IT’S practically impossible to talk about the history of Glasgow without talking about the River Clyde given it was at the heart of the shipbuilding industry for more than a hundred years.

It goes without saying that times have changed but that doesn't mean the Clyde is any less iconic.

“I never really quite know if the current generation is so connected but I think everyone is still fond of the river,” explains Ewan Kennedy, the author of a new book on the “untold” history of Scottish sailing.

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Indeed, Kennedy’s work – The Scottish Islanders – wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the river.

Building boats

Kennedy tells the Sunday National that sailing has been a passion of his since he was a youngster.

“There’s a chapter in the book about this. We were children in Glasgow in the 1950s and when my dad got hold of a car, we were taken through to the east coast," he says,

“The people there were building their own boats out of random bits and pieces and my brother got involved in this as a hobby.”

That passion didn’t falter as Kennedy (below) adds that he’s built eight boats in the course of his life and it’s something that he highly recommends.  

The National:

“If you have an office job or you’re stressed out then working on boats is really quite satisfying,” he says.

“I worked as a lawyer in Glasgow which is interesting but you got very stressed.”

Like so many Glaswegians, Kennedy’s memories of the cities are connected to the shipbuilding industry and he fondly recalls how “romantic” it was to hear the ship horns at the beginning and end of each day.

Betting on the boats

The new book is packed with information on Scottish sailing but there are a few moments in particular which stood out as being of great interest to Kennedy.

One of these was the yacht racing that went on every weekend in the 1930s where some of Glasgow’s best-known business families left their home comforts behind to race against each other in a fleet of sailing yachts on the Firth of Clyde.

“I think it’s quite funny because you have these really wealthy families that owned shipyards and fleets but every weekend they went out on these really basic racing boats,” Kennedy explains.

The National: A fleet of ships in the 1930sA fleet of ships in the 1930s (Image: NQ)

“It required a hell of a lot of physical skill and cunning to compete against one another and the general public would go and watch and bet on them.

“It was actually quite a cutthroat competition but it was a big deal. They had two guys from the Glasgow Herald who used to cover it all.”

It wasn’t all about the wealthy, though. In the days before the arrival of package holidays, the river offered an escape from the city.

Fleets of paddle steamers used to take people “doon the watter” and each summer the broad stretch of the lower Clyde became a “watery playground”, as Kennedy puts it.

The writing process

The book has been a long time coming as Kennedy says he had finished a basic draft around 10 years ago.

Keen to make things more interesting, though, he started a blog calling for people with any memories or photographs of their time on the water to get in touch.

“I ended up meeting an extraordinary woman called Margie Jackson and she had sailed on one of these racing boats when she was only around 13 years old.”

When asked to pick out one anecdote in his book that stands out, Kennedy laughs given the wide variety of options he has available.

But there’s one story in particular he keeps coming back to.

It relates to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who, in May 1915, adopted four orphaned war babies.

The children had something of an eccentric upbringing, moving from place to place, living in Vancouver, Toronto, Bermuda and then Paris.

Known by Pankhurst as Joan Pembridge, the woman was adopted by a man named William Russell from Glasgow and she became lady Udy Russell.

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As it happened, the Russell family were big fans of boat racing and Lady Udy went on to become a “highly respected” racer.

“She didn’t wear normal sailing clothes so that the newspapers would see she was a woman,” Kennedy explains.

“The family actually took the boat to America where they found that women weren’t allowed in the sailing races.

The National:

“So she wore a long skirt (image above) on the front deck of this racing yacht in New York and really shook up the Americans so I found that story in particular fascinating.”

And that’s just one tale among many.

The Scottish Islanders is out now and is available to buy HERE.