Cutty-sark (witch)

"Cutty sark" is 18th century Scots for "short chemise" or "short undergarment".

Hyphenated, Cutty-sark was a nickname given to the witch Nannie, a fictional character created by Robert Burns in his ''Tam o' Shanter, after the garment she wore. The figurehead of the tea clipper Cutty Sark'' is named after the character.


'' or cuttie (the diminutive form of cuttit, from Early Middle English cutte, kutte, cute'' "ugly") is "short" or "stumpy".

'' or serk (from Old English serc; Old Norse serk'') is a "shift", "chemise", or "shirt".

The earliest recorded literary usage of the term cutty sark (as opposed to older usage of the two separate words) is by Dougal Graham in c. 1779 (the year of his death): "A cutty sark of guide harn sheet, My mitter he pe spin, mattam."

Erotically beautiful witch

In Burns' 1791 poem Tam o' Shanter, the drunken Tam, riding home on his horse, happens upon a witches' ceilidh. Among the dancing figures is a particularly beautiful young witch named Nannie (Scots pet-form of Anna), "ae winsome wench and wawlie" (line 164). She is wearing a harn (linen) sark (nightshirt) which fitted her as a child but is now rather too short for her:

Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longtitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.
Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie
Wi' twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches)
Wad ever graced a dance of witches! (lines 171ff)
', "joyous, boasting"; ', "knew"; ', "bought"; ', "two".

Tam is so enthralled by the erotic spectacle that he cannot contain himself and yells out "Weel done, Cutty-sark!" (line 189). The witches are now alerted to his presence and pursue him. Tam heads for the river because according to folklore witches cannot cross water. He makes it across the bridge to safety, but not before Nannie, the "Cutty-sark", has torn the tail from his horse.

The poem ends ironically with a mock warning to all men of the devilish consequences of thinking about scantily-clad females.

The popularity of this poem was such that the phrase Well done, Cutty-sark! entered the English language via Scottish English as an exclamation similar to "Bravo!"

Other uses

Cutty Sark (usually with a capital S) was also borrowed in a variety of contexts for names of cultural entities and products, most famously a tea clipper and a brand of blended Scotch whisky. See:

Besides these, hotels, pubs, sports clubs and social clubs around the world have taken the words Cutty Sark into their names. In Scotland and areas with a strong Scottish ex-pat community, these are typically references to the poem; elsewhere they are more likely to be thinking of the ship.

Literary allusions to the original Cutty-sark abound. In Ulysses, James Joyce writes: "Laughing witches in red cutty sarks ride through the air on broom sticks" (p.695). Additionally, characters in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle drink Cutty Sark whisky.

See also

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