IT was 50 years ago this week on September 20, 1967, that the Queen came to Clydebank to launch a magnificent ship which until the moment she pressed the button to smash champagne on to the bow had officially been known only as Q4.

The codename disguised the identity of the ship which is profiled here as the third and last of our short series on great engineering feats in Scotland, and its construction was begun just after the second in our series, the Forth Road Bridge, was seeing its first traffic.

Q1 had been the Queen Mary, Q2 had been Queen Elizabeth, Q3 was planned but never built, and so in 1964, Cunard went back to the home of the first two Queens, John Brown’s yard at Clydebank, to build Q4.

On that September day, with tens of thousands watching, the Queen started the launch process, and Queen Elizabeth 2 – note, never Queen Elizabeth II – was sent into the world.

To this day, many people on Clydeside still think of the Cunard liner QE2 as the Q4, and there is marvellous song The Ballad Of The Q4 by that kenspeckle figure, the late, great Matt McGinn, which sums up the feelings that many Scottish people had for the ship.

“Oh Mary and the Lizzie they were made right here, but you’ll never see the likes of them I fear, they were the finest on the silver sea, they were built by the hands of men like me.”

Delivered in his raucous voice, McGinn’s song sent out a defiant growl about the Clyde and its shipbuilders. The Clyde yards had been in decline for many years, and it was no secret that by the early 1960s, some of the most famous shipbuilding concerns on the river were in trouble.

At the same time, Cunard was also finding out that the transatlantic liner was almost a thing of the past, as jet aircraft made a five-day passage by sea into a six-hour sprint by air. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had been designed for that transatlantic trade, and their construction had made them more or less inconvertible.

The SS France, launched in 1960, was to prove to be the last of the great liners designed for the transatlantic route, but her owners, the Compagnie Général Transatlantique, had been shrewd enough to see that the greatest of all French liners could be used as a cruise ship in future and she had only two classes of passenger as opposed to the normal three.

Cunard knew that Mary and the Lizzie had to be replaced and began working up the concept of Q3, a transatlantic liner. There are drawings of her still in existence and she would have been an innovative beauty.

Yet the revenue from Atlantic crossings continued to fall and Q3 was cancelled before the tendering process had even begun.

Cunard knew that they needed a new liner that would be cheaper to run and which, crucially, could enter ports that the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth could not. They also specified that the new liner had to be able to transit the Panama Canal and thus make round-the-world voyages. That they were already thinking ahead to the days of cruise travel was shown by the demand that the new ship had to have extensive recreational facilities such as four swimming pools and an upmarket shopping area.

Cunard decided to go ahead with Q4 in mid 1964. Only two yards tendered for the job – Harland and Wolff in Belfast and John Brown & Co at Clydebank, builders of the first two Queens as well as the Lusitania and Aquitania before them. The ill-fated HMS Hood and the Royal Yacht Britannia were other Brown creations, and the yard was rightly famed worldwide for the quality of its ships.

A bid of around £30 million – a loss-making bid, as it turned out – secured the project for Clydebank and in November 1964, the keel for job number 736 as she was prosaically known, was laid on the “Queen’s slipway” which lay at angle to the river as the ship would have to be launched diagonally into the Clyde since her near 1,000 feet length would swamp the Clyde that was considerably less wide at that point.

Soon she was known as Q4 and the Clyde was abuzz with rumours about the ship that was designed to be the last word in luxury as a transatlantic liner, but could also be converted for cruising. Designed in house by Cunard’s teams in Liverpool and Southampton with input from some of the top interior designers of the day, Q4 would be lighter than her predecessors as her upper works featured a lot of aluminium, though her steel was all British.

There were slight delays during the construction, and more when she was being fitted out after being launched. She was to be run on oil, and the engines were also problematic, but gradually Q4 came together in the way that only great ships do – by dint of clever design, superior draughtmanship and sheer expert hard work by everybody from welders to painters.

Hundreds of men swarmed all over Q4 as she slowly rose above the rest of the yard, while to a young boy like me it seemed she dwarved the whole town of Cydebank.

