NOT many of the 500,000 people expected to visit Greenock to witness the Tall Ships over the weekend will remember the first ever Cutty Sark Tall Ships race in 1956. Since then, the race has become an international institution - more than 30 cities put in bids to host this year's race. Iain MacLaren, however, was a crew member of the British Navy's vessel, the Marabu, which competed in the initial race. MacLaren now lives in Plockton, where he grew up. He won't be able to see the yachts as they arrive in Inverclyde from

his house, but will spend this weekend in the midst of the action in Greenock.

The first Tall Ships race was between Torbay and Lisbon. The bay at Torbay was too open and exposed to moor such a large number of ships and so for the week before the race they were docked inland up the River Dart. Most of the ships which entered the original race were European, but there was one from Argentina.

MacLaren remembers the week on the river as being one huge celebration, with cocktail parties and other events organised by the Royal Navy's Training College at Dartmouth, and crowds of spectators waving coloured flags.

''It was very exciting,'' he says. ''If you wanted to go on shore or anywhere, you stood up on the deck and waved, and a small boat would row out and pick you up. It was like a free taxi service.''

I asked if there was also a party laid on at Lisbon. ''Party?'' MacLaren cries, incredulous that I could underestimate Portuguese hospitality to such a degree. ''Dartmouth did it really well, but Lisbon did it much better. There was amazing hospitality in Lisbon. It was a week of junketing.''

MacLaren served his two years' national service as a doctor with the Navy at HMS Hornet in Portsmouth and enjoyed it so much that he stayed for a third year. As he had yachting experience - he was bitten by the sailing bug while growing up in Plockton - he was chosen to be part of the 10-man sailing crew in the Tall Ships race.

The Royal Navy didn't, and still doesn't, actually own a sailing ship. The vessel used in the race, the Marabu, originally belonged to Hermann Goering and was claimed by the British at the end of the Second World War. The Marabu was one of several private yachts kept by the German high command for their own use. The British Navy took these yachts and they became known euphemistic-ally as ''windfall'' vessels.

Still, the Marabu was only 60ft long, short for a Tall Ship, and so qualified for the smaller ships class. It finished fourth in its class of 16, and took six days to sail to Lisbon. MacLaren was away for a total of six weeks, and says the adventure was the highlight of his time in the Navy, far outweighing subsequent trips to the Far East.

The race was marred by the notorious great Channel gale of 1956, in which several ships

sank in the English Channel.

The Marabu escaped relatively unscathed, but the merchant navy's Tall Ship, the Moyana, sank in the channel on the return journey to Dartmouth. Miraculously, nobody was killed.

MacLaren will attend a reception aboard the Glenlee on Sunday evening in Greenock. His wife, Ann, teaches Spanish and Portuguese at Glasgow University and is acting as a translator between the Spanish Navy, which formerly owned the ship, and the Clyde Maritime Trust, which does now.

MacLaren is confident that the reception will be like the cocktail parties of old times. ''I'm sure

there will be canapes and wine,'' he says. ''I'm looking forward to it very much.''