Hurricane Low Q: Deadly storm left devastation in its wake

It had been an ordinary day, two weeks into a new year, when Glasgow’s towering tenements began to sway.

It was January 14, 1968, and while The Beatles crooned out Hello, Goodbye on the radio, across the country temperatures were cooling fast.

Paperboy Jimmy Wright remembers trying to finish his round early in North Lanarkshire as the wind began to pick up.

“It was between 5pm and 6pm and it was already quite dark by then,” he says. “I thought I’d better get finished quickly and head home.

“It had been a fairly normal day. Coldish and a bit damp but with no indication as to what was ahead of us.”

By the time Jimmy got home, window panes had started to rattle and the odd dustbin was starting to blow over.

Jimmy’s family turned in early as the power went out. Within hours entire neighbourhoods would be plunged into darkness.

Thousands of miles away, far out in the Atlantic, two weather systems had collided. A hurricane named Low Q, a violent storm borne out of a cold front near Bermuda, was heading east and north.

After two days, it was losing force, and weather forecasters had predicted it would peter out and miss the British Isles.

The system had moved north of the Azores and seemed to be calming.

What they did not realise was that as it travelled north, very cold air was heading straight towards it south from Iceland.

The result was explosive. The area of low pressure deepened, causing nature’s own version of a power surge. The storm was now back to hurricane force.

Knocked off its course, it rebounded like a ball on a snooker table directly across the Atlantic straight for Scotland.

The worst natural disaster to hit the central belt since records began was about to hit.

Without warning, in the early hours of Monday, January 15, Scotland suffered the worst period of hurricane-force winds ever recorded on the mainland.

Within 24 hours, 20 lives would be lost to the deadly conditions. Another victim would succumb to his injuries in the days that followed.

By nightfall, many residents across central Scotland had suspected the weather was turning foul, but no one could have guessed the extraordinary power of the wind.

Gale-force winds peaked at between 3am and 5am and smashed across Scotland from Perth down to the border.

“I remember it well as slates were flying off the roof and the building was swaying from side to side,” says Nancy Norman who lived in Govan at the time.

Jean Sutherland was in a nurses’ home in the west end of Glasgow at the gable end of the building.

“I remember my bed moving across the room as each gust hit the building,” she says.

“I tell you I was out of bed and out of my room pretty darned quick.”

Wind-speed at Tiree in Argyll reached 118 mph and more than 100mph in Angus, the Cairngorms, Fife, Midlothian and Prestwick.

Police call handlers’ switchboards began to light up like Christmas trees.

Colin McLean, a young police officer, was on night shift in the centre of Glasgow.

“Shop windows being blown in all around me, alarms ringing and sheets of plywood and corrugated iron blowing at head height made for a terrifying experience,” he says.

“[The] only relief was when you ducked into a doorway for shelter.”

Over in Lanarkshire, Jimmy vividly remembers looking out of his bedroom window and seeing flashes of blue light.

“They were streaking across the telephone wires which stretched between the telegraph poles as the rain and wind built to an intensity, the like of which I had never experienced before,” he says.

“It was surreal. Quite unforgettable.”

Across the country, families locked themselves inside their homes, many gathering together in one room to listen to the storm by candlelight.

Shop windows were blown in, setting off alarms that rang through the night.

In city hospitals, patients in beds were pushed away from windows over fears of falling glass.

Rhona Bennie was only a few days old the night the storm hit.

“Mum was still in the hospital in Glasgow with me and she said all the babies were moved to a windowless ward for safety,” says Rhona.

“She also said gravel was being whipped up against the Queen Mother’s Hospital windows and all the ward doors were creaking and swinging all night.”

A young Louise Lothian remembers her bedroom window being blown open.

“I was seven and all of my wee brother’s model aeroplanes were blown off the window ledge on top of my wee baby sister, Paula,” she says.

“It was so scary and seeing all the destroyed buildings on my way to school the next day was terrible.”

By the time dawn broke, 20 people had lost their lives to the storm.

Victims included Hugh Timoney, 24, who died when a tree fell right in front of his car as he was driving his wife Evelyn to the maternity hospital.

She was badly injured but two hours later she gave birth to a boy, Andrew, their second child.

In Partick, two mothers and their daughters were killed when a heavy chimney stack crashed through the tenement roof of number 555 Dumbarton Road.

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

Nan Best and her three-year-old daughter Angela were killed, along with Jean Gowran and her ten-year-old daughter Nancy.

Ted Heath, then leader of the opposition, toured Scotland in the aftermath and later told the Commons it was hard to visualise “what happens when three tons of solid masonry falls through a roof” unless you had seen it.

“It goes through the roof, and the next floor, and the next floor, and creates a bomb crater in the basement, leaving death behind it,” he said.

Other victims included a girl of five in Cranstonhill, a young pregnant Malaysian nurse in Maryhill, a middle-aged woman and a man in Woodside and a woman in Queen’s Park, all killed from falling masonry.

In Greenock, five people died – three of them drowned after becoming trapped in a dredger that capsized off the town’s Princes Pier.

On the opposite coast, two people were killed in Edinburgh.

William and Elsie Anderson died when a chimney stack collapsed through their ceiling in Dalry.

Many more frightened families trapped in toppling buildings were led to safety by firefighters. Rescue workers toiled through the night in the rubble.

Marion Robinson’s own mother was injured during the storm.

“The chimney stack on our building came crashing through the ceiling of our top floor flat,” she says.

“My wee mum was trapped in bed with a roof beam across her legs. She’s now 94 and still has very swollen ankles as a result of that.”

As daylight filtered through, the scene across the central belt of Scotland was described a being close to “apocalyptic”.

It was Glasgow and its swaying old tenements that succumbed the most to the storm. Years of neglect led to masonry simply crumbling beneath the onslaught of the wind.

By morning, 250,000 homes were damaged and more than 2000 people were left homeless. It felled more than 8000 hectares of forest, about 18 months’ worth of timber production for the entire nation.

Telephone lines were simply blown away. The army was called out and brought with them 13,000 tarpaulins to cover holes in buildings.

Children left homeless were fed by volunteers.

Despite the widespread damage, grants were not immediately forthcoming and only £500,000 was awarded from the then Labour government as an interest-free loan.

The final repair bill was estimated at £30m.

Political pressure eventually meant proper loan schemes were brought in to assist Glasgow and the other areas hit.

The storm was said to be the worst in living memory in northern Europe, while snow storms and winds of hurricane force swept as far east as Iran.

Heavy snow trapped thousands in the Swiss Alps. Blizzards struck Syria, Jordan and Israel.

In Scotland, 100 people suffered serious injuries. Walking wounded treated themselves at home or went to their local GP as the emergency departments were full.

Although the death toll for the country is often quoted as 20, in the following days, one other victim later died of his injuries.

An estimated 30 others, including 12 workers who fell from roofs, lost their lives in the repair operations, giving a final death toll in excess of 50 people.

In Lanarkshire, paperboy Jimmy was put back on his rounds.

“I remember the headlines that morning and in the days that followed,” he says.

“I had the Daily Record in my hands that day and remember very sadly hearing that people had lost their lives.

“For days after the newspapers carried the stories of those who lived through it. It was a night to remember, it really was.”

With special thanks to the STV archives media management team, Lost Glasgow and the Herald & Times Group.

Source: Glasgow & West

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