This thread was originally written and published in May 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
I came across an amazing but bitter-sweet video; the launch of the Sealink ferry MV St. Catherine from the Henry Robb yard in Leith on 30th March 1983. Shipyard launches were always a moment of celebration, but this one was different – it was the second last ship ever launched by Robbs and also therefore the second last ship ever built in Leith.
It’s filmed from the top of one of the yard cranes, so has a spectacular vantage point. You can hear everything from the clapping and cheering of the crowds, the howl of the wind and of course the blast of the ferry’s siren as she slips into the dock basin.
Check out those brave souls in the moving cage suspended from the crane!
St. Catherine’s sister, St. Helen, was launched on September 15th that year and was the last ever Leith-built ship.
Henry Robb had merged with Dundee rival, the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company, in 1968 to form Robb Caledon Shipbuilding. They were nationalised into the feckless British Shipbuilders Corporation in 1977 with the Dundee yard closing in 1981. Yard rationalisation through enforced closure – to try and reduce national capacity – was one of the raisons d’etre for BSC.
After completing that pair of ferries for Sealink, there were no orders forthcoming for Robbs and downsizing was inevitably announced. There followed a bitter period of protest. In April 1983, the entire yard (850 workers) marched through Leith at the threat of 50% layoffs.
But BSC wasn’t for listening, they had a strategic goal of taking 9,000 shipyard workers out of the industry. The smaller yards, particularly those which built commercial shipping and could not be fed the lifeline of piecemeal Navy contracts, were particularly at risk and a yard like Robbs was an attractive target. The workers staged an occupation in the winter of 1983-4 (picture – Herald
Shipbuilding on the east coast of Scotland, from Leith and Granton to Bo’ness to Burntisland to Dundee and Aberdeen, had once been a thing, but never on anything approaching the scale of the Clyde. It survived by meeting local needs and also in building smaller and more specialised vessels.
There was some steel fabricating work available, but nothing on a scale that could sustain the yard, and with no work, there could be no work-in protest, and it closed for good in June 1984. The yard is immortalised on the mural outside Leith Library .
The padlocked gates of the decaying yard also feature as a backdrop in the 1987 video for @The_Proclaimers song “Letter from America”, I believe that Proclaimer Snr. may have worked there?
The yard and it’s main covered hall can also be seen in the background later in the video as the Twins lead a small protest march out of the desolate docklands and into Leith.
It can be hard to work out quite how the yard sits in relation to Ocean Terminal given all the land changes in the area. This #NowAndThen montage should help.
The yard occupied the area in yellow here, plus all the land to the right as far as the west pier of the docks. (note the map and image are from different times so the reclaimed land in the photo where the mills are is not on the map) You can zoom in on the aerial photo by viewing the original on Canmore. t’s really hard to get some #NowAndThen shots to work because of the changes in the area. Most I can find are taken from points now inaccessible or built on. This one is an exception.
This chart shows production at the yard in the last 20-odd years, it was a small yard so couldn’t manage more than 3 or 4 hulls a year. There were peaks and troughs due to the cyclical nature of shipbuilding, but it was a long term decline.
Those 4 years with big peaks were unusual, the rare order of a larger ship. Generally the yard built 300-3000 ton ships, but there were a few biggies like the auxiliary helicopter carrier RFA Engadine (6,384t) and the polar research ship RRS Bransfield (4,861t). Engadine was the longest ship ever built at the yard, but not the biggest, that went to the Garrison Point of 1977, tipping the scales at 7,702t Gross Register Tonnes and 12,382t Deadweight Tonnes. She was broken up in 2000.
Engadine was a fine-looking ship, with lines that an anorak would describe as “rakish”. She was a naval auxiliary usually used for training helicopter pilots but was also a PYTHON location; where the machinery of UK government could retreat in the cold war
Along with the final pair of Roll-on, Roll-off (Ro-Ro) ferries built for Sealink, Robbs also built a pair of such ships for the Scottish ferry organisation Caledonian Macbrayne; the Pioneer of 1974 and her bigger sister the Claymore of 1978. Claymore is a ship on which I travelled quite a few times, to and from Islay from West Loch Tarbert.
Despite closing in 1984, parts of the yard lingered on until the late 1990s with bits of it used for this and that, including North Sea oil industry fabrication and repair work, while other bits were just left to rot. Here’s a picture of some toilets in 1994 after a visit from the Leith Young Team.
Footnote – St. Catherine, which is the same age as I, still looking good and going strong (as of 2019). We were both born in Leith too! #ForthBuilt
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[…] yard was bought in 1924 by one aspiring young shipbuilder, Henry Robb, who would become the biggest and the last name in Leith shipbuilding – on a site that had once been the Morton’s […]
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