Shipbuilding on the River Clyde

Clyde-built - an enduring legacy

Ian McMahon, Head of Aerospace, Defence & Marine for Scottish Enterprise looks at how traditional Clyde shipbuilding skills and reputation for engineering excellence remain a vital cornerstone of the 21st century UK defence industry.

There remains a stubborn belief - everywhere except in Glasgow itself and in shipbuilding industry and defence industry circles, both of which know better - that Scottish shipbuilding is dead.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, since 2001 the Clyde yards, operated by BAE Systems, have seen a massive resurgence and now employ almost 4000 people.

It is also a myth that shipbuilding is all about 'metal-bashing'.  While traditional trade and craft skills continue to underpin the industry, they represent only half of the dedicated and highly skilled workforce.  That workforce is now engaged in all aspects of designing, engineering, building and fitting-out ships that are genuinely world-leading in terms of their engineering sophistication and capabilities.  Sophisticated and complex as the hulls designs are, the steel content is the minority of the value of a warship - now the primary product of the modern Clyde shipbuilding industry.  The main business is one of complex systems integration - and the range of skills reflects this, as do average salary levels which are well above the norm for manufacturing.

The Clyde's Shipyards

Quite literally dependent on the River Clyde for their very existence, BAE Systems Surface Ships' upper Clyde yards are the very epitome of a Clyde Waterfront development.  

The two shipyards at Scotstoun and Govan operate jointly to create the most capable warships in the world - a genuine testament to the skills and expertise of their builders.  Together the yards represent the biggest shipbuilding facility in the UK and the largest defence manufacturing site in Scotland, almost twice the size of the next largest location.

The Govan facility is the centre of the manufacturing process, employing modern technologies such as plasma beam steel cutting and modular construction techniques in its giant assembly halls.  Although already substantially fitted out in Govan with engines, drive trains and complex cabling and electronics, following the  launch, ships are moved to Scotstoun where further systems such as weapons, communications and radars are installed and tested and the hull and propulsion systems completed.   

Scotstoun is also home to the design, engineering, project management and drawing offices that oversee current orders and develop new ships aimed at the UK market and the growing export opportunities.

In recent years the Clyde yards have built Bay Class assault/logistics support ships and fleet tankers the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and warships for Brunei.   But the primary contract has been for six Type 45 air defence destroyers for the Royal Navy, the most capable vessels of their type in the world.  Two are now in RN service and the full order will be completed by 2015.  Simultaneously the Clyde has also built two offshore patrol vessels for Trinidad & Tobago.  

But the big order - and one that will keep the yards busy for the next few years - are the massive stern blocks of Britain's two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers,  the largest ships ever order by the RN.  The Clyde modules are equivalent in scope and scale to ships in their own right.  They will be transferred to Rosyth for final assembly and float out because of its massive dry-dock capacity.

BAE Systems is also continuing to plan for the RN's future fleet needs beyond the carriers and is now engaged in designing the new generation future surface combatant (Type 26) vessels, as well as taking an interest in the growing opportunities the renewable energy sector, for example an R&D project with Aquamarine Power.

Further down the Clyde in Port Glasgow, Ferguson Shipbuilders, continues to provide diverse engineering capability, but has also moved into the offshore renewables sector.  It retains capacity and skills to undertake a range of shipbuilding and engineering projects.

The large Inchgreen dry-dock in Greenock also continues to play a role, having most recently been the location for the construction of the new floating jetty that will serve the RN's Astute Class nuclear submarine fleet, which will be stationed at Faslane.


Skills are at the heart of the industry.  Recognising the need to address the skills losses of the late 20th century, BAE Systems set about an ambitious recruitment and training programme from 2002.  Who would have believed that it would be a Clyde shipbuilding company that would become Scotland's largest private sector employer of apprentices, with well over 800 joining its scheme since that time?

That skills focus is also assisted by the Scottish Enterprise 'Scottish Marine Technologies Training Project' (SMTTP).  This multi-year programme is designed to attract people to the industry at all levels, not only to meet the immediate needs of shipbuilding, but also to help put in place the engineering skills that will in turn help to create a long term workforce to serve Scotland's wider industrial needs, especially as offshore and marine renewable energy starts to take off.  SE commenced a three year campaign in 2009 under the 'Future is Ship Shape' banner and will be working with Skills Development Scotland as the skills agency accelerates its activity in engineering.

SMTTP also saw support of the development of the UK's only Higher National Certificate in Shipbuilding.  Comprising a range of transferable skills that are clustered into a recognised award, the existence of such a specific qualification sends out an important signal about Scotland's intention to remain at the forefront of the UK shipbuilding industry.

Economic Contribution

In a 2009 study by the prestigious Fraser of Allander Institute, BAE Systems Clyde yards were shown to have a significant impact on the local and national economy.  Based on 2008 figures, the Clyde yards were shown to support a total of over 8000 jobs in the UK, of which over 5700 were in Scotland.  The Glasgow yards supported a total of £225.7 million worth of wages across the UK, of which £156.4 million were in Scotland.  In terms of Gross Value Added (GVA) to the economy, BAE Systems on the Clyde created a total of £324.0 million worth of GVA across the UK, with some £198.6 million of this in Scotland.

Support for the Industry

Recognising the value of the shipyards as creators of jobs and wealth, in recent years the public sector has provided assistance for a range of Regional Selective Assistance, business infrastructure, Modern Apprenticeships and other training support.  These cover areas such as facilities and productivity improvement, management skills, upgraded design capability, land remediation and waterfront infrastructure improvement.  In addition to the direct creation and safeguarding of jobs, all support is also geared towards ensuring that the yards have the capacity, facilities and skills they need to able to bid for future shipbuilding work after the completion of the aircraft carrier programme.

Even in the 21st century, 'Clyde-built'  still has a very positive reputation in the shipbuilding industry worldwide - and the industry and public sector partners are working hard to ensure that reputation grows.

Ian McMahon
5th August 2010

More information from

Bookmark and Share