The valley of the River Clyde crosses the central lowlands of Scotland, running north-west to its estuary. Beneath its fertile farmland lay coal and iron ore, and from the end of the 18th century, industry grew along the banks of the river. Within one hundred years, a continuous conurbation lay on either bank, for the last thirty miles of its path to the sea. The nation’s largest city, Glasgow, stood at the lowest bridging point, and only arbitrary boundaries on maps separated it from the other towns upstream.
By the 1950s, when I was a child, mining had declined in the area, the iron ore exhausted and the coal increasingly difficult to win. Most of the collieries had closed down, but their place had been taken by iron foundries, steel mills and heavy engineering factories that sent their manufactures to the shipyards at the river’s mouth.
My childhood friends and I lived in drab streets of mean tenements, built in the late 19th century to house industrial workers close to their places of employment. We played in the streets close to our homes, and on patches of waste ground where buildings had been deserted, and left to fall into ruin. In those years of reconstruction following the second world war, the steel mills of the town were in production for three shifts, 24 hours of every day. The smoke from the chimneys perpetually darkened the sky, and a metallic grit powdered every surface, outdoors or in. In our environment, nature seemed to have been overwhelmed. A few untidy weeds struggled to survive in pavement cracks, and there were sparrows and pigeons to be seen, but it was a grey world that provided our earliest playground.
In school we saw films and listened to educational radio broadcasts about the world of nature, but these were always set in green countryside, where bright and articulate children discovered the plants and animals of wood and field. They had no more to do with our lives, we felt, than the adventures of hunters and explorers in distant continents that we saw in our visits to the cinema. We did not expect that nature would have a local presence, and we did not look for it.
As we grew older, we wandered farther afield from our home territory, finding streets where buildings differed from our own tenements; quiet, cleaner streets of 1930s bungalows and large Edwardian mansions that were the homes of people wealthier than our families, the people who profited from the dirt and squalor of the town’s industry. But always there was something beyond, something more to seek. So it was that we discovered the bing.
“Bing” was the local dialect word given to a feature common throughout the Clyde Valley: the spoil-heap, residue of early mining, that remained on the landscape even after all other signs of the colliery — offices, wheel-house, railway lines — had been removed or fallen into dereliction.
We first saw it in the distance, its ridge darkly visible above the roofs of houses, like the back of a gigantic whale as it might appear when breaking the surface of a choppy sea. And this bing was somehow different from all others, because we had found it by ourselves; it was ours. It lay within our fiefdom, it was our property, to explore and exploit.
Beyond everything, we longed for a place to play that was not built over. There was no open countryside within range of our ramblings, but we hoped that the mound of mining spoil might provide for us a substitute upland, no matter how poor a facsimile of nature itself, where we could engage in our games and imagine that we had escaped from the urban world that we normally inhabited. We rushed towards it.
The houses ended abruptly, and the bing rose steeply, only a road’s width from neat suburban gardens. We climbed to the ridge, struggling up the incline, our feet sliding on the dark, grey shale of which it was composed, until, breathless and weak, we collapsed at the summit. And there before us was a vista of other ridges, other summits, stretching out into the distance. Our new found land extended beyond our wildest dreams. The bing was gigantic.
At first we wandered cautiously, uncertain of whether this was private property, forbidden to us. But our confidence grew as we gloried in the silence and solitude that the hills of mining waste offered us. As we returned there again and again over the following days and weeks, we came also to realise that the bing had been constructed over many years.
Nearest to the houses, it was youngest. Little grew on those slopes. Occasional ragged clumps of grass and weeds dotted the surface but it remained, for the most part, the naked mud and rock from which the coal had been extracted. As we ventured to more faraway parts, we discovered that, little by little, plants had taken hold. Saplings of Birch and Willow merged into areas of scrub. Young forest trees — Sycamore and Beech, Oak and Ash — began to appear, and in the most distant places, we found woodland that must have been twenty or thirty years in the growing.
Between the ridges were deep valleys which had once held the railway lines, used to transport the spoil from the mine. Water drained into them from the surrounding heaps, and they were marshy, with dark pools and areas of thick, black mud. They had to be crossed with care, for a boy might lose a shoe simply by stepping in the wrong place.
We felt that we had come upon a paradise. Here we could conduct our games, free from adult supervision; and with seemingly endless tracts of land at our disposal in which to hide, or hunt opponents. We had, at least in our imaginings, woods and mountains, deserts and swamps where our battles could be waged.
