When the citizens of Greenock took umbrage with their up-river neighbours in the 1670s, it is recorded that they rowed there to settle the argument.
At that time, as it had been ever since man first ventured afloat, oar power – occasionally wind assisted – was the only means of transport across the Firth of Clyde’s relatively sheltered waters. In the centuries before the arrival of steam propulsion and good roads, any self-respecting laird would have a ‘galley’ and oarsmen at his disposal.
A remarkable surviving example of such a vessel is the Marquess of Bute’s Lady Guilford of 1819, on display at the Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine.
Now, after many years in the doldrums, ‘coastal rowing’ is enjoying a strong and remarkable revival on the Clyde and a’ the airts. More on that, and on G.L. Watson’s part in rowing history with his RNLI lifeboat designs, later. Back now to 17th Century Greenock.
The story goes that about one hundred inhabitants of the burgh – some armed – under the command of the laird, Sir John Shaw, rowed to Newark to reclaim one of their ships, confiscated to what would later become known as Port Glasgow by the representatives of the Royal Burgh of Renfrew over the matter of duties for foreign cargo.
Violent disputes could be very local then; nowadays the barely four miles journey up-river in a car takes only a few minutes along a dual carriageway. Nevertheless, attacking Newark Castle would still remain a formidable task, as it proved for Shaw and his merry band.
Much later, rowing on the Firth of Clyde became an artisan sport, with sometimes huge wagers taking place on the race results. The gigs were obviously well capable of dealing with local sea conditions, as seen in this introduction image to Chapter 3 from G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, in which a moderate westerly appears to be raising a nasty short chop against the ebb tide.
The book’s format required us to crop the original image seen above, while succeeding in retaining the essence of the scene, an engraving by Edward Duncan after the original oil painting by one of Greenock’s best 19th Century marine artists, William Clark.
This wonderfully busy image of a Royal Northern Yacht Club regatta in the Bay of Quick, Greenock c.1837 lives up to its desired purpose of introducing a chapter on early yachting in Scotland; sight of the full original reveals that the centre of attraction is actually the rowing races.
Comparison with one of William Clark’s originals of this event (he painted more than one) suggests that the engraver may have employed some artistic licence in giving the four-oared gigs racing flags, but the lads in red cowl or Tam o’Shanter hats remain.
Who were they? What club, organisation, owner or patron did their colours represent?
In the present century, the tradition of sea rowing is upheld at Greenock by the Royal West of Scotland Amateur Boat Club, which is moving with the times by embracing the Scottish Coastal Rowing Project.
~ Iain McAllister ~