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Issue 99 - Remembering Hercules Linton

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018

 

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Remembering Hercules Linton

Douglas Cusine tracks the fortunes and misfortunes of the Hercules Linton memorial in Inverbervie, Aberdeenshire

 

Inverbervie, or ‘Bervie’, as it is known locally, is a Royal Burgh that was created in 1341 and can be found around 25 miles south of Aberdeen. It is located in The Mearns, an area that stretches from the North Esk, in the south, to Stonehaven, in the north, and westwards to Fettercairn. Dunnottar Castle is one of the better-known attractions of The Mearns, but it was also the home of the ancestors of Robert Burns, who farmed near Glenbervie.

Joan Eardley, the painter, lived for a while in the coastal village of Catterline, about 20 miles south of Aberdeen, and the writer James Leslie Mitchell, aka. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who is perhaps most famous for his novel Sunset Song, was brought up near Arbuthnot, which is just north of Bervie. The village itself, however, is notable for being the birth place of Hercules Linton, the designer of the world famous tea-clipper, Cutty Sark.

Linton was born in 1837 and, at just 19 years old, he was awarded an apprenticeship at Alexander Hall & Sons, one of Aberdeen’s leading shipbuilding companies. By 1868, Linton had gone into business with William Dundas Scott to form Scott & Linton Shipbuilders, based at Dumbarton on the River Clyde. In February 1869, the new company was awarded the contract to construct Linton’s most well-known ship, Cutty Sark.

The project did not go smoothly. The build was plagued by delays and, as the contract hinged on timely completion, the project led to Linton’s bankruptcy. The ship was eventually launched at Dumbarton on 22 November 1869, five months late, and famously took part in a well-publicised ‘tea race’ with the Thermopylae to the South China Seas in 1872.

The race hinged on which ship could pick up 1.3 million pounds (589 tonnes) of tea in Shanghai and deliver it to London in the shortest time. Unfortunately, despite early success Cutty Sark broke a rudder in the Bay of Bengal and, though a new one was fitted, the race was won by Thermopylae. Today, the restored Cutty Sark can be seen at Greenwich.

After the death of his wife in 1885, Hercules moved back to Inverbervie and for a time served as a town councillor. Rather fittingly, in 1900 he died in the same house in which he had been born. Today, there is a plaque above the house and there is another beside his grave (and that of his wife) in Kirkburn Cemetery, Inverbervie.

Prior to World War II, David Criggie of Gourdon saw Cutty Sark and wondered why its designer had not been commemorated in his native town. Many years later, he met Linton’s son, William, and undertook to remedy this. As the centenary of the launch drew closer, Mr Criggie raised the issue of a memorial with Grampian Television and his local MP, Alick-Buchanan-Smith (who enthusiastically promoted the idea) and wrote to every member of the Town Council. The campaign was successful and The Cutty Sark Society, in conjunction with the Council, agreed to erect a memorial.

Various donations, including one of £1050 from The Cutty Sark Society, greatly assisted its production. A suitable site was identified in Bervie and the famous Scottish sculptor, Scott Sutherland, was commissioned. The artist suggested that the site be properly laid out and this was done by Bruce Walker of Dundee. It was agreed that Sir Francis Chichester, who sailed round the world singled-handedly, should be asked to unveil the memorial and on 23 October 1969 this took place. He was presented with an oak tray designed by Linton. Of the event, Sir Francis said: ‘Bervie should be proud of its achievements’.

The memorial was a full-size replica of the masthead of the Cutty Sark and faced south, presumably to reflect the fact that the ship had headed to the South China Sea to pick up its first cargo. There was a huge turnout for the unveiling and among those present were Linton’s two daughters. The Provost of Inverbervie suggested that, until a few years previously, the locals had been unaware of the town’s connection with Linton!

As is the case on the original masthead, the memorial depicts ‘Nannie’, who will be familiar to those who have read Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter. In the poem, Tam, who is riding home after a night in the pub, passes through Alloway Kirkyard and is confronted by a scantily clad witch called Nannie, who is wearing naught but a ‘cutty sark’ - an old Scots term for a short nightdress. As Tam spurs his mount to flee in terror, Nannie tries to grasp the tail of Tam’s mare, Meg, which, rather oddly, comes off in her hand - this is why she is depicted on the masthead holding on to a horse's tail.

The name Cutty Sark, was supposedly proposed by Linton himself to the ship’s original owner, Jock Willis, who also owned another ship named Halloween - a reference to another Burns poem. Regardless of the poetic connections, Cutty Sark is nevertheless a strange choice of name for a ship as, famously, in Scots mythology witches are unable to cross water. In fact, in the poem it is by crossing water that Tam is able to escape to safety!

Sadly, the memorial in Bervie has had an eventful history. Over the years, it fell into disrepair and was vandalized. Later, when boats from the Tall Ships Race were to visit Bervie in 1997, Aberdeenshire Council bulldozed the site, apparently without consulting the community. It also seems that they failed to ascertain who had paid for the memorial and, rather than being returned for safe keeping, it ended up in the back of a bin lorry. Thankfully, the memorial was rescued by some Aberdeen Sea Scouts, who took it to their premises in Aberdeen for safe-keeping. Eventually, the local authority put a wooden memorial in place of the original. It is half the size of the original and, for some reason, faces north rather than south. At the time of the installation, some locals thought that the bare-breasted Nannie was inappropriate, whereas others thought it quite apt.

Almost all, however, were incensed by the actions of Aberdeenshire Council and the delay in the recovery of the 1969 memorial. As a result, a group called ‘Save Our Linton Memorial’ was formed. The Council were reported to the Local Authority Ombudsman (for delay and other forms of maladministration), who agreed wholeheartedly with the locals. Eventually, the original memorial was removed from the Sea Scouts and it was restored by Anthony and Susie Morrow. Now back in shipshape condition, it was mounted on the wall of the Bervie Burgh Hall and unveiled on 9 November 2002 by Janet, the widow of the late politician Alick Buchanan-Smith. It is still there today. The headline in the local newspaper Mearns Leader of 15 November was ‘Weel done Cutty Sark’, a quote from Tam O’Shanter.

There are probably few people, apart from locals, who now know of the whereabouts of the original memorial and that the one standing at the north end of Bervie is a replacement. The fortunes and misfortunes of the original can be gleaned from press cuttings, especially in the Leader. There are entries also in The Press & Journal, The Courier and The Herald.

What is, however, paramount is that there is a memorial to Hercules Linton in the place of his birth. He is also remembered in the Maggie Law Museum in Gourdon; by The Cutty Sark Society, London; the Hercules Linton Memorial Trust; and on various websites, such as the recently created cuttysarkvirtualmuseum.com.

The author offers thanks to David Smith and Dave Ramsay of Gourdon for their assistance in researching this piece.

 

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