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  • Gordon Murray

River Clyde 2021


“The Scottish Governments approach to procurement of new vessels… has been short-term, piecemeal and lacking in strategic direction”


Taken from Brian Wilson’s Herald article of 3rd February: Shipbuilding: There is a way to create a new Golden age on the Clyde. Let’s grasp the opportunity.


The article might have been written by the late Jimmy Reid in 1973. Are we simply nostalgic for a golden age never to be repeated? Yet history has a habit of repeating itself and recalibrating. I revisited material gathered over a lifetime of interest on the Clyde. The remnants of D+ W Henderson Shipbuilders yard and graving dock face the Transport museum across the river Kelvin. Valkyrie II which challenged for the 1893 Americas Cup race was built there; designed by George Watson for Lord Dunraven. The following year the Cutty Sark, built at Dumbarton in 1869, travelled the “wool run” from Brisbane to London in 83 days. The Clyde has always been at the cutting edge of marine technologies.


In the opening sequence of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1954 film, The Maggie, the coaster moves slowly up the centre stage – the middle of the River Clyde -– around Yorkhill Quay, (Site of the city’s 2011 transport museum) much to the amusement of the observing port authorities. The shot is from the harbour master’s tower. A timber structure once located at the entrance to Queens Dock. In this first image from 1947 note the three ships “parked” in the mouth of the river Kelvin.


Courtesy of Fiona Sinclair and Canmore


Forward to 1975, and my final year at University of Strathclyde. My thesis project on shipbuilding on the Clyde. The subject of a shipbuilding factory was very much a child of its time. Attracting interest from the management at Scott Lithgow on the lower Clyde but borne out of the constructive insurrection of UCS in Govan and a similar workers cooperative at the Triumph motorcycle plant at Meriden in the West Midlands. Less than five years later Japanese factory production methods applied to the construction of super-tankers led to a glut in the world shipping market. At one time several vessels produced on the Clyde were lying mothballed in the Kyles of Bute.


The harbourmasters tower, still in place at that time, permitted the next image here. The dock entrance itself is still visible. The bends in the river all contribute to a series of wonderful, closed vistas.



Missing however, are the various cargo vessels that lined the quaysides in the 1950’s. By the time of this photograph the only major part of the port that remained working and not as simply moorings, was at the Granaries on Meadowside Quay. Govan was a contradiction here but worked hard to keep shipbuilding on the upper Clyde first as UCS then Govan Shipbuilders then as Kvaerner, then BAE Systems.



Here, the robot-like towers stood as sentinels to the city becoming animated only when grain vessels docked, creating a distinctive architecture along the quayside.



Move forward in time, to 1983 and already we begin to see the paradox that has been the history of the river and its edges for over half a century, significant regenerative investment establishing new uses and new cultures.



Alongside continued re-use of resilient durable 19th century facilities retaining a fragile but essential foothold. This is its richness. Its unique sense of place. History is never totally erased.



The aerial shots from 1983 were taken from the end of the giant jib of the Finnieston crane; my visit coinciding with the crane in use, a rare occasion even then – loading a cargo vessel with the redundant presses from the car plant at Linwood for shipping to Canada. The riggers on the quayside prepare a machine for lifting on board had a busy day. Before the crane once again fell silent and motionless.



As the crane swung to the north-west, we were over the partially clad structure and still evolving form of the new SECC. Sited in the middle of the old Queens dock. Some of its archaeology still there today.



Diagonally to the south-east in the foreground before the M8 at General Terminus Quay the almost completed mechanised letter sorting office for Royal Mail. A short-lived solution for the continually evolving mail industry it, in turn, was demolished to make way for the Quay leisure complex in 1996.



Looking north-east from General Terminus Quay. Broomielaw in the distance. In Bill Forsyth’s 1984 film Comfort and Joy, both riversides remain much as they were when Sandy Mackendrick filmed there. Bill Paterson’s investigations set against a continuous line of warehouses on both sides of the river.



Yet from the late 1980’s the pace of change has transformed these edges, from the tidal barrier at Glasgow Green in the east down to Clydebank in the west. In the thirty years since the 1983 photographs the vast surface of water has in flow and ebb remained placid.


However, that sense of history making its presence felt is never far away. As shots from a river boat trip in 2013 illustrate. The Glenlee at the Transport Museum.



Compare the pictures of Glasgow Harbour with the earlier image from 1976. Directly across the river from what was UCS Govan Shipbuilders now BAE systems working on hull sections of the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps the shipbuilding “factory” I envisaged in my thesis. The second image shows the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in the background.



The river at Broomielaw today. The golden sunset lighting up the sky and reflected in the glazing of the office blocks.



Returning to Brian Wilsons timely article amid the COVID-19 pandemic where Scotland’s deep-water ports are home to more than a dozen ocean going cruise ships. A small but significant part of more than 400 apparently laid up across the globe. Surely exemplifying the impending demise of an industry which produced the Rolls Royce of ocean-going vessels, and in turn, keeping yards across Europe and the Far-East fully employed - a situation denied Scotland’s diminishing shipbuilding industry. A global economy requires global transport. Global warming must impel us more efficient low carbon vessels. Scotland, in particular the western archipelago may serendipitously also be in a position to capitalise on the same global warming in the opening up of the north-east passage via the North Cape to Japan and China.


A route that has focused attention more since the short term closure of the Suez canal by the grounding of the Evergiven. 12 per cent of global trade passes through the canal, the economic damage caused by its closure was significant: a boggling $9.6 billion a day.


The future of shipbuilding? There are more answers to be found on the Glenlee at Yorkhill Quay than in the obsolete leviathans currently berthed in King George V dock.


All images are my own.


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