On 22 November 1869 in Dumbarton, Cutty Sark was officially christened by Mrs Moodie—wife of the first master of the ship—as the new ship slid down the slipway into the river Leven.
The inspiration for the ship’s name is found within Robert Burns’ poem, Tam O’Shanter, first published in 1791. The poem tells a story about a farmer who encounters a coven of witches on his way home from market one evening. They are all ugly hags with the exception of one young witch called Nannie and Tam is mesmerised by her beauty. Nannie was wearing a ‘cutty sark’—a Lowland Scots term for a ladies’ short shift—and Tam, overwhelmed by the sight of her in her revealing outfit, cannot help but cry out “Well done Cutty Sark!” The witches spot Tam who flees for his life on his horse Maggie.
According to myth, witches cannot cross running water, so Tam urges Maggie on towards the bridge over the River Doon. Close behind him is Nannie, who reaches out and grabs hold of Maggie’s tail just as Tam and Maggie cross the bridge. They make their escape, but unluckily for poor Maggie, her tail comes away in Nannie’s hand.
The ship’s figurehead depicts the witch Nannie in her ‘cutty sark’ with an outstretched arm holding the horse’s tail. During her years at sea, Cutty Sark’s crew would fray a rope to represent poor Maggie’s tail when the ship was in port.
We do not know why John Willis named his ship after the clothing of a creature that could not cross running water. Perhaps it was the swift chase that seemed appropriate for a vessel built for speed, or perhaps he imagined the sails flying in the wind like Nannie's ‘cutty sark’. However, as a proud Scot, it is not surprising that John Willis should look to the country’s most famous poet for inspiration.
The name of the ship changed in 1895 when ownership passed to the Portuguese company, Ferreira & Co. Although officially registered as Ferreira, her crew often referred to her as ‘Pequina Camisola’, a Portuguese translation of ‘cutty sark’.
The ship was sold in 1922 to Companhia de Navegaçao de Portugal who re-named the ship Maria do Amparo (‘Mary that shelters’ – a reference to the Virgin Mary). Three months later, the ship was purchased by Captain and Mrs Dowman of Falmouth who bought Cutty Sark, restored her and once more registered the ship in British Waters as Cutty Sark.