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Shipbuilding and whisky: history’s lessons

  • I was watching an old BBC documentary about the Clyde shipyards the other night, which took me back to my childhood; memories of standing on the doorstep at midnight on Hogmanay, listening to the horns of the ships on the river.

    I’m old enough to remember the docks still in operation, the Black & White horses in their stable at Washington Street and, further along the Clyde, those shipyards. On occasion, we’d go down to watch launches, as enormous hulls rattled splintered logs, dragging chains sliding into the green-and-brown murk of the river.

    I’m also of the age to recall the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, that inspired piece of industrial action. Faced with a disputed bankruptcy the workers, instead of striking, locked the management out and kept on building ships.

    Clyde Shipyards

    Shipyard on the Clyde: Distillers must learn from the lack of forward planning that destroyed shipyards

    It’s perhaps easy to be nostalgic. No-one misses the lack of safety and the tough working conditions, but the ultimate failure of shipbuilding on the Clyde was the start of Scotland’s great industrial decline, the ramifications of which are still being felt. The closures also destroyed communities and a sense of worth – something that was commented on in the film by the great trade unionist leader, the late Jimmy Reid.

    He recalled once walking into a Clydeside pub and noticing that a lot of the old guys were crying. He figured that someone had died on the yard – an occupational hazard – but discovered that their grief was because the Queen Elizabeth, built at the John Brown’s yard on Clydeside, had caught fire and sunk in Hong Kong.

    No matter that none of them would ever have been able to afford to sail on her; she remained their ship, forged out of steel and sweat on the clarty banks of the river. She was part of them.

    His reminiscences had an echo of talks I’ve had over the years with distillery workers – especially those of an older generation. ‘I was on holiday,’ the story would begin, ‘and there was a bottle of [he’d name his whisky] behind the bar. It gave me real pride. Imagine that, my whisky going all that way around the world.’ Sometimes they’d mention it to the bartender, but more often they’d just sit and smile inwardly.

    It was the same when overseas visitors started to arrive at distilleries, the same sense of amazement and pride that this tiny speck of a place could so affect people’s lives that they would spend time and money to make a pilgrimage there.

    That warm and fuzzy side of whisky is not how it is often viewed by those in charge. To them it, like shipbuilding, is a business – and businesses are there to make profit. Seeing Jimmy Reid again took me to his extraordinary inauguration speech as rector of Glasgow University in 1972, which The New York Times compared to the Gettysburg Address.

    ‘Profit is the sole criterion used by the establishment to evaluate economic activity,’ he said. ‘From the Olympian heights of an executive suite, in an atmosphere where your success is judged by the extent to which you can maximise profits, the overwhelming tendency must be to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants' books.

    ‘To appreciate fully the inhumanity of this situation, you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant… Someone, somewhere has decided he is unwanted, unneeded, and is to be thrown on the industrial scrapheap.

    ‘From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.’

    Whisky bar

    Pride and joy: Distillery workers will often feel immensely proud to spot their whiskies on back bars around the world​

    Firms have a duty of care to the people who work for them. All of the major distillers are currently, quietly, embarking on sly and brutal cuts to their workforces. People who have dedicated their lives to a company – and to whisky – are being let go in the name of supposed ‘efficiencies’. Rather, they are the collateral damage from poor business decisions made by others whose jobs are safe.

    This might seem strange when all the indications are that this is a time for opportunity for Scotch – and therefore a time when investment, rather than cutbacks, is needed – but at the corporate level there is a sense of unease.

    The people who pay are usually those who care the most. They don’t just work in distilleries; they are the unseen ones, who assiduously work behind the scenes. They may not all distil whisky, but they help make it what it is.

    They are the ones with tears in their eyes when something they have made disappears, the ones with that quiet smile of pride when they see their bottle in some far-flung bar, or a stranger nods at them in acknowledgement of the pleasure that their work has brought.

    The shipyards went as a result of bad forward planning, poor industrial relations and lack of investment in equipment, but also a lack of faith in people. There’s a lesson to be learned.

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