The legendary Tam O’Shanter sees Robert Burns tell the tale of Tam, a farmer from Ayr who is fond of the drinking sessions. Something else he is fond of is riding home drunk on his horse, going home late in the middle of the night from his regular Alloway pub. In this day and age, a spell in the middle of the night would be called the Witching Hour, with the witches often coming out to play; while the community sleeps away. The masterpiece has 224 lines in total and was written in a single day. A man named Francis Grose requested a song from Burns for volume two of his The Antiques of Scotland collection, and he came up with what is arguably his best work.
Douglas Graham of Shanter Farm was the inspiration behind the poem. Rabbie was always told stories by his mother when he was younger, and one involved Douglas Graham. He was a farmer and would often get drunk after the long market days, so the story goes. One night though his wife warned him that next time would be the last. The farmer didn’t listen and instead came up with a wild tale about how he was chased by witches, who stole his bonnet (he had earlier lost his bonnet while drunk so would have to make an excuse anyway). In this day and age their was alot of superstitious people who strongly believed in the supernatural- so the excuse was not a joke- and it was successful, with Douglas getting away with it.
Rabbie actually plucked the name Tam O’Shanter from this old tale aswell- as it used to be a common nickname for a popular type of Bonnet- the same bonnet Graham had claimed to his wife was snatched by the witches.
To the Tale
The masterpiece begins by Rabbie describing Tam’s situation. Its late, he is very drunk (as usual), its no easy path home- and home is also where his angry wife awaits. Tam has been at the market most of the day and has yet to even see or speak to her. The night had wore on quickly as Tam, and trusted old companion Soutter Johnny, enjoyed a heavy drinking session. So we can imagine Tam being slumped over the bar, hoping to get one last pint, probably unable to face the prospect of this tiring journey home, with a further storm waiting there. Poor Tam though, he is described as an honest man who would often be seen at night, most likely making this same journey back to his home in Ayr.
The farmer reluctantly leaves the pub and jumps on his trusted old horse, Meg. Heavy rain begins to fall and Tams mare begins. Tam may be lazy but he remains drunk- and is in fairly high spirits. As he makes his way down the street towards the river doon’ he passes the Alloway Auld Kirk, a church at the bottom of the street. To his surprise the Auld Kirk is lit up. Slowing down Meg, almost to a hault, Tam takes a closer look and sees witches, warlocks, and evil spirits- having what has been called the Devils Ceilidh. If this wasn’t enough- they were dancing to bagpipe music, which was being played by Auld Nick himself.
Remember though- Tam is drunk, and in a spirited state of his own. Tammie at this point seems to have taken the opportunity to have a few swigs of some whiskey he had taken from the pub, as the ploughmen poet talking about John Barleycorn would indicate. The now glowing (and clearly overconfident) Tam begins to see another opportunity- one that can only be described as fearlessly stupid and blind. Ever the old skellum, O’Shanter spots a witch, called Nannie, wearing a short dress. Tam shouts over to the scantly-dressed dancing witch “Weel done, cutty-sark”,- (with cutty-sark being an old Scottish saying meaning something along the lines of short shift, relating to her short dress). What reaction Tam was expecting to get nobody will ever know. Though through the bard, we know what happens next.
It doesn’t go to plan, for spying Tam. Nannie darts a look at the wasted farmer, before, like a cat, pouncing and charging towards him. Tam spins Meg around and slams the foot down. The pair aren’t that far from the river, where they will be safe upon crossing the bridge. Burns informs us this in the tale- the witches wont cross over water. Interestingly he felt the need to leave a footnote on the poem addressing this, and we can only guess why he felt it appropriate to do so-
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 may be in his going forward, there is much more hazard in turning back.Tam O’Shanter Footnote
So back to the story… Tam slams the foot down (aka leathers the horse with the whip like there was no tomorrow) with he and meg making it clear initially and rushing towards the Brig o’ Doon. The evils spirits and witches, particularly Nannie, are in hot pursuit. It looks to be all over at one point as a lunge from Nannie sees Tam nearly fall off the horse as they approach the safety of the bridge. Fortune proved to be on Tam’s side again though, but Meg wasn’t so lucky- one of the witches grabbed hold of her tail, and pulled it completely off. However, the two made it across the bridge to safety alive- relative safety that is… with Kate O’Shanter still waiting at home.
