With their taut white sails whipped by the wind, the yachts owned by Scotland’s nouveau riche swept over the choppy waters of the Firth of Clyde pursued by hardy steamers packed with excited spectators.

It was the heyday of yachting on the west coast, when having the latest streamlined beauty - designed and built on the Clyde - attracted the country’s richest to race and to see and be seen.

Lined along the shore, on promenades in places like Rhu, Rothesay and Dunoon, thousands of lesser mortals also gathered during the heady rush of Clyde Fortnight in July, eager to catch a glimpse of the spectacle and maybe even spy a royal or two.

The early 1900s were a golden age of yachting, when the stars aligned to make the Firth of Clyde the Monaco of the north, and a magnet for fast sailing, ‘super’ yacht design and Great Gatsby-style glamour.

“It was the Formula One of its day,” says Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club archivist Jon Reid. “Not many places could match it. It was huge. Today, though, there’s hardly anything left to show it ever happened.”


Indeed, the 199-year-old yacht club and its Grade II Listed Victorian clubhouse in Rhu are among the last remnants of a glorious yachting heritage.

But, it transpires, they too are now entering stormy waters of their own.

With an ageing and dwindling membership that has seen numbers slump from 1400 in the 1980s to around 300 now, the club is now warning that it may close if it can’t attract new members, particularly a younger generation of yachtsmen and women.

While the costs associated with its glorious clubhouse, steeped in yachting heritage and packed with fascinating objects, from Victorian regatta programmes to a very grand 1920s silver model of one of the world’s most famous yachts, HMY Britannia, are said to have become prohibitive.

Once a bustling hub for the west coast super rich to share salty tales of crashing over waves and catching a fine north-easterly to guide them home, it is now said to no longer meet the needs of a modern breed of sailor.

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Desperate to tap into growing interest in paddleboarding and skiff rowing, the club, which traces its roots to 1824 and based in Rhu for 86 years, says it desperately needs a new clubhouse on its land at Rhu Marina if it is to survive.

In documents lodged with Argyll and Bute Council’s planners, it says the upkeep of the current clubhouse has placed it an annual loss-making position over recent years.

“Unless the club moves to more suitable premises at the marina, with a purpose-built slipway and boat parking area, it is inevitable that in the not very distant future the club will have to close its doors and cease to exist.

“Almost 200 years of yachting history on the Clyde will be lost.”

However, the go-ahead, it adds, could signal a new age of sailing: new facilities could even see the club bid to bring world championship level yacht competitions back to the area by next year.

While there are hopes a new clubhouse would form the heart of an entirely revived marina: talks are underway between owner Crown Estates Scotland and marina development specialists to create new pontoons, boatyard, engineering facilities and associated facilities.

It might not result in the glorious yachting scenes of the early 1900s, but, says Mr Reid, those heady days that be almost impossible to repeat.

For not only did Glasgow’s industrialists boast enormous wealth that enabled them to splash cash on sprawling coastal holiday villas and state of the art super yachts, it was also an age when Scottish yacht designers and builders, like their shipbuilding and boatbuilding counterparts, ruled the waves.

And the Firth of Clyde, with its sea lochs and islands, stiff westerly breeze, swirling waters, tides and backdrop of rolling hills, just happened to offer some of the best sailing waters in the world.

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The Northern Yacht Club was founded in late 1824 by tea and tobacco barons as sailing for sport, leisure and fun rose in popularity among the wealthy. The club soon became one of the first of its kind to receive a royal charter.

Exclusive and elite, there were tight rules in place to ensure only the ‘right’ people could join in – including having at least a supersize 8-ton yacht.

“It was very snobby at the time,” Mr Reid continues. “You couldn’t just roll up and become a member.

“And if a club could get a royal patronage and a royal along to a regatta, it offered the chance for the members to hobnob.”

By the late 1800s, booming industry and wealth earned abroad meant there were plenty of Glasgow families keen to join one of the Clyde’s thriving yacht clubs.

The Royal Northern attracted enthusiasts from the shipbuilding industry such as William Burrell, whose art collection makes up the Burrell Collection, wealthy furniture makers Robert Wylie and William Lochhead, the Templeton carpet family and Paisley thread barons, the Clark family, who are said to have lavished vast fortunes on successive yachts.

“Glasgow was at its peak,” Mr Reid adds. “These families all knew each other, they had all this enormous wealth, they socialised together and they often married each other.”

Key date for their diaries was early July, when the Clyde Fortnight saw them decamp to their coastal villas for a series of regattas.

The biggest stir of all would be the arrival of royalty, and the king’s spectacular yacht, HMY Britannia.

Designed by Glasgow naval architect George Lennox Watson and built by D&W Henderson shipyard in Partick in 1893 for the then Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – the vessel was a jewel in the crown of British yachting, scooping a string of stunning race victories.

It would also represent the finest Scottish yacht building skills, placing Clyde expertise on the world map: even now, some Clyde yachts are still to be found sailing in the Mediterranean and further afield.


The Clyde regettas were spectacular affairs, adds Mr Reid, with scores of racing yachts pursued by countless other vessels packed with spectators.

“There were well over ten clubs and several royal clubs along the Clyde,” he adds.

“Steamers would be rented and packed with people to chase the yachts, and the coasts were lined with people at Rothesay and Hunters Quay at Dunoon.

“The Clyde Fortnight would be a hugely important event, yet there’s very little now to show it ever happened.”

The gradual slump in shipbuilding and loss of design and building skills plus the lure offered by easier international travel meant yachting on the Clyde faded.

One of the largest yacht clubs, the Royal Clyde, launched in 1856 for owners of smaller yachts and based in Dunoon, suffered due to its location, as the west coast passenger steamer services which it relied heavily upon drew to a halt.

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It eventually merged with the Royal Northern to form the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club, while its grand clubhouse at Hunters Quay – paid for by just six of its wealthy members - became a hotel.

“Some yacht clubs disappeared entirely,” adds Mr Reid. “The big villas built by the wealthy yacht owners either crumbled or were broken up into flats.

“These days you wouldn’t know any of this existed unless you visited our clubhouse,” he adds.

“The club has a glorious past, just as Scotland had the best shipbuilders, some of the best designers and some of the best yachtsmen in the world. It all came together at the right time.

“It is such a fantastic area for sailing a yacht: on the right day I can’t imagine a better place in the world.”