Glasgow's maritime history is glorious. Get in touch with it by going for a steam up the Clyde
If a city's Maritime museum is a fair reflection of its nautical past, then Glasgow should have a vast mausoleum dedicated to the industry that built some 30,000 vessels in the shipyards that lined the banks of river Clyde. Yet Glasgow's acknowledgements of an industry responsible for such graceful craft as the Royal Yacht Britannia seem rather fragmented.

The Clyde Room in the Transport Museum houses a fine collection of model ships; the shipyard workers' story forms part of a wider social history of Glaswegian life in the People's Palace; and the full-size exhibits are located 35 miles away in the Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine. Visitors seeking a more ship-shape viewpoint should turn to the river itself, and step on board the paddle steamer, Waverley.

More museum-piece than museum, a cruise on the Waverley offers a concise insight into Glasgow's maritime heritage, and is perhaps the most appropriate way to explore the Clyde. Last month, as the Waverley celebrated her Golden Jubilee, I joined a party of well-behaved local schoolchildren and a rabble of rowdy pensioners for a day cruise to Bute Island with time ashore.

As with all cruise departures, there was a flurry of waving and a jubilant cheer as we slipped away from Anderston Quay. To visiting eyes, the sight of one or two huge ships taking shape, and the hefty silhouette of shipyard architecture lining the river banks clearly suggest a working river. But it's not long before you notice an overwhelming stillness. For all this industrial presence, there is very little activity - even the dark, oily water is quiet.

At its peak, a century ago, this part of the river was alive with the sights and sounds of thousands of men fashioning a quarter of the world's ships. Today there are just a handful of yards still in operation. The Waverley sails at a respectfully sombre pace through this redundant landscape, and although the commentary is keen to point out one such working shipyard owned by Marconi Marine YSL, your gaze is often directed to points of interest that are no longer there. Included among these is the former site of the A & J Inglis shipyard, where the Waverley was built in 1946.

The ship itself had looked set to become just another statistic of Glasgow's past when she was made redundant after a quarter of a century of ferrying commuters and day-trippers between Glasgow and the Firth of Clyde. Fortunately, her reprieve came when she was purchased for the bargain price of just pounds 1 by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, which has lovingly restored her, and today charges pounds 15.95 for full day's cruise on "the world's last ocean-going paddle steamer".

Glasgow's sprawling environs eventually peter out, the river broadens, and green prevails. While this scenery might lack the drama of larger topographical undulations further north, it's idyllic in comparison to Glasgow's industrialised banks back upstream. Soothed by a vista of verdant hills, passengers soon settle into the cruise lifestyle, gazing out across the water.

The outward journey takes around three hours, so there's ample time to explore the ship and talk to the cheerful crew who are always willing to recount a short history of the Waverley and her travels. Below decks you can gaze at the hypnotic motion of the engineering wonder that turns the paddles, get a bite to eat in the restaurant, or a drink from the bar.

As lunchtime approached, most people were busying themselves with the latter, and the mood among the passengers began to resemble that of a vivacious annual outing. A hearty sing-song broke out at the stern, while amidships two musicians began squeezing tunes from accordions, prompting a group of sprightly ladies to throw themselves into a jig between the funnels.

Rounding Kempock Point, the Isle of Bute appeared in the distance, its modest dimensions outlined by the dark brooding mountains on Arran. With our destination in sight, the singing reached a crescendo with 50-strong renditions of such misplaced hits as "By the Rivers of Babylon", complete with harmonies from a trio of silver-haired ladies leaning over the upper deck.

The more traditional tone of the bagpipes welcomed us as we filed down the gangplank at Rothesay. Round trips to Bute Island allow only an hour or so ashore, leaving just enough time to have a quick nose around the shops and cafes along the seafront, fill your bladder with a pot of strong tea and then empty it in the magnificent gents' public toilet.

That I have chosen to highlight Rothesay's lavatorial excellence is no reflection of the town's other attractions. Indeed, the moated castle, beautiful sheltered location and faded air of Victorian grandeur make it a thoroughly agreeable place to spend a day or two. But for those just passing through, so to speak, it is the toilets that you will remember from your visit. Praised by Lucinda Lambton (author of Temples of Convenience, a history of the lavatory) as "the most beautiful toilets in the world ... jewels in the sanitarian's crown", the ornate tiled interior and lavish original fittings combine in a symphony of Victorian porcelain. They are also possibly the only gents' toilets in the world that offer scheduled viewing times for ladies.

Back on board for the return trip, the weather closed in and the Firth of Clyde disappeared in a veil of rain. Fortunately for passengers, the Waverley was built to cope with such Scottish inevitabilities and everyone headed below-deck to the bar, where the accordion players joined forces with the vocal pensioners and the party continued.


Traveller's Guide

Getting there: Fly from Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cardiff, East Midlands, Inverness, Leeds/ Bradford, London (Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and Stansted), Manchester or Southampton. Most flights arrive at Abbotsinch airport, eight miles west of the centre, from where a pounds 2.50 bus ride takes you to Buchanan Street. Some flights from Stansted and Belfast arrive at Prestwick, 30 miles south west; a train to Central station takes 45 minutes.

Train and bus services from all over Britain will get you there slower but cheaper; a "bargain fare" on GNER (0345 225 225) from London King's Cross costs pounds 36 return. Virgin Trains (0345 222111) has cheap fares from all over England.

The `Waverley': There are regular scheduled sailings from Glasgow down the Clyde during August and September, but the Waverley does not operate a daily service. You can, however, catch up with the Waverley and her sister ship the Balmoral all year in various waterways including the Forth and Tay; London and the Thames, the Kent and Essex coasts, the Solent, the south coast and Sussex, and the Bristol Channel. For a full timetable and further information, call 0141 2218152 or 01446 720656.

The more conventional Caledonian MacBrayne car and passenger ferries also operate in the Firth of Clyde, with some services stopping at the Isle of Bute (01475 650100 for details).

Greater Glasgow Tourist Board at 11 George Square (0141-204 4400) will kit you out with maps and information - including the "Charles Rennie Mackintosh Buildings Guide"