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SeawitchArtist: The Cutty Sark's Figurehead .  The Cutty Sark gets her name from garment worn by a young Scottish witch called Nannie in the Robert Burns poem Tam O'Shanter  written in 1790. In the poem a drunk farmer called Tam while riding home happens upon a group of witches and warlocks dancing within the churchyard (or kirkyard) of Kirk Alloway, a derelict church. The devil himself was sat there playing the bagpipes to which they danced around. Tam watched them discreetly and after they stopped Tam carelessly applauded the witch Nannie Dee who had caught his eye, calling out to her 'Well done Cutty Sark'

The Cutty Sark's Figurehead

The  tea clipper Cutty Sark gets her name from the garment worn by a young Scottish witch called Nannie in the Robert Burns poem Tam O' Shanter  written in 1790. In the poem a drunk farmer called Tam while riding home happens upon a group of witches and warlocks dancing within the churchyard (or kirkyard) of Kirk Alloway, a derelict church. The devil himself was sat there playing the bagpipes to which they danced around. Tam watched them discreetly and after they stopped Tam carelessly applauded the witch Nannie Dee who had caught his eye, calling out to her  'Weel done Cutty Sark' ...not knowing her name he had addressed her by her attire, a Cutty Sark ....Scottish for short shirt or shift, this of course betrayed his presence to them and they immediately gave chase.

Tam O'Shanter watches, or spies, on the witch Nannie dancing in her short shift...cutty sark.

Tam fled on the back of his horse Maggie (sometimes named Meg) toward the bridge over the nearby river Doon, folklore had it that witches could not cross running water, that this be rubbish we won't discuss. Nannie was right behind him and managed to grab and pull off the horses tail just before Tam reached the bridge, and this is what is held in the figureheads outstretched hand. Tam's escape was a narrow one!

Tam O'Shanter being chased over bridge by the Witch Nannie

Above: Acrylic painting on Cutty Sark.

Nannie the witch in a cutty sark chases Tam O'Shanter across the bridge pulling out horse tail..

Above:  The chase  of Tam O' Shanter by the witch Nannie over the river Doon bridge scene on antique papier mache box of about 1835, courtesy Hygra.com

The story puts paid to any idea the figurehead might cause that Nannie Dee was a white witch , actually royal navy style white figureheads were a trend among tea clippers that may have been started by the  tea clipper  Ariel , I would need more research to be sure. The sexy dress worn by the figurehead  may have offered a view of lovely tits to oggle for generations of commuters emerging from the nearby Rotherhithe foot tunnel  but it's not the short shift or chemise described in the poem, that garment is better represented by the ships weathervane .  I'm sure it was expedient for the designer  of the figurehead ,  Hercules Linton who also designed the ship, to have this dress to make a form that would fit the ships bow well . According to some sources it was carved by  master craftsman E.  Hellyer , of Blackwall,  but members of the Hellyer family themselves confirm it was a Fredrick  Hellyer in correspondence with me .

The figurehead  lost it's head and an arm in a storm in the late nineteenth century , it was found on board and repaired in 1970. 

The original figurehead of the Cutty Sark displayed within the hold.

The original Figurehead

The original figurehead that's on display within the ship holds a real horses tail in it's hand, but the one on the bow, holds one made from rope as was the case at sea, as the ship approached port an apprentice would be tasked with making one from rope.  I have made one myself from a piece of rope rescued from the bottom of the dry dock the ship sits in, I use it as a scourge, one that is certainly ceremonial as you could barely swat a fly with it, if I really wanted to hurt myself I have many options , however it certainly looks good on the altar of a Sea Witch!  The gold stripes on her dress here would influence a witch painting of my own.....Sea Witch

The current figurehead on the bow was commissioned  in 1956 and made in 1957. It is made from a 9 ft block of laminated Canadian white pine from the Blind river district of  Ontario and carved by Arthur Levinson

Cutty sark figurehead in 1922

The figurehead in the early 1920's, looking rather different!

