Alexander Robertson and Sons Ltd (Yachtbuilders)

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Alexander Robertson, 1851-1937

Alexander Robertson started repairing boats in a small workshop at Sandbank, Argyll and Bute in 1876, and went on to become one of the foremost wooden boat builders on Scotland's River Clyde. The 'golden years' of Robertson's yard were in the early 1900s when they started building IYRU 12mR & 15mR (Metre Class) racing yachts. Robertsons was well known for the quality of its workmanship and was chosen to build the first 15-Metre yacht designed by William Fife III (Shimna, 1907). More than 55 boats were built by Robertsons in preparation for the First World War and the yard remained busy even during the Great Depression in the 1930s, as many wealthy businessmen developed a real passion for yacht racing on the Clyde. During World War II the yard was devoted to Admiralty work, producing a wide range of large high speed Fairmile Marine Motor Boats. After the war the yard built the successful one-class Loch Longs and two 12-Metre challengers for the America's Cup: Sceptre (1958) and Sovereign (1964). Due to difficult business conditions the Robertson family sold the yard in 1965, and it was turned over to GRP production work until it closed in 1980. During its 104 year history, Robertson's Yard built 500 boats, many of which are still sailing today.

History of Robertson's Yard

Alexander Robertson (1851-1937)

Alexander Robertson, the son of a fisherman from 'Tarskavaig' on the Isle of Skye, was born in Inverkip on 29 August 1851. After his parents moved to Sandbank in 1859 to run the village Post Office, he served his apprenticeship as a boat builder in Dunoon and Govan. In 1876, at the age of 25, he teamed up with Daniel Kerr to build small boats at his workshop in Sandbank. The partnership was dissolved in 1878, and Alexander went on to acquire larger premises in order to expand the business. He initially designed many of the yachts and launches himself, but in later years used many leading designers of the day to carry out work on the larger boats. Alexander remained chairman of the company until 1935, only two years before he died in 1937.

'Tarskavaig', Isle of Skye

Alexander not only provided a significant source of employment in the village of Sandbank, but he also played an important part in the local community. He made notable contributions in a number of areas: Argyll County Councillor representing Cowal; Parish Councillor; Justice of the Peace; member of the School Board; director of Dunoon District Cottage Hospital; on the Board of Management of the Parish Church and he was also responsible for organising many social gatherings in the village hall. He also took a very keen interest in yacht racing in the Holy Loch, even in his later years.

Early Years

By the age of 16, Alexander had started work as an apprentice with the Dunoon boatbuilder, Ewen Sutherland. After his initial training, further experience was acquired at Alexander Stephen and Sons Ltd of Linthouse, one of the main Govan yards. In 1876 Alexander, at the young age of 25, teamed up with Daniel Kerr to form 'Robertson & Kerr, Boat Builders and Carpenters'. The initial boats built in their small workshop were modest 'clinker' craft and fishing skiffs, but they also carried out repairs, hired and stored boats, laid moorings and even earned money from fishing. On 17 October 1878, after around two years together, the Robertson & Kerr partnership was dissolved when Daniel Kerr accepted a job with the Clyde Lighthouse Trust.

Alexander continued working at the small workshop for several years, for the most part repairing boats. As business was booming he began looking for larger premises and found an old distillery site (Owned by Dugald McKinley, 1825-1833) with around 2 acres (8,100 m2) of land, ample supplies of fresh water and good access to the sea. The land was purchased in 1879 and the first shed constructed in 1880. By 1887 the first phase of development of the site had been completed, and Alexander Robertson had the largest number of yachts (47) under his charge of any yard in Scotland. Construction of a slipway, to launch larger boats (greater than 25ft) was held up for several years (1887-1892) because of the proposed plans to build the Clyde Ardrishaig and Crinan Railway, which would have passed right through the middle of the yard.

