A Journey into Scotland … Part 21
Vertigo makes my relationship with bridges problematic. Visually I love them. Well I love to look at them. And looking at them usually means you aren’t on them. If you are on them you sometimes can’t even see them. “Oh no.” said my friend’s girlfriend as the train got close to our destination. “This isn’t Stockport.” She was as definite in her statement of fact as it is possible to be. “I’ve been to Stockport before and you can’t mistake it. It’s got this huge, great viaduct going right through the middle of it.”
“Would that be a railway viaduct?” he asked her.
“Like the one this train is on?”
The Erskine Bridge is impressive. Including the approaches it is nearly a mile and a half long. The drop from its span to the River Clyde beneath is 148 feet. If there is one thing that makes my vertigo worse it is water at the bottom of the fall. If there is a second thing to make me want to cry and cling on for dear life it is wind. It gets more than a little windy on top of the Erskine Bridge. At that time of my life my fear of heights was so great that I looked closely at the map and considered heading up stream for the next and lower bridge or downstream to Greenock where I could catch a ferry to the other side.
Looking one way is a grey view over Clydebank with Glasgow in the distance. It’s a city I’d like to visit but a heavily laden bicycle wouldn’t be my vehicle of choice. In the other direction, everything is greener and brighter. Fields and trees and a tidal river and in the distance the upturned pudding bowl that is Dumbarton Rock. It is at this point that the river opens out. It is one of the most dramatic and strategically important stretches of water off the coast of Britain.
The Romans controlled Dumbarton Rock and as result had some control over Southern Scotland before they retreated behind Hadrian’s Wall. The English and The Scots have held the castle successively and with it held the country. The Vikings laid siege and destroyed it. Today it is protected so fully by trees and legislation that it is even forbidden to climb upon the rock. There can be few more natural, strategic strongholds protecting heavily populated parts of the country. There are still many, many miles of river mouth and some famous and some infamous sea lochs between Dumbarton Rock and the Irish Sea.
Holy Loch was a US Naval base where Polaris submarines underwent maintenance and refitting. For over thirty years the deep sea loch provided anchorage and repairs to the fleet that carried a significant part of the American nuclear arsenal. The base was already functioning at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It provided a secret, defensible location, access to an international airport and enough room to build a base large enough to supply the needs of the submarine fleet and to house the naval personnel and their families. It was still fully functioning as I pedalled along the banks of Clyde. Two years after my cycle ride the Berlin Wall came down. I don’t think the two events were connected. Tensions were reduced in Europe and the need for a Polaris base became less. A new generation of missiles also served to make the (relatively) medium range Polaris redundant. The base near Dunoon closed eventually in 1992.
Gare Loch is the home to the British submarine fleet, and is still very much in service. So much so that it has become a major point of debate in the arguments over an independent Scotland. The Scottish Nationalist Party want to be a nuclear free nation while Britain feels the need to maintain a nuclear strike capability. Advocates of an independent, nuclear free Scotland recognise the importance of the Faslane base but say it can be developed as a centre of engineering excellence that could make Scotland a “powerhouse of the world”. NATO chiefs have said that Scotland would be barred from NATO entry if they closed down the base and there has even been talk of the base, and the area around the base, remaining part of Britain even if Scotland votes to leave the union.
One thing is sure. If you drive along the A814, you will pass one of the more secure high security fences. What happens in Faslane, for the moment, stays in Faslane.
The River Clyde is still an enormously important shipping lane. Glasgow and the ports of the West of Scotland are nowhere near as busy as they once were but they are by no means redundant. I’m sure the Erskine Bridge would not have been built so high in the sky if the Clyde didn’t have a future for ships. It was once the very beating heart of the UK’s shipbuilding industry. Hundreds of battleships have been launched into this river and some very famous merchant and passenger ships. The Queen Mary was built here and so was the QE2. In 1990 the former Govan shipyard was used to stage a play, The Ship, by Bill Bryden that celebrated the history of the industry in the city. Audience’s of 1200 watched the play which reached a climax with the recreation of a Clydeside launch.
In the 1960s all British shipyards were under financial pressure as yards in the far east managed to build bigger and more sophisticated vessels for less than could be managed in Glasgow or Belfast or Barrow in Furness. The industry contracted. The huge cathedrals of the modern world are no longer assembled on the upper Clyde but there are still plenty of ships built here. In the 1970s the Conservative government under Edward Heath decided that there would be no further subsidies for the shipbuilding industry on the river. If this policy had been put into effect then 6000 jobs would have been lost and a way of life and a set of skills would disappear from Glasgow. Shipyard union leader Jimmy Reid became a hero of my younger self. He led one of the most successful campaigns of the period. He didn’t call a strike or even a protest sit-in. He called for a dignified work-in. He told his members that they had the eyes of the world on them and that they had control over what went in and what came out of the yards. He also told them that they were responsible for what went on.
“We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity”
I admired his enterprise, his strength of leadership and his eloquence. He encapsulated the dignity of the working man for me. I remained an admirer even as his politics became gentler; perhaps as mine became gentler as well. In his move from communist to Labour party to Scottish Nationalist he remained a man of courage and conviction. The work-in drew international support. It put Upper Clyde Shipbuilders on the front pages of the newspapers and after winning first the propaganda battle the dispute eventually caused the government to back down.
In crossing the Clyde I am crossing an awful lot of history. I’m happy to get off the bridge and back onto terra firma but I’d like to stay and explore that history more thoroughly. The purpose of these trips is to scratch the surface. To put a real place in my mind to go with what I have heard and read. This is one part of the world I really will have to come back to. I feel a better man for having seen it; for having breathed in some of the air from the Clyde.