Burns Night and the Legacy of Tam

A pencil drawing of Robert Burns
The lovely Rabbie Burns himself. Image courtesy of Dumfries and Galloway Museums

We have just passed Burns Night held on January 25th, a night to celebrate Scotland’s national poet, Robbie Burns, with feasts, speeches, and general good cheer! If you don’t know who Robbie Burns is, he was a poet at the forefront of the Romantic movement in the 18th century who primarily wrote in Scots. You might know such classics as Auld Lang Syne (it’s only sung every year in the UK!).

Aside from Auld Lang Syne, arguably the poem most associated with Burns is Tam O’ Shanter, which he considered his finest work [1]. The Bodleian owns several early editions of the poem which are held at the Weston Library (see here and here). However, if you want easy access to it then you can read a lithograph facsimile of Burns’ own hand here – don’t worry, it does come with a glossary if you haven’t encountered Scots before. Written in 1790, only six years before Burns’ death, Tam is an epic poem of over 200 lines in which after an evening of drinking at the pub (much to his wife, Kate’s, chagrin) our protagonist stumbles across a witches sabbath with the Devil in attendance on his drunken journey home. Tam accidentally calls their attention to him and flees on horseback, barely reaching safety by crossing the Brig o’ Doon as the witches and the Devil can’t cross moving water. Tam comes away alive, only missing a chunk of his horse’s tail.

Of course, many people love a good ghost story, which might be part of the reason why Tam is still so enduringly popular and the pièce de résistance of Burns Night – can you really go wrong with cavorting witches and ghouls? However, as modern readers, it goes without saying that we experience these creatures differently to Burns’ initial audience. Although Burns was writing in Age of Enlightenment, a period during which writing that may maintain irrational (even fantastical) ideas were disapproved of, most ordinary people didn’t really change their patterns of belief to reflect the more ‘rational’ ideas that were in vogue. [2] Instead they stuck to their local folklore and superstitions. [1] For these communities, witchcraft still felt like a very real threat, and it was within a community like this that Burns grew up in Rural Ayrshire.

Burns drew his imagery from elsewhere as well – the Calvinist church; the folklore of his rural farming community in adulthood; Milton’s Paradise Lost and its depiction of Satan; and the fact that in the church condemning witchcraft, it also acknowledged it and made the ‘unreal’ real. [1] In 1773, only 17 years prior to the writing of the poem, the divines of the Associated Presbytery passed a bill that declared their belief in witchcraft, and in addition to that, the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 was only repealed in 1736. [3] All this to say that the environment in which Burns was writing had a profound effect on the content of his work despite his rationalism – in a 1787 letter to Dr John Moore he wrote:

“in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more sceptical in these matters than I, yet it often takes an effort of Philosophy to shake off these idle terrors.” [6]

There are many ways that Tam can be read, which is part of its charm. Of course, you have the vivid imagery and the terror that Tam’s encounter with the supernatural invokes. Then you can see moralistic undertones to the poem if you squint; Tam encounters the diabolic gang of witches and warlocks while drunk, and reveals his presence due to his inebriation – unable to contain himself as he yells to the witch, Nannie, ‘”Weel done, Cutty-sark!”’. [4] This however, might be little bit ironic considering one of our special collections items regarding Burns is a letter from him beginning “Sunday morning. Dr Sir, I was, I know, drunk last night” (relatable?). [5] It’s more likely that this is Burns’ rye sense of humour – to encounter such spirits and devilries you must have to have been drunk, and perhaps the encounter offers a convenient explanation as to why you got home so late and in such a state (and why your horse has had its tail pulled out!). In any case, it’s easy to see why Burns’ poems have endured, and to that we say sláinte!

A sepia picture of the remains of the Alloway Auld Kirk, graves in the foreground and church in the back
Alloway Auld Kirk, where the witches held their sabbath – you can see why it caught Burns’ imagination! Photo © Billy McCrorie (cc-by-sa/2.0)

 

References

[1] Douglas, Tom, Death, the Devil and Tam O’Shanter: the Supernatural World of Robert Burns (Lewes: The Book Guild, 2002)

[2] Clery, E.J., The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

[3] Robbins, Rossell Hope, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York: Crown Publishers, 1959)

[4] Burns, Robert, Tam o’ Shanter & Other Poems(Edinburgh: W. P. Nimmo, Hay, & Mitchell, 1912)

[5] MS. Add. A. 110

[6] Waugh, Butler,  ‘Robert Burns’ Satires and the Folk Tradition: “Halloween”’, South Atlantic Bulletin, 32.4 (1967), pp.10-13

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