There was a time when a significant proportion of all the ships afloat around the world were "Clydebuilt". As this book's jacket reveals, even as late as the 1950s, around a seventh of the total of the world's seagoing tonnage was built on a river which is neither particularly wide, nor spectacularly long. "Giants of the Clyde: The Great Ships and the Great Yards" by Robert Jeffrey does not set out to provide a comprehensive account of the story of shipbuilding on the River Clyde. Instead, as the author says in his introduction: "it is an occasionally personal, and perhaps idiosyncratic, selection of tales that appeal to a life-long Clydesider, just one of a huge tribe of 'boat daft' Scots of all ages who have lived near the river. In it are stories of famous ships and the yards, large and small, that built them, and hopefully give something of the flavour of a unique place and its peoples, the folk who made the ships that made a mark on the world."
The book opens with a brief account of the technological advances in shipbuilding at the beginning of the 1800s in west-central Scotland. The "Vulcan", the world's first iron-hulled boat, was built in Lanarkshire in 1819 to be towed along the Monklands Canal, while the "Comet" began Europe's first commercially successful steamboat service in August 1812. Combine the steam engine with the iron hull, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As the author promises, the content is varied. You can perhaps best think of this book as a series of well-written articles about particular topics or moments in the story of shipbuilding on the River Clyde. Chapter two looks at the story of the famous clipper the Cutty Sark, built at Denny's in Dumbarton. We then move on to Denny's role in building seaplanes, hovercraft, and ferries for use on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. We then look at life in the shipyards of Greenock and Port Glasgow; at the role of Lithgow's yard; and at dockland regeneration and modern survivors among the ships built on the Clyde; at Fairfield's of Govan and its submarines. Later in the book we read about the essential work of riveters in the shipbuilding process; the role of John Brown's of Clydebank in building battleships and ocean liners; the story of the Royal Yacht Britannia; and the decline of the industry and the efforts of workers and unions to halt and reverse that decline. We conclude with a look at the way continuing innovation is allowing environmentally-friendly ferries for CalMac to be built at Ferguson's in Port Glasgow. The result nicely captures the atmosphere of a highly distinctive place during a unique period and is an excellent way in to what could easily become a large and complex subject.