Last week we saw how the wonderful clippers the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae emerged from Dumbarton and Aberdeen respectively in the late 1860s.

In that decade, Scotland led the world in producing the best and fastest clippers and that fact was proven in 1866 when the Great Tea Race took place.

Such was Britain’s obsession with tea that mercantile marine companies vied with each other to get the first crop of the season back to the UK from China. The press and public were entranced by these ‘tea races’ and in 1866, the inevitable happened – a genuine race among all the great clippers was held. The ‘prize’ was simple – whichever company got their cargo to London first would get a premium worth the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money.

Ten ships entered the race, though only five were genuine contenders – in alphabetical order they were Ariel, Fiery Cross, Serica, Taeping and Taitsing. The construction and ownership of those five leading contenders are very instructive as Robert Steel and Co of Greenock built Ariel, Serica and Taiping, while Charles Connell and Co of Glasgow built Taitsing. The only one of the quintet built outside the Clyde was Fiery Cross which was built at Liverpool for her Scottish owners, John Campbell of Glasgow, who provided her crew.

Each clipper carried an average of 1m pounds of tea, all swiftly put on board in late May, 1866. At 5pm on May 28, the first clippers began to unmoor from the Pagoda Anchorage in Foochow. After an extraordinary race across seas and two oceans, with reports going back to London by the new trans-continental telegraphs, all five main contenders approached the English Channel where sightings enabled the press to go into full ballistic mode.

First into port after 99 days and 14,000 miles was Taeping, owned by Captain Alexander Rodger of Cellardyke, Fife, and captained by Donald MacKinnon of Tiree. She was just 28 minutes ahead of Ariel. Serica, owned by James Findlay, was third a mere 75 minutes later. Fiery Cross came fourth a day later and the second Findlay-owned vessel Taitsing finished a day after that.

It remains the apotheosis of Scottish sail shipbuilding, and then came the greatest race of all.

Last week we saw how Thermopylae, named after the famous battle of 480 BC, was built for the Thompson-owned Aberdeen White Star Line by Walter Hood & Co of Aberdeen, to a design by Bernard Weymouth.

READ MORE: Scotland’s world-leading ships united the Union

On her maiden voyage, the iron-framed and wooden-hulled Thermopylae set a record for the journey from England to Melbourne of 63 days. She was soon setting records for taking Chinese tea back to London.

Cutty Sark was built in 1869 for the shipping line of Jock ‘White Hat’ Willis, who was determined that his firm should have the fastest clipper afloat. The construction was started by Scott and Linton of Dumbarton but was finished by the bigger and better yard of Denny’s in the town with supervision by Willis’s top captain George Moodie.

It is thanks to Moodie’s log books - now in Dumbarton Library - and the logs kept by Captain Robert Kemball of Thermopylae that we know almost exactly what happened in 1872.

Having made two round voyages, Thermopylae was already reckoned to be the fastest tea clipper afloat when Captain Moodie took Cutty Sark out of London on her first trip to China on February 16, 1870. She had a cargo of wine, spirits and beer for Shanghai. We know from Moodie’s logs that the return journey saw Cutty Sark carry a cargo of 1,305,812 lbs of tea. She arrived on October 13 in London via the Cape of Good Hope after a voyage of 109 days – not a record, but commendably quick. The following year she did the home run in 107 days, while Thermopylae did it in 106. The scene was set for the Great Race of 1872.

There were other clippers around, but the only competition that mattered was between ‘champion’ Thermopylae and ‘challenger’ Cutty Sark.

It would be the last hurrah of a generation of magnificent sailing ships, because their twin nemeses were already in place and destroying the tea clipper trade. Steamships, many of them built on the Clyde which led the world in their development, were becoming safer and faster and more able to travel long distances at a constant speed, and of course they were not dependent on the vagaries of the wind.

On November 17, 1869, the Suez Canal was opened, cutting 4,000 miles off the voyage between the UK and China and handing steamships an immense advantage as sailing vessels could not use the Canal to any great degree. The combination of Suez and steam was just too fast for the clippers.

Still, the public loved the clippers and when it was clear that Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were to go head-to-head, the interest was immense and was reflected in the press coverage which spread across the British Empire courtesy of the new telegraph lines.

Kemball and Moodie as captains were both ambitious and extremely good at their jobs. Jock Willis wanted to get one over on the Thompsons, but they were determined that Thermopylae would prove the best. For sake of speed, Kemball loaded 200,000 lbs less tea than usual, while Moodie loaded just 20,000lbs less, apparently taking on more at the order of Jock Willis’s brother Robert who was on board – a fact that would become important later in the race.

