1968: The Formation of the Unicorn Preservation Society

Although HMS Unicorn had safely survived the moves from Earl Grey Dock to Victoria Dock to make way for the Tay Road Bridge, the frigate’s future once again came under threat when it was proposed that Tay Division RNR should be moved into a new purpose-built shore headquarters, to be named HMS Camperdown.

The old Unicorn had now become surplus to naval requirements, and, despite being one of the last survivors of the great sailing navy, she was to be scrapped.  Captain Rennie Stewart, her then Captain, was determined that this fate should not befall his ship, and appealed to Admiral Sir David Gregory, who had recently been Flag Officer Scotland.  Admiral Gregory’s response was to ‘go to the top’ and he suggested Lord Dalhousie.  The result was the formation, in 1968, of the Unicorn Preservation Society as a limited company with charitable status, under the founding Chairmanship of Lord Dalhousie.

Lord Dalhousie was also the Queen Mother’s Lord Chamberlain, and the Admirals in London were most surprised to discover that not only would Prince Philip officiate at the handover of the ship from the Ministry of Defence to the newly-formed Society, but also that The Queen Mother would become the Society’s first Royal Patron.

The Unicorn Preservation Society was one of the first in the World to tackle the private preservation of a large warship, and there was very little in the way of precedent to follow.  In particular, naval sensitivities about the use of ‘HMS’ and the white ensign meant that Unicorn’s early years in preservation required her to take a new designation, and she became ‘The Frigate Unicorn’.  This cumbersome title was also historically meaningless, and from the mid-1990s she became known as HM Frigate Unicorn, a little closer to her proper title.

Now that many other subsequently preserved warships have retained their ‘HMS’ (eg HMS Belfast, HMS Cavalier, HMS Trincomalee, HMS Warrior) it has been agreed that Unicorn should also return to her historically correct designation of ‘HMS Unicorn’.  This is also still, after so many years, the designation by which most members of the public recognise the ship.