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Clydeside: Shipbuilding and Trade in Glasgow, Scotland; Part Two

This post was written by Nancy Lovas a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

The story of shipbuilding along the River Clyde stretches over three centuries, though now it lives only in memory and museum. At the industry’s height, “Clyde-built” was the standard of quality, worthy of respect (McKenna & Ferreiro, 2013). By the time The Shipping World and Herald of Commerce began publishing in 1884, shipyards filled the banks from Helensburgh on the north and Greenock to the south inland to Glasgow City. The Clyde was unequivocally the center of shipping and shipbuilding in Scotland, and by some analysis third in the United Kingdom only behind London and Liverpool. In the 1890s, British shipyards built seventy-five percent of ships worldwide, two-thirds of which came from Clydeside (McKenna & Ferreiro, 2013).

Greenock. John Atkinson Grimshaw, Public Domain, year unknown https://www.wikiart.org/en/john-atkinson-grimshaw/greenock

Location, location, location

Greenock, situated down the Clyde as the river widens, was one of the first prosperous ports and centers of shipbuilding. Other towns—Helensburgh, Port Glasgow, Dumbarton, and Clydebank, to name a few—followed in supporting the shipyards that made the Clyde. Proximity to the commercial center of Glasgow as well as resources such as coal contributed to shipbuilding’s prominence. Perhaps most importantly for early success, though, is due to geography: Clyde ports, on the west coast of Scotland, sat squarely on the fastest and safest trade route to the North American colonies (Devine, 1990).

The Tobacco Lords and the 18th century

Glasgow and the Clyde’s prosperity in the 18th century was built on the North American tobacco trade that developed after 1707.

Unknown, A Merchant Ship at Anchor, High Out of Water, Out of copyright, ‘National Galleries of Scotland’ (ca 1725) David Laing Bequest to the Royal Scottish Academy transferred 1910. https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/19387/111308/merchant-ship-anchor-high-out-water

The 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland opened colonial trade to Scotland according to the terms of the Navigation Acts of the 1660s. The trade laws dictated when and how goods could be shipped. For example, English colonial products such as tobacco and indigo could only be shipped directly to England on English ships. These enumerated products would then be exported from England to European markets (Devine, 1990). After the Act of Union, Scottish merchants, ports, and ships were no longer treated as foreign. Towards the middle of the 18th century, increasing amounts of North American tobacco arrived in Glasgow over other British ports and made a small group of merchants extremely wealthy: the Tobacco Lords.

Over the course of the 18th century, Glaswegian merchant houses grew wealthy from the credit system they developed. “The…tobacco houses established chains of stores supervised by young Scottish factors which offered consumer goods, plantation equipment, money and credit in exchange for tobacco. The stores therefore ensured that enough tobacco was purchased in advance…The ‘stay in the country’ was therefore cut to a minimum [and] turn-around time in the colonial ports drastically reduced…”( Devine, 1990, p. 18). Colonial plantation owners depended on Scottish credit to operate and the colonies owed Glasgow 1.3 million pounds by the American Revolution in 1775. The heads of the tobacco houses amassed enormous social power in Glasgow in addition to their wealth. Resulting investment in Glasgow industry, such as collieries and ropeworks, set the stage for its 19th century industrial dominance (Devine, 1990, p. 20).


Barqe, Brig, Brigantine. Images from “Glasgow and the Tobacco Lords; illustrated from contemporary sources by H.C. McBeath.” (Nichol, 1966)

Further Reading and Items of Interest

Bellamy, M. (2006). Shipbuilding and cultural identity on Clydeside. Journal for Maritime Research (8)1, 1-33.

Devine, T.M. (1990). The tobacco lords of Glasgow. History Today 40(5), 17-21.

Devine, T. M. (1990a). The Tobacco Lords: A Study of the Tobacco Merchants of Glasgow and Their Trading Activities, c. 1740-90. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.

Images from “Glasgow and the Tobacco Lords; illustrated from contemporary sources by H.C. McBeath.” (Nichol, 1966)

Hewitson, J. (Ed.). (2004). The Scots at Sea: Celebrating Scotland’s Maritime History. Edinburgh,  United Kingdom: Saint Andrew Press.

McKenna, S. A., & Ferreiro, L. D. (2013). The scientific and management revolution in shipbuilding on the “Two Clydes,” 1880-1900. Nautical Research Journal, 58(2), 105-128.

Nichol, N. (1966). Glasgow and the Tobacco Lords; illustrated from contemporary sources by H.C. McBeath. London: Longmans.

Robins, N. S. (2014). Scotland and the Sea: The Scottish Dimension in Maritime History. Barnsley, United Kingdom:: Seaforth Publishing.


This is part two in an ongoing series about shipbuilding and trade along the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Read part one here.

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