Forty years on: Remembering the Clarkston Toll disaster

An archive photo showing the carnage in the aftermath of the explosion at Clarkston Toll. Photo: East Renfrewshire Council archives
An archive photo showing the carnage in the aftermath of the explosion at Clarkston Toll. Photo: East Renfrewshire Council archives
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Few remember the Clarkston Toll disaster, when an explosion, the equivalent of a 1,000lb bomb, reduced a row of shops to rubble, killing 22 people. But for one survivor it’s a day she will never forget. With the 40th anniversay of the tragedy on Friday, she tells Stephen McGinty her story

THE wind was fierce on Thursday, 21 October, 1971 and so was the rain that followed. Looking back, many local women were glad that they had looked out their windows at such a foul autumn day and decided that the shopping could wait for better weather. Those who did venture out to the shops at Clarkston Toll on the south side of Glasgow, had no idea how bad it would get, that the day would end in disaster.

A bird stuck up a chimney was the catalyst that drove Karen McPherson, a young mother of two little boys, to visit the shops. Her husband had come home to free the bird and, with a pocket of extra cash, suggested his wife visit the shops that day instead of waiting until tomorrow. She thought about taking the boys, aged four and one, but looked out at the weather and decided it was too wet and they might catch a chill. Later, her body would be the last to be retrieved from the wreckage; her decision to leave the boys was the only thing for which her family could be grateful.

Few remember the Clarkston disaster, when a row of shops were reduced to rubble by a gas explosion. Twenty women and two men died in what was then one of Scotland’s worst peace-time disasters. While some dark days continue to catch the eye, others are quietly filed away and forgotten. The events of the 21 October, 1971, fall into the latter category and for Catherine Proctor, the 40th anniversary, which falls on Friday, is an apt day on which the nation should be prompted to remember.

“It was a day I’ll never forget,” she says. For three days, prior to the disaster, a strong smell of gas had been noticed by both customers and staff of the shops at Clarkston Toll. The gas company had been called out and spent the previous night digging up the road in search of the source of the leak.

On the morning of 21 October, the 26 shops that made up the Clarkston Toll centre were given the all-clear. Yet, when Proctor arrived at Hamish Robertson’s clothes store where she worked, it was clear the leak had not been sealed. Part of her job involved fetching clothes from the large window display at the front of the store, but when she went in, she began to feel faint. As her family did not have gas at home, she was unfamiliar with the smell and it took her boss, Mr Robertson, to point it out.

He then sent her along the road to fetch the gas men, who were still in the area, two of whom accompanied her back to the shop. She opened the window display to show them, but said she didn’t want to go inside in case she was gassed to death. Looking back over 40 years, Proctor can still remember his reply: “One of the men put his head into the window and said: “There is not enough gas in there to kill a mouse.”

Relieved at their verdict, Proctor decided to run down to the basement to tell her two colleagues, Pat Sprott and Ellen McGeechan, but just as she was telling them, she was called back upstairs. A lady wanted to see a dress in the window display. It was a request that would save her life.

For just as she was at the window, the gas which had slowly been building up for days, met a spark, (the source of the ignition is still unkown) and, at 2:52pm on a cold, wet and windy day, Clarkston Toll blew up. Half the shops would disappear in a devastation that was later compared to the direct hit of a 1,000lb bomb. The car park above the shopping terrace collapsed, piling more than 20 vehicles into the twisted mire of rubble and steel girders. A passing bus took the full force of the explosion. Two women had just got off the bus and both were killed instantly, one of them was Maureen Hume, Scotland’s reigning badminton champion.

May Skellon said on the 30th anniversary of the disaster: “I remember taking in everything when I was waiting for the bus because I was so bored, right down to the what clothes the ladies getting off the bus were wearing. Then there was an almighty roar and a tight feeling took over my body. I lost consciousness. When I came around, I remember seeing both the ladies lying close to me, motionless. There was blood everywhere and I was in terrible pain.”

