It was like the return of an ancient relic. A piece of shipping history, of Clyde history, battered and bruised by time but still hugely cherished, was coming home. Everything about Queen Mary — the old-fashioned name, the pencil-like funnels, the slender profile — bespoke a different age, when Scotland gave birth to the world’s greatest ships and the Clyde boasted a flotilla of turbine steamers every bit as dashing as she; an age when steam ruled the waves.
And here she was, attended by a guard of honour (yachts, speedboats, a thousand cameras), solemnly processing up the Firth from Ailsa Craig to the Cloch, reunited with the landscape of her youth, hailed by her ‘ain folk’ — not only those old enough to remember her gliding downriver to Rothesay and Tighnabruaich in the 1950s and 1960s, but also curious parents and wide-eyed youngsters who had never been ‘doon the watter’. Bute, Cumbrae, Ashton, Cowal — all were lined with people witnessing a piece of history in the making: the coming home of Queen Mary on 16 May 2016.
The Clyde hadn’t seen her like since — well, since she was towed to the Thames in 1981, four years after being rendered redundant in her native waters. Built in 1933 by Denny of Dumbarton for the ‘all-the-way’ trade, Queen Mary has probably carried more Glaswegians than any other ship within living memory. She survived the war, outlived her builders, made the leap into the CalMac era — only to discover she no longer made financial sense. Defying attempts at preservation, she became surplus to Scotland’s requirements.
And so, 35 years ago, she was disemboweled, towed to London and transformed into a static barge for the benefit of tourists wanting to booze and schmooze in sight of the Houses of Parliament. To anyone who had known her in her heyday, she became little more than a mummified object, a piece of rusting metal. And the rust multiplied when the business went bust and she lay derelict at Tilbury Docks.
That was when a nucleus of Glasgow-based mariners and enthusiasts saw their opportunity. Four years ago, no one gave them a chance when they declared an interest in saving Queen Mary for the Clyde, to be an exhibition, education and entertainment centre permanently moored at the heart of Glasgow. But they kept faith, built alliances, deployed their professional skills, pushed the pieces into place. Finally, last year, they bought the ship. Aided by a fundraising campaign and the services of professional well-wishers, they made her seaworthy.
Queen Mary finally left the Thames on May 11, towed by the tug Venture. Accompanied by blissfully calm weather, the two made excellent progress along the southern English coast, round Land’s End and up the Irish Sea. On a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon (May 16), as crowds followed Queen Mary’s stately approach to the Cloch and studied the berthing manoeuvres (stern-first) at Greenock’s James Watt Dock, this strangely dilapidated but still beautiful and recognisable Clyde steamer created a sense of wonder — and a surge of emotion.
Now the hard work really begins, as the campaign to raise £2m gets underway. With two preserved Scottish paddle steamers, Maid of the Loch and Waverley, also on the fundraising trail, the challenge is huge. Friends of TS Queen Mary — the charity promoting her static restoration — will soon discover whether sentiment is enough to persuade funding bodies and private well-wishers to dig deep into their pockets and realise the dream of turning this proud ship into a permanent exhibit. But that’s something for the future. For today, we can celebrate the fact that Queen Mary is well and truly home, back where she belongs.