All ship-shape at Clyde

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Clydebuilt Maritime Museum captures the era when the mightiest ships were made in Scotland. Douglas Blane reports

During a long and varied working life the M V Kyles carried fish from the western isles, sand from the Bristol Channel and industrial waste from Scottish factories bound for the deep ocean. But on a rainy spring morning almost 130 years after the vessel was built, its green-painted and somewhat smelly hold contains something it has never seen before - schoolchildren from Hillington Primary in Glasgow.

The unremarkable little coaster now enjoying a dignified retirement outside Clydebuilt, the new Scottish Maritime Museum at Braehead, west of Glasgow, has finally achieved a measure of distinction. It is the oldest still-floating vessel built on the Clyde.

This fact does not inspire young Kirstie, who has just realised her head is below sea-level. "It's not going to sink is it?" "I doubt it," replies guide John Rumble. "She's still seaworthy and if we wanted we could start her engine and head off down river.

"It would take us about three-quarters of an hour to start her up. You'd pump the pressure into that big blue tank, line up the flywheel perfectly, give it a skoosh of air which drives the pistons and starts sucking the diesel into the engine, and then away you go."

Ships and boats have sailed the Clyde since earliest times - dugouts, currachs, galleys, longboats, schooners, men-of-war - all built of wood and powered by wind or muscle. But in the late 18th century came steam and steel, which would transform the river into a pounding workshop, its banks lined with shipyards echoing to the clang of hammers on metal, as this workshop built ships great and small that carried the name of the Clyde to every corner of the world.

Glasgow flourished, and the population exploded from 70,000 at te end of the 18th century to 750,000 by the beginning of the 20th. Ships were built from Partick and Govan to Braehead, Renfrew and Clydebank, and as far west as Dumbarton and Greenock - three-quarters of a million tonnes in 1913 alone. But that was the high point of shipbuilding on the river. For most of the 20th century the industry saw a steady and irreversible decline, until now at the dawn of the 21st the river banks are quiet, the salmon have returned, and ships are rarely seen on the Clyde.

But the memory of those industrious days is preserved and recreated at Clydebuilt, where displays, working models, steam engines, hands-on exhibits, and sights and sounds of the shipyards bring 300 years of history vividly to life. "We wanted to make it interesting and educational for children as well as adults," explains Clydebuilt's manager Jim Callaghan.

The Hillington pupils take turns to steer a ship into harbour, drive a triple expansion engine, make a fortune as an ocean trader and lose it again, and very briefly hold a gun. "I wouldn't like to work with that all day," says Shaun. "I can hardly lift it."

Overlooked by a well-dressed family waving goodbye from the stern of an ocean liner, they watch filmed highlights of the past 100 years, which tell the story of the men who "built the ships of iron and steel, the great ships".

A set of questions provided by their guide leads the pupils from one exhibit to the next. "We have separate booklets for younger and older children which we developed with the help of a senior teacher," says Mr Callaghan.

The Hillington pupils love it:"Going to a normal museum can be boring," says Louise, "but there's lots of things to do here."

"This is great," says a budding sailor as he uses two large levers to operate the ship's engines. "Call me Captain Gary."

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