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Issue 64 - Along the Mighty Clyde

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 2012


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Along the Mighty Clyde

John Hannavy journeys along Scotland's great rivers in search of history

It was a highlight of my 16th summer. We had driven from our Perthshire home to Craigendoran and taken a steamer down the Firth of Clyde to Dunoon. Then Dad had suggested we walk around the coast to Sandbank and get some lunch. After we had eaten, and much to the disapproval of my mother, he then proposed hiring a boat and rowing out into Holy Loch to get a better view of the huge US Navy ‘mother-ship’, the USS Proteus, and the ‘Polaris’ nuclear submarines which were tied up alongside her. Mum stayed in the car! Proteus, already nearly 20 years old, had arrived on the loch just a few months earlier – in March 1961.

In those innocent days more than half a century ago, access to the Holy Loch was not impeded by the high chain-link fences and US security presence which in later years effectively blocked the path of any curious sightseers. We rowed to within a few yards of the submarines – me snapping away with my first camera – before the US naval authorities suggested we back off! There were three submarines moored alongside Proteus that hot summer’s afternoon, their missile silos open, with the Polaris warheads partly protruding above the superstructure. Closest of the three was the USS George Washington, the submarine which has gone down in history as the first ever to launch a Polaris missile. She had arrived in the loch just a few weeks before our visit. Sadly, I lost the negatives long ago, and it would be 30 years before I returned to the loch.

On my return visit in 1990, by which time Proteus had been replaced by a succession of even bigger ships, prowling the south side of the loch with a camera was definitely not appreciated, but from Kilmun on the north shore, the full scale of the American presence could be seen. The tender ship by then was the USS Simon Lake, doing her second and last tour of duty on the loch. She left two years later, the last of five ships to take up station on the loch over the thirty years of the American presence in Scottish waters. Today Holy Loch is a peaceful place once more, that part of the Clyde’s history now just a memory.

The much bigger Gare Loch north of Helensburgh is still the home base for Britain’s nuclear submarines, and from the hills above Shandon, they can occasionally be seen slipping out into the Firth.

A long way south, two burns, the Daer Water and the Potrail Water meet west of Moffat at the delightfully-named Watermeetings to form the stream which will become a River Clyde. The source of the Tweed is less than six miles away, and the Annan just eight.

The river flows northwards to Elvanfoot, passing under the A74M near Crawford, and continuing north towards New Lanark and the four Falls of Clyde – Bonnington Linn, Corra Linn, Dundaff Linn, and Stonebyres Linn.

For much of the year, the falls are a mere shadow of their former selves – much of the water is diverted above Bonnington Linn to power the Bonnington hydro-electric power station – but for the few days each year when the power station is off-line for maintenance, the falls return to their former glory.

The fast flowing waters north of the falls used to power Robert Owen’s mills at New Lanark, and Bonnington Linn and Cora Linn were regular stopping-off points for many famous 19th-century travellers to Scotland. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote that a small boy had guided her brother William to the falls during their Scottish tour in 1803, and that “the little fellow carried him by a wild path to the upper of the Falls, the Boniton Linn, and coming down unexpectedly upon it, he was exceedingly affected by the solemn grandeur of the place.”

About a quarter of a mile above Cora Linn, peregrines can be seen raising their young in late spring, and the wildlife trust sets up a ‘peregrinewatching’ site opposite the cliff face where they nest. On a hot Sunday morning in late May, the hen was panting in the unusually high temperature, while her two chicks slept by her side.

Some 19th century visitors were hugely impressed with the ‘model town’ at New Lanark and the enlightened living and working conditions Robert Owen had created there, but others less so. The poet Laureate, Robert Southey, who had arranged to meet Owen for a personal guided tour of the site during his tour of Scotland with Thomas Telford in 1809 – see Scotland Magazine 61 – was one of those, writing “Owen in reality deceives himself. He is partowner and sole Director of a large establishment differing more in accidents than in essence from a plantation: the persons under him happen to be white, and are at liberty by law to quit his service, but while they remain in it they are as much under his absolute management as negro-slaves. His humour, his vanity, his kindliness of nature (all these have their share) lead him to make these human machines as he calls them (and too literally believes them to be) as happy as he can, and to make a display of their happiness. And he jumps at once to the monstrous conclusion that because he can do this with 2210 persons, who are totally dependent upon him—all mankind might be governed with the same facility.”

And yet, despite all that, he admitted that he liked and admired Owen, and readily conceded that the workers in New Lanark enjoyed a significantly better existence than their counterparts in Manchester or Glasgow. He even conceded, to an extent, that a Utopian dream was not necessarily a bad thing.

In a way, Owen’s dream of easing and simplifying the lot of his mill-workers through better living and working conditions was little different from Telford’s dream of making travel and commerce easier with good roads and bridges, and Southey was wholeheartedly in agreement with that.

The river continues its way north until, near Hamilton, its course has been changed to create a large artificial loch in the Strathclyde Country Park. A huge theme park now stands alongside the loch, with rides designed for those who know no fear, and probably harbour a secret death wish!

At Bothwell, the river flows past the dramatic ruins of the 13th century Bothwell Castle, built by Lord Walter of Moray, or more likely his son who revelled in the soubriquet of William the Rich, around 1280.

It sits on a heavily wooded escarpment overlooking the river, but despite its location, it saw more than its fair share of bloody conflict.

