“Tam o’ Shanter” is a narrative poem written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1790. First published in 1791, it is one of Burns’s longer poems, and employs a mixture of Scots and English.
The poem describes Tam’s encounter with a coven of witches, and the conclusion of one of his customary late-night celebrations in the Scottish town of Ayr. At the conclusion of one such late-night revel at the end of a market day, Tam rides home on his horse Meg while a storm is brewing. On the way he sees the local haunted churchAlloway Kirk and its graveyard provided the setting for Robert Burns's poem Tam o' Shanter. lit up, with witches and warlocks dancing and the Devil playing the bagpipes. Tam is still drunk, still upon his horse, just on the edge of the light, watching, amazed to see the place bedecked with gibbet irons and knives that had been used to commit murders, and other macabre artifacts. The witches are dancing as the music intensifies, and upon seeing one particularly wanton witch in a short dress he loses his reason and shouts, ‘Weel done, cutty-sark!’ (“cutty-sark”: short shirt). Immediately the lights go out, the music and dancing stops, and many of the celebrants race towards Tam, with the witches leading. He spurs Meg to turn and flee, driving her towards the River Doon, as the creatures dare not cross a running stream. But the pursuing witches come so close to catching Tam and Meg that they pull off Meg’s tail just as she reaches the Brig o’ DoonLate medieval bridge in Ayrshire, Scotland, best known as the setting for the final verse of Robert Burns's poem Tam o' Shanter..
Burns had asked the antiquarian Francis Grose to include an engraving of Alloway KirkAlloway Kirk and its graveyard provided the setting for Robert Burns's poem Tam o' Shanter., where the poet’s father was buried, in his Antiquities of Scotland, to which Grose agreed, but only on condition that Burns would supply an account of one of the witch legends surrounding the kirk to accompany the picture. Burns provided three, one of which told the story of Tam o’ Shanter; the poem first appeared in the Edinburgh Herald and the Edinburgh Magazine in March 1791.
Burns based the character of Tam o’ Shanter on Douglas Graham (1739–1811), a friend who lived at Shanter Farm, about half a mile (0.8 km) inland from the fishing village of Maidens in South Ayrshire, near Kirkoswald.
When chapmenAn itinerant peddler or hawker. 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.
The poem, one of Burns’s longest at 274 lines, is written in 20 verses each composed of rhyming couplets. What appears here is a condensed version, in which some verses are omitted; a link to the full version can be found at the end of this article.
• drouthy: thirsty, addicted to drink.
• nappy: strong ale or liquor.
• unco: abbreviated form of “uncouth”.
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.)
The football club Ayr United F.C. adopted the nickname “The honest men”.
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.
Burns reveals a prophecy made by Tam’s wife, Kate.
• skellum: a scoundrel, a rogue.
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.
Tam continues drinking with his best friend Souter Johnny, and flirts with the landlady of the pub, Kirkton Jean, as a storm gathers outside.
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.
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.
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.
The sight Tam witnesses is the kirk ablaze with light, revealing dancing witches and warlocks, open coffins, and the Devil himself.
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 her wee Nannie, Wi' twa pund Scots, ('twas a' her riches), Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!
Tam manages to watch silently until the dancing witches, having cast off most of their clothes, he is beguiled by one particularly comely witch, Nannie, whose shirt (cutty-sark) is too small for her.
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 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.
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 ndash; 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.
- Full text of the poem from Project Gutenberg
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