Leith-Built Ships Volume 1 - They Once Were Shipbuilders by R. O. Neish published by Whittles Publishing has been in print since 2019, so why am I writing a review of it now? Well the answer to that is that this book is part of a planned 4 volume set that will cover all aspects of Leith-built ships through the years, and as I have volume 2 ready to review too, it seemed only proper that we start at the beginning of this story.
The author, R. O. Neish, is a former Leith shipyards worker, and that insight into not only the technical aspects of how a shipyard works, but also the unique bonding of all the many trades and professions that have to come together to build a ship give this book the feel of something more than just a history book. This author understands shipbuilding but, more than that, understands shipbuilders.
This book, I have to admit, is a bit special to me as I come from Leith, and can testify first hand to the economic devastation caused to Leith by the slow decline and eventual loss of not only the shipbuilding industry, but the many support businesses that depended upon it for economic survival. No matter what anyone might try to tell you, Leith has still never recovered (and probably never will) from the last great Leith shipyard Henry Robb Limited (Robbs) closing in 1983.
This first volume is, however, the beginning of the story of Leith-built ships up until the end of World War 1, and Volume 2 (to be reviewed soon) takes up the story from 1918–1939. Ships have been built in Leith for centuries, but its reliance upon natural tide waters and a problematic sand bank have always caused some problems, and how these obstacles have been overcome is as much of the story here as anything else.
The author wisely does not get too involved in the very early years of Leith and its turbulent history, but it is covered in enough depth to give the reader an insight into this pre-industrial period. What is fascinating though is to read how shipbuilders had to learn to adapt to new skill requirements as the methods of building ships changed. This volume is not only the story, but the evolution of shipbuilding as it moved from wood, iron, wood/iron and finally steel, each new development along the way being required to build the larger and quicker ships demanded by the shipyards’ customers.
This book is written with a light touch, and you can as a reader get involved at whatever level you want to read this book. If a light overall history is all that you want, then you can skip some parts of this story and not lose too much. If specific detail on ships (and often a brief history of them) is what you want, then those facts are here too. There is of course, as the title of the book tells us, a lot of detail on the individual shipyards from mostly the 1800s onwards in this book and background stories to the owners behind these yards. This book is a casual pick up and read book, or a sit down and get engrossed in the details, the choice is yours.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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