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Glasgow Rangers: Clyde Built

If asked to give a list of the forces that had shaped the identity and character of Rangers Football Club and those who follow it people would probably list things such as unionism, Protestantism and the Ulster connection. They would probably say the identity of the support in general was a British one although this has long been complimented by strong Scottish identity. In this respect the Rangers support has mirrored the majority of people in Scotland in the recent past. We might ask, however, to what extent song and symbol have acted to obscure the club’s links with Glasgow and the local community. The Rangers Charity Foundation operates a Community Grants Scheme that supports grassroots initiatives in the vicinity of Ibrox but do we do enough to remind people that we are a club and support welded together in Glasgow? It might be argued that historical forces operating closer to Ibrox have actually contributed significantly to the development of identities and themes that continue to characterise Rangers fans today. In particular, I’m thinking about the important influence of the shipbuilding industry that dominated the river to the north of the stadium for much of the club’s history. Many Rangers fans must be able to claim a family member who worked in the shipyards or related industries even if the number who actually worked there is sadly dwindling. For some fans, a visit to Ibrox is possibly a way to commune with the ghosts of past generations of fans and family members. Not only did the club and generations of fans have links to the yards through employment, but the movement of workers from Belfast to Glasgow made an important contribution to our unionist culture and possibly contributed to its continued Ulster inflections.

Shipbuilding was something that Scotland took great pride in and this still reverberates-like the sound of a hammer on metal. The continued national importance that is attached to the yards is testified to by way stories about new contracts are often given prominence in the media. The future of the yards is a source of dispute in the continuing debate about Scotland’s constitutional development. Some would suggest that they occupy a place in the national imagination that is out of proportion to their contemporary economic importance: they cast a shadow like the Queen Mary sitting idle in Clydebank during the worst years of the 1930s. Shipbuilding, such a source of local and national pride, also connected the west of Scotland to the world and empire. ‘Clyde built’ was a mark of quality signifying a workforce of global renown and unique skill (although it possibly took on other meanings). Just before the start of the First World War, the Clyde shipyards were responsible for producing one third of British output which equated to almost a fifth of the world’s tonnage. The Clyde, at the time, outstripped all of Germany’s yards. The interwar years, however, quickly soured and only the imminence of another war revived the fortunes of industrial Scotland. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the shipyards regained a temporary pre-eminence thanks to massive international demand and the lack of serious competition from German and Japanese yards. From 1948 to 1951 Scottish shipbuilders launched 15% of world tonnage and third of British tonnage but, in retrospect, this was an Indian summer and the post-war story was one of decline, amalgamation and closure with only the occasional positive story such as the UCS work-in during the early 1970s.

Bill Murray, the foremost historian of Rangers and Celtic, has written, ‘Rangers have always had strong links with the shipbuilding industry, a more or less natural outcome of their geographical location, and it is reasonable to suppose that a large number of their supporters have always been workers in the shipyards or related industries.’ A similar assessment has been offered recently in the official biography of the club. The authors, Ronnie Esplin and Graham Walker, wrote, ‘it is important to note that Rangers’ location in the Govan district, close to the shipyards and heavy engineering factories of the River Clyde, was an integral part of the club’s identity.’ They go on to describe a picture from the main stand at Ibrox which appeared in the 1954 Supporters’ Association Annual and contained ‘a forest of shipyard cranes in the background.’ They quote from the commentary that accompanied the picture which explained, ‘the majority of players and supporters are men of industry’. It went on, ‘we are reminded here that without industry all would fade, spires and stadium, all would become a dream.’ The shipbuilding industry was to fade soon after-although not disappear altogether-but Rangers have not: the nightmare continues for the club’s many detractors.

Relatively early in the club’s history, connections had been formed with the yards. Murray noted that as early as 1886, Walter Crichton, the Rangers secretary, had offered employment at the John Elder shipyard as a sweetener for players considering signing for Rangers. Bill Struth also capitalised on these links and as late as the Second World War he kept Willie Woodburn and Billy Williamson close to Ibrox by finding them employment in the shipyards. On the terraces, Esplin and Walker suggest the socio-economic profile of the support was closely tied to Glasgow’s character as an industrial city. In particular, there was a predominance of skilled manual workers into the 1970s if the occupations of those killed or injured in the Ibrox disaster can be considered representative. Among the sixty-six were boilermakers, welders, platers, panel-beaters and engineers. In addition, Murray had previously recorded that the majority of Rangers shareholders back in 1899, both blue and white collar, were connected to the shipbuilding industry.

