The Clyde – A River that Gives with One Hand and Takes Away with the Other

The Clyde - A River that Gives with One Hand and Takes Away with the Other

The Song of the Clyde, made famous by Paisley born Kenneth McKellar, waxes lyrical about the “Wonderful Clyde”, but to an outsider like me, ‘wonderful’ wasn’t the first adjective that sprang to mind in describing the ribbon of water that flows through the centre of Glasgow: All I knew was that it was full of shipyards and lined with heavy industry. It certainly held a fascination for me, but I couldn’t believe that it was wonderful, or at least not in the way I understood the meaning of the word – but that was before I’d even set eyes on the river, but what do I think now that I have?

I first clapped eyes on the River Clyde at a small town called Crawford in South Lanarkshire. It’s a pleasant little town and very different from my image of the river further north. The town lies about seven miles from Leadhills, where Kenneth McKellar sings about the river that “flows from Leadhills all the way to the sea”. That statement might be accurate enough for most people, but the official location of the source is about a 15-minute drive away where two small tributaries meet at a place called Watermeetings near the Daer Reservoir (55.3994° N, 3.6566° W).

The fledgling river collects water as it seeps out of the Lowther Hills and into the valley which gives its name to the magnificent Clydesdale heavy horse. The journey from its source to the Firth of Clyde is around 110 miles, which makes it the second longest river in Scotland, and as it travels north towards Glasgow its character starts to change.

At New Lanark are the only waterfalls on the river, and in 1786 David Dale joined forces with Richard Arkwright, one of the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution in England, to create a village which included cotton mills and houses for the workers. It continued operating as a going concern until 1968, but then fell into disuse. Fortunately, a conservation trust got hold of it and has since turned it into a major tourist attraction. I’ve still yet to go there, and so the picture below is courtesy of

New Lanark (Visit Scotland)

The first glimpse I got of any industrial intrusion into the Clyde Valley was at Motherwell, or more precisely, the Ravenscraig Steelworks. It wasn’t really a glimpse, because you couldn’t miss it as it dominated the whole area, but unlike New Lanark, when the steelworks were finished with, the site was bulldozed, leaving 770 employees out of work at the plant and 10,000 others who were associated with it. Today, it is regarded as the largest brownfield site in Europe with plans to build the new town of Ravenscraig.

The river then snakes around Blantyre (home of the explorer David Livingstone) and Uddingston (home of Tunnock’s teacakes) towards the city of Glasgow. On the south side is the Gorbals with what’s left of its high-rise flats and Strathclyde Distillery, and on the north side is Glasgow Green, the city’s oldest park.

The Strathclyde Distillery
The Doulton Fountain on Glasgow Green

On the banks of the river at Glasgow Green is the lifeboat station of an organisation called the Glasgow Humane Society: In 1932 a man by the name of Ben Parsonage was appointed the society’s officer, and by the time he passed away in 1979, the records show that he had recovered at least 2000 bodies from the Clyde’s murky water – but at the same time had also rescued at least another thousand.  In his obituary, the Scottish Daily Record described this “shy unassuming boatman” as “single-handedly rescuing more people from drowning than any man in Britain”.

His son George, carried on where his father left off, and has also saved countless lives, as well as fishing out around another 1500 bodies. George has recently retired, but I’m sure he would agree with me that although water is a giver of life, it can also take it away.

The Glasgow Humane Society's Lifeboat Station (Wikipedia)

From St. Andrew’s Suspension Bridge next to the Humane Society’s Lifeboat Station to the Broomielaw in the city centre, there are another 9 crossings connecting the north and south sides of the river: People, cars and trains are all carried across on a variety of bridges which not only span the river, but also time, as different designs, materials, techniques and engineering skills have gradually changed the appearance of this stretch of the river over the years.

South Portland Street Footbridge

Like many riverside settlements, Glasgow (meaning Green Place) started out as just a small fishing village on the north bank of the river. No doubt in those early days there would have been an abundant supply of fish to be caught, but that all changed when the river became accessible to the Atlantic Ocean.

Up until then, apart from being an ecclesiastical centre, Glasgow had no significant history worth talking about, but with English colonisation of the Eastern seaboard of America, merchants trading between the two countries started to make themselves some serious money, and following the Treaty of Union in 1707, Scottish merchants wanted a slice of the action too.

The problem for Glasgow was that the River Clyde was difficult to navigate due to its shallow water, and so Port Glasgow at the mouth of the river, was about as far as merchants could bring their Virginia tobacco without it coming to grief on a sandbank. After several attempts to rectify the problem, John Golborn, a Cheshire engineer, devised a scheme in 1768 which involved building piers that allowed the river to scour its own bed – and ships to reach the centre of the city.

