THERE was the knicker-knocker from Duntocher, a card-sharp named Wild Bill Hickok, and Irish Pat, the burner with a fondness for a sneaky swally.

For poet and writer Brian Whittingham, a former apprentice boilermaker in the old shipbuilding yards on the Clyde, there was never any shortage of characters. DEAD MAN'S HAND Wild Bill Hickok, the welders' shop steward, told of how he was shot from behind while playing poker in Deadwood.

My two pair of eights and aces became known as "dead man's hand",' he told his fellow boilermakers.

In the funnel-shop he'd wear his bootlace-tie and black shirt under his droopy Wild Bill moustache.

And with his ceegar stuck to his bottom lip, he'd spin a two-and-a-half-pound hammer round his extended forefinger, cock the trigger by brushing the palm of his other hand over the hammer's ball-peen, and once he'd shot yet another foreman in the back, he'd blow imaginary smoke from the end of his gun barrel hammer shaft.

When welding, he would be showered by crackling sparks enveloping his masked head filled with Grand Ole Opry dreams of cowgirls, hoedowns and Colt .45s.

And of his trusty steed Trigger that he rode on the Loch Lomond hills on the rare occasion he had a weekend off.

Now Brian has brought his work experiences back to life in a new collection of poetry.

Bunnets n' Bowlers: A Clydeside Odyssey is a vivid account of the rich and varied life in the yards. The collection of 43 poems is published next month.

It is a highly personal account of the noise, the banter and the colourful characters the teenage apprentice encountered during his five years at John Brown's in Clydebank.

Reading Brian's poems, it's clear there was an abundance of characters', many of whom appear in this collection.

For Brian, an accomplished writer who has previously published five poetry collections, life in the yard was a rich seem of inspiration.

"You can't forget these people," says the 58-year-old.

"I remember there was a guy who used to give people haircuts. You would be sitting on the factory floor and he'd put an old towel round you, but if a foreman came round... you'd be sitting there alone with a pile of hair at your feet.

"There was another guy who was a ballroom dancer and used to come in with his bow tie on and go on to the Plaza for the early morning foxtrot.

"But because he came in all dickie bowed-up, he wouldn't do any work that afternoon, but he'd show you how to dance and would waltz between the toolboxes.

"You never learned much of your trade from him but your pasa doble was brilliant at the end of the four years."

As a 15-year-old, straight out of school in 1965, Brian, who was living in Drumchapel, spent a year working as an office boy before beginning a four-year boilermaker apprenticeship, most of which was spent working on the iconic liner, the QE2.

"When you're young and your everyday work is walking underneath a liner, it's quite a spectacular thing.

"I was a young man who wasn't aware of much in the world and I never had any inkling the QE2 was such a big deal."

However, 40 years on from the QE2's launch day in September 1967, Brian and the great liner met again when it briefly docked in Greenock in 2007.

"At 2.28pm on September 20, 1967, when it was launched, I was there as a 17-year-old," Brian recalls.

"Forty years later, at 2.28pm, I was sitting in the Mauritania restaurant on board the QE2 with my son Craig getting served by a white-gloved waiter.

"I'd never been on board as a non-worker." Swiss Watches and the Ballroom Dancer Wild Bill Hickok, The ballroom dancer always wore a white shirt under clean overalls.

He kept his bow tie for out of work. In the boiler-shop he waved his oxyacetylene heating torch like a magic wand the blue flame whooshing over the edge of the upturned metal cone.

He hammered the red-hot metal with his wooden mallet that made him look like Thor, the god of thunder.

His flared edges had a professional finish - no dents.

Gunner, he was on the same job, didn't particularly care if he deformed the metal's edge, if he dented it or scraped it as he battered it with his ball-peen hammer. His flared edges were patterned with gashes and dents.

He thinks we're making Swiss watches' shouted Gunner into the air as he observed the ballroom dancer who cocked his left eye, then demonstrated to his apprentice, by gliding between two toolboxes, how he would slide a leg into his partner's groin when doing the Paso Doble. King Rat Jazz was a hole-borer that knew the last time the favourite in the 2:30 at Musselburgh had had a shite and spent most of his time studying form in the cludgie or putting on lines with Walter, the store-man bookie.

Jazz reckoned he was a semi-professional gambler. Jazz worked all the hours God sent.

Merr hours than the rats,' was his catchphrase.