Golden Years

A proper boat numbering system was introduced at the new 'distillery' site in 1889 and every detail relating to cost was recorded in large ledgers. Boat No 1 was a 25 ft (7.6 m) cutter designed by Alexander Robertson for John Dobbie of Dunoon, named Cowal Lass. Boat No 3 was the Fairlie, a 19 ft (5.8 m) cutter designed by William Fife III for A. Currie of Sandbank in 1890. This was the start of a long relationship with the famous Fife yard at Fairlie and over the years Robertsons built 11 Fife designed yachts. A 26 ft (7.9 m) cutter called Verve, designed by the famous George Lennox Watson in 1892, was the first of many to be built at the yard. The Alfred Mylne-designed boats did not commence until 1900, with two 24 ft (7.3 m), 19/24 Clyde class sloops, the Valmai and the Susette. The Mylne family owned the 41 ft (12 m) Mylne-Robertson cutter Medea (Ex Vladimir) for over 30 years.

In April 1893 Alexander Robertson leased an acre of land on the 'foreshore & seabed' from the Board of Trade for a period of 31 years, with a rent of £2 per annum. Permission included the rights to extend the yard and build a slip, dock and wharf. The new slipway and pier were built in 1893, in time for wintering the boats at the end of the season. With an estimated cost of £4,000 - £5,000, this was one of the most important investments in Clyde yachting. The new slipway, allowed boats greater than 25ft to be built and launched, and was considered one of the best in the land. It was reported in the New York Times, on 14 December 1895, that "In Robertson's yard, Sandbank, Clyde, about 100 craft have been taken ashore for the Winter...". This confirms the significant growth of the business as a result of the new slipway.

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Half-hull model of Elrhuna
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Alexander Robertson and Sons Ltd : Company Minute Book, 1922

By 1900 most of the infrastructure required for the production of high calibre wooden boats was in place: pier, slipway, sawmills, workshops, building-sheds, stores, paint shop, engine house, sail loft and workers' houses. These were the golden years of the yard, during which they built an amazing array of classic racing yachts: 15-Metre Shimna (later Slec) (Willian Fife III, 1907); 15-Metre Tritonia (later Jeano[1] and Cisne Branco - Alfred Mylne, 1910), 12-Metre Heatherbell (Thomas Glen-Coats, 1907); 12-Metre Cyra (Alfred Mylne, 1909); 10-Metre Pampero (1912); 8-Metre Novena (1908); 5-Metre Mungo (1908). Elrhuna, a lovely 28 ft (8.5 m) sloop was designed by Alexander in 1904, and due to the quality of the wood and sound construction she still races regularly on the West Coast of Scotland. The first of many motor boats were built in 1905, among them a luxurious 28 ft (8.5 m) teak built 'carvel' motor launch ordered for the S Y Nahma, which was the last boat designed by George Lennox Watson. The development of early steam boats by Alexander provided the necessary expertise to build 7 steam powered launches for the Admiralty in the years leading up to World War I.

Robertson’s Yard was exceptionally busy in 1908. As well as four racing yachts, one large motor launch and several tenders under construction, they had plenty of hollow-spar work and major modifications to the Susanne. The yard employed seventy men and they had to work overtime to keep up with the ambitious building programme. Many alterations were made to the yard and they had a new building shed with 26 ft headroom and a 4,000 sq ft moulding-loft. The yard was now capable of building yachts of any size, and it was hoped some 23-Metre work would follow.

Alexander was a rather astute businessman so, as the yard was booming in the early 1900s, he began buying up properties along the shore of the Holy Loch to stop other boat yards being built.

Alexander Robertson and Sons

The Wars

Over 55 boats were built by Robertsons in preparation for the First World War, and after the war the yard started to diversify and fit-out larger yachts. The company had been run by Alexander for many years, but now three of his sons were helping to run the family business. In 1922 Alexander decided to re-structure the organisation so it could be operated without him in the future. Alexander Robertson & Sons (Yachtbuilders) Limited was formally established on August 5 1922 to "carry out all aspects of designing, building and repair of yachts, sale of yachts and sail making". Four of Alexander's sons helped to run the business in later years: Archibald; Alexander (Alec); Donald; George. Robertson's Yard was now looking for a new designer and by the end of 1929 David Boyd had replied to an advertisement in the Glasgow Herald. In 1937 he designed the sleek 6-Metre racing yacht Circe, which was described by many as the most successful racing yacht ever produced by the yard. Mr J. Herbert Thom, one of the Clyde's best helmsmen sailed the yacht with tremendous success in America in 1938 and brought back the 'Seawanhaka Cup', which was successfully defended in home waters the following year.

