The era of the Clyde steamer in Scotland began in August 1812 with the very first successful commercial steamboat service in Europe, when Henry Bell's began a passenger service on the River Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock. The Firth of Clyde became immensely popular with holidaymakers, with over 300 Clyde Steamers operating by 1900, 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 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 , was built in 1901. Her successor, the of 1933, was a floating restaurant on the River Thames in London and is now awaiting restoration in Tilbury.
The , 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 still sails on Loch Katrine, while on Loch Lomond the is being restored.