As an island country, Scotland has had to rely on its navy and maritime shipping for centuries as a tool for defence, exploration and trade.
Until the 19th century, Scottish shipbuilding had been overshadowed by that of England, with Scotland contributing only 15% of UK tonnage to the Napoleonic Wars. This was to dramatically change in the 19th century, as shipbuilding transformed Scotland’s economy and established it as one of the greatest shipbuilding nations in the world.
Here’s the story of how Scotland became a global shipbuilding hub.
The Royal Scots Navy
During the medieval period, Scotland used its navy to defend itself against English invasion. Robert I (1306-1329) used naval power to ensure that he wasn’t captured and to blockade English held forts at Perth and Stirling. Following Scottish independence, Robert I continued to develop a form of Scottish navy, hiring Scottish, Flemish and French merchants in times of need.
James I (1406-1437) took a keen interest in the navy and shipbuilding. He established the first shipbuilding yard at Leith that would be used in construction and victualling (supplies and storage). The Scottish navy would be further developed under subsequent kings including James IV (1588-1513) who founded a harbour at Newhaven and ordered over 30 ships for his navy including Margaret and Michael. The Michael was the largest ship in the world at the time.
James V (1513-1542) did not have the same interest in the navy as his father had done and so Scottish shipbuilding took something of a hiatus during his reign. With the coronation of James I in 1603 (considered James VI in Scotland), there was less of a need for a strong Scottish navy as England was now an ally. By the time the Union with England Act was passed in 1707, Scotland only had 3 ships, The Royal William, The Royal Mary and Dumbarton Castle.
At the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, Scotland produced around 18,000 gross tons of shipping for Britain (compared to England contributing 46,000 gross tons). It seemed unlikely at this stage that Scotland would eventually become a powerhouse of shipbuilding.
Industrialisation prompted a boom in ship construction in Scotland. Initially, this was dominated by the east coast including Aberdeen, Leith and Dundee. Until the 1850s, the east coast of Scotland dominated the country’s shipping industry, and around 75% of all of Scotland’s shipbuilding workforce was employed on the east coast. In the 1850s, Glasgow and the River Clyde would come to dominate Scottish shipbuilding.
One of the most famous ships built at Dundee was the RRS Discovery. Dundee shipyards were known for their skill in building whaling vessels and ships required to venture into cold waters. The Discovery, used during Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1901-1904, was based on the designs of Dundee whalers with a few practical modifications.
To run a shipyard, thousands of skilled labourers were required including shipwrights, caulkers, riveters, electricians, draughtsmen, clerks, painters and plumbers. Yard managers, foremen and surveyors would also be seen around the shipyards.
The term ‘Clyde Built’ has become synonymous with quality and expert shipbuilding. It is believed that shipbuilding has taken place on the River Clyde since the 15th century. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the area boomed as a hub for global shipbuilding and became a significant source of commerce for Glasgow.
The River Clyde provided merchants and shipowners the perfect location to unload their cargoes for trade around Scotland and to load ships ready to sail. In the 18th century, the river bed was deepened to allow for bigger ships and part of the river was canalised to ensure better navigation. It was a sensible and logical step to construct shipyards along the River Clyde for repair and construction.
Capitalising on industrialisation, shipyards including Bowling Harbour, Denny’s, John Brown’s Shipyard, Fairfield Shipyards and Govan Graving Docks were built along the river. In the 19th and 20th centuries, over 30,000 ships (20% of the world’s shipping) were built along the River Clyde, earning Glasgow the nickname ‘second city of the British Empire’.
Their expertise in construction, as well as the reputation for building innovative, fast and beautiful ships, meant that shipping companies and navies sought to have the Clyde shipyards build their ships.
Some of the world’s most famous ships were built in Clyde shipyards, including:
Cutty Sark 1869, built by Scott & Linton at Dumbarton. One of the fastest tea clippers of her day.
RMS Queen Mary 1936, built by John Brown at Clydebank. A luxurious ocean liner that carried passengers across the Atlantic.
HMY Britannia 1953, built by John Brown at Clydebank. The royal family’s beloved yacht that served for over 40 years.
RMS Lusitania 1906, built by John Brown at Clydebank. The largest ocean liner at her launch, tragically sunk by torpedo in 1915.
PS Comet 1812, built by John Wood at Port Glasgow. The first successful steamboat service in Europe.
HMS Hood 1918, built by John Brown at Clydebank. The largest warship in the world for 20 years.
RMS Lucania 1893, built by Fairfield at Govan. The fastest passenger liner 1893-1898.
SS Dunedin 1874, built by Robert Duncan & Co at Port Glasgow. The first ship to successfully carry frozen meat from New Zealand to London.
Shipbuilding was so important to Glasgow that by the turn of the 20th century, Glasgow’s shipyards contributed to over half of the entire British shipbuilding workforce.
World War One
During World War One, Glasgow and the Clyde became the centre for British shipbuilding with over 43% of tonnage being built there. This included naval and merchant vessels.
Ship construction during World War One was difficult due to the lack of materials and resources, the increased demand for ships, the sparse workforce as many men ‘joined colours’ and tensions built between the workers and the employers. As was happening across the country, women were brought into the yards as labourers to meet demands.
In 1915, 426 workers on the Clyde went on strike following a dispute between 2 shipwrights and their employers. This strike nearly brought production to a standstill, with men being arrested and fined for their actions. Thankfully the plights of the strikers were heard and resolved, leading to the strike being called off.
After World War Two
As with World War One, the Clyde shipyards were busy with the production of naval and merchant vessels. This meant that Glasgow and the River Clyde became a target for bombing raids throughout the war. Remarkably, the industry survived the raids, due to the dedication and fearlessness of the workers and their families.
After World War Two, shipbuilding in Scotland took a significant hit. This was influenced by the UK government’s decision to privatise shipbuilding in the 1960s and also the inability to compete with new shipbuilding powers such as Japan. Yards began to close down with thousands becoming unemployed.
To draw attention to the plights of the Scottish shipyards, a documentary film by Sean Connery was released entitled The Bowler and the Bunnet. Campaigns by unions led to the famous ‘work-in’ of 1971, where workers from the shipyards of Clyde occupied the yards and demanded that they be kept open.
Two yards, Yarrow and Fairfields, were kept and merged with the creation of British Shipbuilders in 1977. After subsequent failings and sales, the yard was eventually purchased by BAE Systems in 1999 and now builds ships for the Royal Navy including the new type 31 frigates.