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Tam o' Shanter

When chapman billies leave the street, And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet; As market days are wearing late, And folk begin to tak the gate, While we sit bousing at the nappy, An' getting fou and unco happy, We think na on the lang Scots miles, The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles, 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 taen 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 na sober; That ilka melder wi' the Miller, Thou sat as lang as thou had siller; That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on The Smith and thee gat roarin' fou on; That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday, Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday, She prophesied that late or soon, Thou wad 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 Johnie, His ancient, trusty, drougthy crony: Tam lo'ed him like a very brither; They had been fou for weeks thegither. The night drave on wi' sangs an' clatter; And aye 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 flow'r, 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 nor 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 grey mare, Meg, A better never lifted leg, Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire, Despising wind, and rain, and fire; Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet, Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet, Whiles glow'rin round wi' prudent cares, Lest bogles catch him unawares; Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh, Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry. By this time he was cross the ford, Where in the snaw the chapman smoor'd; And past the birks and meikle stane, Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane; And thro' the whins, and by the cairn, Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn; And near the thorn, aboon the well, Where 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' tippenny, 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 ventur'd forward on the light; And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight! Warlocks and witches in a dance: Nae cotillon, 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 screw'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 devilish cantraip sleight) Each in its cauld hand held a light. By which heroic Tam was able To note upon the haly table, A murderer's banes, in gibbet-airns; Twa span-lang, wee, unchristened bairns; A thief, new-cutted frae a rape, Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape; Five tomahawks, wi' blude red-rusted: Five scimitars, wi' murder crusted; A garter which a babe had strangled: A knife, a father's throat had mangled. Whom his ain son of life bereft, The grey-hairs yet stack to the heft; Wi' mair of horrible and awfu', Which even to name wad be unlawfu'. Three lawyers tongues, turned inside oot, Wi' lies, seamed like a beggars clout, Three priests hearts, rotten, black as muck, Lay stinkin, 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 linkit at it in her sark! Now Tam, O Tam! had they been queans, A' plump and strapping in their teens! Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flainen, Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen!- Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair, That ance were plush o' guid blue hair, I wad hae gien 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 an' flinging on a crummock. I wonder did na turn thy stomach. But Tam kent 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 her 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 power; To sing how Nannie lap and flang, (A souple jade she was and strang), And how Tam stood, like ane bewithc'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 a 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 skreich and hollow. Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin! In hell, they'll roast thee like a herrin! In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin! Kate soon will be a woefu' woman! Now, do thy speedy-utmost, Meg, And win the key-stone o' the brig; There, at them thou thy tail may toss, A running stream they dare na cross. But ere the keystane 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 grey tail: The carlin claught her by the rump, And left poor Maggie scarce a stump. Now, 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 rin in your mind, Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear; Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.


Brian Cox
Tom Fleming
Ian McDiarmid
Simon Tait
Karen Dunbar
Jonathan Watson
Multiple Readers

Chick Young


Karen Dunbar

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1790 and is read here by Brian Cox.

More about this poem

Justifiably Burns's most celebrated poem (it was indeed his own favourite), Scottish schoolchildren for generations have been familiarised with Tam's wild ride home.

The inspiration for the poem is localised, but the result is a poem with clear universal appeal. Burns's linguistic craftsmanship here reaches its frenzied forte.

Compositional history

'Tam o' Shanter' was composed to accompany a drawing of Alloway-Kirk in the second volume of Captain Francis Grose's Antiquities of Scotland (April 1791).

Burns specifically requested that Captain Grose include Alloway-Kirk in his volume, as it was the resting place of his father's bones and the projected resting place of his own. Grose agreed providing that Burns submit a witch story to accompany the drawing.

This arrangement may have been made as early as 1789, but the poem was not evidently composed until the autumn or winter of 1790.

In her memoirs, Mrs. Jean Burns recalls the autumnal day when her husband walked fitfully up and down the banks of the Nith, reciting loudly to himself the verses and rhymes that would eventually become 'Tam o' Shanter'.

The first recorded draft was sent to Mrs. Dunlop at Loudoun Castle in November 1790, and her correspondence with the poet reveals this draft to be a work in progress.

Burns sent a copy to Captain Grose on the 1st of December 1790, and the poem was printed as a reduced-type footnote in his antiquarian volume - a rather jaded presentation!

