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Issue 90 - The captivating Clyde

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


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The captivating Clyde

Keith Fergus discovers that the River Clyde is more than just an industrial highway

The River Clyde may well conjure up images in your mind of shipbuilding and heavy industry, but this river has a rich human and natural history that dates back many thousands of years. What's often forgotten is that its course flows through a remarkably varied and delightful landscape that includes the beautiful rolling hills of southern Scotland, several gorgeous waterfalls, pockets of ancient woodland, and much fertile agricultural land. Indeed, flora and fauna along the river’s margins include deer, otter, kestrel, peregrine falcon, skylark, cormorants, wood anemone and greater stitchwort. Finally, it also passes some of Scotland’s finest and most historic buildings before entering an industrial heartland that was once the envy of the world.

The River Clyde begins its monumental journey near the confluence of the Potrail and Daer Waters, a little north of the scattering of houses at Watermeetings, near to the border between Dumfries and Galloway and South Lanarkshire. A little further downstream, the modest Clyde’s Burn is an early tributary and one that bestows its bigger cousin with its distinguished moniker. The word Clyde comes from the Cumbric ‘Clouta,’ which it is thought to translate as ‘the cleansing one,’ and illustrates the past association that the river may have had with washing or purification.

This magnificent body of water flows for 106 miles – it is the third longest river in Scotland and the ninth in Great Britain – and its early stages flow through a predominantly rural landscape. Attractive historic settlements, including Biggar and Lanark, sit near its banks as it meanders around prominent landmarks such as Tinto Hill and Culter Fell. Urbanisation is reached as the Clyde moves onwards past the towns of Hamilton and Motherwell. Here, at Strathclyde Country Park, the superb remains of a Roman bathhouse are on public display. The river then widens and deepens as it passes Glasgow, Dumbarton and Port Glasgow before flowing into the Firth of Clyde at Greenock and Helensburgh.

Although the Industrial Revolution resulted in an enormous heritage, it was the Romans who were the first to really leave their mark on the River Clyde. They crossed it at Elvanfoot in AD80 and went on to build significant highways, particularly near Crawford where there was also an important fort. Another Roman fort was built on Arbory Hill, while Tinto Hill was used as a signal station.

Yet the Romans’ greatest monument in Scotland was the Antonine Wall, which marked the northernmost point of their empire’s command within Scotland, and the wall’s western extremity lies near to Old Kilpatrick, on the banks of the River Clyde. It appears to have been during the Middle
Ages that people began to realise the economic potential of the River Clyde and shipbuilding is thought to have started as early as the 15th Century.

Prior to this, the very earliest Stone Age and Neolithic hunter-gatherers that lived here would have followed the river in search of food and supplies. Several forts were built on the low hills along the river during the Iron Age as communities began to put down roots. A number of strongholds, such as Bothwell Castle and Craignethan Castle, were erected during the following centuries, illustrating the wealth and power that the lands around the Clyde held, while the river’s most famous fort, Dumbarton Castle, dates from the 13th Century and is built atop a volcanic plug.

As the Industrial Revolution approached, the power of the river began to be recognised and harnessed; mills were established at the likes of Biggar, Blantyre, Hyndford and, perhaps most famously of all, New Lanark. It is the close association with Glasgow, however, that has provided the River Clyde’s unquestionable legacy – many will recognise the phrase ‘the Clyde built Glasgow and Glasgow built the Clyde.’ With the expansion of Clydeside, the River Clyde was now on the international map. From the 19th to the mid-20th century, shipyards at Govan, Renfrew, Clydebank, Dumbarton, Port Glasgow, and Greenock prospered, while names such as Dennys, Fairfields, Yarrows and John Brown were soon recognised the world over. Many great ships, including the Cunard Liners, the Cutty Sark and HMS Indomitable, were built on the Clyde and at its height over 100,000 people were employed in shipbuilding along the river.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw the start of an irreversible decline of heavy industry and there are now only a few shipyards still operating beside the river today. Nonetheless, the Stobcross Crane at Pacific Quay (where the Science Centre and the headquarters of both BBC Scotland and STV can be found), and Clydebank’s Titan Crane (a fantastic tourist attraction) provide tangible landmarks to the historical legacy of the industry that shaped much of the Clyde and the people who lived and worked there.

Over the last 50 years many things have changed, but the River Clyde is essentially the same river it has been for the last three centuries. It is still both rural and urban; agriculture, horticulture and manufacturing all still play a role – but on a smaller scale – while tourism is now increasingly important to the local economies.

Thankfully, the river is also now much cleaner; salmon, grayling and trout can once again be found in abundance, along with a great variety of other flora and fauna that have returned to its margins. Much of the river can be walked, by using a variety of paths and tracks, and along the excellent Clyde Walkway many historic buildings are open to the public. For those who wish to learn more, several superb museums provide real insight into the history of the River Clyde and its surroundings.

Top Five Places To Visit Along The River Clyde

New Lanark
A visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at New Lanark provides a window into the past and the pioneering socialist ideals of Robert Owen and David Dale.

Chatelherault Country Park, Hamilton
Chatelherault Country Park was formerly the estate grounds of the Duke of Hamilton and surrounded the now-demolished Hamilton Palace.

David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre
The David Livingstone Centre, owned by The National Trust, celebrates the life and achievements of this remarkable man.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow
An incredible 8000 exhibits are on display at Kelvingrove, the diversity of which is superb. From ceramics and European armour to French art, all are housed in a spectacular example of historic architecture.

Dumbarton Castle, Dumbarton

Built into the steep slopes of Dumbarton Rock, Dumbarton Castle was built by Alexander II of Scotland in 1220 as a defensive fortification.