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HMS Unicorn – A History

HM Frigate Unicorn, of 46 guns, was built for the Royal Navy in the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and launched in 1824. She is now the World’s last intact warship from the days of sail, one of the six oldest ships in the world and Scotland’s only representative of the sailing navy.

There are only five ships left in the entire world older than Unicorn

HMS Unicorn as she might have appeared under full sail, by Harold Wyllie

HMS Unicorn as she might have appeared under full sail, by Harold Wyllie

A sailing frigate was a powerful cruising vessel, heavily armed and fast, and Unicorn would have been one of the elite ships of the fleet in her day. However, she was built shortly after the great sea campaign against Napoleon, as part of a programme for re-equipping a battle-weary Royal Navy. This was the start of a long period of peace and she was not required for immediate service: she was not rigged, but instead her hull was roofed over and she was put into reserve.

HMS Unicorn spent her early years in reserve or ‘ordinary’ in the south of England and was brought to Dundee in 1873 to serve as the reserve training ship for the Tay. She carried out this function for nearly a century, and also acted as the headquarters ship for the Senior Naval Officer in Dundee during both World Wars.

Unicorn remained unrigged and under the cover of a roof her entire working life, and the roof which now covers Unicorn’s upper deck is believed to be the same one which was fitted immediately after her launch.

As a result of this continuous protection, Unicorn is considered to be the best preserved of all historic wooden ships in the world from her era.

Unicorn was also built at a time of great technological change, under the supervision of Sir Robert Seppings, the Surveyor of the Navy 1813-1832, at a time when a shortage of timber and the availability of iron was beginning to affect the way ships were built.

Unicorn represents the last great flourish of wooden shipbuilding, and also illustrates the birth of the iron steamship.

Unicorn the ‘Dundee Ship’

HMS Unicorn photographed in 1968 during her last weeks in the Navy

HMS Unicorn photographed in 1968 during her last weeks in the Navy

Ships are essentially nomadic and rarely have ‘homes’, indeed their whole purpose is to travel. So when the time comes for a working ship to retire there may be no obvious final site for her.

Unicorn, on the other hand, is most unusual amongst big ships in having a ‘home’. She spent her entire working life in one port, Dundee, has now been here 136 years, and is now firmly embedded in Dundee’s social and maritime history.

Because Unicorn is a ship, and not in a prominent position, it is often forgotten just how much a part of Dundee’s heritage she has become. She easily predates most of the buildings in the city centre, and had already been in Dundee for 50 years when the Caird Hall was opened.

The Governors are clear that their main priority is the Preservation of HMS Unicorn but they are particularly keen to support options which will allow her to remain in her own home in her old age.