THEY were the pride of the Clyde, fabulous, floating palaces which welcomed the rich and famous and played a vital role in the war.

The Cunard liners, of which 16 were built by John Brown and Company in Clydebank between 1899 and 1967, were some of the most luxurious cruise ships of the 20th century and they are being celebrated in a summer exhibition at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine.

Style at Sea, which runs until September 25, tells how the magnificent Clyde-built Cunard ships evolved from immigrant passenger boats to magnets for Hollywood glamour and royalty.

The exhibition in the Museum’s vast Linthouse building on the Harbourside includes the story of the Lusitania, which was considered the pride of the British liner fleet when she launched in 1906; the Queen Mary, one of the most iconic Clyde-built ships; and her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth, which symbolised the height of the liner age.

Winston Churchill was convinced that the great liners Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Aquitania, which were pressed into service as troop carriers, shortened the Second World War by at least a year. Their speed allowed them to outrun both German submarines and their torpedoes.

As well as a football pitch sized area for deck games, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and theatres, the Queen Mary was the first ship with a shopping centre. The centre included 24 shops from jewellers and tobacconists to high-end clothing shops.

When the QE2 launched on September 20, 1967, she marked the end of an era as it brought the relationship between the ocean liner and the dockyards of the Clyde to an end.

The advertising ran simply: “The only thing QE2 has in common with other ships is that she floats. The only thing she has in common with other great Cunarders is a legend called service.”

No expense was spared in creating the opulent lifestyle onboard. By the 1980s, Cunard claimed that it would take a passenger four months to experience all the QE2 had to offer.

In a single year, the QE2 left dock laden with 20 tonnes of strawberries, 11 tonnes of smoked salmon, a tonne of caviar, and 73,000 bottles of champagne.....

The Style at Sea exhibition also offers visitors a rare opportunity to view fascinating menus and invitations from the early days plus the famous QE2 Ward Room Book, which was signed by those dining with the Captain. The who’s who, which is part of the Museum’s nationally important maritime heritage collection, includes the signatures of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Gracie Fields, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Nelson Mandela amongst others.

On show too are fabulous outfits reminiscent of those worn onboard, courtesy of The Museum of Ayrshire Country Life and Costume at Dalgarven Mill.

Chris Walker, Events and Exhibitions Officer at the Scottish Maritime Museum adds: “It’s hard to believe that when Cunard launched in 1840, passengers like Charles Dickens washed their own plates and took their fresh milk from a live cow hung above the deck by a system of ropes!

“Then, of course, the company was known as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company and their focus was on the reliable delivery of post.

“Style at Sea charts the fascinating journey of the Cunard Line which, working with John Brown and Company, overcame the challenges of two world wars and the Great Depression to launch luxury cruising which is so popular today.”

To enjoy a taste of life on board a Cunard liner, join in with the Festival of Museums events on May 20. There will be a family fun day from 11am until 3pm and from 7.30pm until 10.30pm, A Night of Cocktails, Dancing and Glamour. Dance the night away to the tunes of Eliot Murray and his band, enjoy stylish cocktails, jive with Fly Right Dance, get glamorous with Pin Up Vintage Hair and Make Up and capture the evening in the Bygone Photobooth.

Tickets for the evening event cost £15. Call 01294 278283 for more information.