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The Brig o' Doon, where Maggie and Tam escaped Nannie
The Brig o' Doon, where Maggie and Tam escaped Nannie

Robert Burns' Tam o' Shanter first appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine in March 1791, a month before it appeared in the second volume of Francis Grose's Antiquities of Scotland, for which it was written. Robert Riddell had introduced Burns to Grose. Burns asked Grose to include a drawing of Auld Kirk Alloway when he came to Ayrshire, and Grose agreed, on the condition that Burns gave him something to print with it. Tam o' Shanter was the result. It is generally thought to be one of Burns' finest poems and is told using a mixture of Scots and English.

It has sometimes been said that the poem was written in a day. A more detailed analysis suggests that it was given, as Burns himself wrote in a letter on 11 April 1791, "a finishing polish that I despair of ever excelling".

Tam o' Shanter by Robert Burns 1791

Original in Scots and English

English Version

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An' getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
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.

When peddlers leave the street,
And thirsty neighbours meet neighbours;
As market days are wearing late,
And people begin to take to the road,
While we sit drinking ale,
And getting drunk and very happy,
We think not of the long Scots miles,
The bogs, pools, marsh and stiles,
That lie between us and our home,
Where sits our sulky, sullen wife,
Gathering her forehead like a gathering storm,
Nursing her anger 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 and bonnie lasses).

This truth found honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he from Ayr one night did canter:
(Old Ayr, which never a town surpasses,
For honest men and lovely 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,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae 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 and thee gat roaring fou on;
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;
Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld haunted kirk.

O Tam! you should have been so wise,
As taken your own wife Kate's advice!
She told you you were a good-for-nothing,
A chattering, blabbering, drunken fool;
That from November until October,
Each market-day you were never sober;
That each meeting with the miller,
You sat as long as you had money;
That every time a horse was shod,
The smith and you got roaring drunk;
That at the Lord's house, even on Sunday,
You drank with Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that sooner or later,
You would be found drowned in the River Doon;
Or caught by warlocks in the dark,
By Alloway's old haunted church.

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!

Ah, gentle ladies! it makes me weep,
To think how many counsels sweet,
How much long and sage advice,
The husband from the wife ignores!

But to our tale: Ae market-night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Souter Johnnie,
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.

But to our tale: One market-night,
Tam had got planted very firmly;
Close by a fireplace blazing finely,
With foaming ale, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Cobbler Johnnie,
His ancient, trusty, thirsty crony;
Tam loved him like a very brother;
They had been drunk for weeks together!
The night drove on with songs and noise
And always the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew close,
With secret favours, sweet and precious
The Cobbler told his queerest stories;
The landlord's laugh was ready chorus:
The storm outside might roar and rustle,
Tam did not mind the storm at all.

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!

It was good to see a man so happy,
Even drowning himself in ale!
As bees fly home with loads of treasure,
The minutes winged their way with pleasure:
Kings may be blessed, but Tam was glorious,
Over all the ills of 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.

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white - then melts for ever;
Or like the Northern Lights,
That move before you can point at them;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Vanishing in the storm.
No man can hold time or tide;
The hour approaches when Tam must ride;
That hour, of night's black arch the key-stone,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast;
And such a night he takes to the road
As never a poor sinner was out 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.

The wind blew as if it was blowing its last;
The rattling showers were like a blast;
All lights were swallowed by the darkness
Loud, deep, and long the thunder roared:
That night, a child might understand,
The Devil had business under way.

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

Well mounted on his grey mare, Meg,
A better horse there never was,
Tam pressed on through flood and mire;
Disregarding wind, and rain, and fire.
While holding fast his good blue bonnet;
While singing some old Scots sonnet;
While looking round carefully,
In case ghosts catch him unawares:
Kirk Alloway was drawing near,
Where ghosts and owls cry every night.

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'.
Before him Doon pours all his floods;
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;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

By this time he was across the ford,
Where in the snow the peddler had been smothered;
And past the trees and the big stone,
Where drunken Charlie broke his neck;
And through the bushes, and by the cairn,
Where hunters found the murdered child;
And near the thorn, above the well,
Where Mungo's mother hanged herself.
Before him the River Doon is in flood;
The doubling storm roars through the woods;
The lightning flashes across the sky;
Nearer and nearer the thunder rolls:
When, shining through the groaning trees,
Kirk Alloway seemed to be ablaze,
Through every crack the light was showing,
And loud resounded laughter and 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 and hand admonish'd,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight

Inspiring, bold alcohol!
What dangers you can make us scorn!
With ale, we fear no evil;
With whisky, we will face the devil!
The ale so foamed in Tammie's head,
Fair play, he cared not a farthing for devils.
But Maggie stopped, completely astonished,
Untill, driven by the heel and hand,
She moved forwards towards the light;
And, wow! Tam saw an amazing 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 scre'd the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl.

Warlocks and witches in a dance;
No formal dance, brand new from France,
But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and strength in their heels.
A window seat in the east,
There sat Old Nick, in shape of beast;
A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large,
To give them music was his charge:
He squeezed the bagpipes and made them howl,
Till roof and rafters all did 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,
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 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.

