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The Legend of Tam O' Shanter

The Legend of Tam O' Shanter - origins

Who or what is Tam o’Shanter?

Alloway Kirk
  • Alloway Kirk
  • Tam o’Shanter is an old Scottish legend that was later turned into a narrative poem by Robert Burns. In the original tale, after a long day at market a farmer from Carrick stays drinking until near the witching hour (the hour between night and day). As he rides his mare home, his course takes him past the haunted Alloway Kirk (church). Through the brightly-lit church windows, he sees witches dancing and the Devil himself playing the bagpipes. One young witch, dancing in a short undergarment, so impresses the farmer that he shouts, "Weel luppen, Maggy wei' the short sark!" and then has to flee for his life as with witches and warlocks give chase. He makes for the bridge over the river Doon, knowing that the fiendish creatures cannot cross running water. As Burns himself wrote, as a footnote to his poem: “I need not mention the universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream”. Despite the horse being a fast one, by the time he reaches the middle of the arch of the bridge, the “pursuing, vengeful hags” were so close at his heels, that one of them actually springs to seize him but only manages to grip the horses tail. This, according to Burns in his letter to his friend Francis Grose, “immediately gave way to her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning”. The poor horse’s tail never regrew.

    Burns uses this legend as a basis to craft a wonderful poem about a man, Tam o’Shanter, who never takes the advice of his wife Kate. He stays out at all hours, drinking his life away, until one night poor Tam has to flee for his life from witches, gathered to dance to the devil's bagpipes, at the old Kirk in Alloway. In the poem, Burns changes the witch's name to Nannie Dee and, instead of mentioning the ‘short sark’, Tam instead calls out "Weel done, Cutty-sark" – cutty sark being the old local name for a short undergarment or petticoat. The poem is populated by several unforgettable characters, besides Tam himself. There is his drinking pal, Souter Johnnie, Tam’s long suffering wife Kate, the young witch Nannie or ‘Cutty Sark’ and Tam’s gallant horse, Maggie. Tam o’Shanter is a poem that encompasses humour, horror and social comment as the unsightly, tailless condition of poor Maggie serves as an awful reminder to the Carrick farmers, not to stay too late drinking in Ayr. Written in 1790, it is one of Burns finest poems and his own favourite. Vivid and inventive, it turned a little known local tale of witches into an epic narrative loved the world over.

    Did Tam o’Shanter really exist?

    Bridge over River Doon
  • Bridge over the river Doon
  • The tale may, in fact, be based on an actual person, Douglas Graham of Shanter Farm, Carrick. He had a reputation for getting very drunk on market days. He supplied his cousin’s inn with Barley and it was at this inn that he would drink, along with his friend John Davidson. In Burns’ poem, Douglas Graham became Tam o’Shanter and John Davidson became Souter Johnny. And how did the story come about? It is thought that Douglas Graham lost his bonnet one night, in the lining of which he had hidden the day’s takings from market. To explain this to his wife, he made up a story of how he was delayed by the sight of witches dancing about the kirk and how, when they spotted him, they gave chase and his horse just made it over the river before the witches caught him - but his bonnet was lost in the process. The other tale is that the men of Ayr, knowing he was inside getting drunk, snipped off his mare's tail. To explain this away to his wife, who although deeply mistrustful of her husband was also highly superstitious, as were many people at that time, he made up the story.

    How did Burns know of the tale?

    Robert Burns loved stories of ghosts and witches. He was a voracious reader and also absorbed huge numbers of traditional stories and songs from his mother and a widow of a cousin of hers, Betty Davidson. On many occasions Davidson would stay with the family. She assisted with household chores and entertain the Burns children with a seemingly endless stream of stories and songs. In an Autobiographical Letter, Burns described how she had the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning “devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkries, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, enchanted towers, giants, dragons and other trumpery”. Burns described her as remarkable "for her ignorance, credulity and superstition". She passed on to him the folk tradition that would inspire his poetry and song.

    How did the story come to be written?

    The 224 line poem was written in a day according to the Scottish writer John Gibson Lockhart. Burns wrote it for 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. Captain Robert Riddell, a friend of Burns, introduced Burns to Grose and during a conversation the poet asked the antiquarian to include a drawing of Alloway Kirk when he came to Ayrshire. Grose agreed, as long as Burns would give him something to print with it. Burns remembered the Ayrshire tale from his boyhood and wrote to Grose in June 1790, outlining three witch stories associated with Alloway Kirk. The second of the stories was ‘Tam o' Shanter’. The poem first appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine for March 1791, a month before it appeared in the second volume of Francis Grose's Antiquities of Scotland.

    What is the link to the Cutty Sark Clipper Ship?

    cutty sark
  • Cutty Sark
  • It was Burns’ poem that inspired the naming of the tea clipper ship, the Cutty Sark. Jock Willis, the original owner, was a well-read man who enjoyed poetry, although the name was allegedly suggested to him by the ship’s designer, Hercules Linton. The name refers to the short undergarment worn by Nannie in the poem. The character of Nannie is depicted as the figurehead which adorns the ship’s bow. The ship's figurehead has a horse's tail hanging from her outstretched hand. It is a strange name for a ship as, in legend, witches are unable to cross water. Cutty Sark was not the only ship in the fleet that had a name linked to Burns; another ship was named ‘Halloween’, also the name of a Burns’ poem. In turn, Cutty Sark whisky derives its name from the ship and ‘Tam o’Shanter’ also entered the language to describe a flat-crowned, woollen hat with a pom-pom.

