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1 Nov 2018

Through thick and thin: interpreting Tam o’ Shanter in Alloway

Written by David Hopes, Head of Collections & Interiors (Policy) and former Director of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
In Hell They'll Roast Thee like a Herrin - Image courtesy of The Alexander Goudie Trust © Estate of Alexander Goudie/Bridgeman Images
Image courtesy of The Alexander Goudie Trust © Estate of Alexander Goudie/Bridgeman Images A selection of works from Tam o’ Shanter - A Tale Told in Pictures are displayed at Rozelle House Museum, Ayr
In ancient times, the notion of ‘thin places’ was used to describe those rare locales where the distance between this world and another collapses. This was often used in a religious sense in Scotland and Ireland, but in Alloway, where Robert Burns was born and where he set his great poem Tam o’ Shanter, the real and the imaginary feel very close together.

Through the writing of Tam o’ Shanter, Burns invested the landscape of his youth with this quality of ‘thinness’. The museum now uses this to provide visitors with a direct, unmediated experience of the poem and of the poet, activated by place. We do this through the presence of enablers – light, sound, graphics and touch – and the absence of textual and physical barriers.

But to our tale ...

Tam o’ Shanter has a classic story structure formed around a journey or quest. After a day’s drinking in Ayr, Tam rides upon his faithful mare Meg, through a storm and the village of Alloway, to return home. Tam tries to sustain his merry mood on his journey by singing old Scots songs but his spirits drop as the weather closes in and the darkness unsettles him. Eventually he encounters a gruesome scene in a ruined church, Auld Kirk Alloway. Unseen by the company of witches and warlocks, Tam gets more and more excited as the ‘winsome wench’ Nannie dances and her short dress (‘cutty sark’ ) hitches up. Tam eventually can’t contain himself and shouts ‘Weel done, cutty sark!’. Tam is then chased by a ‘hellish legion’ of witches as he makes for running water and a crossing that survives to this day, Brig o’ Doon. His horse leaps across the bridge taking Tam to safety, but Meg loses ‘her ain grey tail’ to the witch.

In a moral lesson for husbands, Burns the empathetic narrator closes the poem with:

Whene’er to drink you are inclined

Or cutty sarks rin in yer mind

Think ye may buy the joys oe’r dear

Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare

A memorable style

The neat structure is matched by a style that makes the poem engaging and memorable. It’s written in Scots and English, with Burns using the qualities of both languages to fit the poem’s narrative thrust and mood. Iambic tetrameters and rhyming couplets mimic the gallop of Tam’s horse and facilitate memorability and recitation, like the oral tradition of ghost stories that gave birth to Tam. Burns builds atmosphere, from the mirth and cosiness of the tavern to the storminess of Tam’s ride, in a way which is easy to relate to and visualise. He also employs plenty of humour and fellow feeling in the character of Tam. The consequence of this is that visitors to Alloway tend to remember the chain of events without retaining textual detail (sometimes regarded as a barrier to comprehension and enjoyment, particularly by those unfamiliar with Scots or English). All the stylistic elements employed by Burns are built on by the museum, not so much to tell the tale but to allow visitors to recreate Tam’s journey for themselves. Burns’s legacy in Alloway is not so much a poem but an experience.

Poet, place and poem

Burns’s creative act brought together the virtuous circle of poem, poet and place:

Poem and place: Burns showcases the village of Alloway, the prime reason for writing TamTam o’ Shanter was first published in March 1791 in the Edinburgh Herald and Edinburgh Magazine, and then in Grose’s second volume of Antiquities of Scotland. It’s a poem firmly rooted in place, and place helps to activate the poem in the visitor-reader. It heightens their experience.

Poem and poet: A manuscript of the poem in the museum collection is proof, if that were needed, that Burns wrote Tam o’ Shanter. However, the story of Tam is considered by many to be an allegory for Burns’s colourful life; Burns is known for his fondness for drinking and womanising. This helps to explain the popularity of Tam o’ Shanter and its experiential appeal in Alloway.

Poet and place: Burns is tied to the landscape through his birth and local knowledge. Visiting Alloway is a way of communing with the poet. Burns has invested places with meaning so that, in the words of a 19th-century visitor, they now ‘cry loudly of him’.

It’s impossible to separate poet, poem and place. Burns succeeded not only in creating a thinness between the real world and the world of Tam, but also in blurring distinctions between the narrator and the poet himself. It’s this emotional triangulation that we build upon in the onsite interpretation.

Tam o’ Shanter in Alloway

In 2009-10, the National Trust for Scotland reinterpreted the main Burns landmarks and the museum collection gifted by Burns Monument Trust in 2008.

The kitchen of Burns Cottage
Burns Cottage

Although Burns Cottage is not mentioned in Tam o’ Shanter, we present it as the place before the poem, the building where young Burns first heard the ghost stories that would eventually inspire the writing of Tam. In the room in which Burns was born, the genesis of Tam o’ Shanter takes equal attention. Light and shadows flow from a spinning lantern in the cottage kitchen, and an old woman’s voice tells witches’ tales in Scots. These are based on three stories identified by Burns in a letter to Francis Grose in June 1790. Visitors are put in the place of Burns – in listening mode – as poem, poet and place are brought together through simple interpretation.