In the last verse Robert Burns gives us a message- to understand the message of the story. Heed his warning. The end of the poem can often bring confusion-“remember Tam O’ Shanter mare”. This is often thought to be a reference to Tams nightmare, though it seems “mare” is actually reference to the horse (with mare being an old Scottish term meaning horse). So it would seem it is ‘remember Meg, who lost her tail’, rather than ‘remember Tams nightmare’. You could look at it either way and it still works.
Its an absolute masterpiece. Its very cleverly written and the story pulls you in right from the start. Burns repeatedly changes the pace of the story very successfully. The marathon tale of all tales is arguably Burns most sophisticated poem, an epic by any standards. There is so much in the often lengthy verses- an outburst of words you could say (at various tempos). The poem seems to go on that long its almost funny in itself. As with most of Burns poems it was humorous, using alot of stereotypes, but he was never a spiteful writer. This poem, along with his other work, demonstrates why his work was always uniquely appealing to the mass- all classes, male or female.
Here it is in all its all of its glory…
When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth fand honest Tam o’ Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter,
(Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses
For honest men and bonie lasses.)
O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As ta’en thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
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;
That ilka melder, wi’ the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That every naig was ca’d a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on;
That at the Lord’s house, even on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon;
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.
Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen’d, sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
But to our tale:– Ae market-night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi’ reaming swats, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither–
They had been fou for weeks thegither!
The night drave on wi’ sangs and clatter
And ay the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
wi’ favours secret,sweet and precious
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E’en drown’d himsel’ amang the nappy!
As bees flee hame wi’ lades o’ treasure,
The minutes wing’d their way wi’ pleasure:
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious.
O’er a’ the ills o’ life victorious!
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;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
That hour, o’ night’s black arch the key-stane,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in;
And sic a night he taks the road in
As ne’er poor sinner was abroad in.
The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow’d:
That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.
Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg–
A better never lifted leg–
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire;
Despisin’ wind and rain and fire.
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
By this time he was cross the ford,
Whare, in the snaw, the chapman smoor’d;
And past the birks and meikle stane,
Whare drunken Chairlie brak ‘s neck-bane;
And thro’ the whins, and by the cairn,
Whare hunters fand the murder’d bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mungo’s mither hang’d hersel’.–
Before him Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm roars thro’ the woods;
The lightnings flash from pole to pole;
Near and more near the thunders roll:
When, glimmering thro’ the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem’d in a bleeze;
Thro’ ilka bore the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippeny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!–
The swats sae ream’d in Tammie’s noddle,
Fair play, he car’d na deils a boddle.
But Maggie stood, right sair astonish’d,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He scre’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.–
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And by some develish cantraip slight,
Each in its cauld hand held a light.–
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murders’s banes in gibbet-airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen’d bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi blude red-rusted;
Five scymitars, wi’ murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father’s throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o’ life bereft,
The gray hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi’ mair o’ horrible and awfu’,
Which even to name was be unlawfu’.
Three lawyers’ tongues, turn’d inside out,
Wi’ lies seam’d like a beggar’s clout;
Three priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile in every neuk.
As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark!
Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A’ plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir breeks o’ mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o’ gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi’en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o’ the bonie burdies!
But wither’d beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Louping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder did na turn thy stomach!
But Tam kend what was what fu’ brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and waulie,
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after ken’d on Carrick shore;
(For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish’d mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her cutty-sark, o’ Paisley harn
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie,-
Ah! little ken’d thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for he wee Nannie,
Wi’ twa pund Scots, (’twas a’ her riches),
Wad ever grac’d a dance of witches!
But here my Muse her wing maun cour;
Sic flights are far beyond her pow’r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch’d,
And thought his very een enrich’d;
Even Satan glowr’d, and fidg’d fu’ fain,
And hotch’d and blew wi’ might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason ‘ thegither,
And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.
As bees bizz out wi’ angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
As open pussie’s mortal foes,
When, pop! she starts before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When “Catch the thief!” resounds aloud;
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.
Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou’ll get thy fairin’!
In hell they’ll roast thee like a herrin’!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy commin’!
Kate soon will be a woefu’ woman!
Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o’ the brig;
There at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle –
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
**All of the ten paintings above were specially created for Oran Mor. The magnificent work is a depiction the story of Tam O’ Shanter, and was done by the fantastic Nichol Wheatley. His other work is excellent too, more than worth checking out- https://www.nicholwheatley.com/paintings/
**Outstanding from Karen Dunbar-