    Who was Robert Burns and why was he so influential?

    Robert Burns was the first son of a poor tenant farmer, born 25th January 1759, in the village of Alloway, near Ayr. He was also a poet and lyricist. He began life as a farm labourer and, in the early days, he had little time to sit and think, so he composed as he worked. His first composition was a song for the girl he partnered in the harvest. He shot to fame following the publication of his work ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect’ published July 1786. It was an immediate success and he travelled to Edinburgh to capitalise on his sudden fame, making a striking impression through his good looks, his charm and easy conversation. Burns embarked on several tours of Scotland, to observe the country and to absorb its history and traditions. Fame, however, did not bring wealth and he continued to work in farming as well as an excise officer. Burns had several illegitimate children, including twins to the woman who would become his wife, Jean Armour. He suffered from heart troubles as well as a rheumatic condition. After a course of water treatment (immersion in the sea), he died in Dumfries on 21 July 1796, at the age of 37. His last work was a song, written for the girl who nursed him at the end, and his last child was born on the day of his funeral.

    Despite such a short life he became famous for his political views, love of a Scottish culture, love of women and, of course, his songs and poems. Burns had a wonderfully retentive memory but, more than that, he could absorb stories and songs and rewrite them using traditional rhyming forms in a completely original way. His craftsmanship and use of language (in Scots and English) allowed him to produce vivid, closely observed images and characters woven within tales of love or horror, which can be both funny and moving. Burns took the Scottish literary world by storm, and left a legacy that continues to influence to this day. Not even Shakespeare has as many statues to his memory. Burns’ Suppers are celebrated every year on the anniversary of Burns’ birth.

    Why is Scotland so rich in folk tales and legends?

    Robert Burns
  • Robert Burns
  • From lowland to highland, Scotland has a rich seam of tales of all manner of bogles (ghost and other mythic creatures), brought to the country by the Scots and Vikings. There was deep-rooted belief in witches and other fiendish beings. The also had some great story tellers like Burns and Sir Walter Scott that popularised the tales. It is even from Scotland that the tradition of Halloween arose. Halloween or All Hallows' Eve (31st October) was a time dedicated to remembering the dead and, in early Celtic societies, when spirits or fairies and the dead could more easily come into our world. It was also the time when witches were particularly active. Scots who emigrated to America took their Halloween customs and traditions with them. Whereas in Scotland they would carve turnip lanterns, once in America they carved pumpkins. Scots’ children went guising (dressing up and knocking on doors) and celebrated Mischief Night by playing pranks. In America this became ‘trick or treat’. In the early 20th century, many American Halloween cards still showed Scottish images and Robert Burns himself wrote a poem called ‘Hallowe’en’ (first published in 1786) that describes the Halloween and fortune telling customs of his native Ayrshire.

    Robert Burns Poem:

    Tam o’ Shanter: A Tale
    "Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke."
    Gawin Douglas.

    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.

    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! had'st thou but been sae wise,
    As taen 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 na 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 wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon,
    Or catch'd 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 lengthen'd, 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 sAats, that drank divinely;
    And at his elbow, Souter Johnie,
    His ancient, trusty, drougthy crony:
    Tam lo'ed him like a very 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 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 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 nor 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.

    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 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,
    Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry.

    By this time he was cross the ford,
    Where in the snaw the chapman smoor'd;
    And past the birks and meikle stane,
    Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane;
    And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
    Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn;
    And near the thorn, aboon the well,
    Where 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.

    Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
    What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
    Wi' tippenny, 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 ventur'd forward on the light;
    And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight!

    Warlocks and witches in a dance:
    Nae cotillon, 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 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 gabudid 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 of life bereft,
    The grey-hairs yet stack to the heft;
    Wi' mair of horrible and awfu',
    Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.
    Three lawyers tongues, turned inside oot,
    Wi' lies, seamed like a beggars clout,
    Three priests hearts, rotten, black as muck,
    Lay stinkin, vile in every neuk.

    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,
    The reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
    Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
    And coost her duddies to the wark,
    And linkit 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' guid blue hair,
    I wad hae gien them off my hurdies,
    For ae blink o' the bonie burdies!
    But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
    Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
    Louping an' flinging on a crummock.
    I wonder did na turn thy stomach.

    But Tam kent 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 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 power;
    To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
    (A souple jade she was and strang),
    And how Tam stood, like ane bewithc'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 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 skreich 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-stone o' the brig;^1
    There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
    A running stream they dare na cross.
    But ere the keystane 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 inclin'd,
    Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
    Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear;
    Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.

    [Footnote 1: It is a well-known fact that witches, or any evil spirits, have no power to follow a poor wight any further than the middle of the next running stream. It may be proper likewise to mention to the benighted traveller, that when he falls in with bogles, whatever danger may be in his going forward, there is much more hazard in turning back.-R. B.]

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