With careful attention to the tiniest detail, expert skill and using the finest of materials, the Clyde delivered some of the best ships in the world - destined never to go to sea.

Small and perfectly formed, they were the just like the real thing only in miniature: carefully crafted models used by shipyard bosses to sell a vision to their customers, showcase cutting edge designs and provide a 3D version to test, modify and, sometimes, just to admire.

Once crucial to the Clyde’s shipbuilding industry, ship model makers created countless tiny versions of famous luxury liners that would sail the globe, everyday steamers that served west coast villages, battleships, tea clippers, oil tankers and fancy yachts, dredgers and tugs.

And while shipyards like John Brown’s, Fairfield and Denny’s delivered life-size monsters of the seas, in the early 1900s Glasgow held another crown: the largest ship model making city in the UK.

Over a dozen model and model engine-making firms worked alongside the famous yards, with technicians and makers every bit as skilled as their shipbuilding colleagues.

Eventually though, they would become a dying breed: computer aided design and 3D printing has replaced the laborious task of sketching designs and piecing together tiny rigs, sails, portholes and hulls.

The remarkable skill of the ship model makers and fascinating history of how they played a part in religious belief to social culture and, of course, the construction of all manner of ships, is now the focus of a new exhibition at the Scottish Maritime Museum.


The Herald: Ship in a bottle: A model of an Arabian Dhow made by Durham Glass Co.Ship in a bottle: A model of an Arabian Dhow made by Durham Glass Co. (Image: Scottish Maritime Museum)

As well as displaying a diverse collection of ship models built by professional shipyard modellers to serve the Clyde’s massive shipbuilding industry, it unravels the stories behind models, such as what ignited the rise in popularity of delicate glass ships in bottles, and votive ship models, presented to churches by seamen and shipbuilders as tokens of thanks for safe deliverance from peril at sea.

The exhibition illustrates how, although not always built to scale, models were important to different cultures across the world in influencing ship design for travel and trade and developing an increased capability in warfare.

That aside, while viewed up close, the models themselves are works of art with incredible attention to the tiniest of details, often built using the best of material.

Eva Bukowska, Exhibitions and Events Officer at the Scottish Maritime Museum, says the history behind ship models stretches far further than the boom times of shipbuilding on the Clyde.

“Ship models have been found dating back to ancient civilisations, to Greece, Egypt and Rome, and were often used for religious ceremonial purposes rather than as accurate representations of ships,” she explains.

Ship models were made as toys and household decorations, but they had a more formal use during the burial of Pharaohs.

Full-sized boats to provide travel into the afterlife were often buried in pits near tombs of Pharaohs such as Tutankhamun, a boat model was symbolically placed within the tomb.

As shipbuilding skills increased through the centuries, so did demands for models that would have a more useful purpose.

“Ship models became a tool for ship makers and ship builders to study different ship designs,” Eva adds.


The Herald: Playing with a model yacht at Mackerston Boating Pond, Largs, 1940sPlaying with a model yacht at Mackerston Boating Pond, Largs, 1940s (Image: Scottish Maritime Museum)

During Medieval times, two very different construction methods influenced shipbuilding across the world – the Clinker design of Viking ships in the north, and the classical or Roman vessels made to carvel style in the south.

Model versions helped builders learn from each other, as well as appearing as toys for children.

But the practice of making model boats really took off in the latter half of the 17th century, when the Admiralty began to instruct shipbuilders to present models of proposed Royal Navy vessels to help them make more informed decisions.

“The age of exploration, from the 15th to 17th century, saw ship models become more detailed and realistic,” says Eva.

As global trade and travel for leisure expanded, shipbuilders used well-crafted and visually appealing models to showcase designs to their commercial clients, particularly showing how they would meet a shipowner’s specifications for cargo capacity, crew space, engine type and seakeeping abilities.

The exhibition, ‘Ship Models - A History of Shipping in Miniature’, includes examples of model boats built for a variety of reasons, along with the diaries of two young Clyde shipbuilders which explain the importance of model making in the sales process: Alexander Stephen, whose former Linthouse Engine Shed now houses the Scottish Maritime Museum’s collection in Irvine, and William Denny on whose former shipyard site sits the Museum’s Dumbarton collection.

Ship modelling, however, stretched beyond the shipyards.

In the 19th century, commercial model makers exploited a growing interest in national and international exhibitions which showcased the best of British innovation and technology.

Demand grew for models that could be displayed in homes, businesses and clubs. With skilled glassblowers’ no longer needed to make laboratory apparatus, they turned their talents to crafting glass ships in bottles to sell.

It led to a 30-year long boom in demand for intricate and beautiful artworks.

While taking a model boat to the local boating lake to race or simply see if it might float became a common way of passing weekends and holidays, and model boat clubs sprang up around the country.

At Elder Park boating lake in Govan, retired shipyard workers sailed model boats which they had built themselves, and models ruled the waves from the Yachtie Pond in Whitecrook Park at Clydebank to Victoria Park and to Knightswood, where a model boat club still takes to the water.

By 1900, Glasgow had become the largest model making city in the UK with over a dozen model and model engine-making companies like Kelso & Co.

Little expense was spared in making sure the models were as beautiful and well-constructed as the vessels they represented, adds Eva.

“Ship models, which were made of materials ranging from brass, lead, copper, glass, pearl and, more rarely, gold leaf, are an essential and exciting tool for understanding and celebrating technological advancements in shipbuilding.”

Some created almost as much of a stir as the real thing and went on to become a precious historical record of lost vessels.

In 1930, a model of the Canadian Pacific liner, Empress of Britain, a steam turbine ocean liner being built at John Brown’s made headlines when it appeared at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

Said to be “exact in every detail of structure and visible equipment” and a “masterpiece of craftsmanship”, the model was set in a scene of Quebec harbour complete with tugboats and attracted thousands of visitors.


The Herald: Fairfields Shipyard on the ClydeFairfields Shipyard on the Clyde

The largest, fastest and most luxurious ship to travel between the UK and Canada, she ran for just eight years before being torpedoed in 1940, the largest ship sunk by a U-boat.

There were changes on ahead, however.  Technology began to syphon away traditional jobs and skills.

Although modern era ship models continue to be used in various industries including naval architecture and marine education, old methods of creating them from drawings and tiny parts, have been replaced by 3D and computer assisted designed models.

Today, the Clyde is home to only one model maker, Cemal Ozturk of Ozturk Model Makers.

Yet there remains a fascination with model ships: the Museum has a number of amateur model makers who create their own models and help maintain and restore its exhibits.

And there are hopes the museum may soon add to its collection: there are plans for a 5m long model of the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2.

“It was built by John Brown’s shipyard and is one of the most beautiful models,” adds Eva, “which shows the attention to detail and knowledge of the people who made it.”

Ship Models – A History of Shipping in Miniature is at the Scottish Maritime Museum on Irvine Harbourside until Sunday, May 26.