I am part of the diaspora of the Tough family. In various spellings and pronunciations, the name comes reputedly from Norman knights called De Touche who fought alongside William the Conqueror. The name may have been given to the knights by their English opponents – one source suggests it comes from an Old English word “toh,” meaning “vigorous, steadfast or stubborn.” I’m proud to be toh.
By the fourteenth century their descendants had settled in the northeast of Scotland around Aberdeen. It was there, at Kirkton of Tough, that Aberdeen Angus beef cattle were first raised. Through time my ancestors began to spread southwards in search of work, and my own direct line echoes the experience of working men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Kirkton of Tough, near Alford, Aberdeenshire
First they became tenant farmers in the fertile plains of Stirlingshire. Later they adopted the new technologies of the industrial revolution, becoming roadside blacksmiths, enginemen and ironworkers. As education spread among the working classes, so my great grandfather John Scott Tough became a clerk in the ironworks instead of a manual worker. And his son Jack became a doctor, a pioneering plastic surgeon.
Other branches of my Tough ancestry acquired new trades. The family of the surgeon’s cousins moved into the city of Glasgow and pursued a related career, as butchers! Residents of Clydebank still remember the slogan over the shop door on Kilbowie Road – “If it’s Tough’s, it’s Tender!” And of course they sold Aberdeen Angus beef.
Tough’s the butcher was on Kilbowie Road in Clydebank near the Singer railway station (which is on the left in this 1930s view) – perhaps it was that striped awning on the right
Tough is a great name for a slogan in some businesses, perhaps not others. The butcher turned it to his advantage; and for Alexander Tough & Co, of the Clyde Ropeworks in Greenock (opposite Clydebank across the River Clyde) it should have been a positive boon to its advertising. In fact the family firm, founded by Alexander Tough in 1796, seems only to have woken up to the fact in 1961, the year they changed their name to Tough Ropes.
By the time Tough Ropes closed down in 1979, it was the last firm in Scotland making ropes for marine and land-based industry. It remained in Tough family ownership throughout its 183 year history, surviving and adapting to the changing demands of the shipping world. In its lifetime it saw high-rigged sailing ships vanish in favour of steam; coastal shipping decline with the advent of trains and motor cars; hemp give way to nylon; and wars once fought by navies being conducted by air forces.
Clyde Ropeworks were one of several along the Clyde estuary which grew to serve the ship-building industry there – these ones were at neighbouring Gourock
The Second World War was perhaps its finest hour. By then Alexander Tough’s great great grandson George Hughes Tough was at the helm. The demand for naval rope was at its highest, while the supply of raw materials from the Far East was disrupted. The Clyde estuary was a frequent target of German air raids and both Greenock and Clydebank suffered enormously from blitz bombardment. The Clyde Ropeworks were themselves damaged in May 1941 (and elsewhere their London office and their Cardiff stores were completely destroyed). But within two days they were back in production, using substitute materials when imported ones were no longer available and – their justifiably proud boast – meeting every order placed with them, with not a single coil of rope rejected. Toh indeed!