"Weel done, Cutty-sark!" - Tea Clipper Cutty Sark and the Swan Song of the Age of Sail

23 November 1869, the tea clipper “Cutty Sark”, now the last survivor of her class, was launched in Dumbarton, Scotland.

“But here my Muse her wing maun cour;
Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch'd,
And thought his very een enrich'd;
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason ' thegither,
And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!" (Robert Burns, “Tam o' Shanter“)

An imagination of “Cutty Sark” under full sails in the sunset off some China shore by an unknown artist*

Smuggling. Privateering and blockade running in times of war. Carrying dubious cargoes such as opium and slaves. The immediate ancestors of the tea clippers were built to outrun everything from China Sea pirates to Royal Navy frigates. Dryden had used the word “clip” to describe the swift flight of a falcon and the fast sailing vessels from Baltimore that appeared since the late 18th century seemed indeed to clip along the waves rather than plough through them. The British copied the lines of their hulls and substituted the Baltimore Clipper’s two-masted schooner or brigantine rig with a three-masted square rig since the 1830s, the Americans recreated the design and the term “extreme clipper” came into use for fast sailing ships whose builders had sacrificed cargo capacity for speed. The great days of the American extreme clippers came with the gold rush of 1848 when folks wanted to get from the Eastern Seaboard to the gold fields in California as fast as possible. The clippers became the vessels of choice on the San Francisco run and one, the “Flying Cloud”, held the record for the fastest passage from New York to San Francisco until 1989, she made it in 89 days and 8 hours around Cape Horn. And while the crews of the clippers more often than not jumped ship in California to go and search for gold, the British gained the edge again in building and operating clippers on the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies and China.

Antonio Jacobsen (1850 - 1921): "The American Clipper Ship Flying Cloud at Sea under Full Sail" (1913)

Clippers were the swan song of sailing ship building, in terms of sheer elegance as well as speed. With making an average of 16 knots while riding a trade wind on the China run, tea clippers could well compete with the average steam vessel, but then, a few days before “Cutty Sark” was launched in Dumbarton in Scotland, the Suez Canal was opened and the days of commercially successful sailing vessels had come. Even the most asthmatic steamer could beat a sailer by taking the shortcut through the canal that was virtually impassable under sail. Nevertheless, the “Cutty Sark” began her career as a tea clipper in 1870 on the London – Shanghai route, while the rate of freight given to steamships already had doubled and was steadily increasing. But still, tea clippers raced each other for the fastest passage back to London around the Cape of Good Hope and the rivalry between “Cutty Sark” and “Thermopylae” was still followed by somewhat nostalgic readers in the papers. Then, in 1877, “Cutty Sark”, could not find a cargo of tea in Shanghai and had to ship coal and castor oil to Sydney and finally returned to London in 1883 with a cargo of wool and a record for making the trip from Newcastle, New South Wales, in 83 days. She remained in the wool trade until 1895 and was then sold to Portuguese owners.

Jack Spurling (1870 - 1933) "Ariel and Taeping"  (1926) - two clippers in the Great Tea Race of 1866

Nannie Dee, the winsome and wawlie witch from Burns’ “Tam o' Shanter”, famous for dancing in the heather in her underwear, namely a short chemise, a cutty sark o’ Paisley harn, was the clipper’s namesake and the Portuguese still called her “Pequena Camisola“, little shirt, while she was officially and respectably rated as “Maria do Amparo“ when the retired tall ship captain Wilfred Dowman saw her put into port in Cornwall after a storm in the Channel in 1922. He bought her from her owners, made her into a training ship and his widow sold her to the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College, HMS Worcester at Greenhithe. She sailed for the last time from Falmouth to London in 1938. Finally, in 1954, “Cutty Sark” was dry-docked at Greenwich as a museum ship where she is still today, twice burning, the last time in October 2014 after narrowly escaping total destruction in a fire that broke out while she underwent a restoration in 2007, her spirit bruised, but hopefully not broken, not even by the museum constructed around and under her, famous for receiving the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building completed in 2012.

More about “Cutty Sark” can be found on:


and Burns poem, along with a translation, on:

fimage was ound on http://www.clydesite.co.uk/clydebuilt/viewship.asp?id=12