However, the poem was also published in The Edinburgh Herald (18 March 1791) and the Edinburgh Magazine (March 1791) and later was included in the Edinburgh Edition of 1793.

For the interested scholar, several manuscript copies survive.

Folkloric and Local Inspiration

In a letter to Captain Grose in the summer of 1790, Burns recounts three witch stories, two of which appear to form the folkloric roots of 'Tam o' Shanter'.

The first recites the adventures of a drunken farmer who courageously enters Alloway-Kirk on a stormy night after seeing strange lights. Within the Kirk he finds the remnants of an infernal meeting (boiling babes and the like!).

The second tale mirrors 'Tam o' Shanter' even more closely. A farmer on his way home from the market in Ayr comes across a party of wildly dancing witches in the Kirk.

The short sark of one member of the party inspires him to shout out and a diabolical chase to the brig of Doon commences. The farmer escapes, but his vigourous steed is sans a tail.

Burns was privy to a great wealth of supernatural tales through his mother and his childhood nurse, Betty Davidson, and he indicates that these particular tales represent only a small fraction of those surrounding Alloway-Kirk.

The Kirk had been abandoned since 1690, and the continued efforts of the community, including Burns's father, to preserve it from utter ruin made it a vivid focal point for local imagination.

Its geographical location, 200 yards north of the brig of Doon (the only crossing of the Doon River between Kyle and Carrick in the eighteenth century) also made it a memorable landmark for travellers. Luckily, everyone knows that the diabolical visitant cannot cross beyond the keystone of the brig.

Ayrshire locals claimed a more literal and contemporary inspiration for Burns's poem. The 'real' Tam o' Shanter may have been Douglas Graham (1739-1811), a tenant on the farm of Shanter. His wife, Helen McTaggart (1742-98), was as well known for her nagging as he was for his drinking.

After bouts of dissipation, Douglas is said to have blamed the Aryshire witches for lost possessions, including his mare's tail on one occasion. Tam's drinking companions are also said to be based on real persons.

The Poem

The range of style and diction employed by Burns enables a nearly cinematographic portrayal of Tam's tale. The narrator can both comment on Tam's story from afar and zoom in to see the action through Tam's eyes as he relays the tale to all of us who may 'sit bousing at the nappy'.

As he gets caught up in the tale, the pace increases and the language becomes more infiltrated with Scots. His moralising on the temporality of pleasures (i.e. boozing and flirting) is left in the dust as he himself is caught up in the hedonistic diabolical encounter.

After a long day of overindulgence, Tam makes his way home from Ayr through a roaring storm. Upon passing Kirk-Alloway, he sees an 'unco sight' - witches and warlocks dancing to the Devil's piping song.

Tam gaps with wonder at the filthy underbelly of civilisation: the bones, bodies, and weapons of murderers and thieves are laid upon a table alight with the candles of the dead.

Such sights should sicken him, but instead of turning away, he looks on and spies a buxom young witch whose scanty underclothes and vigorous dancing excite him to a fevered pitch.

His ejaculatory 'Weel-done, Cutty-Sark!' inspires the dramatic chase to the brig. Tam has transgressed the divide between this, the civilised world of decorum, and the other world of forbidden desires.

And what is the consequence? Does he drown in the Doon as his wife Kate prophesied? No, his poor mare Meg loses her tail! Tam's avoidance of all serious consequence negates the moralising coda.

Boozing and wenching, in direct contrast to the Protestant ideals of Burns's community, seem to in fact be held up as imaginative catalysts, albeit, dangerous ones.

Megan Coyer

Locations for this poem

Alloway Ayr

Selected for 18 January

One week from now, at commemorative suppers all over the world, there will be renditions of some of the Bard's best known works. So, in the run up to Burns Night, here is the poem Robert Burns, and many scholars, considered (and consider) his masterpiece. 'Frae November till October', hints at a Halloween scenario but January is when the poem is most often heard. The perfectly paced narrative makes thrilling use of local characters and is also remarkable for its interplay between Scots and English. Pleasures may indeed be fleeting: 'like poppies spread/You seize the flow'r its bloom is spread...'. Would-be performers have seven days rehearsal time to try and bring out the nail-gnawing drama, linguistic verve and eerie comedy of this mock heroic tour de force... But to our tale!

Donny O'Rourke

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