Firth of Clyde

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The Firth of Clyde

The Firth of Clyde encloses the largest and deepest coastal waters in the British Isles, sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by the Kintyre peninsula which encloses the outer firth in Argyll and Ayrshire, Scotland. The River Clyde is 106 mi (171 km) long, rising in the Southern Uplands and flows roughly northwest through Glasgow to the Firth. <ref> (accessed 3rd June 2014)</ref> The Firth of Clyde is around 50 mi (80 km) long and 2 to 25 mi (3.2–40 km) wide and is an arm of the North Channel, extending from Dunoon to Ailsa Craig.<ref> (accessed 3rd June 2014)</ref> The Kilbrannan Sound is a large arm of the Firth of Clyde, separating the Kintyre Peninsula from the Isle of Arran.

At its entrance the Firth is some 26 miles (42 km) wide. Its upper reaches include an area where it is joined by Loch Long and the Gare Loch. This includes the large anchorage off Greenock known as the Tail of the Bank in reference to the sandbar which separates the firth from the estuary of the River Clyde. The Clyde is still almost 2 miles (3 km) wide at the sandbar, and its upper tidal limit is at the tidal Weir adjacent to Glasgow Green.

The cultural and geographical distinction between the firth and the River Clyde is vague, and people will sometimes refer to Dumbarton as being on the Firth of Clyde, while the population of Port Glasgow and Greenock frequently refer to the firth to their north as "the river". In Scottish Gaelic the landward end is called Linne Chluaidh ( (meaning the same as the English), while the area around the south of Arran, Kintyre and Ayrshire/Galloway is An Linne Ghlas.


The firth encompasses many islands and peninsulas and has twelve ferry routes connecting them to the mainland and each other. Sometimes called the Clyde Waters, this water body is customarily considered an element of the Irish Sea. These services are run by Caledonian MacBrayne and by Western Ferries and many of the routes are lifeline services for communities living in remote areas. A great number of sea lochs adjoin the firth, the largest being Loch Fyne.

MV Saturn arriving at Dunoon
Whinhill Farm and the Firth of Clyde

Shoreline Settlements

This lists the major towns and some of the numerous villages along the firth (not the River Clyde or connecting lochs).

  • Ardrossan, Ayr
  • Barassie, Brodick
  • Campbeltown, Cardross, Carradale
  • Dumbarton, Dunoon
  • Fairlie
  • Gourock, Greenock, Girvan
  • Helensburgh, Hunter's Quay
  • Innellan, Inverkip, Irvine
  • Kilcreggan, Kilmun, Kirn
  • Lamlash, Largs, Lochranza
  • Millport
  • Port Bannatyne, Portencross, Port Glasgow, Prestwick
  • Rothesay
  • Saltcoats, Seamill, Skelmorlie, Stevenston, Strone
  • Toward, Troon
  • Wemyss Bay, West Kilbride

Sea Lochs

  • Gare Loch
  • Loch Long, and Loch Goil
  • The Holy Loch
  • Loch Striven
  • Loch Riddon off the Kyles of Bute
  • Loch Fyne, Loch Gilp and Loch Shira
  • Loch Ranza
  • Campbeltown Loch.


The Clyde formed an important sea route from the earliest times. In 1263 the Battle of Largs was fought between the forces of Alexander II, King of Scots, and Hakon IV of Norwary, a victory for the Scots which led to the final incorporation of the Hebrides into the kingdom. <ref>Michael Lynch, Scotland, a New History, 90</ref>

Progressively from the 16th century onwards the Clyde became the conduit for commerce and industry, including herring, timber, wine, sugar, tobacco, textiles, iron and steel, coal, oil, chemicals, distilling and brewing, ships, locomotives, vehicles and other manufactured products. However until the 19th century the river was shallow and prone to silting, restricting shipping. <ref> (accessed 3rd June 2014)</ref> Glasgow merchants developed the ports of Dumbarton, Irvine, Greenock and Port Glasgow. <ref> (accessed 3rd June 2014)</ref> To meet the demands of international trade, the Clyde was deepened in 1812, a project known as the 'Lang Dyke'. This meant that large vessels could access the quays near the city centre.<ref> (accessed 3rd June 2014)</ref>


In the middle of the 19th century the sport of yachting became popular on the Clyde. The area became famous worldwide for its significant contribution to yachting and yachtbuilding with notable designers including: William Fife III; Alfred Mylne; G L Watson; David Boyd. It was also the location of many famous yacht yards. Clyde built wooden yachts, to this day, are well known for their quality and style. Gare Loch is said to have been once of the first areas to embrace leisure boating in Scotland and is home to one of the country's oldest yacht clubs, at Rhu. <ref> (accessed 3rd June 2014</ref>

With the advent of mass tourism the area became popular with Glaswegians and residents of its neighbouring towns and counties who travelled 'doon the watter' on Clyde steamers to holiday in the picturesque seaside towns and villages that line the Firth. The wealthy built substantial holiday homes along the coast. Many towns such as Gourock, Largs, Ayr, Dunoon, Rothesay flourished during this period and became fully fledged resorts with well-appointed hotels and attractions.

