The Ship and the Skimpy Night-dress

Imagine that you just built a graceful sailing ship – a tea clipper, no less – and have to come up with a name for it…  Any ideas? No? Well, if you’re short of ideas, allow me to suggest you a name. How about the Skimpy Night-dress?


Because that’s exactly what a Scottish ship-builder chose for his ship’s name. In the Scottish dialect too, that none of the rest of the world can understand without a dictionary. At this point, if you’re a tea clipper enthusiast or a member of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, then you probably realised that the ship under discussion is the Cutty Sarkcutty apparently means skimpy or short and sark means a night-dress, a chemise or an undergarment.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about the Cutty Sark on a book blog, it’s because I like ships. And because it was raining all over half-term. And (just incidentally) because the name of the Cutty Sark originates in literature.

When he named the Cutty Sark, the Scottish ship-builder in question was evidently either fuelled by the national drink, aka whisky, the national sentiment, aka Mel Gibson with blue face paint, or… Or maybe he was just fond of bad poetry. Apologies to any admirer of Robert Burns here but I consider him one of the worst national poets I had the misfortune to have to study – he’s right up there at the top of my list with Sándor Petőfi, the Hungarian national poet, in fact. Petőfi inspired the idle by-standers of Pest-Buda (as it was then called) on 15 March 1848 to revolt against the Habsburgs with a rousing albeit simplistic poem, the National Song, and died a heroic death a year later at the battle of Segesvár fighting for his country’s freedom but in my eyes this does not excuse most of his poetry – such as the unforgettably horrific My Mother’s Hen. As for Burns, you’re all very fond of singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year’s Eve and a dainty tune it is – as is Scots Wha Hae and I’m quite fond of bagpipes – but that doesn’t excuse him writing poems like To a Louse (for some reason a favourite of the literature curriculum).

But the Cutty Sark! (I hear you all crying.)

The poem under advertisement here is Tam o’Shanter by Robert Burns and it’s a mock heroic poem, written in such a broad Scottish dialect that the rest of the UK can only read it in English translation…

The poem tells how Tam o’Shanter, a good-for-nothing farmer got drunk as usual one night and was riding home on his horse Meg. On his way he passed a church where he saw witches dancing. Much taken by the dancing of the scantily dressed young witch Nannie, he so far forgot himself that he cried out: “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” (Well done, Skimpy-skirt!)  Nannie evidently was not fond of audience participation because she went after him with a vengeance. He fled across the stream (apparently witches can’t cross water) but before he managed to get away, Nannie pulled off poor Meg’s tail – barely leaving her with a small stump!

Hence the Cutty Sark figurehead:

Cutty Sark P1010234 Reduced

If you don’t believe me – visit the National Maritime Museum’s blog here.

P.S. If you want to appreciate the true horrors of My Mother’s Hen, on this webpage somebody went to the trouble of translating it (scroll down the page to the second post by Andrea, first text is the Hungarian original followed by a very competent English translation).

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