To mark the Bard's birthday week, one of his own favourites, describing a celidh to remember
This week, the Scottish Bard's birthday will be celebrated around the world, and what better relish to accompany your dram of usquabae than the mock-heroic, hero-mocking "Tam o'Shanter, a Tale", said to have been Burns's own favourite among his poems. It's a substantial feast of 224 lines, so I've chosen an extract, some verses from the climax of the narrative.
Burns wrote it for his friend Francis Grose, who had asked for a few lines to accompany the illustration of Alloway Kirk intended for volume two of his book The Antiquities of Scotland. Burns remembered the Ayrshire tale from his boyhood. A farmer from Carrick, detained after a long market-day, rides his mare home in the early hours, his course unavoidably passing by the haunted Alloway Kirk. Through the brightly-lit church windows he watches a demonic ceilidh, with Old Nick himself playing the pipes. One young witch, dancing in an under-slip too short for her, so impresses the farmer that he shouts, "Weel luppen, Maggy wei' the short sark!" – with the result that the demonic crew rounds on him and gives furious chase. In the poem, Burns changes the witch's name to Nannie Dee, and gives her an inspired nickname, having the irrepressible Tam call out "Weel done, Cutty-sark" ("Well-done, Mini-skirt!" in rough modern translation). Cutty-sark gave her name and figurehead to the Clyde-built tea-clipper and "tam o'shanter" (the surname probably derived from the Scots noun, mishanter) entered the language to denote a flat-crowned woollen hat with a pom-pom. Poetic immortality can take some strange twists and turns.
A clever exposition sets the scene of booze and bonhomie but works up a few Gothic expectations with warnings about "the mosses, waters, slaps and styles / That lie between us and our hame." After that, it's impossible to resist following the tale to – well, the tail-end – which, for the benefit of new readers, I won't divulge.
Among the sprightly innovations of the narrative, the way it frequently engages directly with Tam is especially piquant. There's no doubt Burns loves the character he has invented. He scolds Tam near the beginning for not heeding his wife's advice and here, in the third segment of our extract, where Tam stares transfixed by the "rigwoodie hags", challenges his taste in women. It's a chance for a sexual boast, too: if the witches had been handsomer, the narrator asserts, he'd have lent them his own once-plush "breeks".
Burns is always conscious of his readers. He draws us into the joke, whatever our gender, because the joke is ultimately on human frailty. His laughter is never cruel, his occasional deliveries of homely wisdom never self-righteous. The poem is not without moments of pathos, and may even have given its first readers a shudder or two in its gleeful summary of the "horrible and awefu',/ Which even to name wad be unlawfu'…" but there's never a doubt that the comic spirit presides. The rhymed tetrameter couplet seems the perfect vehicle for such uniquely rollicking irony. Burns's pace is carefully varied – headlong when it needs to be, sometimes reined-in, but never lacking momentum – and the Scots-English diction is unco' rich, packing the lines with colloquial grittiness and dense harmonies. Enjoy!
From Tam o'Shanter, a Tale
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 and hand admonish'd,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight!
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,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw'd the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and 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, unchristen'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, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o' life bereft,
The grey hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi' mair o' horrible and awefu',
Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.
As Tammie glow'rd, 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,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark!
Now, Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A' plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o' gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi'en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonie burdies!
But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Lowping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder didna turn thy stomach.
But Tam kend what was what fu' brawlie,
There was ae winsome wench and wawlie,
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 bony boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and 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, and she was vauntie.—
Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots, ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!
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;
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch'd an blew wi' might and 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.
Tippeny – ale at tuppence a pint
boddle – a worthless coin
brent new– brand new
towzie tyke– ragged mongrel,
gart them skirl– made them shriek
cleekit – linked arms
carlin – witch
queans– young girls
creashie flannen– greasy flannel
crummock – crook
fu' brawlie– full well
coft – bought
fidg'd fu' fain – twitched with excitement
hotch'd – fidgeted
tint – lost