His favourite song? Two nights and a Sunday,' and when there was an all-nighter on the go at double time, his grin would spread from ear to ear as he laid out his flattened cardboard boxes for his bed and his rolled-up jumper for his pillow opposite the girlie pics pinned to the sheet of plywood that would be his headboard.

A home from home,' he'd call it, as his mind's eye imagined seeing next week's wage-slip with his eyeballs rolling round like a fruit machine just about to hit the jackpot. The Shoogly Peg The md stood high on the gantry like Caesar addressing his legions and spoke solemnly to the massed boilermakers below.

Regretfully, the present economic climate has necessitated management having to establish an initiative objective.'

This will result in a centralised refocused streamlining of personnel infrastructure allied with an integrated resource forward planning schedule based on the company's global proactive synergy concept.'

And as he plundered his buzzword phrase book a wizened journeyman noticed the puzzled look on a younger colleague's face.

It's like this son yir jaiket's oan a shoogly peg.' The Three Queens In the display case sit three queens.

Large scale models that will never see large scale oceans.

They have ... no buzz of passengers' cheering cheerios, no blasting horns piercing sea-salt air, no fluttering flags waving at winds, no propellers churning gloomy depths, or screeching gulls wheeling for tit-bits discarded by the well-heeled.

Instead their deserted decks tower above placards with chalked legend

Queen Mary (Hull 534) A ghost ship eventually completed by depression-hit, cloth-capped artisans. A 30s' symbol of hope for the hopeless?

Queen Elizabeth (Hull 552) A sister to meet the demand of the 40's of weekly Atlantic crossings by the likes of Churchill, Chaplin and Crosby.

Queen Elizabeth 2 (Hull 736) The final Clyde-built liner destined for a Caribbean old-age due to the new fangled jet-planes of the 60s.

And all are surrounded by appropriate memorabilia ...

Faded launch cards at 15 shillings a seat. Cunard books of matches. Engraved crystal goblets. A propelling-pencil purchased on ship.

And, once held by Queens Mary and Elizabeth, a set of silver-handled scissors decorated with silver seahorses no longer cutting silky ribbons, releasing bottles of bubbly to smash against hulls, their champagne froth dripping on to the greased slipways below.

Writing came late to Brian, who eventually went on to become a draughtsman. He first picked up a pen to write when he was 36.

"I tried everything else and I was pretty poor at it," says Brian, who is now a tutor, teacher and lecturer.

His next writing project is a feature film script, The Dark Island, about a boy from Benbecula who ends up in a Glasgow version of Boyzone before returning, older and wiser, to the island that is his home.

Brian first became interested in writing when he attended a writers' group in Paisley over 20 years ago.

"I've always been a reader, when I was very young it was comics and annuals. I always remember the first book I got, Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. I won it as a prize for attendance at Sunday school. It was the first novel I ever read.

"I also wrote poetry at the group and that was totally new to me. I didn't have a clue what they were going on about but I became curious. I wrote a poem called The Apprentice, which popped out of nowhere, and for the last 20 years I've been writing on and off about the yards."

Life in the shipyard was, says Brian, a life-changing experience.

However, it was rarely a happy one.

"One week your mum's giving you play pieces for school, a couple of months later you're in this big shed with noise levels you can only listen to for five minutes before your hearing gets damaged.

"And you're working with men who are half-cut and asking about your sex life.

"It was like hell. After a fortnight I wanted to run away, I hated it.

"It was freezing, very dangerous - health and safety was non-existent. I never loved it."

The impression left on Brian by five years in John Brown's was a deep one.

It seemed logical, he says, that his latest collection of poetry should focus on those pivotal years of his life.

"It's a way of life that doesn't exist any more and it strikes me that an awful lot of paintings or writings are just social documentaries," he adds.

"One of my big regrets is never taking my Box Brownie camera into the shipyards; there would have been some cracking pictures."

The title of this latest anthology, Bunnets n Bowlers, is a reference not only to the headwear worn in the yards but also the social standing they represented.

"Everybody but everybody wore a bunnet, primarily to keep their heads clean and to keep them warm because you were right beside the Clyde.

The foremen and the managers wore bowlers. They claim one of the reasons was because when they walked past riveters, the riveters would accidentally on purpose' drop rivets on top of their heads.

"But it was also a warning - if you saw a bowler hat coming you knew you had to look busy.

"What a lot of people would do is just look busy - they'd pick up a piece of metal and start hammering.

"When the foreman walked past they'd just throw it back in the scrap bin." Bunnets 'n' Bowlers: A Clydeside Odyssey by Brian Whittingham (£8.99, Luath Press)