The figurehead on the Cutty Sark is dramatic – a woman, all in white, wearing a flowing robe which leaves her upper body uncovered. He face is fixed in a scowl or grimace and she is reaching out with one arm, the hand holding, oddly, a large tuft of hair. She is the witch, Nannie Dee, from Robert Burn’s poem, Tam o’Shanter. The figurehead itself tells the story of why the grand old ship is named Cutty Sark.
In Burn’s poem, Tam o’Shanter stays too long drinking at the pub and on his way home witnesses strange goings-on in a church yard. In the Alloawy Kirk, he sees witches and warlocks and even the devil himself dancing and cavorting in wild abandon. Tam is particularly taken by a young witch, Nannie Dee, “ae winsome wench and wawlie,” dancing nearly naked in a small nightgown, called a cutty sark, that she has clearly outgrown. It a fit of passion Tam calls out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
The witches and devils take off after Tam, who jumps of his horse and rides for the nearby bridge across a local stream, because according to folklore, witches cannot cross running water. He nearly makes good his escape but Nannie Dee manages to grab Tam’s horse’s tail, which comes off. Tam crosses the bridge and she is left scowling, holding the tuft of horse’s hair.
The figurehead is wrapped in irony. The witch is attired in more of a Grecian robe than a Scottish “cutty sark,” which is described as a short chemise. And though the figurehead is painted white it is also clear that Nannie Dee is no “white witch.” The greatest irony of all is that the figurehead of the ship that crossed so many oceans is of a witch that could not so much as cross a moving stream.
All the same, it is easy to understand Tam’s exuberance. “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” Weel done, indeed.