IT began as something of a pipe dream for a local toolmaker while he was busy serving fish and chips out of the hatch of a side of a van in Clydebank.

Now, three decades on, McMonagle’s Boat – the world’s first (and only) sail-through fish and chip shop – continues to sail on as one of Scotland’s unique tourist attractions. 

The 'floating' fish and chip restaurant pays homage to Clydebank's special place in the history of Clyde shipbuilding. 

Docked on the Forth & Clyde Canal around half-a-mile from John Brown’s shipyard, the 100-ton vessel had to sail through rough waters before it even opened.

The original plans to resemble “a mini QE2” were quickly jettisoned after Cunard demanded £100,000 in return, while the finished boat, built in a Campbeltown shipyard, had to be cut into eight pieces to be carried over the last 400 yards to the canal where it was welded together again, at a cost of £20,000.

As its 30th anniversary approaches later this year, the man behind the venture, John McMonagle, reminisced about how his idea for a floating fish and chip shop became a reality.

He said: “There was probably a one in 100 chance of it happening when I started it. I had a fish and chip van. I was born 50 yards away from where the boat is on the banks of the canal. 

“Clydebank is famous for shipbuilding and we got this idea to build a ship and make it look like the QE2. That was the driving thing initially. I used to drive round the local area and visit the shopping centre and I always thought it would be cracking to have a mini-boat there that looked like the QE2.

“That was sort of the idea. It would have been a ‘wow’ factor. If you were going to build a kid-on car it would be a kid-on Rolls-Royce, you wouldn’t build a kid-on Ford Escort.

“It was amazingly challenging. My father-in-law, who worked as a labourer in Clydebank, remortgaged his house to the tune of £20,000 to help me. 

Clydebank Post: John McMonagle started the business nearly 30 years agoJohn McMonagle started the business nearly 30 years ago (Image: John McMonagle started the business nearly 30 years ago)

“He’d never seen two grand in his life never mind 20 grand. And he gave me £20,000 for an idea.

“When he did that, I knew there was nothing that was going to stop me. He saw the potential that I could get it done. That was absolutely the motivation.”

After receiving planning permission for the boat, Mr McMonagle said he was also granted permission for a drive-through, but decided to go one better and turn the boat – named the Debra Rose after his daughter – into the world’s first sail-through restaurant, cementing its status as a Scottish tourist attraction.

He said: “We are a boat and we are a sail-through. The only sail-through in the world. We got permission for a drive-through but that would have been pandemonium. But I said, ‘what about a sail-through?’ and that was it, we built a sail-through. Next thing we knew, we were a tourist attraction. When it opened, there was a line of boats queuing up.

“There was one time when two guys, who were steamin’, came up the canal in a paddling pool. You know, a paddling pool for kids? All the way from Dalmuir. Two miles they travelled along the canal. They came up to the boat. Steamin’. ‘Two fish suppers please’. That was brilliant.”

Mr McMonagle spent “the first 20 to 25 years” working on the boat with his wife before retiring and handing over the reins to his daughter and son-in-law. The continued secret of its success? 

To him, it’s as much the banter as it is the batter.

He said: “For the first 20 to 25 years, it was done by me and my wife. And then in the last five years, my daughter and her husband have taken it over and won awards. They’ve carried it on. 

“I could see that when I worked in a fish and chip van the banter you had with your customers was phenomenal. That sort of banter where you are choking laughing. 

Clydebank Post: Debbie Reilly and husband Chris now run McMonagle'sDebbie Reilly and husband Chris now run McMonagle's

“I’ve retired now for five years from the boat and yet I walk through the restaurant and stop by two or three tables and get talking. Today I could end up walking through the restaurant and I’d end up talking to two or three tables. It’s so approachable. You’re not interrupting anybody. The kids are there too. It’s such an amazing atmosphere. You can talk to folk about the history of the boat and about Clydebank and what football team you support or whatever.

“You’re always going to get someone that will say ‘my chips are freezing’, but you can see the popularity of it. People in Clydebank love it.They’ve embraced it amazingly well. Sometimes you think, ‘My God it’s just a chippy’. At the end of the day, we are a chippy. But we do brilliantly well. It’s a tourist attraction.”

The popularity of McMonagle’s Boat, as well as “a 100-year lease”, means it is unlikely to set sail from Clydebank anytime soon. Despite that, Mr McMonagle said plans are afoot to mark its 30th anniversary this year.

He added: “We need to do something [to celebrate]. Fireworks or something like that.

“It’s 30 years. And we’ve even had an extension built on the back of it because the original boat wasn’t big enough. People know this boat. And it’s a chippy.”