The View from the Bridge

Glen Sannox approaches the Erskine Bridge on her way down the River Clyde on 18 July 1976 — starting her career as CalMac ‘cruise boat’

John Beveridge salutes the Erskine Bridge on its 50th anniversary and documents some of the steamers that have passed beneath it.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Erskine Bridge. The iconic landmark over the Clyde was officially opened by Princess Anne on 2 July 1971, replacing the age-old chain ferry. It achieved Category A listed status in 2018. Eric Schofield’s excellent ‘All Tickets Please’ No. 25 commemorates the passing of the Erskine Ferry, but here is an appreciation of the bridge itself from a steamer enthusiast’s point of view.

The bridge immediately provided a unique vantage point for photographing vessels navigating up and down the river. With a centre span height of 55 meters above the high water mark, it provides a distinct perspective on the ships. The bridge took four years to build and, at the time it opened, was the longest bridge of its type in the world. It relieved the exasperatingly long queues of vehicles at each side of the river at Erskine and Old Kilpatrick, but had toll booths (until May 2006, when the tolls were abolished). Vehicles paid a flat rate of 15p, bikes and pedestrians were free. 

From Bishopton, where I lived at the time, it was a short cycle run to the new bridge and an even shorter journey when I got my first car, in 1973. I became a regular bridge visitor, and the accompanying photographs are the result.

Never had a ‘Maid’ been seen like this before: Maid of Skelmorlie on 21 May 1972

Leading the way is Maid of Skelmorlie on 21 May 1972: she is dressed overall for a charter to a camera club.

Next is Waverley in CSP colours (below), on CRSC’s charter on 16 September 1972 en route for Rhu, Kilmun, Kilcreggan and Troon. The ferry slipway at Erskine can be seen in the background.

In October 1973, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to take MacBraynes’ Lochdunvegan heading downriver on her scheduled cargo run from Glasgow to the Western Isles. A year later she was sold to Greece.

On 5 May the following year, I was again on the bridge to photograph Queen Mary II on charter to CRSC. The sailing, to commemorate her 40th anniversary, was to the Arran coast: there were and lots of upturned faces as she passed under the bridge, with her graceful lines shown to advantage. In those days it was possible to run across the dual carriageway to photograph the vessel as she passed through, as the second photo shows.

In the 1970s the sludge boats operated by Glasgow Corporation (later Strathclyde Region) were still making their daily passage to the open sea off Garroch Head, where they deposited their cargo. I captured Shieldhall coming back upriver on 8 August 1975. She was based at the sewage treatment works at Dalmuir just a short distance upriver of the bridge.

On 18 July 1976 Glen Sannox deputised for Queen Mary, which had condenser trouble. Glasgow passengers were brought down to Gourock where the ‘Mary’ then assumed her scheduled sailing. As the Club’s Review 1976 states, “it would have been possible to take the passengers by train to Gourock, but it was decided [that this would be] a good opportunity to try out the ‘new’ cruise ship on a down-river excursion.”

Queen of Scots en route from Govan to the Kyles on 21 June 1978

When Waverley was out of commission after the Gantocks disaster of July 1977, Queen of Scots was chartered to continue her summer programme. In 1978, she was purchased by B B Shipping (Dunoon) Ltd and undertook a programme of excursions on the Clyde. On Wednesday 21 June she is pictured heading downriver from her starting point of Govan to the Kyles. Also in the photo is the bucket dredger Blythswood and Hopper No.27 just off the Dalmuir works. Looking upriver from the bridge today, the Carless oil refinery plant on the north bank is gone, the sewage treatment works at Dalmuir (the round tanks) have been demolished, and Shieldhall’s berth is abandoned. At the top left of the picture is the Arnott Young & Co shipbreaking yard with a vessel awaiting its fate. The yard closed around 1980 and is now the site of the Golden Jubilee Hospital. On the south bank (top right of picture) is the Eurocrest Hotel, built in 1971 as the Esso Motor Hotel.

One of the photos showing the bridge from ground level captures Highland Seabird high and dry on the old ferry slip at Old Kilpatrick on 8 July 1981. Brought to the Clyde in 1976 by Western Ferries, she was the first catamaran vessel to be used on commercial service in Scotland.

Sailing downriver on 5 March 1988 is Isle of Mull. After her launch in December 1987, it was discovered she was over 100 tons in excess of her designed weight. She was obliged to undergo a makeshift ‘slimming’ exercise at Govan, pending more radical surgery in 1989 at Teeside. The photograph below shows her heading back to the James Watt Dock for final painting and the taking on of furnishings and stores. She entered service on 11 April 1988.

Southsea on 11 September 1987, during her brief visit to the Clyde

In 1987 Waverley experienced boiler trouble and in August she was withdrawn from service. Quick thinking by Waverley Excursions Ltd resulted in a deal with Sealink, under which the Isle of Wight ferry Southsea was chartered to complete WEL’s summer sailings on the Clyde (while Balmoral was redirected to carry out Waverley’s English schedule). Southsea arrived from Portsmouth on 6 September and left the Clyde at the end of the month. Having passed under the bridge, she is seen heading upriver on 11 September.

With the evening sun striking her hull, Balmoral glides under the bridge on her way back to Glasgow on 27 May 1988. She performed three sails that bank holiday weekend before taking up her Bristol Channel schedule.

I have also included a photo of Waverley in WSN colours, passing under Erskine Bridge in July 1984 with the church at Old Kilpatrick in the background.

Erskine Bridge – Happy 50th! Until recently it was an excellent vantage point — but beware, it is no longer possible to run across the lanes of traffic, and the pedestrian pathways on each side are now bordered by high railings, severely restricting camera angles.

Maybe this is not such a loss after all: the ships passing up and down the river are far fewer, and much less interesting, than they were half a century ago.

John Beveridge was founder chairman of the Loch Lomond Steamship Company.

Waverley passing under the Erskine Bridge on 16 September 1972, her last summer with yellow funnels

The MacBrayne cargo ship Lochdunvegan makes her solitary way downriver in October 1972, not long before her withdrawal

Queen Mary on 5 May 1973, passing under the Erskine Bridge

and giving John Beveridge just enough time, dodging the traffic, to run across the dual carriageway

The sludge boat Shieldhall passes upriver on 8 August 1975

The Western Ferries catamaran Highland Seabird on the former ferry slipway at Old Kilpatrick on 8 July 1981

Waverley approaching the Erskine Bridge in July 1984 — a view that has been replicated many times since

Isle of Mull on her way downriver to James Watt Dock on 5 March 1988, after emergency adjustments at Govan. She entered service on the Oban-Craignure run a month later

Balmoral in the evening light on 27 May 1989

All tickets please: the Erskine Ferry

On the Spot: John Beveridge

Published on 19 November 2021