The Ruchill – a roving river

What do Abigail, Barney, Clodagh and Desmond have in common?

They all brought torrential rain that turned Strathearn rivers into surging masses of water. Unlike communities further south, these first four storms to be named by the public didn’t flood Comrie, but they did unleash the power of the Ruchill.

Comrie lies six miles downstream from Loch Earn. In the village the River Earn is met by two others: the Water of Ruchill arriving from the south and the River Lednock joining from the north. Both the Earn and Lednock are part of a large hydroelectric scheme whose dams allow some moderation of the flow, at least until the lochs are brim full. By contrast, the Ruchill is a wild, untamed river with a will of its own.

The Ruchill starts as the Allt Dubh Choirein, draining the south side of the Munros Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin, and the Corbett Meall na Fearna then flowing southeast down a long glen through the mountains. More streams join it near the watershed between Callander and Comrie, where the river turns northeast into Glen Artney and becomes the Water of Ruchill. By the time it reaches lower ground at Cultybraggan it has gathered rainfall from extensive ranges of hills on both sides.

Despite Sir Walter Scott’s description of “lone Glen Artney’s hazel shade” in his epic poem The Lady of the Lake, the glen has limited tree cover these days. Most of the woods grow on the steeper banks near the river with few extending far up the slopes. The hills are predominately grassland and this means that, once they are saturated, the runoff is quite rapid.

Narrow Glen Artney confines the Ruchill within its banks, but once it hits the flat ground around Comrie it is free to roam. Below the Linn a’ Chullaich, Comrie’s summer swimming pool, there is only one small rapid before it is bounded by level cultivated fields and riparian woodland. Here it becomes a classic ‘braided’ river, its flow spreading out into many channels separated by islands.

Like any braided river the Ruchill is constantly on the move, shifting its course by eroding one bank while depositing sand and gravel elsewhere. Scrub and willows – or even tall alders – may grow on this temporary land, but eventually the river shifts back and carves the island away again.

Many old river banks can be traced at some distance from the river, showing the course it has taken in earlier centuries. One of these banks cuts into Comrie’s Roman camp, indicating that at sometime in the past 2,000 years the river has flowed about 300m further east.

Sometimes the Ruchill resumes an earlier line, as happened in the two floods of 2012 when it cut through the middle of Dalginross, the south part of the village to join the Earn further east as it once did. At windowsill height, it rushed along Camp Road and Barrack Road, a way once called the Lairig Ilidh in recognition that the river took this route every 20 years or so. The Highland Strathearn website (Papers in a Trunk) reports that houses in this street “used cleats to hold wooden boards in at the bottom of doorways, to protect houses from flooding”.

This week I explored what changes the Ruchill has wreaked as a result of the recent storms. I took my camera and Braan, who occasionally served as a photographic model to give scale to the photos.

What I found was that the Ruchill was kept within its banks by the large stone wall put in place as part of the post 2012 flood prevention works, designed to stop it charging across the fields towards Camp Road. However, further downstream it has continued to eat its way closer to the houses and the old concrete flood wall that shields them. This wall provides protection against a surface flood (if not too deep) but will provide no resistance if the Ruchill undermines it.

At the moment, about 50m of woodland separates the river from homes in the Field of Refuge. I have seen it move about 10m closer to them in the past three years. With Storm Desmond alone some two metres of ground was lost in places with whole trees being undercut and swept away. The riverside path is constantly being retrod further ‘inland’ as it is lost into the river.

Of course, the Ruchill may change its mind and start edging west, away from the village, instead of closer. Who knows? Its convoluted, ever-changing course around shifting islands and gravel bars is hard to predict. But I will be walking it and watching it to see what effects forthcoming Eva, Frank, Gertrude and Henry have.

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