The term ‘Clipper’ originated in the shipyards of Baltimore on the east coast of America in the first half of the 19th Century.

Originally built for war (between America and Britain between 1812 and 1814) and armed to protect (or capture) slower merchant vessels, these fast, smart little ships had evolved by the middle of the century into speedy cargo-carriers in the Chinese opium and tea trade. The discovery of gold in California and then Australia further fuelled the quest for more speed. British shipbuilders joined in, and the race to launch the perfect ship was on. The doyen of American builders was Donald McKay, grandson of an emigrant Scot from Ross-shire, whose yard turned out such classics as the ‘Flying Cloud’ and the fastest ever clipper the ‘Sovereign of the Seas’.
Britain had been slower to enter the ‘clipper era’, but stayed longer with these ships, construction evolving from wooden hulls to composite, then iron and steel. The Americans never built an iron clipper. Walter Hood & Co in Aberdeen and the Barclay Curle yard on the Clyde produced some of Britain’s finest  - the former the almost perfect ‘Thermopylae’ and the ‘Samuel Plimsoll’, the latter the ‘Golden Fleece’, the ‘Jason’ and several of the ‘Lochs’. Scott and Linton on the Clyde produced the ‘Cutty Sark’, one of the most famous, if not the fastest, clippers ever built.
The closely contested China tea trade was the intended destiny of ships like the ‘Cutty Sark’ and the ‘Thermopylae’, but this was to be short lived. Steam ships were evolving rapidly (though the best clippers could be more than a match in speed if not consistency of passage) and in 1869 the Suez canal was opened. Almost overnight, the tea trade with China was lost to steam (sailing ships could not use the short-cut through the canal) and almost all that was left was the ‘Australia run’ for wool or wheat. The ‘Cutty Sark’, the most famous ‘tea clipper’ of them all, had very few seasons in the tea trade before joining many of her perhaps less illustrious contemporaries on the trade ‘down under’, carrying emigrants and general cargo to the colonies and returning with wool or wheat. The Loch Line, then, belongs to this the second half of the era of the Clipper Ships, commissioning iron three and four masters built on the Clyde specifically as ‘Colonial Clippers’. But this trade, too, was destined to be usurped by the steamers, persisting under sail only until the early 1900s, and becoming steadily less profitable. The rate of loss at sea of these ships and crews was also catastrophic – the oceans of the world are littered with the wrecks of these magnificent vessels.

By 1906, when the last of the Loch Line ships were sold, the era was over. The design of sailing ships had been advanced to a peak of perfection and the concept of world trade had been firmly established. This golden era lasted only the equivalent of the lifetime of one man, and had claimed the lives of thousands.

 

 

 

 

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The painting "Early Dawn of an Ending Era" is by the internationally acclaimed maritime artist Charles Vickery (1913-1998).