"Weel done, Cutty-sark"--from poem to sailing ship to whisky: What's in a name?


"Weel done, Cutty-sark."

From the original meaning of the term in the Scots language, through its use by the poet Robert Burns, to its adoption as the name of one of the leading 19th century British tea ships and later as the trademark and brand of a popular Scotch whisky, few terms have seen their meaning reinvented as has “cutty sark”. So, Kat readers are invited to pour a glass of “Cutty Sark” whisky (or any other beverage of their choice) and join this Kat in recalling the singular journey of this term.

It begins with the meaning of the phrase “cutty sark” in the Scots language. It seems that, by the 18th century, “sark” came to mean a shirt, undershirt or undergarment”, while “cutty” came to mean “cut-down” or “short”. So, roughly speaking, the phrase referred to a “shortish undergarment”. To put it in Netflix perspective, if you are (as is Mrs. Kat) a fan of the series “Outlander”, set in 18th - century Scotland, the term would have felt totally at home.

“Cutty- sark” might have forever remained part of a language little known beyond its immediate locale, if the national bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, had not employed the term in his famous poem, “Tam o’Shanter” (published in 1791). Burns tells the story of the drunken Tam, riding home on his horse, who comes upon a witches’ dance. He observes them from the side, taking particular note of a beautiful young witch named Nannie Dee, described as an “ae winsome wench and wawlie" (line 164). Burns then goes on--
Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn,

That while a lassie she had worn,

In longitude tho' sorely scanty,

It was her best, and she was vauntie.

Ah! little kend thy reverend

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)
In vernacular English--
Her short underskirt, o’ Paisley cloth,

That while a young lass she had worn,

In longitude though very limited,

It was her best, and she was proud. . .

Ah! little knew your reverend grandmother,

That underskirt she bought for her little granddaughter,

With two Scots pounds (it was all her riches),

Would ever graced a dance of witches!


Tam gets so caught up in the eroticism of the moment that he yells out--
"Weel done, Cutty-sark!" (line 189).
The witches are now aware of his presence and pursue him. Tam heads off to the river Doon, since witches cannot cross running water. He makes it across the bridge, but not before Nanny has torn the tail from Tam's horse. Due to the popularity of the poem, "Well done, Cutty-sark”, came to mean something like-- “Bravo”.

Fast forward to the 1860’s, and the era of the tea clipper ship. One of the largest (and fastest) of such ships was built in 1869 on the River Leven, Dumbarton, Scotland and named the “Cutty Sark.” It turns out that on the ship’s figurehead was a carving of Nannie Dee, bare breasted with long black hair, holding a horse’s tail in her stand, all straight out of Tam o’Shanter.

Given that water was anathema to a witch, why choose for the ship the risqué image of Nannie Dee for the figurehead, as well as adopt her name? (Apparently, other elements from the poem were also included as part of the ship's original ornamentation.) Perhaps it was found in the power of the poem in the cultural identity of Scotland, as epitomized by the image conjured up by the words "cutty- sark", and laced with a bit of eroticism for the benefit of the ship's crew.

Whatever the reason, the term simultaneously (at least for a time) came to enjoy diverse meanings in both two and three dimensions, as a laudatory phrase, a poetic character, and the name of a word-carving that adorned an ocean schooner. Why--"at least for a time"? Because, in 1895, a Portuguese company, Ferreira and Company, bought the ship and renamed it "Ferreira".

But the ship, together with its original name, came back to the British Isles in 1922, when it was purchased by a retired sea captain and moved to Cornwall, there it served as a training ship. Later, in 1938, it was moved to the Thames Nautical Training College. Only in 1954 did it find its way to permanent dry dock at Greenwich. Since that time, is there a tourist to London who has not made a pilgrimage (including this Kat and Mrs. Kat) to visit the Cuttty Sark?

But decades before the Cutty Sark in Greenwich was on its way to becoming a household tourist name and site, the term had gained world-wide recognition in a totally unrelated area—Scotch whisky. On March 23, 1923, a whisky producer, Berry Bros. & Rudd, launched from the whisky heartland of Scotland, Speyside, a blended whisky that they called “Cutty Sark”.

Only a short while before then, the ship had been repatriated to the British Isles, to what appears to have been substantial media attention. One can surmise that this media frenzy in connection with this 19th-century icon of Scottish shipbuilding, together with the enduring popularity in Scotland of the Tam O’Shanter poem and the term “cutty shark”, all came together in naming this new Scotch whisky "Cutty Shark", whose reputation then spread around the world.

But it was not only the name and brand that connects “Cutty Sark” to the whisky. Anyone who is familiar with Scotch whisky will associate the bottle with the drawing of the ship, made in 1955 by the Swedish artist Carl Georg August Wallin. Once again, the term and the eponymous ship had been reunited.  [Merpel notes that  Cutty Sark-branded whisky is also distinguished by its green-colored bottle and the yellow-colored background to the label.]

The whisky also played a part in the 1920’s by enabling whisky-thirsty Americans, chafing under the restrictions of Prohibition, to enjoy a quality drink (much better than a swig of foul moonshine). [Merpel notes that Prohibition was a failed early 20th century attempt by certain religious groups  in the U.S. (and elsewhere) to seek to impose their moral strictures against alcohol on entire national populations.]

Cutty Sark whisky was a prime product destination for smugglers and enjoyed wide drinking popularity among those who could find a way to secure a bottle (or two). [Merpel adds that perhaps the best-known smuggler was Bill McCoy, whence the phrase "The Real McCoy" likely derived.]

So much had the whisky gained name recognition in the U.S that, when Prohibition came to an end, Berry Bros. & Rudd was ideally placed to distribute its Cutty Sark whisky products legally into the U.S. Indeed, it was the first Scotch whisky to sell over a million cases in the US. One suspects that Nannie Dee would have been proud.

A closing IP comment—has there ever been another name and brand that has enjoyed a trajectory as diverse as Cutty Sark? To the name and mark one must add a bit of artistic craftsmanship in the figure of Nannie on the ship and the two-dimensional artistic rendition of the ship on the whisky bottle, functioning as a source indicator. And one should not forget derivative public performances based on the Cutty-sark character in the poem.

While these developments were hardly on Robert Burns' mind (and Tam o’Shanter’s libido), when Tam eyed Nannie Dee from the side, IPKat concurs fully with Tam's observation—
“Wewl done, Cutty- sark.”
By Neil Wilkof

Picture in the middle is by Internet Archive Book Images and is taken from Flickr's The Commons (https://flckr.com/commons).

Picture on right by Sanba38 and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Picture on left is taken from www.cutty-sark.co

"Weel done, Cutty-sark"--from poem to sailing ship to whisky: What's in a name? "Weel done, Cutty-sark"--from poem to sailing ship to whisky: What's in a name? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Tuesday, November 12, 2019 Rating: 5

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