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The Firth of Clyde, by virtue of its size, attractive scenery and potential for varied cruising possibilities, is the main area for coastal cruising in the UK. The river Clyde runs through Glasgow, a city built on international trade and major centre for steel, engineering and shipbuilding from the industrial revolution into the present day. It soon widens into an estuary with industrial towns dotted along it's steep sided banks. Further downstream, holiday resorts developed along the mainland coast and on the numerous islands in the Firth and wealthy industrialists built homes amidst the beautiful scenery. With city dwellers always keen to get away for a holiday at one of the resorts or take in the delights of a cruise up one of the many sea lochs, and islanders keen to commute to or deliver goods to markets on the mainland, the advent of steamship technology meant that the Clyde would become one of the foremost areas for its development. With so many shipbuilding companies located along the Clyde building sea-going ships for Britain and the world, it was only natural that many of them were also involved in building the "Clyde Steamers".

Above : It was not just the "bucket-and-spade" holidaymakers who thronged to Rothesay and filled the numerous bed and breakfast establishments in high summer, especially the Glasgow Fair period. The Glenburn Hotel, better known as the "Hydro" (see above in a photo shown by kind courtesy of Kenny Whyte) was the destination for up-market customers, providing an elevated level of luxury and spa treatments. The Glenburn remains in operation and is a popular destination of coach tour operators. Waverley can still be seen from the hotel making her regular summer calls at Rothesay. Along the bay front can be seen some large villas. These are typical of the residences built for Glasgow businessmen in the 19th century and were the reason why summer commuting to the big city was such an important part of the Clyde steamer's business. Services had to be quick and involve seamless interchange with trains at the mainland railhead ...... and competition for business between steamer companies could become cut-throat. It also explains why there were once so many piers on the Clyde. Waverley has already passed Craigmore where there was once a pier, handy for villas along the bay shore and the closest point on Bute to the Wemyss Bay railhead.

The 1930s saw the final development of the Clyde paddle steamer, a story which began in 1812 with the pioneering vessel "Comet". The operators of the Clyde Steamers, mainly railway companies, which had fought a long and hard battle for supremacy in the trade, had severely outdated fleets and all embarked on a programme of modernisation which was the greatest since the "Golden Years" of 1890-1904. What was unusual was that the modernisation involved the use of tried and tested technology - steam, and in the case of all the ferry workhorses, paddles. Whilst this was understandable in the case of the London & North Eastern Railway's Jeanie Deans due to draught restrictions at her home base of Craigendoran, other operators had no such problem yet still chose steamers, including paddle steamers, over motor vessels. With a few exceptions, these were the last side-wheel paddle steamers built for use in Europe.

Not until the early 1950s were motor vessels prominent on Clyde ferry services, both as a cost-cutting measure and associated with the radical new designs needed to handle the growing traffic in motor cars. The introduction of the paddle steamer Waverley in 1947 could be seen as a conservative measure, but she was to sail out of Craigendoran and in any case it made sense to replace war losses quickly with tried and tested technology. She was to be the last. After a relatively short life, or so it seemed, she was withdrawn in 1973 and the turbine steamer Queen Mary thus became the last of an extensive fleet of steamers. Placed in the hands of preservationists, Waverley has continued the tradition to this day, whilst the "commercial" operators disposed of Queen Mary in 1977 to concentrate on car ferry services 

It has to be recognised that the paddle steamers were to all intents and purposes the ferries of their day and whilst the large turbine steamers could be regarded as excursion ships, for most, any excursion work was an "add-on" to their ferrying duties. Whilst Waverley does continue the tradition, the services of Caledonian-MacBrayne and Western Ferries now provide what the paddlers once provided - but in a different way, adapted to modern needs and "cargoes".


Click here for much about the Clyde's steamers and their operating companies 
To go to the individual vessels, click on the ship's name in the operating company's fleet list


Special Report : Clyde Steamer Operations and new ships built in the 1930s
Special Report : The 1960s - the last full decade of steam - or that's how it seemed at the time......


See some views of Firth of Clyde 

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Modern car ferries now shuttle between the the main ferrying points, not deviating from their routes and not offering the possibility of tours of the Firth. The paddle steamer Waverley which operates a varied excursion programme in the summer months maintains the tradition under ownership of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society. Whilst its programme remains fairly fixed with a weekly cycle of popular cruises, there is more flexibility on a Sunday to explore the outer reaches of the Firth, and occasional calls are scheduled at far flung ports such as Girvan (above) which would otherwise not see a passenger ferry. Such unusual trips are generally well patronised as seen in this photo taken in 2011 kindly given for use by Kenny Whyte.

Waverley is not the only surviving Clyde Steamer

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TS Queen Mary, until January 2009 a floating restaurant in London, was the flagship of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company until her withdrawal in 1977. In September 2015 she was obtained by a Scottish charity whose objects are to preserve this vessel, now unique in the world and with a fascinating back-story, in her original home port of Glasgow, where she is now berthed alongside the Science Centre and under restoration.  Photo of Queen Mary (as Queen Mary II) at Tighnabruaich in the late 1960s - by Jake Dale 

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