Sunday 16 January 2011

From the archives: what's a cutty sark?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the answer to 'what's a cutty sark?' is 'an uninspiring set of hoardings in central Greenwich'. After the fire and a long silence, Cutty Sark's restoration seems to have become endless. It should be finished for 2012, though; the ship's blog has been regularly updated in recent months; and now we can see some of the work on the ship's new YouTube channel. In preparation for the hopefully not-too-distant reopening, here's a look at the story behind the ship's name.

For most of us, the words ‘Cutty Sark’ conjure up Greenwich’s tea clipper. But what does the phrase actually mean?

The ship's name comes from a poem by Robert Burns: farmer Tam O’Shanter was riding home from market (and the pub) when he saw witches and warlocks dancing around a bonfire in the churchyard. One, Nannie, was wearing a cutty sark: a short petticoat or shift. When Tam O’Shanter couldn’t resist calling out, the witches and warlocks ran after him. Luckily, his mare carried him to the River Doon: as we all know, witches can’t cross water. However, Nannie ran at great speed and caught hold of the horse’s tail just as they reached the bridge. Luckily, the tail came away in Nannie’s hand and Tam O’Shanter made good his escape.

Nannie has been immortalised as the figurehead of the Cutty Sark, which portrays her holding the horse’s tail. The name no doubt seemed apt for one of the very fastest ships of its day, which came close to winning the tea race from China to London in 1872. However, by 1878 steam ships had taken over the tea trade and Cutty Sark switched to carrying wool, again with great success. She later moved into Portuguese ownership, until Wilfred Dowman bought and restored her in the 1920s. She last went to sea in 1938.

The ship is currently undergoing restoration, which has been complicated by a fire in May 2007. Happily, the figurehead was in storage at the time of the fire and survives unharmed. The ship's restoration is expected to be completed in 2010.


Hels said...


There is a story I never thought I would hear in my life :) Did the church approve of the name?

Usually stories of witches and warlocks dancing around a bonfire in the churchyard was a way to keep women in line and punish them if they erred. So I wonder why Nannie, clearly a badly behaved woman, would be put on the front of a ship to "protect" the crew. Or was Mr Burns just taking the mickey?

Thanks as ever.

CarolineLD said...

I don't know what the church's view of the name was - but presumably it would be excused as 'literary'!