Trading of course is a two-way thing, and to supplement their income, the merchants exported items such as glass, pottery and iron goods. Iron, along with coal, were two important ingredients that fuelled the Industrial Revolution, and Lanarkshire was a rich source of both, and it wasn’t long before heavy industry arrived on the banks of the Clyde.

The core industries of ironworks, shipbuilding and armaments were supplemented by textiles, chemicals and manufacturing. The Victorian entrepreneurs may have brought great benefits to the city – and themselves – but they also brought great hardships too. From a population of around 23,000 in 1755 the number had risen to 1,128,000 by 1939.Tough jobs required tough people, and life for everyday Glaswegians was also tough.

Cargo Ships on the Clyde in the 1960s (Glasgow Herald)
Life in the Glasgow Tenements (Image by Nick Hedges)

One of the more pleasant benefits for hard-working Glaswegians of the river being navigable, was that the paddle steamers which brought wealthy commuters up to the Broomielaw Quay were also able to take day trippers down to the coastal resorts on the Firth of Clyde. Those popular family days out may have declined in numbers now, but the Waverley, the only remaining paddle steamer plying the river, still offers trips ‘Doon the Watter’.

Paddlesteamers at the Broomielaw (Glasgow History)
The Waverley Paddle Steamer at Pacific Quay

As many of you will probably know, the River Clyde is known for one thing more than any other – shipbuilding. “Glasgow made the Clyde and the Clyde made Glasgow” is a saying that’s often been used, and ‘Clyde built’ was another phrase that meant a mark of quality and innovation. I read somewhere that during the 19th and 20th centuries the part of the river that stretches for 20 miles between Glasgow and the mouth of the Clyde was responsible for building around 75% of the world’s ships. These figures are hard to verify and possibly exaggerated, but whichever way you look at it there’s no doubting the significance of the Clyde shipyards.

The major shipyards were based in places like Govan, Clydebank and Dumbarton, and included famous names such as Fairfield’s, John Brown and Denny’s, but there were others. By the early years of the 20th century there were something like 70,000 people working in 19 shipyards.

Govan c1932 (Glasgow Archives)
Workers leaving a shipyard in 1944

And what about the ships? According to The Scotsman, since the Scott family set up their yard in Greenock in 1711, around 25,000 naval, merchant and passenger ships have been built on the Clyde – and who am I to argue? Some of the famous names (or at least famous to me) include the Cutty Sark in 1869, the RMS Lusitania (1906), HMS Hood (1918), RMS Queen Mary (1936), the Royal Yacht Britannia (1953) and the Queen Elizabeth II (1969), but there are many others.

Launching the Queen Mary from John Brown's Shipyard in 1934 (The Scotsman)

Two world wars in the 20th century brought big warship orders to the Clyde shipyards, but bombing by the Luftwaffe sustained heavy damage. When the war was over, not only was there a reduction in orders from the Ministry of Defence, there was also increased competition from foreign shipyards able to offer cheaper options to meet the demand for commercial shipping.

By the 1960s the Clyde yards were in serious decline, and attempts to keep them afloat were fraught with difficulties. Led by Jimmy Read, the charismatic and forward-thinking trade union leader from Govan, the shipyard workers were unable to halt the closure of most of the shipyards and the ‘hammer’s ding dong’ was no longer the ‘song of the Clyde’.

Jimmy Reid addressing the workforce at Clydebank in 1971 (The Scotsman)

Widespread deprivation in the local communities inevitably followed, and below are some pictures from the public domain on what it could be like living in parts of 1970’s Glasgow.

Today, there are just two major shipyards remaining on the Clyde, and both owned by BAE Systems who specialise in the construction of ships for the Royal Navy. One of the yards is based at the former Yarrow yard at Scotstoun, and the other is at Govan.

Construction of RFA Cardigan at BAE Systems, Govan

What the river giveth, then the river taketh away again it would seem. It provided jobs and hope to many, but then cruelly clawed it all back. The end of the Second World War gave hope for a brighter future, but it didn’t take long for the realisation to set in that Britannia no longer ruled the waves – or anything else for that matter. Glasgow had been called the Second city of the Empire, but Britain’s imperial days were all but over, and post-industrial Britain turned cities like Glasgow into a barren wasteland of economic gloom and desolation. For a while, despondency set in, but come the millennium there was a determination to turn things around, and the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration project was launched.

