Composed for Francis Grose to accompany an engraving of Alloway Kirk, and published in the second volume of Antiquities of Scotland in April 1791. It was written in fulfilment of a promise to Grose in 1789 but not carried out before the winter of 1790. In November that year Burns sent the first fragment to Mrs Dunlop. Grose received the complete poem at the beginning of December. Like `Halloween' it draws heavily on the lore of witchcraft which Burns imbibed from Betty Davidson. The story is loosely based on Douglas Graham of Shanter (1739-1811), whose wife Helen was a superstitious shrew. He was prone to drunkenness on market-day and on one such occasion the wags of Ayr clipped his horse's tail --- a fact he explained away by this story of witches which mollified his credulous wife.
Captain Grose, in the introduction to his `Antiquities of Scotland', says, `To my ingenious friend, Mr Robert Burns, I have been most seriously obligated; he was not only at the pains of making out what was most worthy of notice in Ayrshire, the country honoured by his birth, but he also wrote, expressly for this work, the pretty tale annexed to Alloway Church.' What an odd notion Captain Grose must have had of the fitness of things when he called Tam O'Shanter `a pretty tale.' In a letter to Captain Grose the author gives the legend which formed the groundwork of the poem:- `On a market day in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick, and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway kirkyard, in order to cross the river Doon at the old bridge, which is about two or three hundred yards farther on than the said 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 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 kirkyard, he was surprised and entertained, through 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 blackguard 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 descry the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman was dressed tradition does not say, but that 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 purposes of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled that he involuntarily burst out, with a loud laugh, `Weel luppen (leaped), Maggie 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. Luckily 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 at 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 hour of the noble creature's life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers not to stay too late in Ayr markets.'
The poet constituted Douglas Graham, the farmer of Shanter, hero of the legend, and as he really was the jovial careless being he is represented to be in the poem, several ludicrous incidents current about him were introduced into it. The poem was composed in the winter of 1790, and was begun and ended in one day. Mrs Burns told Cromek that she saw him by the riverside laughing and gesticulating as the humorous incidents assumed shape within his mind. But the evidence suggests careful reworking of the poem: Burns thought the poem had `a finishing polish that I despair of ever excelling.'
Burns named it as his `own favourite' of his own works and said `I look on "Tam o' Shanter" to be my standard performance in the Poetical line,' an opinion endorsed by generations of critics beginning with A.F.Tytler who wrote to Burns, on 12 March 1791, `when you describe the infernal orgies of the witches' sabbath and the hellish scenery in which they are exhibited, you display a power of imagination that Shakespeare himself could not have exceeded.' Sir Walter Scott (in the first issue of the Quarterly Review, February 1809) also compared the Burns of `Tam o' Shanter' with Shakespeare: `No poet, with the exception of Shakespeare, ever possessed the power of exciting the most varied and discordant emotions with such rapid transitions.'
Burns confided to Mrs Dunlop, in 1789, that he wanted `to write an epic poem of my own composition.' He never achieved that ambition but did write a masterly mock-epic in `Tam o' Shanter'. On one level, the poem is a comical Odyssey (Burns had read Pope's translations of Homer) following the homewards journey of a farmer to Kirkoswald, in the Carrick area of Ayrshire, from the county town of Ayr. Traditionally the protagonists of the poem are supposedly modelled on characters Burns met when sent to school in Kirkoswald in the summer of 1775: Tam on Douglas Graham of Shanter farm; Kate on Graham's nagging wife Helen; Souter Johnnie on John Davidson, a shoemaker who lived near Shanter farm; Kirkton Jean on Jean Kennedy who, with her sister Anne, kept an ale-house in Kirkoswald; Cutty-sark on Katie Steven, a local fortune-teller.
Above all, though, `Tam O' Shanter' is an imaginative work and it is clear that Burns found the octosyllabic couplet the perfect form for a narrative that moves easily from the natural to the supernatural, from the earthly to the other-worldly, thus giving Tam's odyssey a timeless dimension.
`Tam o' Shanter' first appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine (March 1791) and the Edinburgh Herald (18 March 1791) then as a footnote (pp 199-201) to the account of Kirk Alloway in the second volume of Grose's `The Antiquities of Scotland (April 1791). In these first printings, four lines completed the section ending `Which even to name wad 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.Writing to Alexander Fraser Tytler in April 1791, Burns agreed there were faults in the poem as first published: `one of them, the hit at the lawyer and priest, I shall cut out.' So he did, omitting the four lines when he collected the poem in the second Edinburgh edition of 1793.
