Scotland’s Maritime Legacy

The Clyde was naturally a shallow waterway as low as two feet at low tide and this hampered Glasgows ambitions as a port. In 1768 a sequence of dykes was built, narrowing the channel and greatly increasing the flow of water, which in turn scoured the bed and deepened the river. The Clydes entry into the world of shipbuilding could begin and Europes first sea-going steam ship was launched at Port Glasgow in 1812.

Shortly after this one of the worlds most iconic ships was launched at Dumbarton, a little further along the coast. The was designed by the Glasgow firm of Scott and Linton and its design incorporated the midship attributes of Firth of Forth fishing boats, creating a hull shape stronger than any before it and allowing the ship to take more sails and be driven harder than almost any other clipper. In the late nineteenth century the Cutty Sark become one of the fastest sail-ships in the world, making record times between Britain and Australia.

The dawn of a new era

However, a new era was around the corner, and the dawning of the twentieth century saw the Clyde shipyards producing a new generation of ocean liners; ships like the and the Lusitania.

The was built at Greenock in 1900. She clocked in at 500 feet in length, weighed over 8,000 tonnes and could achieve a maximum speed of over 30 MPH; speed and tonnage which eclipsed anything achieved by wooden sailboats like the Cutty Sark. The herself was to be dwarfed only six years later by a new ship under construction on the Clyde. When the Lusitania was launched in the summer of 1906 she became the largest ship afloat: almost eight hundred feet long and weighing 31,550 gross tonnes she was designed to be the last word in speed and luxury offering passengers a swift trip across the Atlantic in five star comfort.

Casualties of WW1

However, the First World War was to spell doom for both ships.

In May 1915 the was on her way back from New York, and had the coastline of Ireland within sight, when she was torpedoed by the German U-Boat U-20. The great ship went down in 18 minutes, taking 1,195 lives with her; among them were 123 Americans and the tragedy undoubtedly hastened US entry into WWI. Then, just six months later, on the day before New Years Eve 1915, the SS Persia was sailing 71 miles south east of Crete when at 1.10 pm, just as many of the passengers were sitting down to lunch she was struck on the port bow by a German torpedo. Minutes later the port boiler exploded and the ship sank so rapidly that only four of her lifeboats escaped. 334 of the 500 passengers went with the ship to the bottom of the Mediterranean ten thousand feet below, along with a great quantity of gold and jewels belonging to the Maharaja Jagatiji Singh.

Among the survivors was half-Scot John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu. His secretary and girlfriend Eleanor Thornton, who was the model for Rolls Royces Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, sadly lost her life in the sinking. In the space of six short months two magnificent examples of Scottish industry and engineering lay on the floor of the ocean.

The next generation of liners

By the end of the 1920s one of the next generation of liners, and one of the most iconic vessels in history, was under construction at John Browns shipyards in Clydebank, Glasgow. At over one thousand feet in length, weighing in at 80,000 tonnes, and with a top speed of over 30 knots, the would dwarf the ships that had gone before her and reassert Britains dominance of the Blue Riband.

The Blue Riband was an unofficial title, awarded to the ship achieving the fastest transatlantic crossing, and it was frowned upon by the major shipping lines, who could not be seen to condone racing as it was contrary to safety policy. However, since the first transatlantic steamship crossings had begun in the mid-nineteenth century, ships and indeed nations had competed fiercely for the prize, the competition arguably reaching its peak with the intense rivalry between Britains and Frances Normandie in the 1930s. The reclaimed the prize in 1937 until the following year, when the Queen Mary won it back again, in the process setting a record speed for an Atlantic crossing which was to stand until 1952.

Too fast for the submarines

During WWII the was converted for military use and used to carry troops around the world, taking as many as 15,000 men on a single voyage. She was eventually joined by her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth and the two became known as the grey ghosts, the fastest troop ships in the war. Hitler understood what a blow to Allied morale it would be to sink the Mary and the Elizabeth and offered the Iron Cross and a bounty equivalent to 250,000 dollars in todays money to any U-Boat commander who sent them to the bottom. It proved impossible they were simply too fast for the submarines.

The continued in service for over twenty years after the war, dominating the transatlantic passenger trade. However, 1958 saw the first jet flight between London and New York: what had once taken several days now took several hours and the writing was on the wall. By the mid 1960s the Queen Mary was often pulling into New York harbour with more crew than passengers and in 1967, over thirty years after she was launched, Cunard bowed to the inevitable and retired her from service. Today she is a floating hotel in Long Beach, California, her only brushes with the glory of her early years coming when she is used as a location in Hollywood films like and Pearl Harbour.

Revolutionary new technologies

The great era of the steamships and colossal passenger liners is long past. Today, however, Scotland is at the forefront of key developments beneath the waves, in developing technologies which are making sure that no parts of the worlds oceans are unreachable.

Fife-based company Deep Tek have developed a revolutionary deep-sea recovery system called The Winder; 75 tonnes of machinery capable of allowing a remote-control platform to explore the deepest, most inaccessible waters. Key in this process is a unique cable developed by Deep Tek a fibre rope which is stronger than steel but much more buoyant at great depths.

In 2003, in what was the worlds deepest ever salvage operation, Deep Tek used the equipment to explore the wreck of the , cut into the ships strongroom, and retrieve over 200 of the Maharajas rubies and other precious stones, treasures that had laid undisturbed since 1915. The Winder and the SS Persia: two triumphs of Scottish engineering separated by nine decades and 10,000 feet of water and brought together by Scottish ingenuity!

Unlocking the treasures of the sea bed

There are other applications too. Today the North Sea oil and gas industries in Scotland employ some 86,000 people and contribute around 16 billion pounds to the Exchequer. As these industries move into working in ultra-deep waters of over 2000 metres, fibre rope systems will come to play an increasingly vital role in getting essential machinery to the ocean floor and helping to unlock the mineral treasures below the sea-bed.

The sea-bed itself has been the cause of concern for environmentalists recently, as increasing damage is thought to have been done to it by the heavy dredging nets used by fishing trawlers. In heavily fished seas like the North Sea and the North Atlantic this dredging of the sea floor can cause serious damage to seabed sediments with knock-on effects for the species they support. Engineers from Aberdeen University are spearheading research into this phenomenon; sending divers down behind trawlers in underwater vehicles to survey the extent of the damage, with a view to developing new fishing methods which will be less harmful to the environment.

Where it once ruled the waves during the great era of shipping, Scotland is now playing an equally key role beneath the waves; both in terms of extracting vital resources and in protecting the environment which produces them.

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Last updated 29 Nov 2012