LAST week I wrote about the SS Explorer which is being restored at Leith and I’m delighted to say that Liz Hare of the Citadel Arts Group got in touch to give me an update on her organisation’s involvement with this great Scottish vessel.

She told me: “There are moves afoot to take the show up to Aberdeen where there’s a lot of interest [folk keep ordering the book of Explorer memories] but it all depends on getting the funding. The Dockers matinee performance was filmed so we’ll let you know when that’s shown.

“Citadel Arts Group is also making a cut down version for schools which we’ll take into Trinity Academy and another local school later in the year. I’ll keep you posted. Many thanks for the informative and enthusiastic article.”

I’ll let readers know how the Citadel Arts Group and the SS Explorer Preservation Society get on.

I promised last week to give you more accounts of the very stuff that Scotland made. I am doing so because I am now even more convinced the young Scots in particular need to be educated about the great history of our country.

We were, and are, a European nation. We were, and are, a powerhouse of manufacturing, though not as much as we used to be. We were, and are, a nation of the Enlightenment, of science and intellect, and yes, we were, and are, a country full of people imbued with a passion for justice and a commitment to community and civility and internationalism.

In short, we are Scots, and it’s because of our history, what made us and what we made, that the vacuous and irredeemable “values” of a long-dead Empire and a dying Union are increasingly no longer recognised in Scotland. From the point of view of history, we are not about to withdraw from the Union because the Scottish people are markedly different from what they were, say, 50 to 60 years ago – no, we are leaving because the Union has left us.

If no one else will say it, I will. The people of England, divided as they are, no longer share many of the same values as the Scottish people. They are going their way. The proof of that is the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister by a tiny number of English Tories.

I accept that Boris is a great cheerleader, but would you want a cheerleader being head coach of your team never mind the national squad? All our Scottish history tells us that he is the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I would therefore like to send my earnest best wishes to Boris Johnson on what I believe will be his most memorable achievement – becoming the first Prime Minister of an independent England.

Once we two nations did have shared values. We both were enthusiasts for empire-building – no sane Scot can deny that – and we both venerated the builders, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs that drove Britain forward, particularly in the 19th century. Together we built the National Health Service, the BBC, Social Security and great nationalised industries. Now apart from the first-named, though it is under threat down south, we have seen the death or at least the decline of all those things that historically could be argued as making us British.

We also had a shared love for tea, and it was tea which made this following story one of the great shipping tales of Scotland, Britain and the world.

For make no mistake about it, in the 1860s and 1870s, Scotland led the world in producing the best and fastest ships known as tea or opium clippers and the two ships which were acknowledged as the finest were the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae.

This week I will tell the stories of the two vessels and next week I will show how their names were immortalised in The Great Race. We’ll look at Thermopylae today, as she was launched first.

The original Clipper ships were American and got their name because they “clipped” their way over the waves. They were distinguished by sleek lines and masses of sails, and could reach speeds that steam-powered ships would not regularly surpass for many years. They really were the fastest ships afloat.

By the 1860s, however, American clippers were being overtaken by clippers built in Europe to service the opium trade in Asia and, crucially for our story, the importation of tea from China.

Aberdeen and the Clyde were among the shipbuilding powerhouses of the day, and it was the former which gave birth to Thermopylae.

She was named after the famous battle of 480 BC in which the Greeks led by King Leonidas of Sparta fended off the Persian forces of Xerxes I. Leonidas and his army were eventually overwhelmed but the battle became a byword for standing up against the odds.

She was built for the Aberdeen White Star Line – otherwise known as George Thompson and Sons Ltd and not to be confused with the Liverpool White Star Line who would later have a certain Titanic under their flag – by Walter Hood & Co of Aberdeen, though it was an Englishman, Bernard Waymouth who designed the clipper. He had already designed the Leander, built in 1867 by JG Lawrie of Glasgow, which gave him the basis for the Thermopylae, though the latter was soon noted to be of a different order.

All the ships of the Aberdeen White Star Line vessels had green hulls and white masts, and Thermopylae was fully rigged with just about every type of sail possible. She had two decks and three masts, and her figurehead was a golden figure of Leonidas wearing his armour, helmet, shield, and sword. She was simply gorgeous.

Her stunning good looks moved the English poet Cicely Fox Smith to write: “Of all that fleet of swift and lovely ships, none was perhaps ever built more lovely and more swift than the famous clipper Thermopylae … there was some secret quality which moved a seaman’s heart with emotion of apprehended beauty.”

Thermopylae was launched by Hardy Robinson of Denmore on August 18, 1868. Some 56 of the 64 shares were held by Aberdonian-based owners such as Cornelius and Stephen Thompson of the family firm.

