoirs. Four fishermen we passed were anxious to show off their recent catch, an 8lbs (allegedly) brown trout.
Pass a well constructed by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1915, near the white-painted Loch Thom cottage, and on by the loch`s outflow that feeds a compensation reservoir. Open daily in summer and at weekends in winter, Cornalees Bridge Visitor Centre has an interactive exhibition about the Cut. There is an independent café open all year round.
At the start of the boarded-off Cut, used until 1971, is a memorial to Robert Thom. Cross a footbridge to reach the beautiful canal-like towpath between the Cut and the wooded Shielhill Glen. At this stage, there is no flowing water in the stagnant and weed overgrown Cut…..ironic considering the impressive waterfall on our day (the outflow from the loch surging into the glen). Presumably, the cost of maintaining the Cut would be prohibitive. However, on nearing Overton the aqueduct, collecting some of the water from streams that cross its path, gives a closer idea of what once was.
On the clockwise route around Dunrod Hill it is mandatory to inspect two stone chambers built to house the ingenious method of releasing surplus water from the Cut. Water flowed down a pipe and filled a bucket which then pulled a chain down over a pulley wheel, so lifting a counterweight and a lever to open the sluice gate. Small holes in the bucket allowed the water to slowly drain out so when the inflow stopped the counterweight eventually pulled the sluice gate lever away and lifted the empty bucket.
We met few walkers on our cold cloudy blustery day that alas only gave limited panoramic views of the Clyde and north to Ben Lomond. Do go on a clear day!
Map: Ordnance Survey map 63, Firth of Clyde
Distance: 8 miles
Terrain: Vehicle track and footpath
Start point: Overton car park, map ref 266749
Time: 3 hours
Nearest town: Greenock
Refreshment spot: Cardwell Garden Centre Restaurant, Lunderston Bay, Gourock