Back in Hamish Robertson’s clothes store, Proctor was in shock: “All of a sudden I heard a loud wooshing noise. The whole window lifted right off the ground. I saw as it came back down great huge pieces of glass, massive sheets just shattered. Then, all of a sudden, one of the models fell forward but it didn’t stop; it fell right out of the window and that jolted me into reality. I thought that should not have happened. I went to stand back and then just as I did another huge sheet of glass just fell and exploded at my feet.”

She was able to crawl out of the shop, leading the elderly customer behind her and it was only when she was outside that the full extent of what happened became clear: “I saw a young woman and she was leaning against a lamppost. She had her hands over her face and blood was streaming over her hands. I could see there were bodies lying in the street. I knew what I was looking at. I knew there were bodies there, but I couldn’t register it.

“I did not know if they were dead or alive. My brain was trying to work out what was happening. I looked down to the bus stop and I could see the bus and there were people lying about. Then all of a sudden I swept round and that was the first sight I saw of the shops. I can’t tell you the shock. I couldn’t work out what had happened. I just remember a sharp intake of breath. It was all gone.”

George Weir was a few hundred yards away when he heard the blast and ran to assist: “The one thing that stays in my mind was there was no sound.” Today, aged 59, he can still remember meeting a police officer and how both scrabbled up a mound of rubble.

He said previously: “People were tearing at the rubble with their hands. It was very hot in there. It was a dusky darkness. The policeman found a girl trapped by a wall that was on her legs. I literally picked the wall up. I will never know where my strength came from. Bodies were lying everywhere. We were moving rubble and I picked up what I thought was rubbish but it was a dead woman lying behind a shop counter. She was crushed.” At first the police and emergency services thought the carnage was the result of an IRA bomb. All leave was cancelled as doctors, nurses, police officers, firemen and the army flooded into the area.

Ian Bishop was an ambulance driver and, 30 years later, told the young film-maker, Robert Fairfield, for his 2005 documentary, Clarkston: The Forgotten Disaster: “We didn’t know quite how big this was. Then we came down Clarkston Road when you come over the bridge and down into the toll. I looked over to the right-hand side. I could see windows and thought it didn’t look so bad. But when we came down and turned to the left. It was just devastation. The whole top of the building had come down, the car park on the top had all come down. There was obviously terrible lacerations, there was amputations and there was decapitations. It was horrendous.”

Dazed and confused, Proctor was taken to a nearby shop, where she was able to phone home. “My mother picked up the phone. When I heard my mum’s voice, I just shouted, ‘Mum, it’s me. I’m alright but the whole of Clarkston is flat.’ Then the line just went dead.”

Anxious at being indoors, Proctor went back into the street. “I ran back over to the shop, expecting to see Helen and Pat, but I couldn’t see any of them. I ran down the street. There was confusion and when I ran back up, my boss came out from the back of the shop. He shouted at me and said, ‘Catherine do you know what Pat and Helen were wearing?’ I said, ‘Yes, yes, they both had the same outfit on, purple jumpers and purple kilts.’ He then said, ‘Do you know whose shoe that is?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I told him whose shoe it was. He just went, ‘Oh.’”

Neither woman had survived.

As we talk, Proctor is stoic, but there is one memory that still brings tears: later, still in the street, which had by then been cordoned off, she looked up and saw her mother wresting with the authorities, who had dared to stand in her way – “She was coming to get me.”

The cause of the Clarkston disaster was never found. The official inquiry lasted just 19 days and laid the blame on no-one. As the majority of the victims were women, out shopping for their families, rather than working men, the compensation paid was minimal. It would take over 30 years before a memorial was erected at Clarkston Toll and on Friday, Proctor will join many others in remembrance. “I’ll bring my daughter and together, we, along with many others will ensure this is never forgotten.”

A flower-laying ceremony will take place next to Clarkston Hall at 3pm on Friday, and a church service will be held in Greenbank Church at 2pm on Sunday, 23 October.