Alexander's eldest son Archibald Robertson was the senior Director in the company and destined to take over operation of the yard before he died in November 1929. Alexander remained Chairman of the company until June 1935, when he was 84. However, even after that he maintained a keen interest in the operation and was often first at the yard in the morning to see the men get started. He died on 15 Feb 1937 at the family home, 'Tarskavaig', named after the small crofting village on the Isle of Skye.

The first order for a lifeboat from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) was secured by the yard in 1935. The Charlotte Elizabeth was the first motor-powered lifeboat launched in Scotland, and was later stationed in Port Askaig, Islay: she now lies abandoned by Thurso Harbour in Caithness[2].

Orders for a further 10 lifeboats followed, several of which came back for regular servicing. During the 1930s many gigs (or tenders) were built for larger boats launched further up the Clyde, among them the SY Nahlin and MY Virginia.

Several larger boats were also built during this impressive pre-war period: Caretta, 67 ft (20 m) twin screw motor launch designed by Messrs G L Watson in 1927; Ron, 50 ft (15 m) ketch designed by J A McCallum in 1928; Southern Cross, 51 ft (16 m) ketch designed by Alfred Mylne in 1930; Zigeuner, 60 ft (18 m) yawl designed by David Boyd in 1935

The specially fitted out 'ocean going' cruiser Southern Cross left Robertson's Yard on 26 October 1930 and set sail on a 3 year round the world trip, arriving in Brisbane in October 1931. Tragically, on the return leg her owner D Guthrie Dunn was lost overboard near St Helena. The yacht was brought back to Robertson's Yard by a new crew on 8 July 1933, where she was refitted and sold on.

Aerial View of Robertson's Yard ~1960

During the Second World War the yard was devoted to Admiralty work. A total of 23 fast Fairmile Marine motor boats were launched during the war: Fairmile A motor launch, 100 ft (30 m) triple screw (1); Fairmile B motor launch, 112 ft (34 m) twin screw (7); Fairmile C motor gun boat, 110 ft (34 m) triple screw (3); Fairmile D motor torpedo boat, 115 ft (35 m) quadruple screw (12). Some of the boats returned for servicing during the war and many others were repaired or modified for the Admiralty.

Sailing in the Clyde area was restricted during the war, although the Holy Loch appears to have been an unrestricted area in March 1940. The Clyde racing fleet did not make its official appearance after the war until 25 May 1946. Due to the shortage of materials the cost of building a new yacht had increased by 50% between 1939 and 1945.

Winds of Change

Boat building and yachting in particular changed direction dramatically after the war. Larger boats with crews all but disappeared and they were gradually replaced by more economical cruising and racing yachts. The 'one-off' design/building work that the yard specialised in was replaced by 'one-design' yachts, which began with Uffa Fox's Flying Fifteens in 1948 and the successful Loch Longs in 1949. In September 1956 a Royal Yacht Squadron syndicate was formed to build a 12-Metre for the 1958 America's Cup. The challenger was selected based on model tank testing and David Boyd's second design was chosen. In October 1957 Sceptre [3] was beginning to take shape at Robertson's yard in Sandbank. She was officially launched on 2 April, 1958. Some initial testing took place in the Holy Loch, but more extensive trials were carried out in the Solent before she was shipped to America. The Sceptre lost to the New York Yacht Club yacht Columbia in September 1958.

Sceptre under full sail. Courtesy MoFoTo.
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Sovereign (background) and Ikra (ex Kurrewa V), Valencia Regatta 2007. Courtesy Chris Cameron Photography.

At the time the Sceptre was taking shape another famous yacht was also being built in an adjacent shed. The luxuriously appointed 65 ft (20 m) Lone Fox [4] was Colonel W H (Billy) Whitbread's personal yacht for a quarter of a century. Colonel Whitbread was head of the well known brewery firm, and sponsor of the famous round-the-world race. She later won many races in California, and now competes regularly in the Caribbean Classic yacht races.

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Lone Fox in St Lucia, 2007. Courtesy Ira Epstein, Lone Fox Charters.