Coffins stood around, like open cupboards,
That showed the dead in their last clothes;
And, by some devilish magic trick,
Each in its cold hand held a light.
By which heroic Tam was able
To see upon the holy table,
A murderer's bones, in gallows irons;
Tiny, unchristened children;
A thief cut down from the noose,
With his last gasp his mouth did open;
Five tomahawks with blood red-rusted;
Five scimitars with murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
Killed by his own son,
The grey hairs still stuck to the blade;
With more that was horrible and awful,
Which even to name would be unlawful.
Three lawyers' tongues, turned inside out,
With lies seamed like a beggar's cloth;
Three priests' hearts, rotten, black as mud,
Lay stinking, vile in every corner.

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,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it her sark!

As Tammie watched, amazed, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reeled, they danced, they held hands
Till each old woman sweated and steamed,
And cast aside her outer clothes,
And carried on in her undershirt!

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!

Now Tam, O Tam! had they been young women,
All plump and strapping in their teens,
Their undershirts, instead of dirty flannel,
Been snow-white fine quality linen!
These trousers of mine, my only pair,
That once were plush, of good blue hair,
I would have taken off,
For one glance of the lovely maidens!

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

But withered women, old and wizened,
Ancient hags that would give birth to a foal,
Leaping and dancing on a walking stick,
I wonder did not turn your stomach!

But Tam kend what was what fu' brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and waulie,
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after ken'd on Carrick shore;
(For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish'd mony a bonie 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 ken'd thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for he wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots, ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!

But Tam knew what was going on:
There was one attractive woman,
That night among the company,
Long after known on Carrick shore;
(For many an animal to death she shot,
And perished many a lovely boat,
And drank both much whisky and beer,
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her short undershirt, of Paisley cloth
That as a young girl she had worn,
In length though far too short,
It was her best, and she was proud,
Ah! little knew your reverend grandmother,
That undershirt she bought for her little Nannie,
With two pound Scots, (it was all her riches),
Would ever have graced 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 and blew wi' might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason ' 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.

But here my Muse her complaining must cease,
Such flights as far beyond her power:
To sing how Nannie jumped and kicked,
(A supple creature she was, and strong),
And how Tam stood, like one bewitched,
And thought his very eyes enriched;
Even Satan glared, and fidgeted impatiently,
And blew his pipes with might and main;
Till first one dance, then another,
Tam lost his reason all together,
And roars out: "Well done, short nightshirt!"
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,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
As open pussie's mortal foes,
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.

As bees buzz when they swarm,
When their hive is attacked;
As the hare's hunters chase her,
When, pop! she jumps out in front of their nose;
As eager runs the market crowd,
When "Catch the thief!" resounds aloud;
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
With many an unearthly screech and cry.

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;
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 gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! you will get what you deserve!
In hell they will roast you like a herring!
In vain your Kate awaits your coming!
Kate soon will be a woeful woman!
Now, do your speedy utmost, Meg,
And reach the key-stone of the bridge;
There, you may toss your tail at them,
A running stream they dare not cross.
But before the key-stone she could make,
She scarely had a tail to shake!
For Nannie, far in front of the rest,
Close behind noble Maggie pressed,
And flew at Tam with a furious lunge;
But she could not match Maggie's mettle!
One spring ensured her master's health,
But left behind her own grey tail;
The old hag grabbed at her rump,
And left poor Maggie scarcely a stump.

No, 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.

Now, who this tale of truth shall read,
Every man and mother's son take heed;
Whenever to drink you are inclined,
Or short nigthshirts run in your mind,
Think! you may buy the joys too dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.

In June 1790, before beginning to write the poem itself, Burns wrote to Grose, setting out three stories associated with Kirk Alloway, two of which he said were "authentic." The second of these was the story of Tam o' Shanter. Burns described it to Grose as follows:

The Ruins of Auld Kirk Alloway
The Ruins of Auld Kirk Alloway
Statue of Tam o' Shanter in Alloway
Statue of Tam o' Shanter in Alloway

"On a market-day, in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick, and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway kirk-yard, in order to cross the River Doon, at the old bridge, which is almost two or three hundred yards farther on than the said old gate, had been detained by his business till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard hour, between night and morning.

"Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the kirk, yet as it is a well known fact, that to turn back on these occasions is running by far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road. When he had reached the gate of the kirk-yard, he was surprised and entertained, thorough the ribs and arches of an old gothic window which still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round their old sooty black-guard master, who was keeping them all alive with the power of his bagpipe. The farmer stopping his horse to observe them a little, could plainly desern the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman was dressed, tradition does not say; but the ladies were all in their smocks; and one of them happening unluckily to have a smock which was considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled that he involuntarily burst out, with a loud laugh, 'Weel luppen, Maggy wi' the short sark!' and recollecting himself, instantly spurred his horse to the top of his speed. I need not mention the universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream. Lucky it was for the poor farmer that the river Doon was so near, for notwithstanding the speed of his horse, which was a good one, against he reached the middle of the arch of the bridge and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing, vengeful hags were so close at his heels, that one of them actually sprung to seize him: but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the stream but the horse's tail, which immediately gave way to her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning; but the farmer was beyond her reach. However, the unsightly, tailless condition of the vigorous steed was to the last hours of the noble creature's life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers, not to stay too late in Ayr markets."

Depiction of the Chase on the Brig o' Doon in the Burns Museum
Depiction of the Chase on the Brig o' Doon in the Burns Museum
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