Tam o' Shanter (Burns poem)

Tam o' Shanter is considered to be one of Robert Burns' finest poems. It was written in 1790, and at about six A4 pages is one of his longest. The poem, first published in 1791, uses a mixture of Scots and English.

Many consider it one of the best examples of the narrative poem in modern European literature. It tells the story of a man who stayed too long at a public house and witnessed a disturbing vision on his way home.


The poem begins:

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.

After Burns has located us geographically:

(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonnie lasses).

(a quote that gave Ayr United F.C. their nickname "the honest men"), Tam sits and drinks with his friends, and the reader is regaled with a bad character reference of him by his wife:

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.

The wife, Kate, is portrayed as an authority to be feared. Then:

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!

Tam continues to drink and even flirts with the landlady of the pub. Eventually he mounts up and rides off on his grey mare Meg, for his long, dark, lonely ride home. Burns emphasises the spooky character of the Ayrshire countryside Tam has to ride through—but of course it is much easier as he is drunk:

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!

With the scene set, suddenly: "wow! Tam saw an unco sight!"

The sight he sees is Alloway Kirk, ablaze with light, where a weird hallucinatory dance involving witches and warlocks, open coffins and even the Devil himself is in full swing. The scene is told with grimly enthusiastic gothic attention to detail. Tam manages to watch silently until, the dancing witches having cast off most of their clothes, he is beguiled by one particularly comely female witch, Nannie, whose shirt (cutty-sark) is too small for her. He cannot help shouting out in passion:

Weel done, Cutty-sark!

And in an instant all was dark:

There is a chase and Tam’s evident pride in the ability of his horse is justified as she is able to help him to "win the key-stone o' the brig". (Witches and warlocks cannot cross running water.)

They only just make it though, as Nannie, first among the "hellish legion" chasing, grabs the horse's tail, which comes off.In fine, tongue-in-cheek (or is it?) moralistic mode, the poem concludes:

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


The poem first appeared in the "Edinburgh Magazine" for March 1791, a month before it appeared in the second volume of Francis Grose's Antiquities of Scotland, for which it was written. Robert Riddell introduced Burns to Grose. According to Gilbert Burns, the poet asked the antiquarian to include a drawing of Alloway Kirk when he came to Ayrshire, and Grose agreed, as long as Burns would give him something to print with it.

Burns wrote to Grose in June 1790, giving him three witch stories associated with Alloway Kirk, two of which he said were "authentic", the third, "though equally true, being not so well identified as the two former with regard to the scene". The second of the stories was, in fact, "Tam o' Shanter". This is Burns' prose sketch of it to Grose:

On a market-day, in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick, and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway kirk-yard, in order to cross the River Doon, at the old bridge, which is almost two or three hundred yards farther on than the said old gate, had been detained by his business till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard hour, between night and morning.
Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the kirk, yet as it is a well known fact, that to turn back on these occasions is running by far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road. When he had reached the gate of the kirk-yard, he was surprised and entertained, thorough the ribs and arches of an old gothic window which still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round their old sooty black-guard master, who was keeping them all alive with the power of his bagpipe. The farmer stopping his horse to observe them a little, could plainly desern the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman was dressed, tradition does not say; but the ladies were all in their smocks; and one of them happening unluckily to have a smock which was considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled that he involuntarily burst out, with a loud laugh, 'Weel luppen, Maggy wi' the short sark!' and recollecting himself, instantly spurred his horse to the top of his speed. I need not mention the universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream. Lucky it was for the poor farmer that the river Doon was so near, for notwithstanding the speed of his horse, which was a good one, against he reached the middle of the arch of the bridge and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing, vengeful hags were so close at his heels, that one of them actually sprung to seize him: but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the stream but the horse's tail, which immediately gave way to her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning; but the farmer was beyond her reach. However, the unsightly, tailless condition of the vigorous steed was to the last hours of the noble creature's life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers, not to stay too late in Ayr markets.

Thus began what was to be one of Burns' most sustained poetic efforts.

The story that the poem was written in a day was perpetrated by John Gibson Lockhart, aided by Allan Cunningham. Its subtle nuances of tempo, pace and tone suggest that it had been given, as Burns told Mrs Dunlop on 11 April 1791, "a finishing polish that I despair of ever excelling". [http://www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/TamOShanter.23.shtml]


By the use of Scots alongside English, and by the sheer power of his expression in both, Burns at the same time tells a good story, and makes points about alcohol, good and evil, marriage, sexual attraction, and relations between women and men in general, and indeed between a man and his horse.

There are many dramatic tensions and ironies in the poem.

The tensions between the fairly twee, ostensibly moralistic frame of the poem, and the relish with which Burns describes Tam’s disreputable tale, are obvious and lend the poem a lot of its power. Less obvious perhaps is the way Burns alternates Scots and English for effect. In this way, he seems to signal the irony of his own intention in writing the poem. Is he expressing regret for his own life, which was not short of drink and "cutty-sark"? Or is he celebrating his rock and roll romantic lifestyle?

