FIFTY years after the Great Storm devastated Glasgow, Ken Smith speaks to survivors ...

IT took shape in the Bahamas, powered its way over the Azores, and was forecasted to rush past the west coast of Scotland, leaving merely a few gusts of wind as its calling card.

But the mundanely-named Hurricane Low Q suddenly locked horns with another weather front, abruptly changed direction, and thundered up the River Clyde, gathering record speeds of over 125 mph as it hungrily tore through the black sky, 50 years ago on the night of January 14, 1968.

Glasgow bore the brunt of it, mercifully at four in the morning when few people were about on the streets, as slates, bricks and debris ripped through the air like deadly ordnance. But the late hour did not save those cowering in their beds, the wind keening outside as windows bulged, and teetering chimney stacks collapsed through tenement roofs like the bombs of the Blitz only two decades earlier.

There had been no warning, and when a grey dawn finally raised its sickly head in Scotland, 20 people were dead, nine of them in Glasgow.

The worst loss of life was in a tenement on Dumbarton Road in Partick. Two mothers and their two daughters died as a chimney stack from the adjoining tenement plunged through their roof, with their bodies found by rescuers the following day after a 12-hour search in the debris-strewn basement. One of the mothers was from Swindon in south-west England and was only in Glasgow to attend the funeral of her mother who had died in a fire. Seemingly slight decisions taken that night decided whether people lived or died. A nine-year-old girl who had been playing with one of the Dumbarton Road victims had wanted a sleepover with them. Her parents said no, a decision which saved her life.

A pregnant nurse from Malaysia died in Maryhill from a similar chimney collapse. In Bonhill, Dunbartonshire, a driver was killed when a tree hit his car while driving his pregnant wife to hospital to give birth. His wife and future child survived. Meanwhile in Govan a father took his pregnant wife to hospital – and went home the next day to find his flat had collapsed while his family were at the maternity hospital.

Many people have graphic memories of that night. As one Glaswegian recalled: "I remember my wee maw hugging me and my sister in the scullery as the lino flapped up and down like Ali Baba's magic carpet. I thought it was brilliant till I looked at my mother's horrified face and then I knew it was really serious."

There was even some humour amidst the devastation. David McKenzie living in the west end remembers a neighbour worrying about his new car. Said David: "His wife persuaded him to dig out his old air raid warden tin hat and wear it for protection when he went out to check. He got to his car and satisfied it was undamaged turned to go home when the wind caught the edge of his tin hat which flew off his head and straight into the windscreen of his new car."

All night the rescues services were deluged with calls. Two reception centres were set up in Govan and Shettleston to take in those that had escaped tumbling walls. The next day Glasgow was compared to a war zone. The entire sides of tenements had been ripped away leaving exposed rooms like giant dolls' houses. Broken glass and debris were everywhere. Burglar alarms eerily wailed, set off by the winds. Cars sat at the roadside without a scratch while others just feet away were crushed by falling masonry.

The Government sent troops to the city, primarily to help safely store the furniture of people who could not secure their homes. Rumours spread they were really needed to deter looters. As one Glasgow councillor so colourfully put it: "The police are doing their best, but to me these looters are lower than vermin. Vermin thrive in miserable conditions and these vermin are having a field day in the misery arising out of hurricane damage." Their targets were often the gas and electricity meters of damaged houses which were full of coins. In truth there was little looting as people had very little worth stealing.

And then the rains came. The original rescue mission was to save the lives of anyone trapped, but when rain deluged the city over the next two days, it was clear that saving the houses now running with water was a priority, but the response was slow. Eventually 15,000 tarpaulins were brought north in convoys from Army depots in England, but it took a week for them to arrive.

From the air Glasgow's tenements were awash with these green tarpaulins, looking like giant Elastoplasts. Many were in place for years as there were simply not enough slaters to repair the roofs.

Unaccountably the then Lord Provost of Glasgow was not keen on a nationwide appeal for financial help saying that Glasgow could look after its own. It was either misplaced machismo or the suspicion that leaders in society were not attracted to the idea of people who had no insurance being given money while those who had carefully spent their money on insurance receiving no additional help.There was confusion over who would co-ordinate the help required. Folk in privately rented tenements were at the mercy of owners who did not have the money to pay for repairs.

It may seem that hurricanes make no distinction between rich and poor. but it is never that simple. As Tam Galbraith, the Conservative MP for Hillhead in Glasgow's west end observed: "It is in the lower part of my constituency, along Dumbarton Road, that the dangerous damage seems greater, and as one goes up the hill from the river to the more prosperous parts of the constituency, it becomes less and less until among the mansions of Kelvinside there seems to be no dangerous damage at all."

His contentious point was that rent controls had meant that owners of working class properties could not afford the regular maintenance which could have avoided the worst of the damage. After the initial rescues, people were left with scant help. "Every day," he added, "I get pathetic letters from constituents telling how rain is still coming in and how they cannot, try as they might, get any workmen to come to put it right."

The politics of the day will challenge some people's preconceptions. There was a Labour Government at the time, yet help for Glasgow, which returned many Labour MPs was miserly. Initially a £500,000 loan scheme to help was put forward, even though later estimates of the storm damage across Scotland was put at £30m. Willie Ross, Labour's Scottish Secretary, only spoke vaguely about council rates not having to be raised in the future to pay for the damage.

The future Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath sounded the most compassionate, telling the House of Commons: "What we are dealing with are the sad consequences of the loss of families and friends whom nobody and nothing can replace, of homes which have been destroyed, of precious belongings and possessions which have been damaged, very often beyond repair, of capital and savings, especially in the countryside, which have been wiped out, and of the jobs and livelihoods which have been imperilled. These hardships and sufferings, which are continuing in some cases, must affect each one of us here deeply." He urged the Labour Government to give more financial help.

One MP suggested that the storm exposed to the rest of the country the poor state of Glasgow's housing stock and the lack of progress in improving it since the war.

The slow response from Glasgow Corporation in repairing homes exposed the dilemma of council officials who wanted the more unstable tenements in areas such as Govan pulled down and replaced with new housing schemes rather than having work done on them.

Meanwhile folk continued to live with tarpaulins over their heads. History repeats itself as today it is argued not enough is being done to help the people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. The same arguments about the poor being forgotten about were made 50 years ago about those affected by the Great Storm of Glasgow.