Tuesday Terror! Tam o’Shanter by Robert Burns

A cautionary tail…


Since Sunday last was Burns Night, it seems only appropriate that Scotland’s national bard should make his first appearance in this week’s…


Tam o’Shanter by Robert Burns


robert burns

Tam o’Shanter is probably my favourite of Rabbie’s poems. This scary, funny, cautionary tale warns of the perils of drink and women, two subjects on which Burns was pretty much an expert. (You may need to know that cutty-sark means short petticoat or underskirt…)

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.

(bousing at the nappy – drinking ale; fou – drunk)

The first verse tells us of the men, drinking into the evening, with not a thought of the dark journey home that lies ahead of them. Tam should know better, for his loving wife has pointed out the dangers to him…

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.


But Tam doesn’t listen…

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!

(gars me greet – makes me cry)

One dark and stormy night, Tam and his friends have been partaking of a little light refreshment in a local hostelry…

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

But the time comes at last when he must make his way home, so mounting his trusty grey mare, Maggie, he sets off into the dark night, wind howling, rain lashing and thunder bellowing…

That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.

Clutching at his blue bonnet, he rides on till he gets close to the church at Alloway, passing the sites of many a tragedy that would make a sober man tremble…

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’

(chapman smoor’d – pedlar smothered; bairn – child)

On drawing close to the church, Tam sees it all ablaze with lights, and hears the sounds of ‘mirth and dancing’. The drink giving him courage, he urges Maggie on up to the door and looks in…and there is the Devil himself, presiding over a wild and unholy sight…

tam o'shanter witches and warlocks

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.

…and perhaps even more horrifying…

Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip slight,
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, unchristen’d bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape

(presses – cupboards; cantraip – magic)

Even Tam’s courage might have been overcome by these horrors, but his interest is piqued by the sight of women, casting their dresses to their floor, and dancing wildly in their underskirts. Admittedly they aren’t all beauties…

But wither’d beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Louping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder didna turn thy stomach!

…but there is amongst them one winsome lass, Nannie by name, who catches Tam’s eye…

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;

(lap and flang – leapt and swirled; een – eyes)

tam o'shanter nannie dancing

…and carried away with his enthusiasm, he yells out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” Suddenly the lights go out, and the Devil and all come chasing after Tam, with Nannie in the lead. But brave Maggie turns and flees…

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 just as she reaches the bridge, Nannie grabs hold of her tail…

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;

tam o'shanter brig

Maggie saves them both, but is left with just a stump where her fine tail used to be. And to finish, Burns leaves us all with some excellent advice, which I’m quite sure he never took himself…

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 run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

* * * * * * *

If you’d like to read the whole thing, with matching translation into English, here’s a link…

Or here’s a good reading of it, but be warned – I think in this case it’s even harder to understand the spoken version…

* * * * * * *

Happy Belated Burns Night!


Fretful Porpentine rating: 😆 😯 😆 😯 😆

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

44 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Tam o’Shanter by Robert Burns

  1. Great choice for this feature, FictionFan! I’v always loved the way Burns could tell a story like that and still sit back and smile at it all, if I can put it that way. It’s as though he’s poking fun at himself, and that does add to the story.


  2. Thanks for this! I wish you had posted it last week tho’, before I proposed two Immortal Memories, Addressed the Haggis (once) and replied to the Toast to the Lasses (once). I would have stolen some of your comments. A lot of Burn’s poetry slightly mocks the supernatural – I wonder if he knew he was part of the Enlightenment?


    • Haha! He seems to follow the Dickens rule – that spirits might well be caused by…spirits! And as a good enlightenment man should, he was willing to experiment on himself… 😉


  3. What a great tale and such a good pick for (close to) Burns night! Thanks too for the helpful translations which helped enormously. I do love the line “I wonder didna turn thy stomach!” which in my head was said with a brilliant Scottish accent although I’m not so sure it would pass muster spoken aloud 😉


    • It would have been Burns night if only I’d remembered! (I’ll get drummed out of Scotland for admitting that…) I love ‘nursing her wrath to keep it warm’ – just gives such a great picture. Scottish accents are compulsory when reading Burrrrns… 😉


  4. Oh, how I love this! Such rich use of language! If you hadn’t told me otherwise, I would have given a slightly different meaning to “gars me greet.” I would have guessed “grieves me great.” Interesting.

    This language reminds me of a picture book I read a long time ago to my son. It;s called The Mouse Hole Cat (of Cornwall) by Antonia Barber. The song, specifically:

    “Merry place you may believe, tiz Mouzel ‘pon Tom Bawcock’s eve.
    To be there then who wouldn’t wesh, to sup o’ sibm soorts o’ fish.
    When morgy brath had cleared the path, Comed lances for a fry,
    And then us had a bit o’ scad an’ Starry-gazie pie.
    As aich we’d clunk, E’s health we drunk, in bumpers bremmen high,
    And when up caame Tom Bawcock’s name, We’d prais’d ‘un to the sky.”

    I love the second to last line. 😀


    • ‘Greet’ is actually one of the words that’s still in common use here, though whether it’ll hold out for another generation is debatable. I think Cornish is holding up better than Scots, possibly. Do you know Mousehole is a real place in Cornwall? Pronounced Mouzel as per the poem. My mother and I went there once upon a time – a lovely place, but so packed with tourists and coaches that it’s nearly unbearable now. We didn’t have star-gazie pie, (I prefer food that doesn’t have bits of dead things so obviously poking out the top, somehow), but I’m pretty sure we had a Cornish cream tea… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! I did a little research on the place before reading the story to kids during library time at my son’s school. I showed them photos of star-gazie pie. Not one wanted a bite. 😀 It looks like a great place to visit when there’s no one else around. I was just reading somewhere about how quickly the world is losing languages. Depressing.


        • That’s the problem with beauty spots. I want everyone else to stay away so I can enjoy them in peace. I’m kinda hoping that Scots might have a bit of a revival after the whole independence thing – we’re more aware of our culture than we were…but will it last?

          Liked by 1 person

  5. *laughs* What an interesting poem. I noticed, though–and I’m rather proud of it–that they were dancing the cotillion. Hmm…that’s disconcerting.

    I thought only Marie Antoinette wore petticoats. Whoops.

    That fellow has a marvelous accent. But I think he’s a fake.


  6. I love the line about nursing her wrath to keep it warm…It’s quite brilliant. My mum does that when my dad gets “sidetracked” at someone’s house over a dram…


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