Having carried their cargoes out from the UK, the two clippers arrived in Shanghai in late May, 1872. On that same outwards voyage the mighty Ariel disappeared, presumed sunk. That left the field open to Cutty Sark and Thermopylae. They both loaded up their cargoes of tea at Woosung, or Wusong, the port some 14 miles down the Huangpu River from Shanghai.

Delayed by fog, on the night of June 17-18, both ships were ready and set sail. The two captains chose slightly different routes home, Kemball taking the riskier course nearer to land.

At first there was very little between them, and Moodie and Kemball recorded frequent sightings of each other so we know that off Hong Kong, Thermopylae was marginally ahead. Kemball’s superior knowledge of the South China Sea was put to good use, and Cutty Sark also lost time to waterspouts and sail problems before she was into the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

After a month of sailing, Cutty Sark was just three miles ahead on July 16. Yet as the Cutty Sark picked up the east-south-east winds in the vastness of the Indian Ocean she forged ahead and was probably 400 miles ahead of Thermopylae when a storm blew up off the South African coast.

Cutty Sark being so far ahead she bore the full brunt of the storm while Thermopylae was not so troubled. Real disaster then struck Cutty Sark when the storm tore her rudder off, leaving the clipper in serious danger.

Fearful of losing the ship altogether, Robert Willis demanded that Moodie take the boat into port for repairs. Moodie was having none of it, however, and exercising his captain’s right to rule, he ordered that a reserve spar be cut into three pieces and he then ingeniously designed a ‘jury rudder’ that worked well. It took time to get the replacement working and it would collapse later in the voyage and need reconstruction, but at least Cutty Sark was back in the race.

Thermopylae had bounded ahead, however, and won the race to London by seven days. After the press and public learned of his heroics off South Africa, however, the credit went to Moodie as that most British of things, a plucky loser. He wasn’t a good loser, however, citing Robert Willis’s interference and resigning to join another shipping line.

The two ships raced again, but this time on the wool trade from Australia to the UK. With this new cargo, Cutty Sark was indeed the faster vessel and Thermopylae never beat her again.

Steam beat them both. Their races were soon over, along with their heyday, and soon the two great ships would go on divergent paths, one to a noble yet sad end, the other to immortality.

It is really remarkable that both the Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were still in use as trading ships long after steam had replaced wind as the moving force of seaborne trade. After 20 years as a tea and wool clipper, in 1889 Thermopylae was sold to a Canadian firm, Mount Royal Milling & Manufacturing Co. of Lachine in Quebec.

With her masts and sails reduced and being converted from a clipper to a barque, she transported timber and coal from Canada to Asia and returned with cargoes of rice. Her last moments of glory came in 1893 when Thermopylae managed to keep pace with the steamship Empress of India, managing an average of 16 knots for three days despite her reduced status.

In 1897, Thermopylae was sold to the Portuguese Navy as a training ship. She was renamed Pedro Nunes after the famous 16th century Portuguese mathematician and geographer. Having served out her days as a coal hulk, on October 13, 1907, the Portuguese Navy gave Thermopylae a royal send off, testing their torpedoes during a review of the fleet by Queen Amelia of Portugal. The once invincible Aberdonian clipper went to the bottom in the estuary of the River Tagus.

She was lost to sight for nearly 100 years until a group of professional divers found her in 2003 some 100ft down on the seabed. She was covered in deep silt but her hull was still recognisable and Thermopylae is now regularly visited by diving parties.

In the greatest of races, that of the quest for lasting fame, there’s no doubt about the winner – along with HMS Victory, the Cutty Sark remains most people’s idea of the classic sailing ship because she has been preserved and restored and been visited by millions at Greenwich over the years. It also helps that since 1923, a popular brand of Scotch has borne her name and has a label featuring the ship.

Yet it nearly did not end so well for Cutty Sark. Jock Willis sold her to a Portuguese company, Joaquim Antunes Ferreira for £1,250 in 1895. She was renamed Ferreira and ploughed the Atlantic for 20 years until she was badly damaged in a storm in 1916. She was reconstructed and was the last sailing clipper in the world in 1922 before she was bought as a cadet training ship by retired merchant Captain Wilfred Dowman.

His widow left her to the Royal Navy’s training college on the Thames until she was declared surplus to requirements in 1951. That was a piece of luck for Cutty Sark for instead of being broken up, she was then able to feature in the Festival of Britain. The following year the Cutty Sark Preservation Trust was established and she was towed to the purpose-built dry dock at Greenwich where she survived a disastrous fire in 2007, becoming even more famous after her £50m reconstruction project that means she is still the last surviving and most famous clipper of them all.

The 150th anniversary of the launching of the Cutty Sark will take place in November. It would be a travesty if her Scottish origins, and those of Thermopylae and all those great Scottish clippers, were to be ignored. Be assured I am on the case to ‘mak siccar’ that won’t happen.