'Tam O'Shanter' by Robert Burns

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A Tale

"Of Brownyis and of Bogilis full is this Buke."
—Gawin Douglas.

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
An' 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,
Whare 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 and bonie lasses).

O Tam! hadst 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 ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roarin fou on;
That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that, late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drowned in Doon;
Or catched wi' warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld haunted kirk.

Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthened 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, bleezing finely,
Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
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 an' clatter;
And aye 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 drowned himself amang the nappy;
As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
The minutes winged 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 seize the flow'r, 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 tak's 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 swallowed;
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellowed:
That night, a child might understand,
The De'il had business on his hand.

Weel mounted on his grey mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glow'rin round wi' prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares;
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.

By this time he was cross the ford,
Whare in the snaw the chapman smoored;
And past the birks and meikle stane,
Whare drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane;
And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
Whare hunters fand the murdered bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mungo's mither hanged 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 seemed in a bleeze;
Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst mak' us scorn!
Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!
The swats sae reamed in Tammie's noddle,
Fair play, he cared na deils a boddle.
But Maggie stood right sair astonished,
Till, by the heel and hand admonished,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, wow! 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 screwed the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl.—
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shawed the Dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip sleight
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, unchristened bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi' blude red-rusted;
Five scimitars, 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 of horrible and awfu',
Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.

As Tammie glowered, 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 set, they crossed, 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 they been queans,
A' plump and strapping 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 gi'en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonie burdies!

But withered beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Lowping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder didna turn thy stomach.

But Tam kenned what was what fu' brawlie:
`There was ae winsome wench and waulie',
That night enlisted in the core
(Lang after kenned on Carrick shore;
For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perished 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 kenned thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever graced a dance of 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 jade she was and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitched,
And thought his very een enriched;
Even Satan glowered, and fidged fu' fain,
And hotched and 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.

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 screech and hollow.

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 of 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 carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to drink you are inclined,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o'er dear,
Remember Tam o'Shanter's mare.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Tam O'Shanter: A Literary Gem

Tam O'Shanter, written by the legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1790, is a literary masterpiece that tells the story of a man named Tam who loves to drink and have fun. This narrative poem, which is rich in symbolism and imagery, explores themes such as the consequences of indulgence, the supernatural, and the power of storytelling. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve into the depths of Tam O'Shanter and unravel its hidden meanings, metaphors, and symbolism.

The Plot and Structure

Tam O'Shanter is a tale about Tam, a farmer who loves to drink and party. One night, he gets drunk and decides to ride his horse, Maggie, to the market town of Ayr to have some fun. On his way back home, he passes by a haunted churchyard where he sees a group of witches and warlocks dancing. Tam is fascinated by the scene and starts to watch them from a distance. However, he gets excited and shouts "Weel done, Cutty-sark!", which means "Well done, short skirt!"

The witches and warlocks hear Tam's voice and chase him. Tam starts to ride his horse as fast as he can, and the supernatural beings follow him. He crosses a bridge, and one of the witches tries to grab him, but only manages to rip off Maggie's tail. Tam manages to escape, but the event leaves him traumatized.

The poem has a simple structure, consisting of nine stanzas of varying lengths. It is written in the Scottish dialect, which adds to its authenticity and charm. The rhyme scheme is AABAB, and the meter is iambic tetrameter, meaning that each line has four iambs or metrical feet.

The Themes

Tam O'Shanter explores several themes, including the consequences of indulgence, the supernatural, and the power of storytelling. One of the most prominent themes is the consequences of indulgence. Tam is a man who loves to drink and party, but his actions have consequences. His drunkenness leads him to witness a terrifying scene that he cannot forget. The poem shows that indulgence can have serious consequences, and that we should be mindful of our actions.

Another theme is the supernatural. The witches and warlocks in the poem represent the supernatural world. They are terrifying, and their presence creates a sense of unease and danger. The poem shows that the supernatural is real and that we should be cautious when dealing with it.

Finally, the poem explores the power of storytelling. Tam O'Shanter is a tale that has been passed down through generations of Scottish people. The poem shows that storytelling is a powerful tool that can capture the imagination and create a sense of community. Through storytelling, we can learn about our history, culture, and values.

The Symbolism and Imagery

Tam O'Shanter is rich in symbolism and imagery. One of the most striking symbols is the horse, Maggie. Maggie represents Tam's sense of freedom and adventure. She is also a symbol of his drunkenness and reckless behavior. When Maggie's tail is ripped off, it represents Tam's loss of control and the consequences of his actions. The scene also foreshadows Tam's fate, which is to be haunted by the supernatural beings for the rest of his life.

Another symbol is the bridge that Tam crosses. The bridge represents the boundary between the natural and supernatural world. When Tam crosses the bridge, he enters the supernatural realm and is chased by the witches and warlocks. The bridge also represents the boundary between the conscious and unconscious mind. Tam's journey across the bridge represents his descent into madness and terror.

The imagery in Tam O'Shanter is vivid and creates a sense of unease and danger. The witches and warlocks are described in great detail, with their "grim and gashly" appearance and their "dancing and jouking" movements. The scene creates a sense of dread and terror, and the reader can feel Tam's fear and confusion. The use of the Scottish dialect also adds to the authenticity of the scene and creates a sense of place and time.

