Going doon the watter

Going doon the watter


Our tours of Glasgow focus on the superb food and drink available in the city’s innovative restaurants. They also delve into Glasgow’s social history.

Recently, this guide followed in the footsteps of generations of Glaswegian families and took a journey ‘doon the watter’, the local phrase for a leisure trip down the water of the Clyde Firth and along the Ayrshire Riviera.

The Firth of Clyde and the River Clyde have played a key role in Glasgow’s development. The Clydeside shipbuilding firms are perhaps the city’s most famous exporters. More than 25,000 ships were built by Clyde shipyards since the Scott yard opened in 1711. In the early 1900s, around a quarter of all the ships in the world were Clyde built.

As well as shipyards, the Clyde was instrumental in Glasgow’s growth as a commercial port. During, the First and Second World Wars, it also played a vital role in Great Britain’s naval war effort. And, as well as being an economic and security asset, it has been a great source of pleasure for Glasgow.

If we go back to the 1800s, Glasgow was an industrialising city that was growing quickly. Too quickly. Looking for work in the new factories which were being established, people were flocking to the city on the Clyde from Ireland, the Highlands and lowland rural areas.

The infrastructure simply could not cope with the influx. For the poorest, this meant overcrowded housing; a lack of clean drinking water and constant exposure to industrial pollution. The air would have been thick and foul. Public parks were developed in this period but, for factory workers on long hours, opportunities to see blue sky would have been limited.

Steaming doon the watter

This began to change in 1812 when a gentleman called Henry Bell set up a paddle steamer service between Glasgow and Greenock. It was Europe’s first commercially successful steamer service and it was priced at a level which allowed ordinary Glaswegians the previously unheard of luxury of travelling for leisure. For workers who spent six days a week toiling in a dusty mill or smoky foundry, the chance to take a boat doon the water and enjoy fresh sea air and open vistas must have been intoxicating.

The idea proved hugely popular. By 1900, there were some 300 different services offering trips doon the watter from Glasgow to towns like Dunoon, Rothesay, Troon and Largs. The main pic shows the Viking statue on the prom at Largs. Previously sleepy little villages and towns vied to attract these new fangled holiday makers. Stone piers were built so the boats could dock easily. Hotels began to spring up and fashionable new attractions  such as public baths and swimming pools were opened. The coming of the railways meant even more cheap mass transport to the booming seaside resorts.

Nostalgia cruise

Right up until the Fifties and Sixties, a week or fortnight on the Ayrshire Riviera was a much anticipated break for many families on the West Coast. It couldn’t last forever. The arrival of affordable package holidays at Mediterranean beach resorts started the decline of the cruises doon the watter. With views to Arran, Ailsa Craig and the Mull of Kintyre, the Ayrshire coast is undeniably beautiful. However, it can’t guarantee reliable sunshine in the same way that the Costas can.

That said, day trips doon the watter remain popular. Dating to 1946, the paddle steamer Waverley is now the world’s oldest sea-going paddle steamer. At the time of writing, their 2022 summer schedule has yet to be announced. But, all being well, it will almost certainly include jaunts down the Firth of Clyde. The A78 and several rail lines provide easy overland access to the Ayrshire seaside and services from Calmac and Western Ferries carry passengers to the Clyde islands and the Cowal Peninsula.

For some, a trip to the seaside will be a nostalgic exercise, re-illuminating memories of childhood holidays. For others, it will be a novelty and a voyage of discovery. Either way, going doon the watter continues to have a place in Glasgow’s collective psyche.

The Eat Walk tours of Glasgow’s food and drink scene involve multiple restaurant and bar stops plus lively tales of the city’s past and present. You can buy tickets and vouchers here.

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