Why is the ship called Cutty Sark?

Cutty Sark was one of the most famous ships of its day - but what does 'Cutty Sark' mean?

What is the meaning of 'Cutty Sark'?

'Cutty Sark' is an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. 'Cutty' means short or stumpy, and 'sark' means nightdress or shirt. 

Why is the ship called Cutty Sark?

Cutty Sark’s name comes from the famous poem Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns. It is about a farmer called Tam who is chased by a scantily-clad witch called Nannie, dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’

Jock Willis, the original owner of the ship, chose the name Cutty Sark, which was allegedly suggested to him by the ship’s designer, Hercules Linton. It is a rather peculiar choice of name for a ship, as in legend – and indeed in Burns’ poem – witches are unable to cross water.

We do not know definitively why Jock selected this name. It could reflect his patriotism, choosing a name inspired by the Scotland’s most famous poet. Another ship in his fleet was named Halloween which is also the name of a Burns poem.

Mrs Moodie – the wife of the first master of the ship, George Moodie – officially named the ship when it was launched in Dumbarton on 22 November 1869.

Cutty Sark names

Cutty Sark sailed under this name while under the Red Ensign, 1869-95. Her name changed to Ferreira when, in 1895, she was sold to a Portuguese company. Although officially registered as Ferreira, her Portuguese crew often referred to her as 'pequina camisola', which translates as 'short nightie' - the same meaning as ‘cutty sark’.

She was sold again in 1922 to another Portuguese company and renamed Maria do Amparo. However, she did not retain this name for long as later that year Captain Dowman of Falmouth purchased the ship and named her Cutty Sark once again.

Cutty Sark Poem

The legend of Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns 

Robert Burns’s poem Tam O’Shanter is based on a Scottish legend about a farmer of the same name.

After drinking at a pub one night, Tam starts his journey home on his trusty old mare Meg. But on his way he is transfixed by the sight of witches and wizards dancing around a bonfire in a churchyard.

One witch in particular, Nannie, catches his attention. She is young and beautiful and wearing only a cutty sark. Afraid but unable to drag himself away, Tam loses himself and shouts out ‘Weel done cutty sark’ in appreciation of her dancing.

Alerted to his presence, the witches pursue Tam, with Nannie in the lead. Knowing that witches can't cross water, Tam and Meg head for the river Doon. Just as they are about to cross, Nannie reaches out and grabbs Meg’s tail, which mysteriously comes away in Nannie’s hand, saving Tam’s life.

What is the Cutty Sark figurehead holding? 

The crew of Cutty Sark often placed a frayed rope in the figurehead Nannie’s hand, representing Meg’s tail.

Cutty Sark characters: meet Nannie the Witch

See the world's largest collection of Merchant Navy figureheads

Cutty Sark is open daily, 10am-5pm 

Explore this legendary 19th-century sailing ship, the world’s sole surviving tea clipper, and fastest ship of her time.

Visit Cutty Sark