It is important to note that both Thermopylae and Cutty Sark were “extreme composite” clippers. They had iron frames under their woodwork which made them immensely strong and their hulls were streamlined for speed with long bows and the biggest cargo capacity aft.

Thermopylae measured 212 feet long with a 36ft beam. She weighed 991 tonnes. For speed, her masts were shorter but wider than usual and she had massive sails – her mainsail alone covered an area of 3200 sq ft.

At a time when the first seasonal shipment of tea from China fetched huge prices in England in particular, Thermopylae’s speed was a tremendous asset. Her maiden voyage was not to China but to Melbourne. Thermopylae set out from Gravesend under Captain Kendall Bruce and arrived at Melbourne 63 days later – by far a record for the trip. Thermopylae would later set the record for a single day’s run under sail of 380 miles.

IT is often forgotten that shipbuilding on the Clyde extended from Glasgow right down to Greenock on both sides of the river. Sadly, we now tend to think of the shipyards being only on the Upper Clyde, but Greenock and Port Glasgow on the west bank and Dumbarton on the east bank were both major centres of shipbuilding. In the latter town, where the River Leven empties into the Clyde to create a perfect basin for shipyards, its 19th century heyday saw as many as 40 firms involved in shipbuilding.

Though Cutty Sark was built for a London-based firm J Willis and Sons Ltd, the owners had a very strong Scottish connection. In the late 1860s, Jock Willis junior was in charge and he was very much in the mould of his father who had been born in Eyemouth in Berwickshire. Old “Stormy” Jock ran away to sea at the age of 14 and first served as a chef on ships sailing around Britain. Canny and ambitious, Jock Willis built up his own line of ships, many of them in the tea trade, and many having names of Scottish origin such as Borderer, St Abbs, Merse and Lammermuir.

Stormy Jock died in 1862 and his sons being already in the business, they decided to build a ship that would get them the Blue Riband for the fastest voyage from China. These tea races were very popular with the press and public. You may remember the Beaujolais Nouveau hype a few years ago – it had nothing on the tea clipper races. There was even a bonus prize for being the first to deliver that season’s tea cargo, though that practice was discontinued in 1866.

The informal Blue Riband was still much prized and the Willises wanted it. Jock Junior was known as White Hat from his habit of wearing a light grey top hat, and it was he who signed the deal for the building of the Cutty Sark on February 1, 1869.

The firm which got the contract was Scott and Linton of Dumbarton. They had only been in existence for nine months, having been formed as a partnership by shipbuilder William Dundas Scott and ship designer Hercules Linton. We don’t know how White Hat Willis found Scott and Linton, but he had the caution to drive a very tight bargain including penalty payments of £5 per day for any delay in Cutty Sark’s completion.

Scott and Linton could build ships but they were not so good at the business side, and facing terrible cash flow problems they had to inform Willis that they were going bust. Part of the problem was that Willis had insisted that one of his best captains, George Moodie, supervise the construction. He was meticulous and demanded only the best.

Historians know a lot about Captain Moodie, as he left his log books to Dumbarton Library where they form part of the collection of the Libraries and Cultural Services section of West Dunbartonshire Council.

We’ll let the libraries take up the story: “The contract stated that the vessel was to be 950-ton, length of keel and fore rake 210 feet, beam 36 feet, depth 20 feet nine inches, and the price £17 per ton not to exceed £16,150.

“Worked commenced and the finest materials procured. Best iron for the frames, Canadian Rock Elm for the bottom planking from Canada and North America, East India Teak for the side planking and deck from the steamy forests of Burma. The sail plan designed by John Rennie gave the vessel 29 sails covering the area of some 32,000 sq. feet.”

No wonder Scott and Linton went into liquidation. Moodie and Willis moved the construction to William Denny and Brothers, the biggest firm in Dumbarton and they seem to have been a forgiving bunch for as the library records show “the launching of the Cutty Sark took place on November 22, 1869, a small group of people assembled at the Dumbarton shipyard to witness the launch of the ship.

“Amongst the group were the four men responsible for its design and construction, Mr William Scott, shipbuilder; Mr Hercules Linton, designer and naval architect; Mr John Rennie, chief draughtsman; and Mr Henry Henderson, master carpenter. The wife of Captain George Moodie named the ship “Cutty Sark”.”

The name, the Scots for short shirt, comes, of course, from Tam O’Shanter, when Tam roars out “Weel done cutty sark” after Nannie the witch does her dance.

Soon the splendid new clipper Cutty Sark would be in a “dance” of her own against the mighty Thermopylae.

Read Back in the Day next Tuesday for the story of The Great Race.