A Halloween Treat: Robbie Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”

Posted on October 31, 2016


Perhaps you are familiar with Cutty Sark Scotch Whiskey, with the ship on the label.  You may know that the liquor is named for the Cutty Sark, a clipper built in 1869 for the tea trade, and later used in the wool trade.  She was fast, holding the speed record from Australia to Britain for fully ten years.  The Cutty Sark remains on permanent display in Greenwich, England.  Have a look at the figurehead of the ship:


Ah, yes.  There is indeed a story here.  The whiskey is named for the ship, and the ship is named for a line in the famous Robert Burns poem, “Tam O’Shanter,” written in 1790.  What the heck IS a cutty sark, anyway??  Tiny, titillating underwear, 18th-century style (an era when women’s underwear consisted of a loose shift… and no drawers).  But you’ll have to read the poem for yourself to get the context… and to find out what fierce Nannie here is clutching in her hand.

It’s a great one for Halloween, filled with misadventure, witches, ghouls and Old Nick himself.  Without further ado, here it is.

Tam O’Shanter

When chapmen billies* leave the street,                                 peddlers
And drouthy* neibors, neibors meet,                                       thirsty
As market days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy*,                                         drinking strong ale
And getting fou and unco* happy,                                            drunk and very
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.

This truth fand* honest Tam o’ Shanter,                                  finds
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter,
(Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses
For honest men and bonie lasses.)

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*,                               waster
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum*;                            boaster
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober;
That ilka melder*, wi’ the miller,                                               every milling
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller*;                                        money
That every naig* was ca’d a shoe on,                                       horse
The smith and thee gat roaring fou* on;                                 drunk
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*;                      the Doon River
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk*.                                               church

Kirk Alloway

Kirk Alloway

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;                                             just
Fast by an ingle*, bleezing finely,                                             fireplace
Wi’ reaming swats*, that drank divinely                                 creamy ales
And at his elbow, Souter* Johnny,                                           cobbler
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.

Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E’en drown’d himsel’ amang 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;                                   must
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                                          such
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, and lang, the thunder bellow’d:
That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.

Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg–
A better never lifted leg–
Tam skelpit* on thro’ dub* and mire;                                       raced; mud
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:                                             ghouls
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets* nightly cry.                                   owls


By this time he was cross the ford,
Whare, in the snaw, the chapman smoor’d*;                          the peddler smothered in the snow
And past the birks and meikle stane*,                                     birches and huge stone
Whare drunken Chairlie brak ‘s neck-bane;
And thro’ the whins*, and by the cairn,                                   brambles
Whare hunters fand the murder’d bairn*;                              child
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mungo’s mither hang’d hersel’.–
Before him Doon* pours all his floods;                                   the Doon River
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;                              every gap
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.


Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippeny*, we fear nae evil;                                                   ale
Wi’ usquabae*, we’ll face the devil!–                                       whiskey
The swats sae ream’d* in Tammie’s noddle,                          ale so swam
Fair play, he car’d na deils a boddle*.                                     cared not a whit for devils
But Maggie stood, right sair astonish’d,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco* sight.                                         incredible

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,                                               a window-alcove
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke*, black, grim, and large,                                    shaggy dog
To gie them music was his charge:
He scre’d the pipes and gart them skirl*,                               made them shrill
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl*.–                                             ring
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*,                                             rope
Wi’ his last gasp his gab* did gape;                                        mouth
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*.                                             nook

As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit*,                   linked
Till ilka carlin swat* and reekit,                                                every witch sweated and stank
And coost her duddies to the wark*,                                     cast her clothing aside
And linket at it in her sark!*                                                     danced in her shift (undergarment)

Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A’ plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen*,                              greasy flannel
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir breeks* o’ mine, my only pair,                                         breeches
That ance were plush, o’ gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi’en them off my hurdies*,                                   buttocks
For ae blink o’ the bonie burdies!*                                         pretty girls

But wither’d beldams*, auld and droll,                                  hags
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal*,                                       ugly enough to suckle a foal
Louping and flinging on a crummock*,                                 stick
I wonder did na turn thy stomach!

But Tam kend what was what fu’ brawlie*:                           knew what was what full well
There was ae winsome wench and waulie*,                         jolly
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after ken’d* on Carrick shore;                                        known
(For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish’d mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear*,                              both corn and barley
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her cutty-sark*, o’ Paisley harn*                                            short shift; made
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie*,-                                 proud
Ah! little ken’d* thy reverend grannie,                                   knew
That sark she coft* for her wee Nannie,                               bought
Wi’ twa pund Scots, (’twas a’ her riches),
Wad ever grac’d a dance of witches!


But here my Muse her wing maun cour*;                             cower
Sic* flights are far beyond her pow’r;                                    such
To sing how Nannie lap and flang*,                                       leapt and kicked
(A souple jade* she was, and strang),                                    supple youth
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch’d,
And thought his very een* enrich’d;                                       eyes
Even Satan glowr’d, and fidg’d fu’ fain*,                                full of lust
And hotch’d and blew wi’ might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither*,                                             then another
Tam tint his reason ‘ thegither*,                                              lost his reason altogether
And roars out, “Well done, Cutty-Sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

As bees bizz out wi’ angry fyke,*                                               wrath
When plundering herds assail their byke*;                             hive
As open pussie’s* mortal foes,                                                  wild hare
When, pop! she starts before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When “Catch the thief!” resounds aloud;
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech* and hollo.                                 unearthly scream


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*;                                           the keystone of the bridge
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*;                                             aim
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle –
Ae spring brought off her master hale*,                                   whole
But left behind her ain gray tail;
The carlin* claught her by the rump,                                        witch
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.


No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk* man and mother’s son take heed;                                      every
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.

The Brig O' Doon

The Brig O’ Doon