To what extent Burns ‘believed’ in beings like devils, witches and warlocks is another question. He makes it clear in his quote from Gawin Douglas at the start: "Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke" that he is invoking the Scottish tradition of magic, and there is another irony there as to how much he believed in the Church of the time (not at all?), how much in the older traditions (he is supposed to have been a Mason, after all), and how much in the new spirit of science and rationalism that was sweeping the country at the time of the Scottish Enlightenment.


*chapman billies = peddler fellows
*drouthy = thirsty
*fou = drunk
*unco = exceptional/ly
*Doon = River Doon, near Ayr
*kirk = church
*gars = makes
*greet = weep
*John Barleycorn = alcoholic drink, especially beer
*tippenny = ale
*usquabae = whisky (Scottish Gaelic: "Uisge bheatha")
*Alloway = a village near Ayr
*ilk = every
*cutty sark = short chemise (blouse)/undergarment


An early version of the poem includes four lines which were deleted at the request of one of Burns' friends—a judge. The poem originally contained the lines:

'Three lawyers' tongues, turn'd inside out,
Wi' lies seam'd like a beggar's clout;
Three priests' hearts, rotten black as much,
Lay stinking, vile in every neuk.'

A handwritten note on the manuscript written by Judge Alexander Fraser Tytler, reads "Burns left out these four lines at my desire, as being incongruous with the other circumstances of pure horror." Burns had the lines removed from later editions. It was not unknown for Burns to make changes at the request of friends.


ee also

*The character has given his name to the item of headgear, the tam o'shanter, presumably from an illustration in published copies of this poem.

*Another phrase used in the poem, 'cutty-sark' (short shirt) has entered the language and is the name of a famous sailing ship, the Cutty Sark, and a brand of Scotch whisky.

*In "Ulysses", James Joyce writes: "Laughing witches in red cutty sarks ride through the air on broom sticks".

*The composer Malcolm Arnold wrote a tone poem for orchestra based on the work.

*The Scottish artist John Faed painted six scenes from this poem, which have been frequently copied since they were first published in 1855.

*The song "The Number of the Beast" by the heavy metal band Iron Maiden took inspiration from the poem's story.

*The City of Boca Raton, Florida contains a street named 'Tam O'Shanter Lane'. It is a residential area.

*The Dumfries Ladies Burns Club (the oldest exclusively ladies Burns clubs in the world) hosts an annual 'Tam O'Shanter Evening' at the Globe Inn with an adjudicated recitation competition.

External links

* http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1279/1279-h/1279-h.htm#2H_4_0316 Full text of the poem from Project Gutenburg.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Tam o'shanter (disambiguation) — * Tam o Shanter (Burns poem), a poem written by Robert Burns * Tam o shanter (hat), a Scottish men s bonnet named after the character Tam o Shanter in the poem of that name by Robert Burns * Tam o Shanter Overture, an orchestral overture written… …   Wikipedia

  • tam-o'-shanter — /tam euh shan teuhr, tam euh shan ter/, n. a cap of Scottish origin, usually made of wool, having a round, flat top that projects all around the head and has a pompon at its center. Also called tam. [1880 85; named after the hero of Tam O Shanter …   Universalium

  • tam-o'-shanter — tam o shan•ter [[t]ˈtæm əˌʃæn tər[/t]] n. clo a round, flat cap of Scottish origin, usu. of wool, with a pompom at its center • Etymology: 1880–85; after the hero of Tam O Shanter (1791), poem by Robert Burns …   From formal English to slang

  • tam-o'-shanter — (n.) c.1840, type of bonnet formerly worn by Scottish plowmen, from Tam O Shanter Tom of Shanter, name of hero in a poem of the same name by Robert Burns, written 1790. The woolen cap became fashionable for ladies c.1887 …   Etymology dictionary

  • Tam-o'-shanter — Tam o shan ter, n. [So named after Tam o Shanter, a character in Burns s poem of the same name.] A kind of Scotch cap of wool, worsted, or the like, having a round, flattish top much wider than the band which fits the head, and usually having a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • tam-o'-shanter — [tam′ə shan′tər] n. [< the name of the main character of Robert Burns s poem “Tam o Shanter”] a Scottish cap with a wide, round, flat top and, often, a center pompom …   English World dictionary

  • Tam O'Shanter — (1791) a long, humorous poem by Robert Burns, which tells the frightening story of a farmer called Tam O Shanter who is chased by ↑witches (=women with magic powers) …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • tam-o'-shanter — ► NOUN ▪ a round Scottish cap with a bobble in the centre. ORIGIN named after the hero of Robert Burns s poem Tam o Shanter (1790) …   English terms dictionary

  • Tam o’ Shanter — /tam ə shanˈtər/ noun 1. The hero of Burns s poem of the same name 2. A cap with broad circular flat top (informal tam or tammˈy) …   Useful english dictionary

  • tam-o'-shanter — [ˌtamə ʃantə] noun a round Scottish cap with a bobble in the centre. Origin C19: named after the hero of Robert Burns s poem Tam o Shanter (1790) …   English new terms dictionary

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