The book Glasgow in 1901, produced to coincide with the second International Exhibition staged at Kelvingrove Park, offers a useful insight into the prestige derived from the global renown of the shipyards. At the start of the book there is an etching titled ‘Clyde Shipbuilders’, an early indication of the importance the authors attached to the industry and the fundamental role it played in shaping the character and identity of their city. They wrote, ‘if their importance is a matter beyond you, at least you must be impressed by our belief in it. We believe, every Glasgow man of us, that our shipbuilding is a thing to be talked of, and a most honourable and dignified business to have for the chief industry of the city.’ ‘Glasgow’, they added, ‘is a maker of ships, and her sons are proud of their seemly product.’ Describing the attributes of the typical worker in the city at that time they said, ‘He lives in a tenement in Govan, and his house consists of a room and kitchen. He is married and has four children and as likely as not his name is John MacMillan.’ They might have added that this man was quite possibly a Rangers fan. The very same John MacMillan is now general secretary of the Rangers Supporters’ Association...

The links between Rangers and the shipyards are testified to in other ways. One of the main characters in George Blake’s 1935 novel The Shipbuilders is a Rangers fan. The novel has a stuffy, paternalistic and condescending tone but captures vividly Danny Shields passion for football in general and Rangers in particular. Alan Morton, we are told, is his favourite player. Entering one of his local pubs Danny engages in a heated discussion with one his fellow drinkers. Blake wrote, ‘It was a passion shared by all of his kind-this vivid, scientific devotion to football, this angry partisanship, that is the industrial substitute for the satisfaction of clan warfare.’ The debate is resolved as the two men agree ‘almost tearfully as to the unique, the splendid skill of the Rangers.’ Blake, it should be noted, was not a prophet writing for the benefit of the chronically petty in 2012-‘the Rangers’ was a common term. Further on, Shields uses his half-day off to attend an Old Firm game, his sense of anticipation making, ‘his labour in the Yard that morning an irritating irrelevance.’ Shields could easily have been the model for the narrator in the song ‘Every Other Saturday’, recorded by Lex MacLean, which of course hints at the industrial employment common to Rangers fans. Blake again excels when capturing the atmosphere and symbolism of the Rangers-Celtic encounter: ‘It was a bitter war that was to be waged on that strip of white-barred turf. All the social problems of a hybrid city were to be sublimated in the imminent clash of mercenaries.’ Blake doesn’t disguise Shields tribalism but there is the sense that it has to be understood in its context.

One of the few places that could rival the Clyde when it came to shipbuilding was Belfast. Even the authors of Glasgow in 1901 were willing to set aside the hyperbole and concede that Belfast had surpassed the Clyde when it came to the construction of great passenger liners. This history has recently been commemorated with the opening of the Titanic Belfast museum just a short distance from the site of Harland and Wolff’s iconic yellow cranes Samson and Goliath. During the recent crisis, the many fans in Northern Ireland held meetings in support of the Rangers Fans’ Fighting Fund at the Harland and Wolff Welders’ Club. A century earlier the same company opened a yard on the Clyde, heralding a new movement of workers from the Lagan. Irish Protestant migrants were already well established in shipbuilding areas of Glasgow such as Govan, Partick and Whiteinch by the later nineteenth century. There was also much temporary migration between Scotland and Ulster, a trend that had been established earlier in the century. The movement of workers from the shipyards of Belfast facilitated the growth of the Orange Order which became the primary organisation for the expression of Protestant Irish identity and remained so well into the twentieth century. In Clydebank the local Orange Hall was built outside John Brown’s shipyard and by 1914 the three largest Orange jurisdictions in Scotland were in the noted shipbuilding centres of Govan, Partick and Greenock. The authors of the recent biography seem inclined to believe that the influx of Ulster Protestant migrants seeking work in the industries of the west of Scotland, particularly the shipyards, contributed to a growing unionist culture around the club precisely because of its links with this industry.    

Recognising and commemorating the links between the club and support on the one hand and the shipyards on the other would seem to offer a wealth of possibilities. First, it would remind people that past generations of Rangers fans played an important role in an industry that once defined Scotland and continues to exert a powerful influence. It would offer an interpretation of our history that acknowledges the importance of industrial Scotland in shaping the character of the club and support. Graham Walker, writing for The Rangers Standard, argued ‘we have been too content to accept a simplistic notion of being the ‘establishment’ club when our history is so much complex and grounded in the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary and often poor people.’ We are, and always have been, a people’s club-more so than most. In a sense, the first generations of fans were as much Gallant Pioneers as the four men with the ball at Glasgow Green and they too deserve to be commemorated in some way. Remembering the industry many were employed in would be a start. Second, it would allow us emphasise the club’s roots in Glasgow and Govan in particular. These should ideally occupy a position of prominence alongside the Scottish, British, Ulster and other identities people associate with the club. Finally, it would be a new way to recognise our links with Northern Ireland and the thousands of fans who reside there. Given the important contribution of the shipyards in the creation of the Ulster link it seems only appropriate that we should return to them for inspiration as we look for new and positive ways to acknowledge that link in the twenty-first century. The Clyde yards were responsible for building many ships that were the pride of Scotland and the envy of the world. But they also contributed to the creation of something more enduring: Rangers Football Club.