John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
Robert Burns (1759-96) is best known for his short poems in lowland Scots dialect, many of which were written during the years 1785 and 1786 and published in Kilmarnock in 1786 as “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish dialect”, the volume generally being known as “the Kilmarnock edition”. However, he later composed and edited many songs and ballads, some in dialect and others not, that are generally less well known although they do include some that are very well known indeed, such as “Auld Lang Syne” and “Scots Wha Hae”. One of these later poems is “Tam o’ Shanter” which, at 228 lines, is one of the longest poems Burns ever wrote.
The Auld Kirk, Alloway
Burns was keen that the antiquarian Francis Grose should include a drawing of Alloway Auld Kirk in his new book of “Antiquities of Scotland”, because the church, which was already a ruin in Burns’s time, was close to his childhood home and was where his father was buried in the churchyard. Grose replied that he would be happy to include the drawing as long as Burns wrote a poem to accompany it. The result, which was published in Grose’s book in 1791, but had been written in 1790, was “Tam o’ Shanter”. It was later reprinted in the Edinburgh Herald and the Edinburgh Magazine.
Burns made use of local stories about the Auld Kirk being haunted, and may also have incorporated tales about real people who lived in the area, notably a well-known drunk and his nagging wife, both of whom were still alive when the poem was published. There are therefore several elements of the poem that are not original to Burns, although his particular telling of the story certainly is.
The poem, in rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameters, begins with a short discourse on how easy it is to sit drinking in the pub and forget about the journey home:
Where sits our sulky sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
Although the reader appears to be being recruited on Tam’s side of the marital divide, the other point of view is soon expressed as his wife Kate’s opinion is advocated as being soundly based:
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober;
We are then introduced to Tam, who is drinking with his friends in a pub in Ayr, some miles from his home to the south. Eventually, he realises that he has to leave, and it is interesting that the vocabulary that Burns uses to point out Tam’s realisation is not in Ayshire Scots at all, but standard English:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Tam sets out into a storm, riding his faithful mare Meg (also called Maggie) and “holding fast his gude blue bonnet”. However, as they approach the kirk at Alloway, where they must cross the River Doon, Tam hears the noise of “mirth and dancing” above the storm and sees strange lights through the trees.
There is then a reminder of Tam’s drunken state and the reader is again included among those for whom alcohol can have unfortunate consequences:
Wi’ tippeny [ale], we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae [whisky], we’ll face the devil!
Maggie the mare is reluctant to go any closer but Tam urges her on. What he sees is full-blown witches’ Sabbath taking places in the church, with the Devil himself playing the bagpipes. The scene is lit by corpses, standing upright in their coffins, who each hold a candle. On the church altar is an array of objects associated with murder and death, such as knives, bones and ropes. Burns could not resist the temptation to have a dig at two classes of people who offended him, so he included these four lines:
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Three Lawyers’ tongues, turn’d inside out,
Wi’ lies seam’d like a beggar’s clout;
And Priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile, in every neuk.
Burns was forced to remove these lines before Tam o’ Shanter could be published in Edinburgh, but they have found their way back in modern editions.
As they dance, and the music becomes “fast and furious” (incidentally, four lines of standard English appear at this point, for no obvious reason), the witches start to undress until they are in their “sarks” or undershirts. Burns offers the opinion that, had the witches been young and buxom, he would have given up his best breeches for a view of them dancing in their skimpy sarks, but, given that these are old and ugly witches, he wonders that the sight did not turn Tam’s stomach with disgust.
However, the fact is that there is one witch who does attract Tam’s attention. This is young Nannie, who is “a souple jade, and strang”. She so entices Tam that he cannot take his eyes off her in her “cutty sark”, by which is meant a revealing short shirt or chemise. Eventually he forgets himself and shouts out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” The whole coven of witches now realise that they are being watched and turn their attention to Tam.
Fortunately for Tam, his mare Maggie has more sense that he does and starts off for the bridge over the river, which is only a few hundred yards away, with all the witches in pursuit.
At this point Burns adds a useful footnote for anyone caught is similar circumstances:
It is a well known fact that witches, or any evil spirits, have no power to follow a poor wight any further than the middle of the next running stream. It may be proper likewise to mention to the benighted traveller, that when he falls in with bogles, whatever danger there may be in his going forward, there is much more in turning back.
Nannie, being the youngest witch, is ahead of the rest as Tam and Maggie reach the bridge and, as Maggie makes one last effort to escape, she grabs hold of the mare’s tail and pulls it off:
The carlin claught her by the rump
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
The poem concludes quickly with the moral of the tale, which is:
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o‘Shanter’s mare.
(Four more standard English lines, incidentally)
A Bonnet and a Famous Ship
Tam o’ Shanter is one of the best mock-heroic poems in English, having all the required elements of a wayward man getting his come-uppance but with a happy ending, the forces of good and evil brought into close contact, a furious chase, a good story well told, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek comment by the narrator.
The poem caught the public imagination and has been regarded as one of Burns’s best works ever since its publication. There is a Scottish bonnet known as a “tam o’shanter”. In 1869 a tea clipper was launched and given the name “Cutty Sark” as being appropriate for a ship built for speed. The ship survives to this day (much restored) and one of its features is the figurehead of a bare-breasted witch holding a mare’s tail. In 1955 the English composer Malcolm Arnold wrote a lively overture entitled Tam o’Shanter that includes all the elements of the poem such as Tam getting drunk, the wild storm, the witches’ orgy, the chase to the bridge and Tam’s escape.
Although Tam o’Shanter is more than 200 years old, and much of its language is unfamiliar to most readers, it is still a lively and exciting bit of fun that will doubtless provide enjoyment to readers and listeners for many years to come.
Jo Miller from Tennessee on January 28, 2019:
My husband frequently reads Burns' poems to me, but he always changes the dialect to our standard English. We probably miss something this way, though, but he feels he could not do it justice.
I enjoyed your discussion of this poem.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 22, 2019:
Robert Burns is one of my favourite poets. I have yet to visit Scotland though, but I hope I will be able to and it's a lovely country.