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13 Jan 2020

Tam o’ Shanter

A section of the handwritten manuscript for Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns
Completed in 1790 (having taken a full year to write), this poem has cemented the fame of the little village of Alloway. Widely regarded as Burns’s masterpiece, Tam o’ Shanter embodies the best of Burns – his wit, wisdom, humanity and searing observations of character.

Written in a mixture of Ayrshire dialect and English, the poem is about the misadventures of Tam, a local farmer who has spent too long in the pub one evening. It’s thought some of the characters were based on people Burns knew, including Souter Johnie.

Burns wrote this epic poem to be published in Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in exchange for an illustration of Alloway Auld Kirk to also be included in the volume. A pretty good deal!

This version of Tam o’ Shanter is taken from an original manuscript written by Burns (there are several versions in existence), held in the museum collection in Alloway.

Tam o’ Shanter

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors neebors, meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bowsing at the nappy,
And getting fou, & unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps & styles,
That lie between us & 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 & bonie lasses.)

O Tam! hadst thou but been sae wise
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A bletherin, blusterin, 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 every naig was ca’d a shoe on,
The Smith & thee gat roarin fou on;
That at the L_d’s house even 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 Aloway’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 bleezin finely,
Wi’ reamin swats that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter Johnie,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a very brither,
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on wi’ sangs & clatter,
And ay the ale was growing better:
The Landlady & Tam grew gracious,
Wi’ favors, secret, sweet & precious;
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The Landlord’s laugh was ready chorus;
The storm without might rair & rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E’en drown’d himsel among 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 sieze 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 & lang, the thunder bellow’d:
That night, a child might understand
The deil had business on his hand.

Weel mounted on his grey meare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub & mire,
Despising wind, and rain, & fire;
Whyles holding fast his gude blue bonnet,
Whyles crooning o’er an auld Scots sonnet;
Whyles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares;
Kirk-Aloway was drawing nigh,
Where ghaists & houlets nightly cry.

By this time he was cross the ford,
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor’d;
And past the birks & meikle stane,
Where drunken Charlie brak’s neck-bane;
And thro’ the whins & 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 lightenings flash from pole to pole,
Near & more near the thunders roll;
When, glimmering thro’ the groaning trees,
Kirk-Aloway seem’d in a bleeze;
Thro’ ilka bore the beams were glancing,
And loud resounded mirth & 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 & hand admonish’d,
She ventur’d forward on the light,
And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight!

Warlocks & witches in a dance,
Nae cotillon brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys & reels,
Put life & mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast,
A towzie tyke, black, grim & large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes & gart them skirl,
Till roof & rafters a’ did dirl.
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, unchirsten’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 that a babe had strangled;
A knife a father’s throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son of life bereft,
The gray hairs yet stack to the heft:
With mair o’ horrible & awefu’,
Which even to name wad be unlawfu’.
Three Lawyer’s tongues, turn’d inside out,
Wi’ lies seam’d like a beggar’s clout;
Three Priest’s hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile, in every neuk.

As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d & curious,
The mirth & fun grew fast & furious:
The Piper loud & louder blew,
The Dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel’d, they set, they crost, they cleekit,
Till ilka Carlin swat & reekit,
And coost her duddies on the wark,
And linkit at it in her sark.

Now Tam! O Tam! had thae been queans
A’ plump & strappin 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’ gude blue hair,
I wad hae gien them off my hurdies
For ae blink o’ the bonie burdies!

But wither’d beldams, auld & droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Loupin & flingin on a crummock,
I wonder did na turn thy stomach.

But Tam kend what was what fu’ brawlie;
There was ae winsome wench & walie,
That night enlisted in the core,
(Lang after, kend on Carrick-shore;
For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish’d mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn & 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, & she was vaunty. 
Ah, little thought thy reverend graunie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie
Wi’ twa pund Scots (’twas a’ her riches)
Should ever grac’d a dance o’ 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 jad she was & 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, & blew wi’ might & 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 biz 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 rins the Market-croud
When, “Catch the thief!” resounds aloud;
So Maggie rins, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch shout & 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 comin!
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 grey tail:
The Carline claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Now wha this Tale o’ truth shall read,
Each man & mother’s son take heed:
Whene’er to Drink ye are inclin’d,
Or Cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear;
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s Meare!

Handy glossary:

chapman billies = pedlar friends; drouthy neebors = thirsty neighbours; tak the gate = journey home; bowsing = boozing; nappy = ale; fou = drunk; unco = uncommonly/strangely; slaps = gaps in fences

fand = found; ae = one; wham = whom

taen = taken; ain = own; skellum = scoundrel/rogue; blellum = blusterer; ilka melder = every last milling; siller = silver/money; naig = small horse; ca'd = driven; Kirkton Jean = an innkeeper, based on Jean Kennedy; Doon = the river that runs through Alloway; mirk = dark

gars me greet = makes me cry

ingle bleezin = blazing fire; reamin swats = foaming ales; brither = brother; clatter = gossip; gracious = friendly; rair = roar; lades = loads

maun = must; hour o’ night’s black arch the key-stane = darkest hour of thr night; sic = such

skelpit = hurried; dub = puddle; whyles = now; glowring = staring; ghaists & houlets = ghosts and owls

snaw = snow; smoor’d = smothered; birks = birch trees; meikle stane = giant stone; brak’s neck-bane = broke his neck; whins = gorse; aboon = above; bleeze = blaze; ilka bore = every chink

John Barleycorn = alcohol; tippeny = twopenny ale; usquabae = whisky; noddle = brain; boddle = farthing; right sair = greatly/very

cotillon = a French dance; brent = brand; mettle = spirit; winnock-bunker = window seat; towzie tyke = shaggy dog; gart the skirl = made them squeal; dirl = ring; presses = cupboards; cantraip slight = magic trick; banes = bones; gibbet-airns = iron cage in which bodies of criminals were displayed; span-lang = hand-length; rape = rope; gab = mouth; seam’d = sewn; clout = cloth; neuk = corner

cleekit = linked arms; ilka Carlin = every witch; swat = sweated; reekit = stank; coost = cast off; duddies = ragged clothes; wark = floor; linket = danced around; sark = underskirt/petticoat

queans = young girls; creeshie flainen = greasy flannel; Thir breeks = these trousers; ance = once; plush = silken fabric; hurdies = buttocks; burdies = maidens

beldams = old women; Rigwoodie = gnarled; spean a foal = put a foal off its food; loupin = leaping; crummock = stick

kend = knew; fu’ brawlie = very well; walie = handsome; baith = both; bear = barley; Paisley harn = a coarse cloth made in Paisley; vaunty = proud; graunie = granny; coft = bought; Nannie = name of the little girl

cour = drop; lap and flang = leaped and kicked; souple jad = supple lass; een = eyes; fidg’d fu’ fain = moved excitedly; hotch’d = jerked; main = strength; caper = dance; syne = then; tint = lost

fyke = fuss; byke = hive; Pussie’s = hare’s; eldritch = unearthly

fairin = reward

fient = fiend; prest = chased; ettle = aim; wist = was; hale = whole; Carline = witch; claught = clutched

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