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Articles Blog

Greenock, Scotland

Karyn Planett

A Seafaring Past 

“So it’ll be Greenock you’re visiting, lad? ‘Tis a wee far way to travel but you’re here now, so have yourself a look about. Welcome to our fair city. We’re right proud of it, you know.” 

That’s a typical greeting you’d hear from pleased residents, pleased about your journey to their historic port. Over time they’ve had a lot to be proud of, going back to the early days when this was little more than a gathering place of hardscrabble fishermen. That was approximately the latter part of the 1500s. Those hearty souls would clamber aboard their boats, cast off the lines, and take to the sea. They’d leave behind a warm hearth, hot tea, and a wife with her hands full. She’d tend to the house, care for the children, and knit fisherman sweaters to keep her fellow warm from the icy splash of the waves. Then, when the haul was brought ashore, she’d help scale and skin and maybe salt the fish, side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with her man making do as best they could. These are the stories written in this community. Much has been said about these men and women with weathered hands, strong backs and an even stronger character and faith. It was Sir James M. Barrie who said in his Rectorial Address at St. Andrew’s, May 3rd, 1922.

“You come of a race of men the very wind of whose name has swept to the ultimate seas.” 

One Man of Great Genius 

On a cold January day in 1736, a child was born in Greenock to a prosperous shipwright named Watt. The proud father named his son James. Over time, James developed a skill of making mathematical instruments. He exhibited an interest in steam engines and, at the age of 28, was given a model of a type of steam engine that had been in existence for more than 60 years. It had been patented by Thomas Savery who later went to work for a Thomas Newcomen. Watt’s model was, indeed, a Newcomen and it was his to repair. The full-scale ones were used to pump water out of the mines that catacombed this country. Watt’s attempts to repair the engine failed so he sat down to create a better design. In 1769, Watt received his first patent on one of his engines. He partnered with a John Roebuck whose business was sold to Matthew Boulton. Boulton & Watt was born. They set about manufacturing steam engines, which were in great demand not only in the mining industry but others such as waterworks, iron mills, and distilleries. A hugely successful businessman, Watt retired at the age of 54 and embarked on a lifelong path of research. He died at 73 leaving behind the unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power we are all so familiar with, the watt. 

A Firth By Any Other Name is a….

Wait for it…. a fjord. Or, a narrow inlet. So, the Firth of Clyde is just that. And Greenock is draped along the southern bank of the Clyde River right where it becomes the Firth of Clyde. Shipbuilding became an active business along the wharfs in this area, after the breakwater and piers were built. As ships from here went further afield they became involved in trading commodities for profit. Well, not all the profit went to the men and boys who stared danger in the eye and hoisted sails as pounding seas and ripping winds stung their eyes and tossed them about. Some made sizeable fortunes, others very little. Many ships made roundtrip voyages to the Caribbean and, on their return leg, their holds bulged with sugar from the sweltering sugar cane fields. It’s claimed that there were, and someone counted, four hundred such vessels in Greenock port at one time. Cargos were offloaded into the fourteen sugar refineries where the raw product was processed. Locals can tell you that story. 

Armed with this information, you’ve two or three choices for this day in Greenock. Carefully planned, there’s time to travel to Glasgow to meet some of the local Glaswegians. That’s what they’re called. It’s almost worth the trip just to listen to their extraordinary accent. Their dialect has also been called “Glasgow Patter.” Then there’s the glory of Edinburgh. It’s a long way to go and you can’t miss the ship so do plan wisely or plan it for another day. 

You could also visit the surrounding countryside to discover what a glorious area this. Final option is simply to spend time with some locals and perhaps enjoy a pint or two. If you do stay in Greenock, be sure to sample the fine fare on offer. 

Local Specialties 

A five-minute walk from the port takes you into Greenock proper. Then, you can take a leisurely stroll along the Esplanade enjoying the sights of the River Clyde. Those interested in Victorian architecture can admire the facades of the Customs House, the Municipal Buildings, and the McLean Museum. Foodies will be in their prime with the offerings here. Scottish working families have been enjoying potatoes since their arrival from South America in the late 16th Century and they’ve perfected many potato recipes. Crofters, farmers who rented small plots of land with the right of pasturage, ate meat sparingly but had plenty of potatoes, milk and cheese. They also ate wild mushroom and game but the people of the sea ate of the sea. Herring was known as ‘silver darlings.’ Ladies who prepared them for the market were called ‘herring girls.’ They gutted, salted and packed these tiny fish from daybreak till sundown. And a skilled, hard worker could gut as many as 60 fish per minute. Today, Scotland has a hugely profitable salmon farming industry. Well, you’ll learn all about this if you pop into a local pub for a memorable meal. And, don’t forget to chat up a Greenock local. Perhaps ask them to quote a bit of Robbie Burns. The author was from a mere scone’s throw away.