During World War II Glasgow and the Clyde became Britain's main entry point for Allied merchant shipping, military personnel and equipment, and for the assembly, despatch and control of ocean convoys. The Clyde formed the largest base of naval ships. Among many wartime innovations to support air, maritime and territorial combat the world's first deep water test of a submarine oil pipeline was conducted in 1942 on a pipeline laid across the Firth of Clyde in Operation Pluto.

Transport and Tourism

The Waverley

The heritage steamer PS Waverley still makes cruising trips to these coastal towns, which are also served by regular service ships. Tourism, sport and recreation, and heritage history attract visitors from many continents. The Firth is ringed by many castles and buildings of historical importance which are open to the public, including Inveraray Castle, Brodick Castle, the opulent Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute, and Culzean Castle which is the most visited attraction owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Ocean liners are frequent callers at Greenock, and airports nearby are Glasgow International Airport and Glasgow Prestwick Airport. Rail services to and from the coast, including links to Oban and Fort William, are frequent, with city terminals in Glasgow and Edinburgh. During the summer months shipping services connect Troon with Belfast.


703px-Clyde shipping.jpg

The "lower Clyde" shipyards of Greenock and Port Glasgow, most notably Scott Lithgow, played an important role in shipbuilding, with the Comet being the first successful steamboat in Europe, and a large proportion of the world's shipping being built there until well into the 20th century.

In more recent times the natural beauty of the Firth has been abrupted in places by a succession of industrial and military developments along the shoreline, including Hunterston and Hunterston deepwater terminal while at the same time shipbuilding has declined. In the upper Clyde two major shipyards continue in Glasgow Govan and Scotstoun run by BAE whose major client is the Royal Navy. Today only one lower Clyde shipyard exists, Ferguson Shipbuilders, next to Newark Castle, Port Glasgow, The Garvel dry dock in Greenock continues in operation for ship repair, and the large Inchgreen dry dock in Greenock is in occasional use. The sites of former shipyards are being regenerated by housing, leisure facilities and commercial premises.

The Firth of Clyde like the River Clyde has historically been an important centre of shipbuilding and shipping. In addition to the shipbuilding and engineering centres up river of Glasgow, Govan, Clydebank, Dumbarton and Renfrew the lower river developed major yards at Greenock, Port Glasgow and smaller ones at Irvine, Ardrossan, Troon and Campbeltown and boatyards including Hunters Quay, Port Bannatyne and Fairlie. Ferguson Shipbuilders yard, adjacent to Newark Castle, Port Glasgow, remains. Greenock is the site of one of the world's largest dry dock and ship-repair facilities at Inchgreen. The dry dock there is 305m long and 44m wide and is operated by Northwestern Shiprepairers Limited using the name Scott Lithgow, although unrelated to the famous Port Glasgow Scott Lithgow shipbuilding company.

The Firth of Clyde has one of the deepest sea entrance channels in northern Europe, which can accommodate the largest Capesize vessels afloat, and as such the Clyde is one of the UK's leading ports, handling some 7.5 million tonnes of cargo each year. Hunterston Terminal was constructed to bring in bulk ore, but now mainly deals with coal imports.

Supertankers up to 324,000 tonnes travel up the firth to deliver crude oil to Finnart Oil Terminal in Loch Long, which is connected by pipeline to the Grangemouth Refinery on the Firth of Forth. A second pipeline brings back refined oil products for export in smaller oil tankers, mainly to Northern Ireland. <ref> Fullarton, Donald (29 July 2011). "Americans built oil terminal". Helensburgh Heritage. Retrieved 23 May 2013</ref>

Greenock's Ocean Terminal facility handles cargo from smaller container ships. More recently, regular cruise liner traffic has built up, making the port very busy in season. Clydeport, North Ayrshire Council and Scottish Enterprise propose a £200m international deep-water container terminal, also at Hunterston, which would effectively act as a worldwide gateway port, and possibly become the major container port for the northern half of Europe. Initial environmental and economic impact studies are currently being undertaken.

The Royal Navy has a significant presence on the Clyde, at HMNB Clyde on the Gare Loch and on Loch Long, connected to the nuclear stores in Glen Douglas. The dockyard engineering and operations are managed by Babcock International, while one of the three main ports providing marine services support vessels is at Greenock, previously operated directly by the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service.