Scotsman Obituaries: Sandy Stephen, Scottish shipbuilder and yachtsman


Sandy Stephen was the seventh generation and last survivor of the shipbuilding dynasty to run Alexander Stephen and Sons Ltd, at Linthouse on the Clyde. Having experienced the trauma of the decline of the shipbuilding industry he was determined to preserve its history for posterity. Always seeing the positives in life, he faced personal tragedy with outstanding fortitude and resilience.

In his book Stephen of Linthouse, written in 2015, Sandy charted the decline of the Stephen’s yard with candour and humour. He appeared on television in Scotland’s Story, All our Working Days and The Men who built the Liners, and gave insightful lectures on the shipbuilding industry.

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Born in Glagow, Sandy was the second son of Sir Alexander Murray Stephen and his wife Kathrene Paton Michell. In 1930 the family moved to Cleuchearn Lodge in Lanarkshire where Sandy spent his early years before being educated at Cargilfield and later Rugby School, where he enjoyed playing the trumpet.

Sandy Stephen loved the sea all his life

After a brief spell in the navy, he went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1948, gaining a Mechanical Sciences Tripos degree. As a second son, Sandy was given a choice of career but decided to join the family firm, ignoring warnings from his father that life as a shipbuilder would bring him nothing but trouble! After gaining experience in other yards, and at sea with the Anchor Line, he joined Linthouse as a junior manager in 1953. At that time the company had been building ships for more than 200 years.

In 1750 Sandy’s forebears had begun building boats at Burghead and started yards at Aberdeen, Arbroath and Dundee. It was Sandy’s great grandfather and namesake Alexander Stephen who transferred the business from Dundee to build iron ships on the Clyde at Kelvinhaugh in 1850 and finally, in 1870, moving to Linthouse on the Clyde, where the new yard was laid out with meticulous planning and foresight. By the late 1880s Stephen of Linthouse was one of the most productive yards on the Clyde but by 1953 it was a medium-sized yard employing around 4,000 people with an excellent reputation for meeting clients’ requirements in building ships for varied service across the globe.

It was as sales director that Sandy tried to achieve sales in a shrinking market. Air travel was expanding, and the company was facing fierce competition from abroad. The directors’ considered their options but their attempts at modernisation caused crippling labour disputes among the many trade union bodies involved and post war the cost of materials was rising. The yard could not continue and in 1968, by which time Sandy was managing director, it was incorporated into Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which went into liquidation three years later. The engineering and ship repair business continued until 1978.

These were hard times for everyone involved in shipbuilding and Sandy was deeply concerned about the effect of the yard’s closure on the employees. Sandy supported the creation of the Preshal Trust, providing aid and activities for people in need in the Govan and Linthouse areas.

Sandy retained a connection to his shipbuilding heritage. He was a member of the Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, becoming president in 1983-85, and was a trustee of the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, where he was instrumental in moving the famous engine shop from Linthouse to Irvine and recreating it for future generations. Following in the family tradition he was on the Mastercourt of the Hammermen, in the Glasgow Trades House, being deacon in 1977-78.

After 1968 Sandy took on other business interests, including becoming a director of Murray International Investment Trust and Scottish Widows. He founded Polymer Scotland, a small civil engineering business, in 1972, which he successfully ran until his retirement in 1992.

Sandy was a gifted sportsman, but it was his skill as a yachtsman for which he will be most remembered. He was renowned for his success in Dragon class races and in 1968 his yacht Sou’wester came fifth in the Olympic Trials. As recognition of his contribution to yachting he was elected a member of the Mudhook yacht club in 1965, eventually becoming Admiral in 1984-89. He was a Rear Commodore of the Royal Northern Yacht Club and served on the council of the Royal Yachting Association.

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Sandy was a Patron of Scottish Opera and aided several charities, serving as honorary treasurer of the West and Central Scotland Region of Riding for the Disabled. He was a governor of Glasgow School of Art, raised funds for the RNLI, was an elder of Balfron kirk and served on the Sons of the Rock in Stirling.

Sandy moved his family from Renfrewshire to Balfron, Stirlingshire, purchasing Ballindalloch, a large baronial house, in 1976. Using his skills as a naval architect he demolished 25 rooms and created a more manageable house with beautiful gardens which he used frequently to raise funds for Scotland’s Garden Scheme.

Throughout his life Sandy’s ability to cope with adversity was extraordinary. At separate times, he and his wife Sue Thomson, whom he wed in 1954, faced the unexpected cruel loss of three daughters. He survived major cancer surgery in 1998, outliving his prognosis by more than two decades.

Sandy leaves a unique perspective on the Clyde Shipbuilding and a lasting testimony on how to successfully weather the relentless storms of life and seize each God-given day.

He is survived by his wife Sue, their son, three granddaughters and a great grandson.


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