Although Cutty Sark’s home port of registry was London throughout her career under the Red Ensign, it was in Dumbarton, Scotland that the ship was built by a young Scottish company called Scott & Linton. Once rigged in Greenock, the ship was never to return to her country of origin, but her Scottish owner John Willis chose a name inextricably linked with Scotland’s literary heritage.
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 in Kirk Alloway on his way home from market one evening. The witches are cavorting, the altar has been desecrated and the devil himself is playing the bagpipes. 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 then chase 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 they cross the bridge. Tam makes his 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. Copies of sketches by Hercules Linton—the designer of Cutty Sark—show his proposed designs for the stern and bow decoration which represented more of Burns’ tale including Tam on Maggie and the devil playing the bagpipes. Historic photographs however show these schemes were never realised.
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.