David Boyd was again chosen to design a new 12-Metre challenger for the 1964 Americas Cup. The Sovereign [5] was launched on 6 June 1963, but by August the Royal Thames Yacht Club Committee was anxious about her performance and David Boyd was asked to design another boat similar to Sovereign, which was named Kurrewa V. Before the two yachts left British waters they conducted trial races in May/June 1964 and the Sovereign was officially selected as the challenger. Although the New York Yacht Club yacht Constellation won the America's Cup off Newport, Rhode Island, Sovereign was much admired for her graceful lines and magnificent teak deck.

It was around this time that major business problems started to appear and during a slow period the yard found work building fast launches for the RAF. They undertook fixed price contracts for two 63' General Service Mk 1 Pinnaces, but delays, design changes and escalating cost of materials put the yard in financial difficulties. At the AGM held on 4 June 1963, discussion took place regarding the adverse outcomes of these contracts and it was agreed efforts should be made to sell the yard. The Robertson family finally sold the yard in 1965 and it became a subsidiary of the Auchinleck Investment Co of Glasgow (comprising a syndicate of 5 well-known Clyde yachtsmen), essentially ending wooden boat building there.

GRP Production

The yard continued to operate for a further 14 years assembling a wide range of GRP (fibreglass) boats such as Pipers, Ohlsons, Etchells and Pilot Launches. The rising cost of oil and resin along with strong competition from the more established GRP yards down south brought boatbuilding to a close in 1980. Buildings in the lower yard were finally pulled down in the late 1980s and the site was levelled for re-development. All that was left of the original yard was the slipway and the proud boats that were once launched from it.

Houses have now been built in the upper yard, and the lower yard site became incorporated in the new Holy Loch Marina development during 2009.

Tables - Boats and Designers

A total of 500 numbered boats were built at the yard, according to the yard build-book. However, in addition, around 300 smaller boats (under 20 ft) were also built: fishing skiffs; rowing boats; sailing dinghies; tenders (gigs); sailing lifeboats; motorised lifeboats.

Classic Wooden Boats

A remarkably wide range of Classic Wooden Boats were built at Robertson's Yard.

Class of Wooden Boat Number Some Key Names and Dates
15 Metre 2 Shimna (1907), Tritonia ( later Jeano and Cisne Branco) 1910
12-Metre (Classic) 2 Heatherbell (1907), Cyra (1909)
12-Metre (Modern) 3 Sceptre (1957), Sovereign (1963), Kurrewa V (later Ikra) 1963
10-Metre 1 Pampero' (1912)
8-Metre 4 Novena (1908), Decima (1910), Sunburst (1967)
6-Metre 5 Maid Marion (1921), Circe (1937), Marylette (1953)
5.5-Metre 2 Maryllis (1951), Yolaine (1953)
5-Metre 1 Mungo (1908)
Belfast Lough, Utah 18 ft (5.5 m) 4 n/a (1891)
23/30 Clyde Class 2 Lottie (1898), Hawk (1898)
19/24 Clyde Class 5 Valmai (1900), Valtos (1903), Sunbeam II (1904)
30 ft (9.1 m) Clyde Class 3 Vladimir (later Medea) 1904, Sunbeam (1908), Corrie (1908)
Holy Loch Redwing 4 n/a (1903)
7 Lengths Cutter (Germany) 1 Scottie (1906)
Dragon 5 Argee (1937), Arabis (1937), Primula (1937)
Flying Fifteen 4 Malise (1948), Sprite (1948), Cirrus (1949)
Loch Long 27 Blaithe (1949), Akela (1951), Rebel (1966)
Piper 1 Sandpiper (1966), original hull design for the GRPs
Watson Lifeboats (RNLI) 9 Charlotte Elizabeth (1934), W M Tilson (1950)
32' Surf Lifeboats (RNLI) 2 Norman Nasmyth (1938), John Ryburn (1938)
Fairmile 'A', ML 1 110 ft (34 m) Triple Screw Motor Launch, ML 106 (1939-45)
Fairmile 'B', ML 7 112 ft (34 m) Twin Screw Motor Launch, ML 119, 136, 160, 197, 223, 238, 454 (1939-45)
Fairmile 'C', MGB 3 110 ft (34 m) Triple Screw Motor Gun Boat, MGB 315, 317, 320 (1939-45)
Fairmile 'D', MTB & MGB 12 115 ft (35 m) Quadruple Screw Motor Gun Boats & Motor Torpedo Boats: MGBs 625, 630, 637, 661; MTBs 653, 675, 691, 718, 731, 758, 793, 5018 (1939-45)
Admiralty Launches (other) 65 50 ft (15 m) Steam Pinnace (1912), Patrol launch (1957)
RAF Mark 1 Pinnace 2 RAF 1380 (1956), RAF 1382 (1958)
RAF (other) 6 Motor launches (1957)

In addition to the series of Classic Boats above, there were many 'one-off' Classic Boats which were built at Robertson's Yard.

