Dec 30, 2023

The Finnieston Crane: A tale of loading locos, paper boats and blocking tele signals

We delve into the tale of of one of Glasgow’s most iconic landmarks by the Clyde which has been a fixture of the city's skyline since 1931.

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Few landmarks in Glasgow capture the city’s rich industrial heritage than the iconic Finnieston Crane or ‘Cran’, the 175 ton cantilever quayside crane which looms over the Clyde.

A towering visual presence, the listed building perfectly juxtaposes the modernist feel of both the adjacent Armadillo and SSE Hydro to provide the ultimate postcard image for the city in the 21st century.

Built in 1931 and commencing operation in 1932, Clyde Navigations Trustee’s’ Crane Number 7 cost £69,000 and was built by Cowans Sheldon and Co Ltd of Carlisle under the supervision of Daniel Fife, Mechanical Engineer to the Clyde Navigation Trust.

It was commissioned following proposals tabled in 1928 to build a new high level bridge over the Clyde (over where the Squinty Bridge is now) which would have seriously interfered with the working of another crane 500 feet upstream.

The lattice, steel girder tower remains the only ever British crane fitted with a personnel lift, and the only one fitted with a horizontal rail for the Jigger hoist handling light loads. Featuring a 152 ft long 'jib', it could make a full revolution in only 3 and a half minutes.

Its purpose was to load heavy locomotives (built at St Rollox works) for export but it was also used to fit ships' engines and to load cargo and heavy armaments into warships.

It’s estimated that 25 % of all the world’s locomotives were built at the St Rollox works in the north of Glasgow, and of the 28,000 locomotives that came out of the yard,18,000 were exported to every corner of the world, with the other 10,000 being built for various UK railways.

Whole streets would come to a halt as the trains made their way slowly from St Rollox Locomotive Works in Springburn down to the Clyde, where they would then be lifted by the Finnieston Crane into cargo vessels - each and every one of the 18 000 locomotives exported.

Such a figure helps puts into context the vital role played by the Crane to the city’s heavy industry. Yet little has been written about the 'misery' the crane brought to some in the city.

That’s because, due to its sheer size and location, if the crane was left at night pointing a certain way, whole streets in nearby Finnieston, Sandyford and Anderston wouldn’t be able to pick up a television signal.

It’s said that historically, the north side of the river had a poorer TV reception than other areas of the city as the signal came ‘down’ from St Vincent Street in the city centre, and was interrupted by the hill going up towards Anderston alongside nearby high rise developments.

This was when compounded by the direction the Crane was facing, something that, apparently, never seemed to affect those living on the Govan side of the Clyde.

Because of this, it is believed that shipyard workers would visit the crane operator and offer him ‘incentives’ to leave the crane facing a certain direction - especially on a Friday night.

Perhaps the last two occasions that the Crane moved were owed to Shettleston born artist George Wyllie. The first being in in 1987 for Mayfest, when it was used to hang Wyllie’s straw locomotive, a symbolic tribute to Springburn’s railway heritage.

Subsequently, in May 1989, the Crane was used to lift his next art installation, the Paper Boat (aka ‘the Pride of the Origami Line) into the Clyde. Like the straw locomotive, the boat spoke of Wyllie’s dismay at the virtual disappearance of Glasgow’s industrial heritage - in this case its once mighty shipbuilding industry.

Such installations sparked the imagination of the city, especially with younger generations, who would continuously look at the Crane to see if there was anything else new hanging from its hook.

Few things have hung from its hook since, expect for a bright yellow question mark in October 2012 until February 2013 as part of the Whysman Festival in tribute to Wyllie, who died in May 2012.

Now, due to aesthetic reasons or because of wind direction, the Crane faces south east pointing up the river towards the city centre. Yet, even while static, Glaswegians and visitors alike have continued to view the iconic symbol of the city with a mixture of nostalgia and wonder.

People have continued to engage with it in different ways, with the structure playing host to everyone from abseilers, urban explorers, anti-nuclear activists, police snipers (for the Commonwealth Games) and even stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill.

It was also turned into a musical instrument and ‘giant ear to Glasgow’ by American sound artist Bill Fontana as part of Glasgow UNESCO City of Music’s Glasgow Commissions in 2013, and was lit up in 2014 to coincide with the MTV European Music Awards ceremony at the SSE Hydro.

Various plans have been put forward over the years to attempt to best ‘make use’ of the Crane, with, for example, their talk of it being re-developed to house a restaurant at the top.

Yet perhaps it should be left as it is, as a landmark watching over the city and the river which gave birth it it.

A silent reminder of Glasgow’s past industrial might.