The legend of Tam O’Shanter

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Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

The namesake for clipper ship Cutty Sark is found in Robert Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter.  

The poem recounts the story of farmer Tam who encounters a coven of witches, including the beautiful Nannie, wearing a revealing 'cutty sark' or short dress - Nannie being depicted as the ship's figurehead. 

Nannie, Cutty Sark's figurehead

Considered by many to be Burns' finest poem, the story of Tam is thought to have been based on an old folk tale. Capt Francis Grose, author of Antiquities of England and Wales published in 6 volumes 1773-1789, met Robert Burns while conducting research in Scotland. Burns suggested a drawing of the ruins of Alloway church should be included in Grose's new book; Grose agreed on condition Burns provided a witches' tale to go with it. Burns related three stories, one of which gave the essence of Tam O'Shanter's story. 

Burns first published the poem in the 1791 edition of the Edinburgh Magazine and it was also included in Grose's posthumously published second volume of The Antiquities of Scotland in 1798.

Tam's story is now well known - indeed Burns' Tam gave his name to the traditional Scottish bonnet he wore, known as a Tam O'Shanter since the early 19th century. Made of wool, originally they were hand knitted in one piece, stretched on a wooden disc to give the distinctive flat shape and then felted. The Tam O'Shanter is then decorated with a woollen ball or ‘toorie’ at the centre.

Capt Woodget with crew and guests on board Cutty Sark

Capt Richard Woodget, Cutty Sark's master 1885-1895, took to wearing a Tam O'Shanter cap on board (as shown in a photograph from 1887, top row, third from right). In Inverbervie, birthplace of Cutty Sark's designer Hercules Linton, P4 pupils of Bervie School created a series of drawings of Woodget's Tam O'Shanter as part of a school project which they shared with clipper ship Cutty Sark

Tam O'Shanter drawings - Bervie School project