Classic (One-Offs) Type of Wooden Boat Designer Year
Fairlie 19 ft (5.8 m) Cutter William Fife III 1890
Vill-u-an 32 ft (9.8 m) Lugger William Fife III 1895
Ernani 59 ft (18 m) Wooden Screw Schooner Alexander Robertson 1898
Verve II 53 ft (16 m) Cutter G L Watson 1899
Elrhuna 28 ft (8.5 m) Sloop Alexander Robertson 1904
Galma 60 ft (18 m) Twin Screw Motor Launch Alfred Mylne 1908
HMAS Australia 50 ft (15 m) Steam Launch Admiralty 1909
Adara 63 ft (19 m) Twin Screw Motor Launch J A McCallum 1920
La Falaise 55 ft (17 m) Twin Screw Motor Launch G L Watson & Co 1923
Ariadne 69 ft (21 m) Motor Launch, ketch rigged Alfred Mylne 1925
Caretta 67 ft (20 m) Twin Screw Motor Launch G L Watson & Co 1927
Ron 50 ft (15 m) Ketch, gaff rigged J A McCallum 1928
Pretty Polly 67 ft (20 m) Auxiliary Cutter G L Watson & Co 1929
Southern Cross 51 ft (16 m) Twin Screw Auxiliary Ketch G L Watson & Co 1930
Zigeuner 61 ft (19 m) Auxiliary Bermudan Yawl David Boyd 1935
Taiseer V 38 ft (12 m) Auxiliary Sloop C A Nicholson 1953
Lone Fox 64 ft (20 m) Ketch Robert Clark Ltd 1957
Greylag 38 ft (12 m) Auxiliary Bermudan Sloop David Boyd 1962
Sandpiper 24.5 ft (7.5 m) Day Boat (prototype of Pipers) David Boyd 1966


Robertson's Yard built boats were designed by many famous naval architects throughout its history, among them, David Boyd who joined the yard in 1929.

Robertson's Yard - Designers Wooden Boats Only
George Lennox Watson, & Co (1892-1950) 38
Alfred Mylne (1900-1925) 27
Noel Macklin – 'Fairmile' MTB's (1939-1945) 23
Alexander Robertson (1876-1907) 17
David Boyd (1933-1967) 16
William Fife III (1890-1921) 11
John A McCallum (1914-1928) 7
Johan Anker - 'Dragons' (1937-1952) 5
Uffa Fox - 'Flying Fifteens' (1948-1949) 4
Thomas C Glenn Coates (1907) 1
C A Nicholson (1953) 1
Robert Clark (1957) 1

Note - The above counts for Alexander Robertson and David Boyd are probably understated - some of their boat designs were attributed to 'the builder', by Lloyd's Register.

GRP Boats

The table provides a summary of the main classes of GRP boats fitted-out, or built at the yard.

Class of GRP Boat Number Some Key Names and Dates
Piper 57 Stormpiper fitted-out (1967), Hee Hoo (1977)
Etchell 22 49 Pinocchio (1975), Mistress (1978), Playgirl II (1980)
Ohlson 38 5 Gale fitted-out (1969), Eorsa fitted-out (1973)
Ohlson 35 1 Nyvaig fitted-out (1973)
Comfort 30 8 Casual Comfort (1976), Alicante (1979)
Bolero 25 11 Bolero 1 (1979), Bolero 11 hull-only (1980)
Bolero 35 4 Hulls only (1980)
Launches (65-35 ft) 16 Norskerry fitted-out (1969), Kempock Clyde Pilot (1978)

Classic Wooden Robertson Boats Still Sailing

Updates and additions to this section on 'boats still sailing' would be appreciated, or contact via (