Before the castle was even twenty years old, it was besieged and captured by the English. The Scots recaptured it after a siege of more than a year, but their success was short-lived, it falling again after an attack by an English army of nearly seven thousand men! They remained in control until after the Battle of Bannockburn, when it was surrendered to the Scots, and subsequently rendered indefensible by them. Not for long, though, as the English rebuilt it twenty years later. Despite partial rebuildings, and almost continual use as a residence until the late 17th century, the castle has remained incomplete ever since.

North of Bothwell, the river approaches Glasgow, although still relatively narrow and nothing like the great river which flows west from the city.

Glasgow, of course, only exists because of the Clyde, and it has been an important shipping port for centuries. Fifty years ago steamers left every night from the Broomielaw, almost in the city centre, for the overnight crossing to Belfast. In Victorian and Edwardian times, the Broomielaw was also the embarkation point for numerous paddle steamers connecting Glasgow with the communities along the many sea lochs, and around the west coast.

As the Belfast steamer made its way slowly towards the Tail of the Bank, the river was lined with the shipyards which turned out the great passenger and cargo ships which served the Empire. Looking at the river today – almost devoid of large ships – it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday, then the docks west of Glasgow city centre were so busy that ships at times had to queue for a berth.

Less than fifty years ago, the QE2 was launched into the river from John Brown’s yard – but of Brown’s, Napier’s, Inglis’ and many other great shipbuilding names, not a trace remains. Only the small Ferguson yard standing close by Newark Castle in Port Glasgow still builds ships on the river, and today their output seems restricted to small ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne.

In his book In Search of Scotland published in 1929, H. V. Morton reminded his readers that “Ole man Clyde is not a river: he is an excavation. Those of you who think the Clyde was placed by Nature next to Glasgow for the building of ships are sadly wrong. Nature never meant the Clyde to be more than a shallow salmon stream! Here enters the character of Glasgow. When Glasgow decided to build ships she had first to make the Clyde in which to launch them. She had to deepen it. She had to keep it deepened. For over a century she has dredged the channel. Probably on no other river in the world have men exercised such grim and relentless determination.” On the subject of shipbuilding, he added “A new keel is like a large glass of whisky on a cold day: it warms the very core of Glasgow’s heart.”

During the centuries, Glasgow’s wealth has endowed it with some wonderful buildings – not least of them being its great cathedral – but its decline as a shipbuilding city and port has left it with acres of derelict dockland, now being redeveloped on a scale which seems to defy the recession. A succession of new bridges over the river to cater for a growing number of cars and people promise easier access to the redeveloped areas, but their lack of height above the water recognises the inevitable fact that great ships will never again sail almost into the city centre to berth.

Where once cargo ships from all over the world tied up, there is now the headquarters for BBC Scotland, the new Science Centre, a profusion of hotels, and other developments. Alongside the Science Centre, unless she is off cruising around Britain’s coast, the 1946-built PS Waverley is usually tied up, the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world.

A little way down river, at Pointhouse Quay on the opposite bank, once the site of the A. & J. Inglis shipyard where Waverley was built, there now stands Zaha Hadid’s stunning new Transport Museum with, moored alongside it, the tall ship Glenlee one of the last reminders of the Clyde’s 19th century maritime history.

Out past Clydebank and under the Erskine Bridge, the scene is much the same – areas where docks and shipyards were once standing cheek-by-jowl are either being redeveloped, or awaiting redevelopment.

At Bowling on the north shore, the Forth and Clyde Canal meets the river – an 18th century shortcut across Scotland which, after years of abandonment is now navigable once more from Bowling to Grangemouth.

On the edge of Port Glasgow is one of the most incongruous pairings on the river – Ferguson’s shipyard and the ancient remains of Newark Castle. Until a few years ago the castle was hemmed in by shipyards on both sides, but now only Ferguson remains. Once again, parkland skirts one side of the ancient tower house.

But that seems only fair – after all, the castle was there for three centuries before the first of the shipyards arrived. Built in the fifteenth century for the Maxwell family.

Port Glasgow, of course, has a special place in Scottish history, for it was here that Britain’s first successful passenger-carrying paddle steamer was built – the tiny PS Comet, built by John Wood of Port Glasgow for Henry Bell of Helensburgh in 1812. A 50 year old replica stands adjacent to Tesco’s car park, largely obscured by a high metal fence, defying photographers trying to get a good view of the boat!

Interestingly, Wood’s first job had been in one of the shipyards adjacent to Newark Castle.

Now almost joined up with Port Glasgow, Greenock was one of the Clyde’s major ports, and its huge James Watt Dock opened for business in 1886, designed to make Greenock “one of the greatest and best equipped British seaports”, being the biggest dock on the Clyde where large vessels could remain afloat at all stages of the tide.

Today, part of the site has been converted into a marina, but on the day I visited, CalMac’s newest vessel, the MV Finlaggan, was in for her first annual overhaul – which included a period in the huge adjacent dry-dock.

The following week, Waverley was due to enter the same dry-dock so that her hull could be inspected by the experts.

Several of Greenock’s docks have been converted into marinas and the quayside buildings replaced by housing in a pseudo-warehouse style in keeping with the setting, but the whole site is dominated by the huge Titan Cantilever Crane built in 1917 by Sir William Arrol & Company. Another Titan crane can be seen at the former John Brown shipyard at Clydebank. The other great crane to survive from the river’s busy past – at Stobcross Quay near Glasgow city centre – was built in 1932 by Cowans, Sheldon and Co of Carlisle, with the great cantilever constructed by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company. All three are massive structures!

The days of ships queuing up at the Tail of the Bank before making their way to one of the many docks which lined the river from Greenock to the Broomielaw may be long gone, but the Clyde is still a fascinating river.

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