Cutty Sark

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X:1 T:Cutty Sark C:John Cumming (Inverness) M:C L:1/8 R:Reel B: Joseph Lowe - Lowe's Collection of Reels, Strathspeys and Jigs, B:book 1 (1844–1845, p. 12) Z:AK/Fiddler’s Companion K:G D|G2 {c}BA G2 DB|G2 BG (dG)Bg|G2 {c}BA G2 AB|cABG ADFA| G2 {c}BA G2 DF|GABc dGBg|bagf g2 Bd|(cA)BG ADFA|| d<B Tg2 d<B Tg2|g2 Bc (dB)dTg|GABc dB g2|(ed)cB ADFA| d<B Tg2 d<BTg2|g2 Bc (dB)dg|bagf egdb|caBg ADFA||

CUTTY SARK. Scottish, Reel (whole time). G Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AB. Attributed to John Cumming by Joseph Lowe (1844) and by Keith Norman MacDonald in his Skye Collection (1886). John Noble recorded many sketches of life in 19th century Inverness, Scotland, collected and published in a volume called Miscellanea invernesslana[1]. In a chapter on local fiddlers, he explains:

John Cumming— or "Jockie" Cumming, as the name he was best known by — was a contemporary of Donald Davidson, and survived him for many years. "Jockie" had early joined the Inverness Militia, in which he served for a long period, having risen to the rank of Sergeant, and passed ultimately into the band. Our earliest recollections of him was performing on the trombone in the procession of the Justiciary Lords on Circuit, from the Caledonian Hotel to the Castle. "Jockie" was not in such repute as Davidson, and others, we have mentioned, as a player at dances, but he always played in the orchestra at ihe Northern Meeting Balls, while the music was in charge of Mr Joseph Lowe, dancing master of Edinburgh, Inverness, &c. Cumming was a composer of Reels and Strathspeys, and some of them have been found worthy of a place in Lowe's Collections, notably "Cutty Sark." The origin of this Strathspey was curious, and we give it as repeated to us by a son of the composer: — Passing down one day the Old Meal Market Close, off the High Street, 'Jockie' witnessed a quarrel of words and blows between two noted characters who resided in the close — viz, Nannie Kennedy, and another called Mary Fraser — "Mary Cod." Kennedy was the mother of a local character, "Willie" Thompson, who used to serve as porter to Donald Fraser, ironmonger, and others — the lady with the fishy cognomen acted as fish carrier to several of the houses of the neighbouring gentry. Cumming, as we have said, witnessing the fight between these worthies, and the vocable squabble carried on in Gaelic, was so tickled with the scene and sounds that immediately on getting to his home, a few doors further down the same thoroughfare, he noted down a musical imitation of the strange scene he had seen, and the Gaelic expletives which he had listened to, and "Cutty Sark" was the result. "Cromarty Janet" and "Half Moon" are other compositions of his, which found some local fame among players.

Mr Joseph Lowe, who was teacher of Highland dancing to the Royal Family, thought so much of Cumming's playing of Reels and Strathspeys, that "Jockie" got an invitation to play at Buckingham Palace. Proceeding to London, which he did by sea, he arrived in the great City, but failed to report himself.

Poor Cumming had got entangled among some boon companions in the purlieus of Drury Lane, from which he never emerged until he was literally cleaned out of every article that could be turned into money. Without experience, and a simplicity of character that rendered him a fit object for the imposition of the worthless characters that he had fallen amongst, he was cast out to wander for weeks homeless and penniless through the wilderness of London. Driven to great straits — even to wanting a bed — for some weeks sleeping in Hyde Park, he met at last one day a former Inverness acquaintance who got his story, and provided him with some means to tide over for a few days. This friend brought Uumraiug's case before some countrymen, who provided the necessary funds to pay his return fare by the "Duchess of Sutherland" steamer to Inverness.

'Jockie' returned to Inverness, broken in body and health only to die. He lived for five weeks after his return, suffering, no doubt, from the effect of exposure and the want of food in his London experiences.

The last time we heard "Jockie" Cumming play was in the orchestra of the Theatre in Lowe's Hall, Church Street, when J. W. Anson, late stage manager of the Adelphi, London, and Secretary of the Royal Dramatic College, was lessee of Lowe's Hall. On that evening "Jockie" had three times to play "Morar Sheim" in response to the repeated calls of "Geordie Bean," who led the "Gods." "Jockie" had his reward in the loud applause and "well played" ejaculations of his aerial admirers.

The Cutty Sark is also the name of one of the most famous 'tea clippers' (a type of sleek, fast 19th century sailing ship, officially designated a 'composite built extreme clipper ship') built, and it is the only ship of its type to survive to the present day. Launched at Dumbarton on the River Clyde, Scotland, in 1869, over a century and a quarter later she is now in dry dock at Greenwich, England, near the Gipsy Moth IV. During her hey-day the Cutty Sark sailed on the China Tea Trade for only a few seasons without distinguishing herself, and when steam-ships drove out the clippers on the China routes her duties were shifted to the Australian wool trade. For that trade she proved to be a regularly fast sailer. In later life she was was sold to new owners, rerigged as a barquentine and renamed Mario do Ambaro. After World War I she was purchased by Captain Wilfred Dowman, restored, and saw service as a stationary training ship through the end of the 1940's when she became a museum ship.

The name of the ship probably derives from Robert Burns' poem, "Tam O'Shanter". Tam meets a group of witches, most of whom are ugly except for Nannie, who is young and beautiful. The dancing that ensues becomes more and more frenzied with the witches doffing their outergarments; Nannie is described as wearing only a "cutty sark", i.e., a short chemise or shirt, a garment like the modern slip (cutty = short). The term has come to mean, in Scottish dialect, a woman or hussy, and it is said that the ship Cutty Sark's figurehead is a representation of Burns' witch.

A whiskey from the Cardhu distillery bears the name along with a representation of the clipper ship on the label, and a John Cumming was involved with that enterprise. He leased Cardhu farm in 1811 and began to distill spirits from the property; this was illegal at the time, and Cumming was arrested several times until eventually whiskey distilling was legalized. Cumming built up the business and died in 1846.

Irish collector Francis O'Neill (1922) remarks: "Though plainly of Scotch origin both in name and tone, 'Cuttie Sark' is not to be found in any of the old Scotch or Miscellaneous Collections which have been examined. Translated in English, 'Cutty Sark' means Short Shirt, or Chemise, and as far as memory serves me, the above setting had been obtained from a comparatively modern manuscript obtained from Sergt. James O'Neill." Charles Gore notes similarities between the first turn of this tune and the strathspey "Clach na Cudain." See also another John Cumming composition, "Lowe's Reel."

Additional notes

Printed sources : - Kerr (Merry Melodies vol. 1), c. 1880; Set 11, No. 2, p. 8. Joseph Loew (Lowe's Collection of Reels, Strathspeys and Jigs, book 1), 1844-45; p. 12. MacDonald (The Skye Collection), 1887; p. 92. O'Neill (Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody), 1922; No. 285. Robbins Music Corp. (The Robbins collection of 200 jigs, reels and country dances), New York, 1933; No. 110, p. 35. Westrop (120 Country Dances, Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Strathspeys, Spanish Waltz etc. for the Violin), c. 1923; No. 100.

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  1. Found in the Cornell University Library DA 890.I6N74