The Literary Devices

Tam O'Shanter is full of literary devices, including alliteration, metaphor, and personification. Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words. Burns uses alliteration to create a musical effect and to emphasize certain words. For example, in the line "But pleasures are like poppies spread," the "p" sound is repeated, creating a sense of rhythm and melody.

Metaphor is the comparison of two unlike things to create a new meaning. Burns uses metaphor to create vivid and memorable images. For example, in the line "Wi' tippenny we fear nae evil," the "tippenny" is a metaphor for alcohol, which represents Tam's indulgence and recklessness.

Personification is the attribution of human qualities to non-human objects. Burns uses personification to create a sense of the supernatural and to add to the sense of terror and danger. For example, in the line "The auld kirk-hen she took the fling," the "auld kirk-hen" is personified, making it seem like an active and dangerous creature.

The Historical and Cultural Context

Tam O'Shanter was written during a time of great political and social upheaval in Scotland. Burns was a farmer and a poet who was deeply invested in the culture and history of his country. The poem reflects the values and beliefs of the Scottish people, and it celebrates their sense of community and storytelling.

The poem also reflects the Scottish tradition of storytelling, which was an important part of their culture. The tale of Tam O'Shanter has been passed down through generations, and Burns was inspired by the oral tradition of storytelling. The poem shows the power of storytelling to create a sense of community and to preserve cultural heritage.

The Significance and Legacy

Tam O'Shanter is a literary gem that has stood the test of time. It is a testament to the power of storytelling and to the enduring legacy of Robert Burns. The poem has been translated into many languages and has been read by millions of people around the world. It is a symbol of Scottish culture and heritage and is celebrated every year on Burns Night.

The poem has also inspired many artists, writers, and musicians. It has been adapted into plays, operas, and films, and has influenced the work of many writers such as Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The poem is a timeless classic that continues to captivate and inspire readers around the world.


Tam O'Shanter is a literary masterpiece that explores themes such as the consequences of indulgence, the supernatural, and the power of storytelling. The poem is rich in symbolism and imagery and is full of literary devices such as alliteration, metaphor, and personification. It reflects the historical and cultural context of Scotland and celebrates the country's traditions and values. The poem is a testament to the enduring legacy of Robert Burns and is a symbol of Scottish culture and heritage. It is a timeless classic that continues to captivate and inspire readers around the world.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Tam O'Shanter: A Classic Poem by Robert Burns

Tam O'Shanter is a classic poem written by Robert Burns in 1790. It is a narrative poem that tells the story of Tam, a farmer who enjoys drinking and partying with his friends. One night, Tam decides to ride his horse, Meg, to the local pub, despite his wife's warnings of the dangers of the night. As he rides back home, he encounters a group of witches and warlocks who are having a wild party. Tam is fascinated by the scene and watches from a distance. However, he is eventually spotted by the witches and chased by them. Tam and Meg manage to escape, but not before Meg loses her tail to one of the witches.

The poem is a masterpiece of Scottish literature and is considered one of Burns' greatest works. It is a perfect example of Burns' ability to capture the essence of Scottish culture and folklore. The poem is written in Scots, a dialect of English spoken in Scotland, which adds to its authenticity and charm.

The poem is divided into six cantos, each with its own unique style and tone. The first canto sets the scene and introduces the main character, Tam. Burns uses vivid imagery to describe Tam's drunken state and his love for partying. The second canto introduces the character of Meg, Tam's trusty horse. Burns uses Meg as a symbol of Tam's wild and reckless nature. The third canto is where the action begins, as Tam rides towards the pub. Burns uses this canto to build suspense and tension, as Tam's wife warns him of the dangers of the night.

The fourth canto is the most famous and memorable part of the poem. It describes Tam's encounter with the witches and warlocks. Burns uses vivid imagery to describe the witches' wild and chaotic party. He also uses this canto to comment on the hypocrisy of the church, as one of the witches is a former member of the congregation. The fifth canto is where the tension reaches its peak, as Tam is chased by the witches. Burns uses this canto to show the power of fear and the importance of quick thinking in dangerous situations.

The final canto is where the poem reaches its climax. Tam and Meg manage to escape the witches, but not before Meg loses her tail to one of them. Burns uses this canto to comment on the consequences of reckless behavior and the importance of listening to the advice of others.

One of the most striking features of Tam O'Shanter is its use of language. Burns uses Scots to create a sense of authenticity and to capture the essence of Scottish culture. The use of Scots also adds to the poem's humor and charm. However, the use of Scots can also make the poem difficult to understand for non-Scots speakers. This is why many editions of the poem include translations or footnotes to help readers understand the language.

Another important feature of the poem is its use of symbolism. Tam and Meg are both symbols of Scottish culture and folklore. Tam represents the wild and reckless nature of the Scottish people, while Meg represents their strength and resilience. The witches and warlocks are also symbols of Scottish folklore, representing the supernatural and mystical elements of Scottish culture.

The poem also has a strong moral message. Burns uses Tam's reckless behavior and his encounter with the witches to show the consequences of ignoring the advice of others. He also uses the poem to comment on the hypocrisy of the church and the importance of living a virtuous life.

In conclusion, Tam O'Shanter is a classic poem that captures the essence of Scottish culture and folklore. It is a masterpiece of Scottish literature and is considered one of Burns' greatest works. The poem's use of language, symbolism, and moral message make it a timeless piece of literature that continues to be enjoyed by readers around the world.

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