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If you ask a good proportion of the Scottish population what imagery the words ‘the River Clyde’ conjure up, then a river dominated by shipbuilding and heavy industry may well be the overwhelming response.
But industries such as shipbuilding and coal mining are a relatively recent addition to the annals of the River Clyde’s fascinating story.
Its history dates back many thousands of years and it is a river that flows through a remarkably varied and beautiful landscape.
The River Clyde is born at the confluence of the Potrail and Daer Waters, a little north of the scattering of houses at Watermeetings in South Lanarkshire. The Clyde’s Burn joins slightly further up stream and it is generally accepted (although not definitive) that this modest burn bestows its bigger cousin with its distinguished moniker.
The word Clyde comes from the Cumbric ‘Clouta’, which in all probability translates as ‘The Cleansing One’, and illustrates an association with washing or purification.
The River Clyde flows for over 100 miles (it is the 3rd longest river in Scotland and the 9th longest in Britain), initially through a rural landscape, passing by some fine historic settlements such as Biggar and Lanark, and only hitting urbanisation when the towns of Hamilton and Motherwell are reached.
It then moves on, passing through Glasgow, reaching the Clyde’s upper tidal limit near Glasgow Green. Onwards the river widens and deepens as it passes Dumbarton and Port Glasgow before flowing into the Firth of Clyde at Greenock and Helensburgh.
It was the Romans who were the first to really leave their mark on the River Clyde. They crossed it at Elvanfoot in AD80 and went on to build significant highways, particularly near Crawford where there was also an important Roman fort. Along the Clyde a fort was built on Arbory Hill, Tinto Hill was used by the Romans as a signal station and, further upstream, at Strathclyde Country Park another fort was built and today the superb remains of a Roman bathhouse are on public display.
But it appears to have been during the Middle-Ages that people began to realise the economic potential of the River Clyde; major settlements like Dumbarton, Lanark and Glasgow started to flourish, sea trout and salmon fishing in the Clyde began around the 12th century and it is thought that shipbuilding commenced as early as the 15th century.
However it wasn’t until the 19th century that the River Clyde was firmly placed on the international map. Shipyards at Govan, Renfrew, Clydebank, Dumbarton, Port Glasgow, and Greenock prospered and names such as Denny’s, Fairfield’s, Yarrow’s and John Brown’s were soon recognised the world over.
Many great ships including the Cunard Liners, the Cutty Sark and HMS Indomitable were built on the Clyde and at its height over 100,000 people were employed in shipbuilding on the River Clyde.
Over the last 50 years many things have changed along the River Clyde but it is still essentially the same river it has been for the last 200 years; it is still both a rural and urban river; agriculture, horticulture and manufacturing, are all still there but just on a smaller scale although tourism has begun to take on a larger role within the economy of the communities along the river.