Name Key Built Type of Boat, Information and Location
Elrhuna c 1904 28 ft (8.5 m) Sloop designed by Alexander Robertson. Based at the Lochaber Yacht Club, south of Fort William, and still racing.
Scottie r 1906 35 ft (11 m) Sloop designed by A Mylne. Raced at the Havel Klassik regatta in Berlin, as Illusion, in June 2005.
Corrie r 1908 44 ft (13 m) Sloop designed by William Fife III. Based in Gosport and still races. On the National Register of Historic Vessels.
Grace c 1909 28 ft (8.5 m) Sloop. Based in Italy, and racing in the Classic series.
Sandora m 1916 35 ft (11 m) ex Admiralty Motor Launch (No 750). Based in Uxbridge.
La Falaise (later Maria Khristina) m 1923 55 ft (17 m) Twin Screw Motor Launch designed by G L Watson & Co. Undergoing restoration.
Alice m 1924 20 ft (6.1 m) Tender for the Lulworth, which was restored 2002.
Ron (of Argyll) c 1928 50 ft (15 m) Gaff Rigged Ketch designed by J A McCallum. On charter in the Whitsunday Islands, Australia.
Morven c 1934 23 ft (7.0 m) Auxiliary Sloop designed by G L Watson & Co. Currently based at Crinan, Scotland.
Zigeuner c 1935 60 ft (18 m) Bermudan Yawl designed by David Boyd. Based at the Fremantle Sailing Club, Australia - Charter work and racing.
Canadian Pacific m 1938 46 ft (14 m) Watson Lifeboat. Based in Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh.
City of Edinburgh m 1938 46 ft (14 m) Watson Lifeboat. Seen in Buckie harbour 2005.
Sir Arthur Rose m 1938 46 ft (14 m) Watson Lifeboat. Renamed Rose Marion, now based at Robertson's boatyard, Limekiln Quay, Woodbridge.
Julia Park Barry of Glasgow m 1938 46 ft (14 m) Watson Lifeboat. Converted to gaff rig. Based at Fanan Marina on Loch Swilly.
The Good Hope c 1938 46 ft (14 m) Watson Lifeboat. Converted to gaff rig. Based in South Wales.
Marletta r 1947 6-Metre designed by David Boyd. Now named 'Belanea', and based in Switzerland - Still racing.
Thistle r 1947 6-Metre designed by David Boyd. Based at Hamble. Raced in the Metre Centenary Regatta Cowes 2007.
Loch Long (s) r 1949 A total of 27 Loch Longs (21ft) were built by Robertsons between 1949 and 1966, over 20 of which are still racing.
Sarah Tilson m 1950 46 ft (14 m) Watson Lifeboat. At Medway Bridge, Rochester, undergoing restoration.
W M Tilson m 1950 46 ft (14 m) Watson Lifeboat. Awaiting restoration in Comber, Ulster.
Taiseer V c 1953 39 ft (12 m) Auxiliary Sloop designed by C A Nicholson. Believed to have been sailing recently.
RAF 1382, now Anglian Volunteer m 1956 63 ft (19 m) Royal Air Force General Service Mk 1 Pinnace. Used as a training vessel by the Maritime Volunteer Service, Harwich, March 2007.
Lone Fox c 1957 64 ft (20 m) Ketch designed by R Clark for Colonel Whitbread. On charter out of St Barth's - Races regularly in the Caribbean Classic series.
Sceptre r 1957 12-Metre David Boyd design. Owned by the Sceptre Preservation Society, and based at Cowes, still racing. Back in home waters on the Clyde in 2009.
Greylag c 1962 38 ft (12 m) Auxiliary Bermudan Sloop designed by David Boyd for Colonel Whitbread (wee sister of Lone Fox). Currently based at Crinan.
Sovereign r 1963 12-Metre David Boyd design. Based at the Yacht Club de Cannes, still racing.
Kurrewa V (later Ikra) r 1963 12-Metre David Boyd design. Based at the Yacht Club de San Tropez, still racing.
Sunburst r,c 1967 8-Metre David Boyd design. Last wooden yacht built at Robertson's Yard. Raced at Cowes 2007.

Key : c = cruising yacht, r = racing yacht, m = motor boat

Yachting History - Emergence of the Clyde

This section provides a brief history of yachting in the UK and attempts to put the emergence of the Clyde and the story of Robertson's Yard in context.

