cuttel

In the Shetland Islands, 15th? – 18th centuries?, a unit of length whose importance lay in its use in a kind of currency, the values of items, including taxes, being stated in terms of cuttels of wadmæl, a kind of woolen cloth. In Norse, the islanders called it an alin. David Balfour's assertion that it was equal to the Scottish ell (= 37 inches) appears to be incorrect. In fact, it appears to have been extremely variable, but always smaller than the Scottish ell.

The name itself suggests that the unit was shorter than the Scottish ell. Cutty or cuttie, meaning “short,” is a common Scottish word (e.g., “cutty sark”, a short chemise); “from the Gaelic cutach, that has been cut, abridged, or shortened.”¹ From cuttie ell to cuttel is a short step.

Brian Smith² suggests the cuttell was influenced by the Norwegian stikke of 22 inches and the Danish Själland ell of 25 inches. A court record of 1598 says it is ¾ of a Scottish ell (so 27¾ inches). Early 17th century sources give 20.8 and 25.4 inches; late 18th, 24 inches.³

1. Charles Mackay.
A Dictionary of Lowland Scotch...
London: Whittaker and Co., 1888.

Mackay was an expert on Gaelic; other authorities trace “cutty” to Early Middle English.

2. Brian Smith.
The humble cuttell.
The New Shetlander, number 165, pages 10-11 (1988).

3. Connor and Simpson, page 706. 

Thomas Gifford.
An Historical Description of the Zetland Islands.
London: printed by and for J. Nichols, 1786.

Page 62.

sources

1

CUTTEL, ELL, N[orse]. Alin, ulna. A measuring rod of the length of a Scottish Ell, used in Zetland as the fundamental unit of Length and of Valuation. A Cuttel of Wadmæl bore a Standard value of 6d. Scots — 6 cuttels being equal to an Eyrir or “Ure” of Valuation; 20 Cuttels = to a sheep, and six score or a “Large Hundred” to an ox. The value of the cuttel was raised to 2 shillings by Earl Robert.

David Balfour.
Oppressions of the Sixteenth Century in the Islands of Orkney and Zetland from Original Documents.
Edinburgh, 1859.
Page 125.

2

...a shilling of wadmill is 6 cuttals or curtele, i.e. shortell, a measure containing 24 canches in length. ... The wadmill rent being converted to money, the cuttel is a groat, six whereof being a shilling, as marked in the rental, that is a Zealand zullen, which is 24 shillings Scots, or 2 shillings.

Thomas Gifford.
Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica. No. XXXVII.
An Historical Description of the Zetland Islands.

London: printed by and for J. Nichols, 1786.
Page 62.

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