Weathervane on Poet's Path
Weathervane on Poet's Path

Leaving Burns Cottage and heading south along a narrow strip of land called the Poet’s Path, weather vanes fashioned into key scenes from the poem prepare the visitor for reaching Kirk Alloway. This is done using silhouettes, where shadows provide the outline of a figure or scene but require the viewer to fill in the details using their imagination. Tam o’ Shanter features a lot of weather, both internal and external. Burns, a Romantic poet, uses nature to articulate the inner self, where the violence of the storm mirrors Tam’s drunken progress through the poem. The linear narrative is also represented in the distribution of the weather vanes – like stations of the cross – providing visitors with an open-air pilgrimage through Tam. The vanes act as a prelude to the sites where the poem’s action takes place, so that by the time the visitor arrives at the Auld Kirk they’ve been able to visualise all the action without needing the text.

An interpretive stone at Alloway Auld Kirk
Alloway Auld Kirk

Alloway Auld Kirk is the most important site in terms of action in the poem. Early pilgrimage guides made clear that: ‘The Tam o’ Shanter experience was as important, if not more so, than visiting the birthplace’. Unlike Burns Cottage, the kirk was an early tourist must-see, as it had been popular since the publication of the poem five years before Burns’s death. Today, the museum highlights the kirk as both the burial place of Burns’s father and as the haunted church that tempts Tam; the dominance of each depends on the time of day you visit. By day, interpretation is light touch and discreet. Most interpretive text is found engraved on stones set into a path encircling the kirk. This form of interpretation was chosen to fit with the site, to look like gravestones, unobtrusive but also factual. The stones tell of how Burns came to write the poem, making the connection between poet, poem and place.

By night, a light show presents another world (a fictional one), facilitating the site’s 'thinness’. A changing light sequence suggests the various moods in the poem, from a dance of witches to Satan in the east window playing the bagpipes. Freed from the weight of text, lighting is an attempt to make the place even thinner. The grave of the poet’s father, William Burnes, is not the main focus of attention after dark; it’s illuminated equally with other stones in a world where fiction holds as much sway as fact.

The book set into Brig o' Doon
Brig o' Doon

A short distance from the Auld Kirk, Brig o’ Doon is a romantic location these days, the arch of the old stony bridge framing countless wedding photographs. However, as at the kirk, there are different daytime and night-time presentations. During the day, you may see the book symbolically set in the wall of the bridge, relaying the bridge’s history and association with the poem. The book serves as a metaphorical bridge between Burns and modern visitors (and it also saved the bridge from demolition in the 19th century). Visitors may walk to the highest point of the bridge, encouraging an appreciation of Tam’s plight. As one Victorian visitor noted: ‘There is a peculiar pleasure in standing on the old brig, so exactly as Burns enabled you to place yourself in the very scene that he contemplated’. Using a minimal approach and working with the qualities of place, we dive directly into the action – the place activates the poem. By night the bridge is dramatically floodlit, with the rush of the River Doon far more audible than during the day. Annual re-enactments of the poem during Burns festivals have used the bridge as the culminating point for sound and light parades, revellers following effigies of Tam,Meg and Nannie in a cultish procession.

Statues in Burns Monument Gardens
Statues in Burns Monument Gardens

In the Burns Monument Gardens, between the Auld Kirk and Brig o’ Doon, sits a small pavilion containing statues of Tam o’ Shanter and his friend Souter Johnie. Carved by sculptor James Thom, these were the first artefacts collected by Burns Monument Trust. The lifesize figures were admired for their warmth and detail, an early attempt to blur the line between fact and fiction. They were hugely popular in the 1820s, and the building in which they are now exhibited was paid for by a British tour of the statues. Their placing in a small pavilion overlooking the Doon does not fit with the place-specific chronology of the poem (in the way that the weather vanes do); at this point visitors ‘following’ Tam are moving between Tam’s discovery at the kirk and his escape over the brig. However, Burns often plays around with the chronology in Tam o' Shanter, with cutaways that look back and forward, recalling and prophesising. The discovery of the statues here could easily be a flashback to the warmth of the pub. They inhabit an imaginary landscape.

Wooden panels in Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
Wooden panels in Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Similarly, the modern museum itself is a site where the poem is both thickened and thinned. In a display case the factual circumstances of the writing of the poem are told through a manuscript of Tam o’ Shanter in Burns’s handwriting, a copy of Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland and a painting of the meeting of Burns and Grose by R S Lauder. These offer solid evidence of the link between Burns, his work and the place that inspired it. On the right-hand side of the same case are wooden carvings of four scenes by Thomas Tweedy, and a computer interactive for children. These provide a synopsis of the main action in the poem, celebrating its comedy. Thickening the separation between poem, poet and place on the left-hand side, and thinning the association on the right. A shoemaker’s handguard that once belonged to John Davidson (thought to be Souter Johnie) occupies a middle point between these two realms.

Tam o'Shanter, produced for the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Narration is by Brian Cox.

Above the exhibition cases, a 12-minute audio visual plays for visitors twice a day. As the lights go down, recreating the nocturnal, the film seeks to immerse the viewer in the poem. This is the only place where words and image come together; perhaps there’s more licence to do this at a distance from the actual places. The mood of the poem is given in a largely monochrome, partially acted out, partially animated film, employing the same use of shadow and silhouette found in the weather vanes on Poet’s Path. Read by actor Brian Cox, this is a booming, original, pacy version of the poem intended as a culmination of a visit to the real sites or as a means to store up imagery before encountering them.

To sum up, our storytelling in Alloway attempts to thin the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. It builds on the groundwork laid down by Burns himself – the triangulation achieved in Tam o’ Shanter between poem, poet, place. The museum seeks to transcend the written poem and to offer as immersive and active an experience as possible. Although we provide a factual backdrop to explain Tam o’ Shanter, the emphasis is on emotional engagement rather than comprehension of the text. We have prioritised action and atmosphere over language and narrative. The museum seeks not to replace Burns as storyteller but to assist him in setting the scene.