How did the River Clyde, a once lazy, sandbank-littered river on the far western fringe of Europe, become a byword for engineering excellence and innovation?
Although the Clyde had been an important local trading and transport route for millennia, Glasgow, sitting some 15 miles upriver from the deep waters of the Firth of Clyde, was missing out, and the city fathers and merchants knew it.
Originally the city’s main port was at Girvan, on the west coast, meaning goods for import and export faced a sometimes difficult and time-consuming journey to and from market. Something had to be done.
In 1668 the Glasgow authorities purchased 18 acres of land around Newark Castle, near Greenock, to build a dedicated harbour facility. This, they christened Port Glasgow.
Trouble was, it was still some 18 miles north west of the centre of Glasgow, meaning cargo had to be transferred to smaller boats to be brought upriver to the city’s markets and warehouses.
It would take the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England to turn the financial tide on the Clyde.
With the stroke of a pen, the Act of Union opened England’s overseas colonies – the Americas, the West Indies, Africa and the Far East – to Scottish traders. Now, Glasgow wasn’t on the far fringe of Europe, but, thanks to its geography, offered the fastest and safest trade route to the colonies.
Glasgow’s merchants were quick to take advantage of this head start, using their existing overseas Scottish connections to corner the import trade in tobacco, sugar and cotton, and the export trade in manufactured goods. At one point, Glasgow controlled 80% of Europe’s tobacco imports, generating multi-billion-pound fortunes for the city’s Tobacco Lords, and forever changing the face and fame of Glasgow.
Much of their wealth, it must be admitted, came from the ‘Triangular Trade’; sending Glasgow-manufactured goods to West Africa, where they were traded for slaves, for onward passage to the West Indies and Americas, with the ships returning to Glasgow loaded with valuable crops grown by slave labour.
Clydebuilt – the mark of quality
From the Comet, in 1812, Europe’s first regular steam-powered passenger ferry, Glasgow-built ships just got bigger, faster, safer, better, and more and more luxurious.
For almost 150 years, the city’s engineers and innovators never stood still, leading the world in maritime design, construction and technology.
At one stage, Glasgow-built ships accounted for over 20% of the world’s commercial fleet, and almost 80% of all the world’s ships were built using parts and components developed and manufactured in the workshops of Scotland.
Long before the internet, Glasgow’s River Clyde became our ‘information superhighway’, bringing Scots the news, new people, new cultures, new political ideas, new fashions, flavours, and music to Scotland.
In turn, the Clyde aided Scotland to export its own people – engineers, doctors, soldiers, explorers; manufactured goods; music and poetry; and of course, whisky to the four corners of the globe.
The tide goes out
Sadly, just as the tide rises and falls on the Clyde, so have the fortunes of our river, and our city.
The downfall of the Clyde as a major industrial centre came during and after World War II. The immediate post-war period saw a severe reduction in warship orders. By the end of the 1950s, the rise of other shipbuilding nations saw the Clyde left trailing in their wake.
By the mid-1960s, shipbuilding on the Clyde was becoming increasingly uneconomical.
From a peak of over 30 yards, today, only two major shipyards remain on the Upper Clyde; the naval defence yards at Govan and Scotstoun, which still turn out some of the most advanced warships in the world.
In terms of commercial shipping, the growth of containerisation, and the massive ships needed to move cargo around the world, the Clyde, still a relatively small river, was just too shallow and too narrow to compete.
But Glasgow, and the Clyde, still has big ambitions.
The tide rises
Where once we built ships, today we make films and TV programmes, with the Scottish bases of both the BBC and STV situated on the banks of the Clyde. Next door, in the former Govan Town Hall, now called Film City, an army of independent producers make programmes that are seen around the world.
The north bank of the upper Clyde is now home to Glasgow’s International Financial Services District, a major employer and a hotbed of fintech innovation.
Where once giant cranes signalled the building of mighty ships, today they announce the arrival of the Inland Revenue’s new tax offices, and the birth of banking giant Barclays new, European tech hub, at Buchanan Wharf.
From big to small
Further downriver, at the Clyde Waterfront Innovation Campus, Glasgow University is busy building a nanofabrication centre, and a precision medicine laboratory, allowing a focus on areas and industries in which Glasgow and Scotland can truly lead the world in the decades to come.
Add in new whisky distilleries, new bridges to link the historic burghs of Govan and Partick, the city’s world-class Riverside Museum, Science Centre, new housing and shopping outlets, and the fortunes of the Clyde are once again rising.
And we haven’t forgotten our maritime history. The Malin Group, based in the south rotunda of the historic Clyde Harbour Tunnel, has already broken ground on a Scottish Marine Technology Park, which could create up to 1,000 new jobs.
The river itself, once polluted by heavy industry is also beginning to ‘green’, with salmon, seals and seabirds returning to waters which were once oily black, and echoed to the hammers’ ding-dong.
Hopefully, amid all their high-level talks, our international visitors will find time to stand by its banks and hear the age-old song of the Clyde.