Shipping & Shipbuilding News -  22 May 2007 - The Brightest Maritime Daily

Bustling shipyards on the River Leven in days long gone

The Leven-built CUTTY SARK
Looking back on a river whose name has been airbrushed from shipbuilding history.

Up here in Scotland we have to admit that we perpetrate a myth about CUTTY SARK, when we say, the "Clyde-built CUTTY SARK."

Truth is, she ain't! But in nearly every news report, she is given the title of Clyde-built. And we Scots and Clyde folks are to blame. We have to admit it!

The river she was built beside and launched into, and fitted out by, was in actual fact the River Leven. This snaking river starts at the foot of Loch Lomond and meanders its way through "The Beautiful Vale of the Leven" to Dumbarton, and then gasps itself past the formidable rock fortress into the mighty Clyde.

The venerable Clyde-built ships that survive are indeed testament to the skills and qualities of their designers and builders, but in using this term we omit the histories, and indeed pride, of other riverside folks. In short, we neglect to tell their tales and huffily dismiss their importance by using the more famous marketing slogan of 'Clyde-built'.

The River Leven for long was a place where ships were built. It supported a vast multitude of shipbuilders since very early days. Names that spring to mind are Denny, McMillan, Wood, and of course Scott & Linton (albeit, thanks to the very excellence of CUTTY SARK's build, their place in the Leven's history is brief indeed), but there were many more.

Looking at the town of Dumbarton now it is very, very hard to imagine what it must have been like in the 1800's (or indeed in the shipbuilding boom times of the 20th Century) , but you can be sure it was a very different place. Both banks of the Leven bristled with the paraphernalia of shipbuilding. Timbers rose into the air like jabbing fingers, and in time, cranes stood guard and mightily proclaimed that the River of Tobias Smollet's 'white pebbles spread' was as industrial and productive as it's larger neighbour the Clyde.

Industry indeed used the Leven unashamedly. Her very clear waters, rushing down from the natural reservoir of Loch Lomond, were channelled and coerced through a series of lades, mini canals if you like, to serve the bleaching and dye factories that made the Vale of Leven on of the most important textiles centres of Scotland, and indeed, the UK. Spewing out pollutants made no impact on the river as it self-cleaned continuously, past the elephantine Dumbarton Rock into the wider and more lauded Clyde.

From the early 1800's shipbuilders gathered before the Rock on both banks of the River Leven: McLachlan, the Denny clan, Lang, Wood, Rankine, Swan, McMillan - all had yards and in some cases operated together, before the arrival of Scott and Linton in the late 1860's. After Scott & Linton's demise other names appear on the Leven, such as Birrell & Stenhouse, Boyd and Turner, Chambers, and Burrell amongst others.

It is extraordinary to think in these days when the whole of the UK has but a handful of shipyards that Dumbarton, and the Leven, had many more interests occupying both banks than an entire island nation today. Between them they built over 3000 vessels of various sizes from tiny tugs to magnificent steamships and in latter days, the workhorse cargo vessels and channel steamers known to many shipping buffs and in the memories of everyday travellers of the fifties and sixties.

Today we have very few left that remind us of the industry and skills of the Leven shipbuilders. However, few that they are, they provide us with an astonishing insight into the extraordinary influence of the River Leven even to this day. Witness the DELTA KING and DELTA QUEEN, built in the twenties in sections and shipped to the USA. Both of these giant stern wheel paddle vessels are still in existence.

Sitting on the banks of the Thames is another Leven-built great, the legendary turbine ship so missed by the Clyde folks, the QUEEN MARY II, now a restaurant. Similarly on the Tyne is one of Dumbarton's last ships, the 3630 grt ex CALEDONIAN PRINCESS

One extant Leven-built ship has suffered terribly. The handsome ROYAL SOVEREIGN, once a Thames excursion ship, is now a rather horrible truck carrier!

There are though other examples that still carry on as intended, perhaps the most famous is the pretty steamship, SIR WALTER SCOTT on Loch Katrine, and, on the river by the river of her birth, THE SECOND SNARK still carries passengers as she did in the thirties.

A handful of others survive, and though the numbers are small, compared to the thousands built since the early 1800's, it has to be borne in mind that shipbuilding on the Leven ceased with the closure of Wm Denny, the last Dumbarton shipyard, around forty three years ago.

CUTTY SARK is the most famous product of the Leven, and rightly so. Although she helped put her builders out of existence, shipbuilding carried on for nearly a century afterwards on this tiny area between Levengrove Park and the Rock, producing some of the finest and most innovative ships the world has seen.

Truly it is time now to celebrate Leven-built.

CUTTY SARK suffers from suspicious fire
Help rebuild the CUTTY SARK - Appeal
About the CUTTY SARK



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