During the early part of the 17th century sailing for ‘private pleasure’ began in the Netherlands. However, it was only after King Charles II of England returned from exile in the Netherlands in 1660, and was presented with a yacht named Mary, did sailing begin on the Thames. Prior to this time the word ‘yacht’ was completely unknown in England. The first yacht race, which was patronised by the royal court, took place on the Thames in 1662. It is believed that due to Royal connections, private sailing started to become popular in Cork during the late 17th century. The first yacht club in the world, ‘The Water Club of the Harbour of Cork’, was established in 1720. This famous club was subsequently reformed and went on to become the Royal Cork Yacht Club in 1831 [6].

In the 18th century yachting in Britain was a very much an exclusive sport enjoyed only by the very rich, aristocrats and Royalty. From the middle to the end of the 18th century some races took place, but yachting developed very slowly.

During the 19th century yachting became a much less exclusive sport. Although there were only a few yachts over 35 tons at the start of the century, the British yacht fleet increased dramatically from around 50 in 1812, to 500 in 1850 and 2,200 by 1902.

The first yacht club in England was formed out of the Cumberland Society fleet in 1775 and went on to become the Royal Thames Yacht Club in 1830. The Yacht Club of Cowes was founded in 1815, which became the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1833. Regular weekly races were being organised at Cowes from 1826. Although yachting started on the Thames, the Solent became a much more popular venue by the middle of the 19th century. The first American yacht arrived in Cowes in 1851, which heralded the start of sailing as an international sport, and was a precursor to the America's Cup.

The first yacht club on the Clyde was the Northern Yacht Club, which appeared in 1824 and received its Royal Warrant in 1831. The club was founded to organise and encourage the sport, and by 1825 Scottish and Irish clubs were racing against each other on the Clyde. However, it was not until 1856 and the foundation of the Clyde Model Yacht Club (which later became the Royal Clyde Yacht Club) that regular weekly races took place. The Royal Yacht Club became a driving force of Clyde yachting, as three leading designers: William Fife III, George Lennox Watson and Alfred Mylne were among their members. The two senior clubs on the Clyde, the Royal Northern and the Royal Clyde, were amalgamated in 1978 to become the Royal Northern & Clyde Yacht Club.

The first recorded Clyde racing yacht, a 46-ton cutter, was built by Scotts of Greenock in 1803 [2]. Scottish yacht designer William Fife started designing yachts as early as 1807, but his first large yacht Lamlash, a 50 ton yawl, was not completed until 1812. This was the first Scottish yacht to cruise in the Mediterranean.

The rapid growth of Glasgow as an industrial city at the beginning of the 19th century was a direct result of an early project to deepen the Clyde, which was completed in 1812. The Industrial Revolution and growing overseas trade brought great wealth to the region. Many wealthy industrialists bought houses along the coast, away from all the pollution of the big cities, and developed a great passion for yachting.

However, yacht building and yachting didn’t really take off on the Clyde until the middle of the 19th century. During the 1850s’ the new sailing clubs were very active and William Fife & Sons dramatically increased the rate of building yachts at Fairlie from 2 to 5 per year. During the 1860s’ the yard had become well established and building increased from 5 to 9 yachts every year. By the end of the century a series of yachts had been designed specifically for sailing on the Clyde: 17/19; 19/24; 30 foot restricted.

The creation of the International Yacht Racing Union and the International Rule in 1907 provided a big boost to yacht building in the early part of the 20th century, and prior to World War I, the British yachting fleet had grown to around 3,900. The emergence of a group of talented Clyde yacht designers such as William Fife III, George Lennox Watson, Alfred Mylne, James McGruer and David Boyd in the first half of the 20th century firmly established the pre-eminent position of Clyde yachts on the high seas. The River Clyde became, like Cowes and Kiel, a centre for yachting.

Robertson's Yard Time Line - Key Events

The table provides a time line for key events in the history of the yard.

