Branches, blockages and a bit of the Big Society as gales hit Scotland

Fallen tree beside the Albert Halls, Stirling
Fallen tree beside the Albert Halls, Stirling
Well, that was quite a blow. It was several notches down the ferocity scale from what happened in the USA the day before, and it certainly wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a heck of a storm by Scottish standards.

Windspeeds in excess of 100mph in Shetland, or at Cape Wrath, or on the 1,200-metre summit of Cairn Gorm are not as unusual as some might think – but the same strength of gust at just 560 metres on the flank of Glen Ogle is a different matter. (Not that Glen Ogle has been a stranger to extreme weather events in recent years – at least one of the bridges taken out hereabouts by the 2004 cloudburst has still to be replaced.)

And while a seriously big gale sweeping across Scotland is bad enough at any time, for it to happen in late May – with the trees in almost full leaf and catching the gusts like the sails of a ship – was always going to cause major damage and disruption in terms of power failures, bridge closures, ferry cancellations, etc.

There was one death – in Balloch at the foot of Loch Lomond, where a 36-year-old van driver was crushed by a falling tree – and it’s surprising there weren’t more, given the number of whole trees and heavyweight branches that came down. A mid-evening walk around Stirling – in lashing rain as the gale began to slacken a little (while remaining strong enough for trees and slate-shedding roofs to be avoided wherever possible) – was through a scene of leafy destruction, and it was the same across the whole central swathe of Scotland.

It was interesting to observe which kind of trees had succumbed and which had survived, as there did appear to be a trend. Aspect was crucial of course – anything exposed to the south-west was very vulnerable, as was any tree at the end of a corridor of buildings where the wind had scope to bounce and funnel through in even more concentrated form. Anything sheltered – even by other trees, in a static, arboreal version of animals bunching together for safety – stood a better chance of remaining standing.

Stocky, rounded trees didn’t come out of it well – a neighbour’s sturdy-looking fruit tree, tucked into what looked to be quite a sheltered corner, was over on its side, roots ripped out, and there were others of this type including a couple of cherry trees close to a riverside walkway. Conversely, tall thin trees showed amazing elasticity as they bent and flexed in even the biggest gusts. Our young birch – ten years old, five or six metres high but still very slender – appeared unbreakable, despite bending not far off 45 degrees from the vertical at times. Similarly, a tall, bare-boned eucalyptus in another neighbour’s garden never looked like snapping.

Perhaps the biggest toll, however, came from the horizontal branches of old sturdy sycamores and the like – there were any number of these strewn around, potentially lethal as they fell, then blocking roads and pavements once they lay. I chatted with a man and his son in the well-heeled King’s Park area of Stirling – they had spent the past couple of hours chainsawing a large branch, and were now putting several dozen logs into barrows to be stashed for next winter’s firewood. “Just imagine how much wood there would be if the whole thing came down,” the man said as he looked up at the massive tree with its bright wound where the branch had been torn off.

Transport was a lost cause in the late afternoon and early evening, with trains cancelled and roads turned into slow-moving backlogs even where they weren’t actually blocked. There will have been many instances of people helping each other to cope with problems and to clear roads and pathways, and one such incident – instructive in its way – happened close to my own house. I was meant to be driving into Glasgow for the evening, and didn’t really fancy it – but decided to give it a go and see how far was feasible.

Exactly half a mile proved to be the answer, as the only road out of the village was blocked by a massive fallen branch. A visiting workman – trapped on the wrong side of the obstacle – was literally scratching his head when I pulled in alongside, and despite moving a couple of smaller branches between us, it was obvious that the big one needed machinery of some kind or another.

On the way back home, I flagged down a neighbour who was just about to drive out of the village and passed on the news that she wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. She was taking her wee girls to Brownies, and collecting the local farmer’s daughter en route. “I’ll see if Andy [the farmer] can do anything,” she said. And right enough – in as long as it took me to try – and to fail – to get through to both the council (“You are number 16 in the queue. Please wait”) and the police and then to drive back along to see what could be done manually, Andy the farmer had already been out in his big JCBish seed-spreading machine and shoved the offending timber on to the verge.

Perhaps it was a Big Society moment – or perhaps it was simply what used to be known as sensible, helpful, all-pull-together behaviour. Problem solved – and road quickly re-opened – anyway.

Talking of politics, one final thought. The biggest weather-and-transport disruption to hit Scotland since the December snowstorm came just three days after Stewart Stevenson returned to the Holyrood cabinet table. Mr Stevenson had – rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly – lost his previous portfolio, that of transport minister, on the back of December’s icy gridlock. And pretty much the minute he returns – to take up the environment and climate change brief – we get this. Could it be that the weather gods are trying to tell us something…?

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