The Abandoned Glasgow Harbour Tunnel & its Historic Rotundas

Glasgow Harbour Tunnel Rotundas (Image: Raymond Okonski; abandoned Glasgow Harbour Tunnel North Rotunda)

As Hidden Glasgow points out, the Scots city was in the throes of “tunnelling mania” at the end of the 19th century. In 1895, a low-level line was being dug beneath Central Station (click here to explore the now-abandoned Victorian platform), the city’s Subway was nearing completion, and a local engineering firm was poised to open what would become known as the Glasgow Harbour Tunnel. Fast-forward to 2017 and its subterranean passageways are now a thing of the past. What’s left are two brick-built rotundas on either side of the River Clyde, and a long-abandoned pedestrian tunnel that’s been hidden away from walkers for decades. This article briefly traces the history of the forgotten Glasgow Harbour Tunnel and its landmark rotundas.

Route of the abandoned Glasgow Harbour Tunnel under the River Clyde (Image: Bing Maps; Route of the abandoned Glasgow Harbour Tunnel under the River Clyde)

Located in the Finnieston area of the city and designed by Simpson and Wilson, the distinctive domed rotundas were built between 1890 and 1896 by the Glasgow Tunnel Company. Each structure housed a 79 ft-deep shaft which allowed vehicles (initially horse-drawn carts and later motorcars) and pedestrians to be lowered to tunnel level. They could then cross the river and ascend another lift on the opposite side of Clyde before continuing their journey on terra firma.

The hydraulic lifts were built by the Otis Elevator Company of New York. But when World War Two rolled around the tunnels were temporarily closed when their metal fixtures were requisitioned for the war effort.

(Image: Finlay McWalter; empty Finnieston Tunnel South Rotunda in 2004)

Though an undeniable innovation in its day, the Glasgow Harbour Tunnel was expensive to operate and had passed into local authority control by 1926. The Victorian tunnel would rumble on for another 60 years, but time would take its toll on the structure, which was vulnerable to damp and struggled to keep pace with an increasing number of cars on Glasgow‘s roads.

(Image: Thomas Nugent; abandoned South Rotunda during renovation)

By April 4, 1980 the pedestrian tunnel had been abandoned, with the vehicular tunnels closed and permanently filled in six years later. Several three-storey towers, built of red and white brick, which stood adjacent to the rotundas and contained the hydraulic accumulators for the lifts, were also demolished.

Empty Category B listed South Rotunda (Image: Leslie Barrie; the Category B listed South Rotunda)

As a result, the Category B listed rotundas are the only above-ground relics of the abandoned Glasgow Harbour Tunnel, which over the years has been known colloquially by a number of different names, including Tunnel Street, Plantation Place and the Finnieston Tunnel.

Meanwhile, deep beneath the River Clyde lies the eerie form of the disused pedestrian tunnel, which was sealed off decades ago from the world above. This ghost tunnel is still occasionally accessed by engineers servicing a water main that was installed in the disused space around 1987, but it’s been more than three decades since locals walked its gloomy expanse.

The Finnieston Tunnel's preserved North Rotunda is now a restaurant and casino (Image: Simon Johnston; the North Rotunda is now a restaurant and casino)

Back on the surface, the historic rotundas have witnessed a number of varied uses over the past 30 years, including a ‘Dome of Discovery’ and a venue for a 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival. The North Rotunda is now a restaurant but its counterpart across the river has enjoyed a less consistent afterlife. The South Rotunda sat derelict for years before serving as a pop-up arts venue during the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The abandoned Glasgow Harbour Tunnel's South Rotunda in 2014 (Image: Anthony O’Neil; the South Rotunda in 2014)

Later described as “at risk”, it was reported in June 2016 that the empty structure was poised to reopen as the office of a maritime engineering company. As a result, the future preservation of the abandoned Glasgow Harbour Tunnel’s historic rotundas, and their continued presence on the Finnieston skyline, has hopefully been cemented.

Read Next: 10 Inspiring Examples of Adaptive Reuse Projects



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