Year Key Events
1851 Alexander Robertson born in Inverkip.
1858 The family moves to set up the new Post Office in Sandbank.
1875 Alexander's father dies.
1876 'Robertson & Kerr Boat Builders & Carpenters' partnership formed.
1878 Partnership dissolved, but Alexander continued on his own.
1879 Bought the larger 'Distillery Site'.
1887 Initial development phase of the new yard site completed. The business was expanding, with 47 boats based (wintered) at the yard.
1889 Proper boat numbering system started (No 1 Cowal Lass).
1893 The new slipway was completed late in the year. The first large boat (greater than 25 ft (7.6 m) ) was launched in 1895; Valda a 44 ft (13 m) cutter.
1898 First large steam powered boat, the 59 ft (18 m) Wooden Screw-driven Schooner, Ernani.
1901 Alexander starts buying shore property in Sandbank to stop other boat yards being built.
1905 First motor boat, and tender built (SY Nahma).
1906 Start of exports. Scottie, a special 35 ft (11 m) Mylne designed yacht was exported to Germany to race in the Baltic.
1907 Alexander bought a considerable portion of ground on the Kilmun shore, across the Holy Loch, to stop other boat yards being built.
1907 Start of the big classic racing yachts, first 15-Metre designed by W Fife III (Shimna).
1907 One of first 12-Metres in UK to be classed under' First International Rules' (Heatherbell).
1911 First naval order, from John Brown & Co (HMAS Australia).
1922 Alexander Robertson & Sons (Yachtbuilders) Ltd Sandbank, formally structured.
1929 Designer David Boyd left Fife's of Fairlie to begin work at the yard.
1934 Start of lifeboats for the RNLI (Charlotte Elizabeth).
1937 Death of Alexander Robertson, age 86.
1939 Beginning of the fast Fairmile ML/MGB/MTBs for World War II.
1949 First of one-design Loch Longs (Thistle) built at the yard.
1957 Earliest of the modern 12-Metre racing yachts (Sceptre).
1963 Last of the big wooden yachts 12-Metre (Kurrewa V).
1965 Robertson family sold the business.
1966 Sandpiper designed by David Boyd, wooden prototype for the GRP Pipers.
1967 Last wooden boat built at the yard, D Boyd designed 8-Metre (Sunburst).
1967 First GRP Piper fitted-out (Stormpiper).
1973 GRP shed operational.
1974 Earliest Etchell 22 built in the UK.
1976 First GRP cruiser built, Comfort 30 (Casual Comfort).
1980 Yard went into liquidation.
1993 Lower Yard sold to Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
2003 Upper Yard sold for housing development.
2009 Lower Yard site being incorporated in the Holy Loch Marina expansion programme.


  1. 'Robertson's Boat Yard 1876-1980', by David Hutchison, Classic Boat Magazine, June 2008, [7]
  2. Robertson's Yard Boat Database, currently under development, contact for further details or with contributions.
  3. Lloyd's Register of Yachts: register of yachts 1878-1980; historical research service.
  4. 'The Yachtsman', yachting magazine, 1891-1915.
  5. National Library of Scotland (NLS), newspapers and company archives, [8]
  6. Argyll & Bute Library HQ, Sandbank, Argyll, Scotland. Local studies, history and research.
  7. Lifeboat information, RNLI Heritage Trust, [9]
  8. History of the Pipers, Piper One Design website, [10]
  9. History of the Loch Longs, 'Loch Longs, the first fifty years', by John McMurtie, ISBN 1 869850 03 3
  10. RAF marine craft research, Terry Holthan co-author of RAF Marine Craft Directories.
  11. History of the Robertson built Fairmile MLs/MGBs/MTBs, World Naval Ships Forums website [11]
  12. 'Fast and Bonnie - A History of William Fife & Son Yachtbuilders', by May Fife McCallum, 2002.
  13. 'Sandbank War and Peace – a Scottish Village 1914-1948', by Ann Galliard 2005, Argyll Publishing [12]
  14. 'Sandbank… Our Village', produced and published by Sandbank Community Council, 1996.
  15. 'Sandbank - Life and Times of the Village by the Holy Loch', by Ann Galliard 2009.
  16. 'Centenary of Sandbank Yachtbuilding 1876-1976', The Cowal Watchman special centenary edition, December 1976.
  17. 'Fond Memories of a Bygone Age', article about the closure of the yard, Dunoon Observer & Argyllshire Standard, 20 Feb 1993.
  18. Robertson's Yard display board at the Castle House Museum, Dunoon. [13]
  19. Robertson family private archives.

External links

  1. Bishop Marine Art - Jeano racing at Cowes
  2. [1]