The Song Of The Glen (river)

14 12 2010

Although the area near the Battery is widely acknowledged as being the industrial heartland of Stornoway, many years ago there was another area of the town where heavy industry was king. The banks of the River Glen, between the Porters Lodge and Bayhead, were once the location of Stornoway’s mighty and world-renowned shipbuilding industry.

The River Glen runs from its source headwater at Loch Airigh An Leac, through the leafy suburb of Marybank, and down through shady Willow Glen, passing the old County Hospital (or ‘the Sanny’ as it was known), until it reaches Manor Park. As soon as the mighty river passes the Porters Lodge it takes on a new aspect, leaving its cataracts and waterfalls behind and slowing down its pace to become a quiet, yet powerful river with wide banks suitable for shipbuilding. Eventually the great river reaches the Bayhead Estuary and the Inner Harbour, where the countless boats built on its banks set sail for the four quarters of the Harbour.

For centuries the banks of the Glen between Bayhead and the Porters Lodge rang out with the sound of shipbuilding, providing employment and training to the town.
From the first dug out sgoths built by Nessolithic Man, to the swift and menacing Viking longships that raided far and wide; and from the elegant and tall masted Marag-clippers to the steam-driven ironclads that helped defend the British Empire; the ships and boats built on the banks of the Glen have become synonymous with quality, stability and the ability to float.

But sadly, like all of the great heavy industries, the future was not bright. By the late 1960’s cheaper labour and materials became available on Skye and soon the Stornowegian shipbuilding industry was in trouble. Its huge workforce (12 coves and blone who made the tea) was drastically cut and many small companies had to amalgamate in order to survive. Most famous of these amalgamations was the Upper Glen Shipbuilders (UGS).

UGS managed to survive for several years, but eventually in the early 1970’s, the Prime Minister Mike Yarwood had to withdraw the Government’s financial support. With the very real threat of  the once proud industry disappearing for good, the workforce, galvanised by firebrand Shop Steward ‘Jimmy Creed’, decided to arrange a ‘work in’ to demonstrate to the world the efficiency of the Glen Shipyards.

Jimmy Creed is widely remembered for his famous speech he made to the workforce as the worlds media (Stornoway Gazette and Radio Nan Eilean) looked on: ‘There will be no fleekin’ off to buy the Gazette, no stealing planks and no sneaking off to Hendies Off-license to buy a carry out.’

The ‘work in’ received a great deal of support, with high-profile celebrates. Former shipyard worker and top comedian Billy Macanoonoo performed in Perceval Square (in his famous yellow ‘guga boots’) to raise money for chicken suppers for the workers.

But the world had changed and the demand for Glen Built ships had diminished. Sadly, the last nail was driven into a plank in the mid 1970’s. The shipyards shut, the workforce all fleeked off to Arnish and the grass and weeds grew over the huge yards as nature reclaimed the banks of the Glen.

The River Glen was also immortalised in the famous song ‘The Song of the Glen’. The singer Kenneth MacCellarhead made the song very popular in the music halls and it is still sung around the world today in memory of the Glen built ships that still ply the oceans of the world.

The Song of the Glen

I sing of a river where I wash my hen

The song that I sing is the song of the Glen

Of all Scottish rivers its dearest to me

It flows in from Marybank, going past the ‘Sanny’

It borders the dump out at Airidh an Leac

Meanders through fanks with sheep full of tics

But from Bennadrove to Bayhead, past countless sheep pen

The hammers ding dong is the song of the Glen.

Chorus

Oh the River Glen, the wonderful Glen

The name of it thrills me (and that cove called Ken)

And I’m satisfied as it comes from near Beinn (Barvas)

The sweetest of songs is the song of the Glen.

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