The Cutty Sark, a witch and a horses tail

Map: Ordnance Survey Old Series 1866
Cuttysark
The tail of the Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship. Launched at Dumbarton on November 23 1869 for the Jock Willis shipping line, she was one of the last tea clippers to be built and one of the fastest, coming at the end of a long period of design development which halted as sailing ships gave way to steam propulsion.

The opening of the Suez Canal (also in November 1869) meant that steam ships now had a much shorter route to China, so Cutty Sark spent only a few years on the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for ten years. In 1954 she had ceased to be useful, even as a cadet ship, and was transferred to permanent dry dock at Greenwich, London where she is on public display.

The name Cutty Sark comes from  Robert Burns poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’.
Cutty-sark (hyphenated) was a nickname given to the character of the witch Nannie Dee, after the garment she wore – Cutty (short) and Sark (Nightshirt). The figurehead of the tea clipper Cutty Sark is named after the character and yes, for all of you who are wondering, the Tam o’ Shanter hat is also named after the poem.

The story goes that the hero Tam, while riding home from the pub on his horse, happens upon strange goings-on in a church yard. Among the dancing figures is a particularly beautiful young witch named Nannie Dee. She is described as wearing a harn (linen) sark (nightshirt) which fitted her as a child but is now rather too short for her. Tam is so enthralled by the erotic spectacle that he cannot contain himself and, not knowing her name, yells out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”. The witches on hearing his cry turn and pursue him and Tam flees, heading for the River Doon as, according to folklore, witches cannot cross running water. He makes it across the bridge to safety, but not before Nannie has torn the tail from his horse. To this day Nannie, the figurehead of the Cutty Sark, can be seen with a horses tail hanging from her hand.

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