When people talk about Scottish shipbuilding they invariably talk about Clydeside, and rightly so, given the magnificent history of the industry on the river.

Yet a new trilogy of books, the first of which has just been published, is set to challenge the accepted view that Clyde-built was the only mark of quality in Scottish shipbuilding. They Once Were Shipbuilders is volume one of a trilogy called Leith-Built Ships written by RO Neish and published by Whittles Publishing based at Dunbeath in Caithness.

Those who know the industrial history of Scotland will be aware that shipbuilding was not confined to Glasgow and the Clyde. Aberdeen, Dundee, the Ayrshire coast and above all Leith were also centres of an industry in which Scotland was for centuries a world leader both in the tonnage produced and the long list of innovations.

It is the history of Leith’s role in Scottish shipbuilding which the trilogy will cover and They Once Were Shipbuilders is an admirable start, covering the years before 1850 to the end of World War I.


According to the publishers, RO “Ron” Neish is “a proud shipbuilder who is still active in shipbuilding and well qualified to tell this fascinating story”.

Neish works in the industry in a design and consultancy basis, and has worked on numerous vessels of all shapes and sizes including new builds, conversions and repairs for a variety of agencies. He has contributed articles to maritime magazines worldwide and this book is the culmination of many years of research and a lifetime of building ships.


“This book really came about in my attempt to help put the record straight with regards to shipbuilding in Leith in an age when many would attempt to airbrush from history the proud industrial past of the town that I grew up in.

Shipbuilding was always more than just a job to me. I had to go and work in other industries but my passion for the trade as a loftsman never left me. It was the superb skills passed on to me that enabled me to travel the world designing cars and aircraft parts. Ships and shipbuilding just got under my skin and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the industry.”


Yes, and long before any vessel of any size was constructed on the Clyde. It may put some west coast noses out of joint, but Leith’s proud history of shipbuilding can be traced back to the early days of the 14th century, some 400 years before the first recognised ship of any size was built on the Clyde at Greenock. Neish quotes from a Daily Mail article in 1937 which was about a visit to the Henry Robb shipyard by a Glasgow-based journalist who wrote: “The men of Leith were building ships when the men of Glasgow where sailing around in smacks poaching salmon.”

Berwick-upon-Tweed had previously been Scotland’s major seaport but its repeated capture by the English saw that title transferred to Leith. Records show that there were already vessels being built where the Water of Leith enters into the Forth of Forth before 1424 when King James I ordered a royal shipyard to be constructed there. It was James IV who commissioned the ship that put the Forth on the map as a centre of shipbuilding – the Great Michael, built next door to Leith at Newhaven in 1512 and then the largest warship afloat.

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Neish's book gives a potted introduction to the growth of Leith before it gets into the nitty gritty of his tale, namely the history of the yards that became the Henry Robb Shipyard conglomerate.

He shows how Leith’s status as a port fired the demand for ships, and details the ins and outs of the industry, mentioning especially the many innovations in design and construction which emanated from Leith from the late 18th century onwards. There’s a comprehensive account of the activities of each yard and the companies and individuals they supplied, from whalers for Christian Salvesen to a steam yacht for the King of Siam.


“This port was once Scotland’s main port with many firsts to its name. Leith had begun building ships some 400 years before the great shipyards of the Clyde and these vessels reached all corners of the globe, touching many more people’s lives.”


Maritime history expert Robert W Rowbottom states: “In this wonderful book we can learn much about the early days of the shipyards and the ships built there. It has been fascinating to read the wealth of information collated by Ron. It deserves to become a classic of its kind as it preserves for posterity Leith’s proud shipbuilding history which could otherwise so easily be forgotten.”

An English reviewer wrote: “Mr Neish’s splendid and very thorough tome offers a complete history of the ships built at Leith from c1850 until the end of World War One. It includes tales of famous ships, steam yachts, adventure and new trade routes, and a helpful glossary. The National says it is a quirky, fascinating, thoroughly researched, well-written and genuinely book about a part of little-known Scottish history.

They Once Were Shipbuilders, Leith-Built Ships, volume one,

by RO Neish, published by Whittles Publishing, priced £16.99