"Fit like the day, then?"
-Not bad, I replied, -How's it going here?
"Ach, I’m nae getting on worth a docken.  The site agent shook his head.  "I'm near certain these drains are chokit up.
We went out into the road, he picked up a crow bar and heaved – but the iron lid didn’t shift.
"Need tae gie it a great yark wi the pinch…
With a big effort, he rived up the manhole cover: the rich smell of fermenting malt hit us immediately.

"At's nae surprise, is it? and he nodded to the pagodas of the distillery malt house behind us.  It was gloamin, and their distinctive forms were silhouetted against a pale violet sky.
"We'll need tae pressure jet aa that – he nodded at the open manhole – an the chambers are collapsin, tae.  The drenns are connached.  You anes'll need tae gies anither Instruction, eh?
As he watched for my reaction, the site agent offered a smile for the first time that day and I began to understand where the expression "pouring money down the drain" originated…


The Song of the Drains is something we take for granted.  Rather like the keen hissing of the nerves, and the low note of our pulse, it's a sound which is with us all the time, yet we have to listen carefully in order to hear it.  It has deep roots: the song began over 150 years ago.  The Victorians were obsessed with sanitation – you could say they were anally-retentive about it – and they were the first to hear this song.  

Mucky water sluiced through iron and fireclay conduits at the start of Victoria's reign, and some of our present day infra-structure dates back to then, too.  Every building built before the 1950’s has a buried network of fireclay drains under and around it, socketed and spigotted together and all shiny with a rich chestnut-brown salt glaze.  There are complex manifolds whose tails fan out to gather in the branches, each laid gently on a bed of pea gravel, carefully back-filled with selected granular material – a work of artistry and loving care that no-one ever sees.

Just like every other component of a building, this is a world apart, with its own vocabulary, conventions, and hundreds of pages of B.S. to guide you.  B.S., in this case, being "British Standard" rather than the cow shit which flows down gullies in cattle courts.  Water sinks down into the fireclay system with a gurgle, then runs near-silently, with just a faint sussuration each time it flows through a trap.  Alongside the drains, you have the steady hum of electricity cables, the evil hiss of gas mains, and the enigmatic silence of fibre optics.  The only clue to the existence of this Underworld are the iron covers with cryptic messages cast into their lids.  

The fireclay industry began to decline in the Fifties as drainage pipes became plastic, roof tiles were cast in concrete, and stainless steel flues were introduced.  When the closely-related refractory industry crashed in the 1970’s, it took with it many of the remaining architectural fireclay manufacturers.   Until then, Scotland led the world.  Companies thrived in the coalfields of Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife for one hundred and fifty years:  since the coal measures harnessed to fire the kilns are often underlain by seams of fireclay, there was a happy synergy between raw material and the means of its transformation.   

The mantle passed successively from the Garnkirk Fireclay Co. to J&M Craig of Kilmarnock, and finally the Glenboig Union Fireclay Co., which was the world’s largest fireclay producer for many decades.  From sinks and baths and lavvies made by Shanks of Barrhead, the fireclay pipes run under the building, through the scarcements of the external wall.  Often, they’re trapped under great drifts of rubble and sour earth.  

Once they escape from those confines, the pipes meet up with other effluents from tanks and rectifiers and gullies, then make their way gently downhill – the pipes grow in diameter, gathering momentum until they reach the Disconnecting Manhole.  At that point, Private drainage (and if ever you wanted to keep something to yourself, it’s this), becomes Public drainage.

Drains represent the inner world, and in contrast to the outer concerns that architecture usually has, great sums are spent in order to keep it out of sight.  Designing a building with its gizzards on display would be no different from leaving the lavvy with an Andrex tail hanging from one's strides.  Authenticity of appearance and truth to materials never stretched this far.  There are so many things to hide: like the Buchan Trap, for instance.

This ill-natured switchback, designed to prevent bad air venting through the system, is also an impediment to good drainage.  The Buchan Trap is the cause of so many blockages that the "Hot Rod" companies suspect it first when the water backs up.  In the old days, the Victorians flushed through the system regularly … we don't, so the Buchan Trap chokes up.  Mr Buchan's name has been taken in vain many times.  In fact, you could say that his name is dirt.

The Buchan Trap lives underground with other things bearing wonderfully evocative names, like the “Ames Crosta Gully Pot”.  I knew nothing about that until I happened to visit the Clay Cross foundry in Derbyshire.  Just like the nearby Stanton and Staveley, Clay Cross was the descendant of an ancient iron founding company which latterly made castings for hydraulic engineering, from simple drain covers to complex valves.  In the usual manner of these things, the Ames Crosta company had been successively swallowed up by larger and larger rivals like Babcock until the pike at the head of the water treatment foodchain, Biwater, bought it.

While the initial lure of Clay Cross was the rumour of several old XJS Jaguars lying abandoned inside, I discovered huge fab halls and iron foundries which had been abandoned when Saint Gobain bought Biwater over and closed Clay Cross down.  The dark, grimy sheds were too interesting to ignore, and I photographed everything from timber casting patterns to an ancient furnace bank incorporated into modern buildings.  On a later trip through the area, I discovered that the site had been completely cleared, and a white sales cabin spoke directly about what would come next.

Similarly, gully gratings come in many designs, but two of the most common in Scotland are the Grahamston pattern and Bo’ness pattern: both named after big industrial foundries in the Falkirk area.  They are still available from McLuckie of Dalry, who have developed a theft-proof gully to foil the metal thieves who steal anything they can weigh in at the local scrappie – even if that meant leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the road.

Then you have the mysteries of life.  I recall a Shone sewage ejector which lived in a deep shaft down by the river.  Every now and then it would give a deep hiss and thump, leading the surprised visitor to ask "Just what do you keep down there?”  It would have been no surprise at all if we’d replied that it was one of Tolkein’s balrogs.

Darkness proper had fallen at the distillery, so I turned my back on that sweet, rich scent of malting grain, leaving the labourers up to their knees digging out the sodden barley draff.  They toiled for a whole week.  And so the project's Contingencies were flushed away, and the Completion date went down the pan.  Oh, let that be an end to the puns.  Let's keep walking.  

As in the Classical myth, Orpheus must not look back when he leaves the underworld – otherwise the site agent will catch him and demand yet another Architect's Instruction, to rebuild yet more collapsing manholes...

By Mark • Albums: ghosts, aberdeen