The majority of the superstructure and especially the funnel were always intended to be added once the ship was launched. By mid-1967 she was on schedule and the date was set for her launch many months in advance.

The name was still secret, but when it was learned that the Queen herself would perform the launching ceremony for the Cunard flagship, all bets were off.

There has long been controversy about why she is QE2 and not QEII. One version is that Cunard did not want to upset Scottish nationalists who did not recognise the current monarch as the second Queen Elizabeth of Scotland. Yet that version does not sit with the fact that the SNP, for example, was still many months away from Winnie Ewing’s Hamilton by-election win – indeed, the by-election itself would not be called until October when Labour MP Tom Fraser resigned. Some party historians opine that the boost to the pride of ordinary Scots by the launching of the QE2 may have impacted on that by-election.

The more likely version is that Cunard followed an old shipping tradition and did not want to name her “the Second” when the original Queen Elizabeth was still in service, albeit that Q2 finished her sailing career before Q4 started hers. It’s just not true that Her Majesty added “the Second” as an afterthought – she read what was on the card in front of her. Whatever the reason, the name stuck and the QE2 became the world’s most famous ship.

The launch went precisely as intended, the smashing of the bottle followed by long seconds before the new Queen slowly slipped into the river, stopped by thousands of tons of drag chains and swiftly attended by tugs who manoeuvred her into the John Brown fitting berth – it was there that the glorious black and white funnel was fitted after the launch to give the QE2 such a distinctive look.

It seemed as though the whole of Scotland celebrated the launch for days afterwards, and for a short while there was a huge feelgood factor on the Clyde again.

We all know of her remarkable career, her six million miles of sailing, her service in the Falklands War, the numerous refits including new engines that enabled the QE2 to stay in service for more than 40 years – the longest-serving Cunard liner of them all. Perhaps we did not appreciate then that she would indeed be the last of the great Clyde liners, or just what an outstanding piece of shipbuilding and engineering she was.

Many people have distinct memories of that time. My own date from November 1968 when the completed ship went down the Clyde to dry dock at Greenock and then her sea trials. I was one of tens of thousands of people, a great many of them schoolchildren like me, who lined the banks of the river to cheer the QE2 as she made her stately progress.

Our teacher told us that we were seeing a bit of history because the liner would never be able to go back to Clydebank – the Erskine Bridge was coming and the QE2 was just too tall to go under the bridge, so this would be her one and only voyage on the Clyde.

My abiding memory is not just of her sheer bulk but also that she was amazingly beautiful. I remember thinking how could ordinary people in Clydebank create something so wondrous, so gorgeous? Then I went home and taught myself all I could about shipbuilding on the Clyde, a subject that fascinates me to this day, and learned about the artists in steel.

Others have more direct memories of being up close and personal with Q4. Peter Kemp wrote to tell me: “I myself had the privilege to serve my apprenticeship as an engineering pattern maker in John Brown’s. I was there the day the keel was laid. The day she was launched and the day she left. Happy times. Momentous times.”

THEY were indeed momentous times, and sadly long gone. Within a year of the QE2’s launch, the five great closure-threatened yards of John Brown, Fairfields in Govan, Alexander Stephen at Linthouse, and Charles Connell and Yarrows at Scotstoun, had amalgamated to form Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which in turn led to the momentous events on the Clyde in the 1970s which will be the subject of a future Back In The Day.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde has not ceased entirely but the days when the yards north and south of the river created a third of the world’s shipping, and when Clydebuilt meant biggest and best, cannot be brought back. And that is truly sad, for a way of life was extinguished, one that brought great distinction to Scotland.

The last word to McGinn, the folk singer, activist, teacher and force of life who we will also profile in a future Back In The Day – here are the closing lines of The Ballad Of The Q4.

“We’ve worked a sweated and toiled an’ all, see the experts’ hand from stern to bow, she’s ready for the torments o’ the sea, she’s a credit to the Clyde and you and me.

“Thank you dad for all your skill, but the Clyde is a river that’ll no’ stand still, you did gey well but we’ll do more, make way for the finest of them all, Q4.”