Thursday 26 April 2012

Her Cutty Sark, o' Paisley Harn

A few months ago on the train we were sitting next to a couple of men, one from Nepal and the other from Alloway, by Ayr in Scotland.  The “Cutty Sark” had been in the news and the Scot was explaining the meaning of the name and the way Robert Burns had told the tale of Tam O’Shanter and how the ship at Greenwich had come to bear that name.

We did not say anything it was a private conversation and butting in on others is better avoided.  But it did remind me that there is much more to the “Cutty Sark” than we think and why she is worth preserving.

In 1869 when “Cutty Sark” was built on the Clyde at Dumbarton, on launching she went down river for some final work to be done in Greenock.  Two of my Great Great Grandfathers were resident there with their families, one a ships carpenter, born in Leith in 1815 and the other an iron worker born in Ayr in 1808 who married in Paisley.  “Harn” is a word for coarse linens, a fabric much used by the lower classes. 

Did either of them put in some work on the ship?  Given the number of other family connections, I like to think that someone did.  Given their home addresses adjacent to the docks and yards they could hardly avoid seeing her or marvelling at her construction.

One researcher has produced a book of the crew lists that could be found and I must try to find a copy to pore down the lists of names.  The chances are against it but there might be just one of the extended families who sailed on her.

Given the number of men who did work on the vessel in construction originally and later or sailed with her on the many voyages, there must be quite a number of people around the world with a connection.  In my own case I know them to be scattered around the UK and inevitably in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

It is possible to complain that the work and events down the years have meant that what is left of the original “Cutty Sark” is limited.  But it was a working ship and the ropes, the sails and a lot else have to be changed.  The wear and tear of service inevitably meant reworking and replacements.

But the survival of what we have tells us of the incredible skills and strengths of the men who built and sailed her and something of the abilities of our past generations.  Above all she was a merchant ship manned by ordinary men for ordinary trading purposes. 

Now she is a tourist attraction located on The Thames and will never sail again.  Moreover, her survival in part is due to Royal interest and persistence in wanting her to survive.  The Duke of Edinburgh was a naval man and his body language never lets us forget it.

Soon we will go up to see her again in the new guise and with the new facilities and all the rest.  It will be a day, I hope with a stiff Sou’ Wester, wet and with the white flecks on the waves of the Thames to give a taste of reality.

But if only she could sail again.

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