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Tam O'Shanter And Nannie The Witch

As we all know, Cutty Sark is the clipper ship displayed at Greenwich.

The word clipper comes from the fact that these sleek, fast ships “clipped” time off the journey from far away lands back to English ports.

The name Cutty Sark was derived from Robbie Burns’s epic poem Tam O’ Shanter. The poem tells that Tam, riding his mare Meg, was on his way home after a heavy drinking session and came upon a gathering of warlocks and witches in the old Alloway Kirk (church). There were open coffins and even the devil himself in attendance.

As the company danced and threw off their clothing, Tam’s attention was taken by one of the witches, Nannie, who was wearing a cutty sark – a shift – that was far too small for her and left very little to Tam’s imagination.

In his enthusiasm Tam, shouted out, “Weel done, Cutty Sark!” Instantly, the music stopped and the warlocks and witches started to pursue Tam. Urging Meg to gallop her fastest, he flew for his life, pursued by the devilish horde, in the vanguard of which was Nannie.

Tam’s only hope was to cross the bridge over the nearby River Doon (the origin for the name Brigadoon), for witches cannot cross running water. Tam and Meg had almost reached safety, when Nannie threw herself at Meg, catching her tail. The mare leapt over the bridge to safety, but left her tail in Nannie’s hand.

To this day, if you go to Greenwich you will see that the figurehead of Cutty Sark is of Nannie the Witch, still clutching Meg’s tail, indicating that this ship was even faster than Tam’s horse, Meg.

It is interesting that Cutty Sark, built in 1869, the middle of the age of Victorian prudery, should have such a racy tale to her name.

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