On 23rd November, 1869, at the Dumbarton yard of Scott and Linton, the 963 ton "Cutty Sark" slid into the Clyde for the first time to become a legend. She was a small ship, only 212 feet long, with a 36 feet beam and a depth of 21 feet, but with a large spread of sail, she was, with the "Thermopylae",the fastest ship that moved through water powered by sail alone.The sail plan, designed by John Rennie, gave her 32,000 square feet of sail capable of attaining a speed of over 17 knots, equivalent to an engine of 3,000 hp.

The ship was built for Scotsman Captain John Willis Jrn and the name was taken from the short chemise of Robbie Burns's witch Nannie who formed the subject of the figurehead carved by master craftsman, Robert Hellyer of Blackwall. The Cutty Sark was registered in London due to the fact that John Willis's father, also a sea captain, had settled there.

Old White Hat’ Willis’s ambition was to be first home in the annual tea race from China; his rival, the Thermopylae had been launched in 1868. Willis went to a young designer, Hercules Linton, who a recently gone into partnership on the Clyde with a man named Scott. The Cutty Sark was their first and last ship. Only the best labour and materials were to be used and the contract price was limited to ?16,150. At ?17 per ton Linton & Scott went bankrupt and the ship had to be finished by neighbours, Denny Bros. She was launched by Mrs George Moodie, wife of the first captain, and towed to Greenock for fitting out. On 16th February, 1870 she departed from London on her maiden voyage to Shanghai.

Unfortunately, a week before she was launched the Suez Canal was opened and this spelled doom for the tea clippers. Although considerably slower, the steamships of the day could get from China to London through the canal and Mediterranean quicker than a clipper working the trade winds and going via the Cape of Good Hope.

The Cutty Sark never won the Tea Race and this disappointed ‘Old White Hat’. Tea races were won by hard masters who drove their ships relentlessly in all weathers, taking calculated risks to gain an hour here and a minute there. Captain Kemball of the “Thermopylae” was such a master, but Captain Moodie, in “Cutty Sark”, was not such a man. He was a competent and conscientious seaman but lacked the drive needed for a Tea Race winner. His times were good but not good enough to take first prize.

The Designer

The ship was designed by Hercules Linton, a partner in the Dumbarton firm of Scott & Linton. His achievement was to mould the bowlines of Willis’s earlier vessel, The Tweed into the midship attributes of Firth of Forth fishing boats, creating a beautiful new hull shape that was stronger, could take more sail, and be driven harder than any other.

The company had never built a ship of this size before and were keen to accommodate their client’s every demand. Unfortunately for them, Willis, being so canny a Scot and wanting the best for the least, drove so hard a bargain that the builders, together with their brilliant young designer, sank without trace! The final details of the fitting out had to be completed by another company ~ William Denny & Brothers

So, how did Cutty Sark get her name

There is an old Scottish legend that was later turned into a poem by a very famous Scottish poet called Robert Burns. This story is about a farmer called Tam o’Shanter.

It was very late on a dark and stormy night when Tam, who had been to Market to sell his wares and had called at the local inn afterwards for a few drinks, began his journey home. Tam was riding his old mare Maggie down a lonely road, when he drew close to the Church at Alloway.

Through the cold night air he heard a strange and scary sound, and as he looked into the night sky he saw the glare of fire!

There, in the Churchyard, dancing around a huge bonfire was a coven of witches and warlocks. Tam sat on his horse, rigid with terror! The witches danced on and Tam noticed that one of the hags was younger and prettier that the others. Her name was Nannie, but Tam didn’t know this, and as all she was wearing was a short petticoat, he called her ‘cutty sark’, which is the Scottish name for this garment.

Well, the dancing became wilder and wilder and Tam became more and more engrossed. At last, he could bear the suspense no longer and he shouted out

“Weel done ‘cutty sark’”

With a flash the bonfire went out, and a soul-tearing howl went up from the witches and warlocks, as they began to race towards Tam, desperate to get to this mortal who had ruined their Black Magic Dances.

Poor Tam. He was in fear of his life, and for a moment just sat there, but after a few seconds that seemed like lifetimes, he managed to spur Maggie on, in a desperate race to save his life.

Now, as we all know, witches cannot cross running water, and fortunately for Tam, the river Doon was nearby. He set Maggie galloping madly towards the bridge, with the witches in hot pursuit.

Nannie, being younger and faster than the rest, was the closest to him, and was reaching out to grab Maggie’s tail, just as the mare reached the bridge.

Luckily for Tam (although not so for Maggie), the horse’s tail came away in Nannie’s hand just as the mare galloped over the bridge. Tam was saved! The witches and warlocks stood on the river-bank cursing and screaming at Tam who had had a very narrow escape!

Cutty Shark Society

Lengthy discussions ensued over her future, which ultimately led to her being towed to a mooring off Greenwich in 1951 for the festival of Britain. Eventually, the Cutty Sark Society was formed by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and the ship was gifted to the society. In December 1954 she was moved into a specially constructed dry dock at Greenwich.

Since her official opening in 1957 by HM The Queen, Cutty Sark has been visited by over 15 million people from all over the world.