The era of the Clyde steamer began in August 1812 with the very first successful commercial steamboat service in Europe, when Henry Bell's Comet began a passenger service on the River Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock. The Comet undertook her official trial run on 6 August 1812. Henry Bell himself was on board along with John Robertson, maker of Comet's engine and William McKenzie, formerly a schoolmaster in Helensburgh, acting as skipper. According to the Glasgow Courier newspaper two days later, the journey was completed in three and a half hours. After this success, other operators sprang up in competition and the Firth of Clyde became immensely popular with holidaymakers. By 1900 there were over 300 Clyde Steamers operating and going doon the watter was still in full swing in the early 1960s. Then competition from new forms of holiday travel brought the era almost to a close, but PS Waverley continues to provide the leisurely delights of Clyde steamer excursions.
From the outset steamboat services were aimed at holidaymakers, with a stop at Helensburgh bringing passengers to Bell's Baths Hotel. Within ten years there were nearly fifty steamers on the Firth of Clyde, sailing as far as Largs, Campbeltown and Inveraray, and the Glasgow Magistrates had introduced a five-pound fine for services running late to prevent "the Masters of Steam Boats, from improper competition and rivalship, postponing their departure for considerable and uncertain periods, after the times they had previously intimated to the Public". Steamer services were also introduced onto the inland lochs, with the Marion appearing on Loch Lomond in 1816.
With the rapid industrialisation and population growth of 19th century Glasgow great numbers were eager to be released from the grimy city on Fast Days and during the annual Glasgow Fair week, went on a cruise down the Clyde to clean unspoilt scenery. Tiny villages, perhaps with a stone jetty, soon became resorts with wooden piers and villas, hotels and public houses. Local residents would let out rooms, and boarding houses developed. Established towns like Dunoon and Rothesay became major resorts. The wealthy built sandstone villas at places like Kilcreggan, Blairmore and Innellan to which they could commute daily, or weekly, during the summer.
The first turbine powered merchant vessel, the Clyde steamer TS King Edward, was built in 1901. Her successor, the TS Queen Mary of 1933, was a floating restaurant on the River Thames in London until 2009.
The PS Waverley, built in 1947, is the last survivor of these fleets, and the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world. This ship sails a full season of cruises every year from places around Britain, and has sailed across the English Channel for a visit to commemorate the 1940 sinking of her predecessor (built in 1899) at the Battle of Dunkirk. The 1900 steamer SS Sir Walter Scott still sails on Loch Katrine, while on Loch Lomond the PS Maid of the Loch is being restored.
The journey down the Clyde to Rothesay is immortalised in the song "The Day we Went to Rothesay O".
- "Scottish phrase of the week: Doon the watter". The Scotsman. 21 October 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
- Clark, Andrew (2012). Pleasures of the Firth; Two Hundred Years of Clyde Steamers. Catrine, East Ayrshire: Stenlake Publishing. p. 17. ISBN 9781840335859.
- "BBC London News: Victoria Embankment has taken a step back into its past with the towing away of the Queen Mary pub boat". BBC News. 2009-11-08. Retrieved 2009-11-09.
- "The Day We Went to Rothesay O". Scotland's Songs. Education Scotland. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
- McCrorie, Ian (1986), Clyde Pleasure Steamers: An Illustrated History, Greenock: Orr, Pollock, ISBN 1-869850-00-9