River Clyde

River Clyde

The River Clyde (Gaelic: Abhainn Chluaidh, ) is a major river in Scotland. It is the eighth longest river in the United Kingdom, and the third longest in Scotland. Flowing through the major city of Glasgow, it was an important river for shipbuilding and trade in the British Empire.


The Clyde is formed by the confluence of two streams, the Daer Water (the headwaters of which are dammed to form the Daer Reservoir) and the Potrail Water. The Southern Upland Way crosses both streams before they meet at Watermeetings to form the River Clyde proper. At this point the Clyde is only six miles from Tweed's Well, the source of the River Tweed and eight miles from the Devil's Beef Tub, the source of the River Annan.

From there it snakes northeastward before turning to the west, its flood plain used for many major roads in the area, until it reaches the town of Lanark. On the banks of the Clyde, Victorian industrialists David Dale and Robert Owen built their mills and the model settlement of New Lanark. The mills harness the power of the Falls of Clyde, the most spectacular of which is Cora Linn. A hydroelectric power station still generates electricity here, although the mills are now a museum and World Heritage Site.

From New Lanark, the river turns northwest, before it is joined by the River Avon and flows into the West of Scotland conurbation. Between the towns of Motherwell and Hamilton the course of the river has been altered to create the artificial loch within Strathclyde Park. Part of the original course can still be seen, and lies between the island and the east shore of the loch. The river then flows through Blantyre and Bothwell, where the ruined Bothwell Castle stands on a defensible promontory.

Past Uddingston and into the southeast of Glasgow the river begins to widen, meandering a course through Rutherglen and Dalmarnock. Flowing past Glasgow Green, the river is artificially straightened and widened through the centre, and although a footbridge now hinders access to the traditional Broomielaw, seagoing ships can still come upriver as far as Finnieston where the PS Waverley docks. From there, it flows past the shipbuilding heartlands, through Govan, Partick, Whiteinch, Scotstoun and Clydebank, all of which housed major shipyards, of which only two remain. The river flows out west of Glasgow, past Renfrew, and under the Erskine Bridge past Dumbarton on the north shore to the sandbank at Ardmore Point between Cardross and Helensburgh. Opposite, on the south shore, the river continues past the last Lower Clyde shipyard at Port Glasgow to Greenock where it reaches the Tail of the Bank as the river merges into the Firth of Clyde.

Industrial growth

The success of the Clyde at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution was driven by the location of Glasgow, being a port facing the Americas. Tobacco and cotton trade began the drive in the early 18th century. However, the shallow Clyde was not navigable for the largest ocean-going ships and cargo had to be transferred at Greenock or Port Glasgow to smaller ships to sail into Glasgow itself.

In 1768 John Golborne advised the narrowing of the river and the increasing of the scour by the construction of rubble jetties and the dredging of sandbanks and shoals. A particular problem was the division of the river into two shallow channels by the Dumbuck shoal near Dumbarton. After James Watt's report on this in 1769, a jetty was constructed at Longhaugh Point to block off the southern channel; this being insufficient, a training wall called the Lang Dyke was built in 1773 on the Dumbuck shoal to stop water flowing over into the southern channel. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries hundreds of jetties were built out from the banks between Dumbuck and the Broomielaw quay in Glasgow itself. In some cases this resulted in an immediate deepening as the constrained water flow washed away the river bottom, in others dredging was required.

In the mid-19th century engineers took on a much greater dredging of the Clyde, removing millions of cubic metres of silt to deepen and widen the channel. The major stumbling block in the project was a massive volcanic plug known as Elderslie Rock. It would be the 1880s before work was finally complete. The completion of the dredging was well-timed, as steelworking grew in the city, the channel finally became navigable all the way up to Glasgow. Shipbuilding replaced trade as the major activity on the river and shipbuilding companies were establishing themselves on the river at an exponential rate. Soon, the Clyde gained a reputation for being the best location for shipbuilding in the British Empire, and grew to become the worlds pre-eminent shipbuilding centre. Clydebuilt became an industry benchmark of quality, and the river’s shipyards were given contracts for prestigious ocean-going liners as well as warships, including the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth 2 in later years, all built in the town of Clydebank.

Shipbuilding decline

The downfall of the Clyde as a major industrial centre came during and post-World War II. Clydebank in particular was targeted by the Luftwaffe and sustained heavy damage. The immediate post war period saw a severe reduction in warship orders which was balanced by a prolonged boom in merchant shipbuilding. By the end of the 1950s, however, the rise of other shipbuilding nations, recapitalised and highly productive, made many European yards uncompetitive. Many Clydeside yards booked a series of loss-making contracts in the hope of weathering the storm. However by the mid-1960s, shipbuilding on the Clyde was becoming increasingly uneconomic and potentially faced collapse. This culminated in the closure of Harland and Wolff's Linthouse yard and a bankruptcy crisis facing Fairfields of Govan. The Government responded by creating the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders consortium. After the consortium's controversial collapse in 1971, the Labour government of James Callaghan later passed the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act which nationalised most of the Clyde's shipyards and grouped them with other major British shipyards as British Shipbuilders.

Today, two major shipyards remain in operation on the Upper Clyde; they are owned by the Global defence contractor, BAE Systems Naval Ships, who focus principally upon the design and construction of technologically advanced warships for the Royal Navy and other navies around the world. These are the former Yarrow yard at Scotstoun and Fairfields / Govan Shipbuilders at Govan. There is also the King George V Dock, operated by the Clyde Port Authority. On the Lower Clyde, the privately owned Ferguson Shipbuilders at Port Glasgow is the last survivor of the many shipyards that once dominated Port Glasgow and Greenock - its mainstay being the construction of car ferries.


However, Clydeside has gained new draws to replace the once dominant shipbuilding industry. The Clyde Waterfront Regeneration project is expected to attract investment of up to £5.6bn in the area from Glasgow Green to Dumbarton. Market gardens and garden centres have grown up on the fertile plains of the Clyde Valley. Tourism has also brought many back to the riverside, especially in Glasgow where former docklands have given way to housing and amenities on the banks in the city, for instance, the Glasgow Harbour project, the Glasgow Science Centre, and the creation of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. With the migration of the commercial Port of Glasgow downstream to the deeper waters of the Firth of Clyde, the river has been extensively cleaned up, once having a very poor reputation for pollution and sewage, in order to make it suitable for recreational use.


A Clyde mystery

A few years before 1799 the River Clyde ceased to flow over the Falls of Clyde for several hours. Some blamed this upon a sort of temporary 'ice dam' or upon a subterranean passage. The mill at the falls was left dry and could not work until the flow returned.

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