Work started in 2001 with a makeover of the Broomielaw and has progressed downstream ever since. Apartments have replaced warehouses, and the Clyde Arc (known locally as the Squinty Bridge) was opened in 2006 to help relieve congestion on the Kingston Bridge which takes the M8 over the river.

The Clyde Arc

Very little remains now of the industrial activity that was once prevalent along this section of the river, but at least the Finnieston Crane is still here to serve as a reminder. This giant cantilever piece of engineering used to load steam locomotives onto ships for export, and standing majestically over the river as it does, has now become a Glasgow landmark (see featured image at top of the page).

Next door is the Scottish Event Campus, a modern exhibition and events complex that includes The Armadillo auditorium which has become almost as famous a Glasgow landmark as the Finnieston Crane.

The Armadillo

Outside the Armadillo, Bells Bridge takes pedestrians across the river to BBC Scotland on Pacific Quay. The bridge was initially built in 1988 to link up with the popular, but temporary, Glasgow Garden Festival. The site is now occupied by the Glasgow Science Centre with its Tower and Imax theatre.

The Glasgow Science Centre
Cineworld Imax

My personal favourite addition to the modern landscape is the Transport Museum, and the fact that the exhibits are memories of old Glasgow might have something to do with it. There are plenty of things to see from steam engines to roller skates and is free to go in, including the chance to go onboard the Tall Ship Glenlee. This ship is just one of five Clyde-built Windjammers that are left in the world, and the only one in the UK.

The Glenlee

Not all of the riverside has been smartened up by any means, but as the river meanders downstream, you get a sense that you’re starting to leave the city behind, and especially so after sailing under the Erskine Bridge.

Changes in the Clyde landscape have meant that places like Port Glasgow at the mouth of the river have reverted back to merchant shipping once more, but by the time we reach Greenock, the Firth of Clyde beckons, but that’s a story for another day.

Sunset over the Firth of Clyde

So, the question has to be, do I think that the Clyde is wonderful now that I’ve got to know it better? On the one hand, the river provided people with jobs and communities, but those jobs meant hard work and a short lifespan, but when those jobs were taken away, things were even worse with poverty, sub-standard housing and a sense of hopelessness. At the same time as those jobs went, the Clyde started to come back to life in a different way, and wildlife including salmon and seals have returned to what was once a murky polluted river.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to say whether or not the Clyde is a wonderful river. Instead, I’ll leave you with a song from that great comedian, and former riveter in the Govan shipyard, Billy Connolly. In the song I wish I was in Glasgow, he says that “Glasgow gave me more than it ever took away”. He could just as easily have been singing about the river that runs through it.


13 thoughts on “The Clyde – A River that Gives with One Hand and Takes Away with the Other

  1. Toonsarah

    An excellent read as usual and I like the way you’ve sourced historical photos to illustrate it in addition to your own contemporary ones. Take away the place names and details, and so much of this could have been written about Newcastle and the Tyne, don’t you think? The bridges spanning both river and time. The shipbuilding’s impact on the city, both decline and fall. And the post-Millennium regeneration of the area along the river’s banks, with culture replacing industry.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Sarah, and yes you’re right, there are similarities between the Clyde and the Tyne. The other thing that’s similar is that Weegies and Geordies are both difficult to understand at times 🙂

  2. Alli Templeton

    Glasgow and the Clyde are not familiar territory for me, but it’s been fascinating to read about their complex and multi-faceted history. It certainly does look as though it’s smartened up now, and needless to say I can forsee a trip to the Glenlee coming up at some point. 🙂 Great to get back to reading your posts again at last Malc, and looking forward to catching up more when the kids have gone back to school – the first week of ‘freedom’ didn’t happen owing to manic week. I hadn’t even realised I’d be straight into half term when I submitted my dissertation! Hope all’s well and I’ll be back soon. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’ve always enjoyed visiting places like Glasgow that haven’t traditionally been on the tourist map, mainly because not only can you find unexpected gems, but also because the people don’t find visitors a nuisance. Edinburgh may have more appeal for most tourists, but Glasgow has a more down to earth appeal as you might imagine. Thanks for taking a look Alli.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Good to hear from you Albert. I’m glad this post floated your boat so to speak

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thank you Francesc, and thank you for your invaluable support. Enjoy the rest of your week

      1. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

        It’s always my pleasure Malc, as a history buff I am fascinated by the chronicles of your crossings throughout the British Isles, a fab place to begin with and with your great narratives and photos, incredible!

        1. Easymalc Post author

          The way I look at it Francesc is if what we do makes just one person get something extra out of life, then it makes it all the more worthwhile. Thanks again for your kind words.


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