For our games were always warfare. We divided ourselves into opposing platoons, argued over who should be the Allies, who the Axis forces, and, this having been decided, one troop would flee, to hide or lie in ambush. The other would wait until all sound of the enemy had died away, and would then set off in pursuit. When we played these games close to home, it was within the cramped surroundings allowed by streets and backyards, alleyways and passages. Here, on the bing, the entire scale of things was different.
The hunted had a vast expanse within which to find a hiding place and lie in wait. The hunters might wander for an interminable time without cornering their quarry. And so, on the summer afternoons while we re-enacted World War II, a strange and wonderful education happened.
The first discoveries concerned the plant life that had established itself on the impoverished soil of the bing. We found wild Raspberries, the canes heavy with the soft red berries, and after fierce debate about whether or not they might be poisonous, we recklessly feasted on the tart fruit. Even more exciting was the discovery of small plants low to the ground that bore what appeared to be tiny Strawberries. Already under the spell of the place, we tasted them, and discovered that they were indeed what they appeared to be, though sweeter by far to us than the giant berries in greengrocers’ windows. As autumn approached, we noticed the luscious black fruit ripening on jagged Bramble bushes, and braved their thorns to gorge ourselves.
Even more magical were the rewards that came from silence. Our games required that we move or hide so quietly that our opponents were not alerted to our presence. As we did this, we began also to encounter the creatures that, like the plants, had chosen to live in this man-made habitat.
We heard the birds first. Unknown alarm calls sounded from cover as we traveled, sounds we had not heard on the streets; and we caught fleeting glimpses of species we had only seen in books, or on classroom posters: Blue Tits, Tree Creepers, tiny Wrens and crooning Wood Pigeons. When we were still, they would ignore our presence, affording us clear, enchanting views as they foraged for food.
Once, crossing a small area of knee-high grass, a male Pheasant exploded from almost under our feet, causing first terror, then excitement. On another occasion, we moved through undergrowth down into a marshy valley and were able to watch as a Grey Heron paced in statuesque slow motion amongst the pools, until like lightning it struck, the lethal beak spearing some small amphibian. Even more dramatic was the sight of a Sparrowhawk pursuing and capturing a Blackbird in a clump of trees, and then proceeding to pluck and devour its prey, perched on a branch above our heads, oblivious to our horrified attention.
Soon, we began to search more actively for the wildlife of the bing. Our war-games diminished to a secondary significance, and then faded away entirely. We found where a Tawny Owl made its nest in the trunk of a wind-broken tree. We located, beneath rotting railway sleepers, the life of the marshy ground — Toads, Frogs, Newts — that had attracted the Heron. We came across burrows, and hid until we had gained a glimpse of the Rabbits that had dug them.
But our encounters with mammals were generally less frequent, and usually completely fortuitous. Now and again we would catch sight of a Stoat or a Weasel as it foraged for prey. These lithe and inquisitive killers would sometimes stop in their tracks and observe us, unwelcome intruders into their world. One evening, when we had lingered into the dusk, we encountered a dog Fox as we descended the last slope towards the road. He stopped and regarded us with no apparent concern, while we too stood rooted, unable to believe what we were seeing. Then he dipped his shoulders, and was suddenly gone.
Most astonishing of all was the sight, on an autumn afternoon when grass was turned to pale yellow, and leaves, russet and brown were beginning to spiral slowly to the earth, of a Roe Deer, feeding beneath the canopy of a patch of young chestnut trees. The wind must have been blowing our scent away, for the creature remained unaware of our presence for a long time. Then, in an instant, it was gone, leaving us open-mouthed in wonder.
The more we discovered of the secret life of this wasteland, the more carefully we observed, and the more we sought out information that would explain to us what we were seeing. The town library became a regular haunt, and we learned to name the animals and plants that we saw. But the books described them as being of woods, rivers, fields and moorland; nowhere did we find any reference to bings. That was our treasured secret.
Those days of childhood taught me to be always looking. They taught me that, in the most unlikely locations, even where the land has been spoiled by human carelessness and greed, nature will undertake the task of slowly, surely reasserting itself; and wildlife will seek out places to live if given peace to do so. The bing was a truly liminal area, neither of the town not of the country, yet it offered itself as a place where plants could grow and wild creatures could thrive within a locality that seemed to have been blighted by 200 years of heavy industry.
Gordon Gibson is a retired lecturer, living in the town of Troon, in the West of Scotland. He has written poetry for a hobby over a long number of years, and since leaving paid employment has devoted time to the writing of prose fiction and nonfiction.