 

 Cutty Sark's weathervane,   scourge

Weathervane and witches scourge

 The Cutty Sark's weathervane , and right, my scourge, made of rope from the ship, is a replica horses tail!  I had retrieved this piece of rope from the floor of the dry dock that this tea clipper is now berthed in, it had clearly come from the lower rigging as it had a lot of pine tar, otherwise known as Stockholm tar on it, it took a lot of cleaning but I ended up  with something special and authentic.

Cutty Sark Figurehead from under the Bowsprit and Dolphin catcher.

For very high resolution click image..

The Cutty Sark's Bow

Another picture of the figurehead, this time directly in front of the bow and under the Bowsprit, the near horizontal mast at the front. The central chain you see is one of those that lead to the so called Dolphin catcher   a downward pointing brace.

Cutty Sark Witch Nannie, post restoration. She was not burned at the stake!

For very high resolution click image..

The Cutty Sark's Witch Restored

Nannie the Witch is looking her best lately.  So is the whole ship after a huge refit that was nearly for nothing when a huge blaze engulfed the ship on 21 May 2007. Thankfully Nannie the figurehead was, along with 50% of the ships wooden items and all her exhibits, away elsewhere when the fire struck. So she was not to be the last Witch burned in Britain. It's a shame she isn't nude witch, Skyclad, that delightful pagan name for nudity, would make a fitting name for a flyer like this tea clipper was!

The cathead cat with it's cats head carving and a resin replica

Cathead Cat

To the minds of many a Witch will always have a familiar  ,  usually a cat, Nannie the figurehead never had less than two ships cats to keep her company.  In the days before the stock was removed from the anchor so it's shank could be drawn inboard ships anchors were operated from a pair of wooden beams called the Catheads, these were either side of the bows a carving of a cats head was a very common decoration  for ships carvers to add and the Cutty Sark was no exception. Above  (left) is a photo of the starboard Cathead with it's cats head carving. The resin replica on the right was a souvenir purchased in the Bosun's Locker, the ships shop . The term is also used in the oil and gas drilling industry by the way, where it is a spool shaped attachment on winches for winding handling ropes around.

 

The Long John Silver Figurehead collection in the Sammy Ofer gallery within the dry dock below the Cutty Sarks bows.

For very high resolution click image..

The Long John Silver Collection

The Sammy Ofer Gallery under the ships bows in the dry dock holds the largest collection of merchant ships figureheads in the world, all are part of the Long John Silver collection with the exception of Nannie you see at the top. Long John Silver who was really called Sydney Chambers (1873-1959) was an enthusiastic collector of maritime artefacts and he donated the figureheads seen here to the Cutty Sark in 1953. Many are from unknown ships, presumably wrecked, some others are of Victorian celebrities like General Gordon, Disraeli and Florence Nightingale. He dedicated his collection of 101 figureheads to the 'Little Ships' of the Dunkirk evacuation of the British expeditionary force from France in 1940.

Cutty Sark Tea Clipper at Greenwich Maritime district in south east London

 The Cutty Sark

A look at the old clipper ship from the stern in it's dry dock before the latest restoration. She sat lower in the dock those days, lying on her keel for which it wasn't really suited, that has been changed.  The four flags you see flying below the Red Ensign at the mizzen are the ships signal letters JKWS,  this would identify her to other ships passing at sea, useful in an era without radio to report each others progress at the next port. The Muntz metal plating *on the hull, looking much brighter recently was to protect the ship from the wood boring mollusc with the misleading names of Teredo worm , or Shipworm. How much rigging is there on the Cutty Sark? Eleven miles all told! The tarpaulin  you see over the boom spar would keep the watch keepers out of the sun in port or at anchor, and keep the officers cabins and saloon below cooler.

* An economical option to copper plating, Muntz metal is 60% copper, 40% zinc and has a little iron in it. More... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muntz_metal

 

All text and marked images and linked images are 2003-2016 George Rix .If you require any further information on permitted use, or a licence to republish any material, email me at copyright@seawitchartist.com

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