The 'Cutty Sark', built at Dumbarton on the Clyde, was launched on the 22nd of November, 1869.
The ‘Cutty Sark’ is one of the most famous ships in the world. It was built as a tea clipper and expressly designed to be the fastest ship in the annual race to bring home the first of the new season’s tea from China. It was also the last clipper to be built as a purely merchant vessel. It is the world’s sole surviving extreme clipper and as such, the ‘Cutty Sark’ is a wonderful example of the highest standard of fast, commercial, sailing ship design and development. The ‘Cutty Sark’ is claimed to be the only tea clipper still in existence, but there are two other clipper ships from the 19th Century, which still exist in part or in whole: the ‘City of Adelaide’ and the skeleton of the ‘Ambassador’, which lies near Punta Arenas in Chile. The ‘Cutty Sark’ was put on public display in 1954, in dry dock in Greenwich, however, on the 27th of May, 2007, it was badly damaged by fire while undergoing conservation. It is expected to reopen as a public attraction in 2011.
Most folks are interested in the name, which is decidedly unusual; that is, if you’re unfamiliar with the poems of Robert Burns. For the ship’s name derives indeed from in incident in one of Burns’ more famous poems – ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Burns’ poem itself derived from an old Scottish legend and vividly describes the experience of Farmer Tam on his way home from a market, having stopped for a wee dram on the way. Whether he had a dram just to wet his whistle or he had ane too many, you can make up your own mind. In any case, Burns’ Tam came across some witches cavorting round a bonfire in the churchyard at Kirk-Alloway, spurred on by ‘Auld Nick’ himsel’. One of the witches was a bonnie wee thing, dancing in “Her cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn”. Who could blame poor Tam when he “tint his reason a’ thegither” as the lithesome Nannie cavorted in the flannel shirt she’d worn since she was but a lassie. Of course, it was too small in length and mibbes a wee bit tight across the chest, and when the onlooker Tam cried out from the shadows “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” he had to ride for his life, pursued by the witches.
So a ‘sark’ is a shirt and ‘cutty’ just means it was gey short – so a ‘cutty sark’ is not an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. But ‘Cutty Sark’ is the name of the ship and Nannie, wearing her ain cutty sark, adorns the ship’s bow as its figurehead. Naebody kens why Jock Willis chose the name, supposedly suggested by Hercules Linton, the ship’s designer, but Willis named another one of his ships ‘Hallowe’en’ after the title of another of Burns’ poems, so he was probably a fan. It’s interesting to note that witches – allegedly – can’t cross running water, which is how Tam managed to escape across the River Doon, so that association makes it a bit of an odd name for a ship. On the other hand, if you think of a sleek, swiftly sailing tea clipper emerging silently from the fog in an old fashioned, black and white movie, the image does convey an air of magical mystery.
I’m sure Tam o’ Shanter would have liked to have tried a wee nip o’ another kind of Cutty Sark. On the 23rd of March, 1923, when the ‘Cutty Sark’ had just returned from many years trading and was much in the news, the proprietors of Berry Bros. & Rudd, together with Scottish artist James McBey, decided to create a new type of blended Scotch whisky, specifically for the international market. McBey, a keen sailor, was the man who suggested ‘Cutty Sark’ as an admirable name for the new whisky. The ‘Cutty Sark’ ship is also associated, in a novel manner, with Russia. Between 1942 and ’43, Ivan Yefremov, a Soviet writer and paleontologist, wrote a short story about the sailing ship, which was published in 1944.Yefremov was intrigued by the ship’s history and, when his story was translated into English, it is said to have influenced the decision to reconstruct and preserve the ‘Cutty Sark’ in dry dock at Greenwich.
The ‘Cutty Sark’ was built for John ‘Jock’ Willis, a seasoned sailing master who was better known as ‘White Hat Willis’, because of his white top hat. It was designed by Hercules Linton, a partner in the Dumbarton firm of Scott & Linton and it was built expressly to outsail the ‘Thermopylae’. That ship was also an extreme composite clipper built in 1868, also in Scotland and for the tea trade, by Walter Hood & Co. of Aberdeen. It was the ship to beat, having set a speed record of sixty-three days on its maiden voyage to Melbourne, which is still the fastest trip under sail. In 1872, these two fine vessels took part in a famous race from Shanghai to London, beginning on the 18th of June. The ship with the Greek name beat the ‘Cutty Sark’ by seven days, but only because the ship with the Scottish name had lost its rudder. Instead of putting into port for a replacement, the ‘Cutty Sark’ made it to London on the 18th of October with an improvised rudder and it was that achievement, with a makeshift rudder, which sealed its legendary reputation.
Thereafter, from 1882/3 onward, both ships took part in the Australian wool trade, and on that route, the ‘Cutty Sark’ proved the faster vessel, time after time. Under Captain Richard Woodget, the ‘Cutty Sark’ won the wool race ten years out of ten and beat the ‘Thermopylae’ every time it took part. The ‘Cutty Sark’ also posted Australia-to-Britain times as short as sixty-seven days and, on one occasion, out-sailed the fastest steamship there then was, RMS ‘Britannia’. The fastest run of any comparable ship, three hundred and sixty nautical miles in twenty-four hours at an average fifteen knots, was made by the ‘Cutty Sark’. The events in the ship’s history were recorded by Basil Lubbock in 1924, in ‘The Log of the Cutty Sark’ and Joseph Conrad wove some of its history into ‘The Secret Sharer’.
The ‘Cutty Sark’ made it first tea voyage to China in 1870 and brought its last consignment of tea to London in 1877. In the end, clippers lost out to steamships, which could deliver goods more reliably, if not quite so quickly. At one time, after it was sold in 1895, the ‘Cutty Sark’ was renamed the ‘Ferreira’ by its new Portuguese owners, but its crew referred to it as the ‘Pequena Camisola’, which translates as ‘little shirt’ – or ‘cutty sark’ – to which you may raise a glass of Cutty Sark and toast its namesake.