Weel done, Cutty-sark!


Over the summer images of Greenwich have been broadcast around the world. During the Olympic Games, Greenwich Park provided a stunning backdrop to the equestrian events. The towers of Canary Wharf made for a startlingly urban juxtaposition to the trees and grass of the park. Greenwich boasts many jewels such as the Royal Observatory, the Royal Naval College and Queen Anne’s House, but my favourite Greenwich icon is the Cutty Sark.

Since its epic restoration, the Cutty Sark has rested in its lofty new position some three metres above its previous home in a dry dock. The ship is located right next to the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and walking under the Thames provides a unique if leisurely way of reaching Greenwich. If you arrive via the tunnel, the sight of Cutty Sark looming over you as you emerge from the depths is truly stunning.

One of the first things I noticed when looking at the ship was the masthead – a bare breasted women thrusting a clump of hair aloft. Why did the ship have such an unusual masthead? And, come to think of it, why was it called Cutty Sark? I could easily have searched the internet and found out.

Or I could have waited for a relevant episode of Great British Railway Journeys – if you wait for long enough, chances are that a pastel-trousered Portillo will have a somewhat uncomfortable conversation with a ‘normal’ on the very subject.

Instead, I decided to visit the ship, marvel at its restoration, find out a little more on why it has such a special place in British maritime history and get to the bottom of the mast head and name.

Cutty Sark was built by Scott & Linton in Dumbarton, Scotland – one of the great Clydebank shipbuilders who are now consigned to memory and history. It was built for John Willis, the eponymous owner of the shipping line Willis & Sons. A ‘cutty sark’ is an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. Clear? Well, not quite – why was a tea-clipper named after negligée?

The answer is to be found in Robert Burns’ classic poem Tam O’Shanter’. Tam is a ne’er-do-well farmer who enjoys a drink or two after a long day. In the poem, a sozzled Tam is riding his horse Meg back home when he hears whooping and shouts rising from the church at Kirk Alloway. Intrigued, our pickled hero rides towards the church. He is rewarded with the sight of a witches’ coven dancing around a bonfire presided over by the Devil himself.

For most, this would be a sobering sight, but Tam is, for the moment, frozen with fear. Eventually Tam spots one young witch who is decidedly more attractive than her wizened sisters. Amidst the frency of their revels she was naked apart from a short petticoat, a cutty sark. Not knowing her name, entranced by her increasingly wild dancing and casting aside sober prudence, Tam ‘roars out’:

“Weel done, Cutty-sark!”

Instantly, the bonfire is extinguished and the air is wrenched with a sickening scream. The gathered coven turn on the intruder and begin to chase him. Now Tam might be a drunk, but he was not stupid. He knew that witches could not cross running water and so raced his horse towards the bridge over the River Doon.

Faster and faster, he spurred on Meg and the mare responding by galloping more swiftly than she had ever run before. But the witches were catching up, a terrible tumult of screams and curses behind the terrified Tam. Eventually, the bridge came into view and Meg galloped towards safety.

Just before they had crossed the running water, the young witch with the cutty sark reached out and grabbed Meg’s tail. Such was her fury that she ripped out the horse’s tail but could not stop the pair crossing to safety. It was a close shave for Tam, and an even closer shave for a tailless Meg. And provided the material for one of Burns’ most celebrated poems and the name for one of Britain’s most celebrated ships.

It also explains the masthead – with breasts exposed and a horse’s tail in her hand, the Cutty Sark’s masthead is clearly the young witch. The irony of a witch who couldn’t cross water being fixed to an oceangoing ship is clear, but it makes for a romantic story.

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