The Loftsman
Leith Shipyards

A history of the Ships built at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland. Also a testimony to the men who built the Ships and to all who sailed in them.
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The Henry Robb Shipyard

Just how do you convey to people what working in a shipyard was/is like, as it is my belief that no other industry compares period.

All the human emotions are gone through in no particular order. You get the immense feeling of creating something very special.

When that ship gently slides down the ways at an angle of around 4% and passes the point of no return, to float on the water.

To some it may have been just another job, but to a shipbuilder it was so much more.

The above advert from the New Year of 1926 was what we would call a newsletter nowadays, produced as an early form of propaganda for the men to digest as they worried about their jobs during very hard times, at the start of what we now call the great depression which was to hit shipbuilding very hard.

Pessimism and optimism went hand and hand in a working shipyard, and sometimes things never change, as yards go through the same thing in today’s tough economic times.

It was as ever a struggle to keep your job between orders, a fact never missed by management as a way of keeping pay low and control in their grip.

Along with every new ship order, the same determination and pride to build the best.

The shipyard was a pig of a place to work in at times, with some of the worst working conditions around, filthy and dangerous, the pay was low in comparison with other engineering fields. Tough and uncompromising, working through all kinds of weather, they did not stop just because it rained or snowed, or it happened to be minus 10 Celsius.

Shipbuilding just got under your skin, and installed an immense sense of pride in what was being created from raw steel into a vessel, week by week in front of your eyes.

Interesting to note that the great Scottish actor Sean Connery (aka James Bond) made his one and only film as a director about shipyard life in 1967 it was called aptly The Bowler and the Bunnet.

Shipyards by their very nature and location became part of the social fabric and physic of the local community.
The shipyard was a place full of humour and a place that fostered togetherness against the rest.

To quote the very funny Scottish Comedian (who of course started his working life in a shipyard) Billy Connelly, “the Shipyards was an extraordinary society of men”.

 riveting the side of a hatch-coaming 
Workers at Henry Robb shipyard at Leith, riveting the side of a hatch coaming.

To take the raw flat steel plate that arrived from the steel mill, and to turn that steel into a giant thing of beauty that would visit lots of different exciting (sometimes) locations all over the world, is one of mans great achievements for sure.    

To create a ship that is responsible for the life's of all the men and women who will sail on her and will take all that mother nature can throw at her yet still bring her crew safely back to port, is quite a responsibility taken on with relish by the shipbuilders, quite apart from the above it is hoped that she will be a lucky and safe ship. 

While looking through the internet it is good to see that there is now a hell of a lot more information about the yard available, although it is varied and scattered, with any luck and some time we should be able to record it all here in the Leith Shipyards website.


 The above photograph is the builders plate on the classic ferry South Steyne, built in the yard in 1938, (the photo is courtesy of Nick Pellier)

More than Half a Million tonnes of Shipping was built and launched in the yard, by what must have amounted to quite a few thousand men in the time the yard was open (1918 to 1984) and the official yard allocated numbers to vessels of one form or the other numbered from one up to Ship Number 535.    

A tonnage that that would be scoffed at by other more well known shipbuilders, but what they will not tell you, is the fact that most other shipyards which where of course much larger, in the main produced large slab sided vessels.

The difference with the ships built in Leith was the fact that Henry Robb shipyards mostly built one off highly complex ships.

Ships that had very few shell plates that were the same, unlike a large slab sided vessel where most of the plates are all the same.

A Leith built ship meant for the shipbuilders, one that presented a new challenge with each shell plate. And make no mistake about it, the ships built in Leith were the best!     

There have been Shipyards and Shipbuilding in Leith for many hundreds of years, but the yard that became Henry Robb is the Shipyard that I want to speak about.           

Whilst not forgetting that in the long pedigree of the shipbuilders of Leith, Henry Robb was not the only shipyard, by any means.                                                 

We shall in time feature the other yards that built many fine ships in Leith as they too are part of the Henry Robb shipbuilders & Engineers story. 


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+2 #4 Jim McNicol 2014-03-26 20:47
I certainly remember your name, but I wish I could put a face along with it. I struggle these days to remember names, but the few that spring to mind are, Jim Watson, Jim McKay, Andy Thomson (went to Christian Salvesen - I missed Andy by 30 minutes out in Kobe), my journeyman was Ronnie McDonald, then there was Fred, Willie, and Ron (on the Burner).
+2 #3 Willie Fell 2014-03-26 16:50
I too served my apprenticeship as a fitter/Turner between 1965 - 1970 when I joined Ellerman City Liners a a Junior Engineer.
I remember Jim Mackay, Jimmy Watson, Ian Watson in the Maintenance Dept. and Hunter Millar who was the Engineering Manager
+1 #2 Andrew Atkinson 2014-01-20 11:22
Has anyone got any memories of the tug boat John Herbert built at Leith by Henry Robb 1955 and served in Preston Dock, Lancashire?
+1 #1 Jim McNicol 2012-05-28 19:40
I served my apprenticeship as a Fitter/Turner in Henry Robbs between 1965 and 1969. James Watson was the Engineering Manager and Jim McKay was the Workshop Foreman. I left to join the Ben Line.
Anyone who remembers me Jim McNicol, from this time, please get in touch.

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