Burns and Laird - Times Past

In partnership with the Glasgow Times​, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Nerys Tunnicliffe writes about Burns & Laird.

With their distinctive red, white, and black coloured funnels, the ships of the Burns & Laird fleet were once a familiar sight at Glasgow’s Broomielaw. The ‘Derry’ (or ‘Scotch’) boats, such as the Lairds Loch, operated between Glasgow to Derry up until 1966, regularly transporting passengers, cattle, and other cargo.


The travel experience wasn’t always first class, as passengers were sometimes overcrowded on uncomfortable wooden seating amongst smells lingering from the cattle previously unloaded at Merklands! However, the firm’s services were important for trade, holidaymakers and played a significant role in migration between Scotland and Ireland. The fleet also covered services to other ports including Belfast, and the company’s offices were based on Robertson Street.


Burns & Laird was established in 1922, following a merger of two companies, G & J Burns and Laird Line. Both companies were pioneers of passenger and trade routes between Scotland and Ireland, with roots in early steam travel.

Glasgow produce merchants George and James Burns branched out into shipping when they launched a passenger steamer service between Glasgow and Ayr around 1821. Services to Liverpool and Belfast soon followed. They were also involved with the Cunard Steam Ship Company which won the profitable contract to carry the transatlantic mail.

From 1822 Alexander Laird worked as an agent for several shipping lines including the St George Steam Packet Company which provided services to ports on the west coast of Scotland, England, and Ireland. His son, also Alexander, set up Alexander A Laird & Co in 1873, which later became Laird Line Ltd.

Perhaps more overlooked is the role the Burns & Laird fleet played in WW2. After being requisitioned by the navy, the motor liners Royal Ulsterman and Royal Scotsman were active in most of the Allied sea borne landings. For one campaign in 1944, the Royal Scotsman was used as the headquarters ship carrying Winston Churchill and his commanders on board. Another company vessel, the Lairds Isle, was among the first vessels to arrive at the Normandy beaches during D Day.

Despite providing Scottish and Irish travel for almost 150 years, the firm struggled in the 1960’s unable to adapt and compete with other services which catered for increasing car travel and eventually was taken over by P & 0 in 1971.


However, the memory of the firm and its fleet is still preserved in collection that we’re very fortunate to hold here at Glasgow City Archives that includes ships logs recording voyages and crew, photographs, company minutes and a wealth of eye-catching advertising material. ​​​

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