The River Almond

Article in the Konect Directory, Calders edition, Dec 2010/January 2011 

by Helen-Jane Shearer

The River Almond, along with the Water of Leith and the Esk, was one of the main routes of incursion inland from the coast by Scandinavian and other settlers, and as such had an important impact on the settlement of the Lothians centuries ago. It's hard to imagine the Almond as a navigable river nowadays for more than short lengths, as it has been very much changed by nature and, more significantly, by the various activities along its banks over the centuries. The industrial history of the central belt of Scotland can be traced in the form of  numerous weirs, remains of mills and other riverside activities and for a long time the Almond had the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted rivers in Scotland thanks to the impact of mining and heavy industry in the central belt.

Rising in the Cant Hills, just North of Shotts (North Lanarkshre), the Almond is joined in West Lothian by Breich Water at Seafield. Most of its catchment is in fact in West Lothian, where it flows past Whitburn, through Livingston and Mid Calder. Here, at the western end of Almondell Country Park, it is joined first by Murieston Water and then Linhouse Water via the “Linn Jaw”, natural falls three metres high. The river then passes over a weir where a Canal Feeder diverts water and carries it to the Union Canal three miles away at Lin's Mill. After flowing under the Union Canal the river turns northwards, tumbles over a weir at Clifton Hall and is joined by the Brox Burn at Kirkliston. Just north of Edinburgh Airport it is joined by the Gogar Burn for the final stretch down to the Firth of Forth at Cramond. From source to sea the Almond is 28 miles long. 

 

The river was a source of power for various mills. The “West Mill” in Mid Calder, later named Wallace Mill (and after which the present Wallace Mill Gardens is named), and was a grain mill which, according to a report in 1894, was “celebrated for the quality of its produce”. Flour and oatmeal produced here were sold as far afield as Glasgow, initially transported by horse-drawn vehicles and later via the Union Canal. There was a mill on this site from very ancient date, as there is a reference to “West Mylne of Calder” in 1590 in a list of tenants of the barony at the time. Another mill, the East Mill, stood at the site of the present East Calder sewage works, and was also of very ancient date. It was in ruins by the late 19th century, but there is a reference to “Eist Miln of Calder” in the mid 16th century parish records. There was also a waulk mill (woollen cloth) and flax mills (cotton cloth) and bleaching in 18th century at various locations on the river, and forges and ironworks further upstream used the water to power hammers. New Calder Mill, about a mile further up the river from West Mill, was a paper mill that survived until much more recently, latterly producing cardboard for the packaging industry.

Bones!

A stroll along the river now in the Country Park is very peaceful, but archaeological evidence suggests that at one time it was a site of violent conflict. The Almond was apparently an important boundary, and on both sides of the river between Livingston and the sea many human bones have been dug up at various times over the last couple of centuries, some in stone coffins. It is not know definitively what the conflict was but it may have been when the Picts and Scots were defending against the Saxons as they moved up to the Forth.

Some of the stone coffins were hewn out of a solid piece of stone, with closely fitting covers, others were more rudely constructed.  In one a piece of iron, possibly the head of a battle axe, was discovered in 1831. When Powies Path was cut along the north bank of the Almond (centuries ago) a quantity of human bones, stone coffins and a small sword were found there also.

 West Lothian's oil shale and deep coal mining industries of the 19th and 20th centuries took a heavy toll on the River Almond. It is said that it ran “nearly black at times and oil and particles of coal dust had been seen.”  The wildlife suffered and by 1884 angling on the river had ceased completely. The river was useless for cattle or for domestic use at the time. It remained in this heavily polluted state for a long time, until the industries that polluted it fell into decline. Great improvements to the water quality became possible, and the creation of the Forth Purification Board (now SEPA) was a major driving force in the clean-up process. Pollution from the defunct industries can still occasionally be a problem when the water level rises in abandoned pits and the water which is discharged contains iron and sulphur, but there is on-going management of the River Almond catchment area by a partnership of organisations working on continual improvement including treating sources of pollution from defunct industries and treating discharges of domestic sewage in treatment works. Water treatment plants have helped although the river still suffers from detergent pollution and run-off from the agricultural land. The white foam that can sometimes been seen floating on it is caused by household and industrial detergents in the sewage. As bacteria in the water use oxygen to break this effluent down, it can have a detrimental effect on fish and other aquatic life who are competing for the oxygen; the Almond is sill the primary means of transporting West Lothian's waste water to the sea. The East Calder sewage treatment plant was opened in 1969 to deal with Livingston's sewage needs, and treated effluent flows into the river under the Pipe Bridge.

Wildlife of the Almond

With the demise of mining and heavy industry, along with the efforts of various organisations to clean the river up, it is being repopulated with wildlife. There is a healthy population of Brown Trout, and Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout return every year. Work is ongoing to improve salmon passes on the weirs or other measures to encourage and allow salmon to travel freely. Stoneloach, minnows and stickleback also populate the Almond. Birds to be seen around the river banks include Grey Heron, Dipper, Comorant and ever the Kingfisher if you are lucky. Increasing numbers of otter have been sighted in recent years. Leeches, midge larvae, freshwater shrimps, mayfly larvae can be found hiding under stones. Mallard ducks are common, and Daubenton's bats take insects on the wing just above the surface of the water.

It's easy to take for granted as it rushes past us on the way to the sea, but the Almond has been a vital part of the area for centuries - as an early transport route, a boundary between conflicting armies, a source of food, a source of power for local industry. It has suffered terrible pollution but now, thanks to huge efforts, been cleaned up and is once again a resource for wildlife and a recreational resource for us to enjoy. 

  © Lothian Publications Ltd 2014