When chapman billies leave the street, pedlar lads And drouthy neebors neebors meet; thirsty neighbours As market-days are wearing late, An' folk begin to tak the gate; take the road While we sit bousing at the nappy, boozing/ale An' getting fou and unco happy, drunk/mighty We think na on the lang Scots miles, The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles, bogs/pools/openings 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, found As he frae Ayr ae night did canter; one (Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonnie lasses.) O Tam, had'st thou but been sae wise, As taen thy ain wife Kate's advice! to have taken She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, good-for-nothing A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum; chattering/babbler That frae November till October, Ae market-day thou was nae sober; every meal-grinding That ilka melder wi' the miller, Hugh Broun of Ardlochan Thou sat as lang as thou had siller; money That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on, nag The smith and thee gat roaring fou on; John Smith of Carrick That at the Lord's house, even on Sunday, Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday. Jean Kennedy, who kept She prophesied, that, late or soon, a pub in Kirkoswald Thou would be found deep drown'd in Doon, Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk wizards/dark By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk. in decay since 1690 when Alloway parish was joined to Ayr Ah! gentle dames, it gars me greet, makes/weep To think how monie counsels sweet, How monie lengthen'd, sage advices The husband frae the wife despises! But to our tale:- Ae market-night, Tam had got planted unco right, just Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely, fireside/blazing Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely; foaming/ale And at his elbow, Souter Johnie, John Davidson, a cobbler His ancient, trusty, drouthy cronie: Tam lo'ed him like a very 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' secret favours, sweet and precious: The Souter tauld his queerest stories; told The landlord's laugh was ready chorus: The storm without might rair and rustle, roar 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, loads 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, Aurora or Northern Lights 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: must That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane, That dreary hour Tam mounts his beast in; And sic a night he taks the road in, such As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in. The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last; would have blown 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, spanked/puddle Despising wind, and rain, and fire; Whiles holding fast his guid blue bonnet, Now Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet, Whiles glow'ring round wi' prudent cares, staring Lest bogles catch him unawares: bogies Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh, Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry. ghosts/owls By this time he was cross the ford, Slaphouse Burn Where in the snaw the chapman smoor'd; smothered And past the birks and meikle stane, birches/big Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane; And thro' the whins, and by the cairn, Cambusdoon Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn; And near the thorn, aboon the well, Whare Mungo's mither hang'd hersel. St. Mungo's Well Before him Doon pours all his floods; The doubling strorm 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, every chink And loud resounded mirth and dancing. Inspiring, bold John Barleycorn! What dangers thou canst make us scorn! Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil; twopenny beer Wi' usquabae, we'll face the Devil! whisky The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle, brain Fair play, he car'd na deil's a boddle. farthing 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! wondrous Warlocks and witches in a dance: Nae cotillion, brent new frae France, brand But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, Put life and mettle in their heels. A winnock-bunker in the east, window seat There sat Auld Nick, in shape o' beast; A tousie tyke, black, grim, and large, shaggy dog To gie them music was his charge: He screw'd the pipes and gart them skirl, made/squeal Till roof and rafters a' did dirl. ring Coffins stood round, like open presses, cupboards That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses; And, by some devilish cantraip sleight, magic device 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; -irons Twa span-lang, wee, uncristen'd bairns; babies A thief new-cutted frae a rape --- rope Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape; mouth Five tomahawks wi' bluid 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 of horrible and awefu', Which even to name wad be unlawfu', As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious, stared 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, took hold Till ilka carlin swat and reekit, beldam/sweated/steamed And coost her duddies to the wark, stripped off clothes And linket at it in her sark! tripped/chemise Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans, these/girls A' plump and strappin' in their teens! Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen, greasy flannel Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen! --- fine (1700 thread gauge) Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair, These breeches That ance were plush, o' guid blue hair, once I wad hae gi'en them off my hurdies buttocks For ae blink o' the bonie burdies! one/glimpse/maidens But wither'd beldams, auld and droll, Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal, Withered/abort Louping and flinging on a crummock, Leaping/cudgel I wonder did na turn thy stomach! But Tam kend what was fu' brawlie: knew/well There was ae winsome wench and walie, comely/choice That night enlisted in the core, crew Lang after kend on Carrick shore (For monie a beast to dead she shot, death An' perish'd monie a bonie boat, And shook baith meikle corn and bear, barley And kept the country-side in fear). Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn, short shift/coarse cloth That while a lassie she had worn, In longitude tho' sorely scanty, It was her best, and she was vauntie... proud Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie, That sark she coft for her wee Nannie, bought Wi' twa pund Scots (`twas a' her riches) 3s4d sterling Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches! But here my Muse her wing maun cour, must curb Sic flights as far beyond her power: To sing how Nannie lap and flang (A souple jad 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, fidgeted/fondly And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main; jerked Till first ae caper, syne anither, then Tam tint his reason a' thegither, lost 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, fret When plundering herds assail their byke; hive As open pussie's mortal foes, hare's 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' monie an eldrich skriech and hollo. unearthly 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, bridge 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; not For Nannie, far before the rest, Hard upon noble Maggie prest, And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle; aim But little wist she Maggie's mettle! Ae spring brought off her master hale, whole But left behind her ain grey tail: The carlin claught her by the rump, clawed 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 run in your mind, Think! ye may buy the joys o'er dear: Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.