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Robert Burns: Tam o' Shanter

“Tam o’ Shanter” is one of Robert Burns’ most well-known and quoted poems.

Robert Burns' cottage

Tam o' Shanter


Tam o' Shanter is a farmer and the main character in the poem, which begins at the end of a market day in the town of Ayr, and goes on to weave in a traditional tale of ghosts and witches. Tam and his neighbours are enjoying themselves in the pubs, getting “fu and unco happy.”

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 styles,
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).

Burns continues with a marvellously colourful description of Tam and his drinking habits. Tam's wife has told him that he is a "blethering, blustering, drunken blellum" that is drunk every single market day from "November till October", but that has not made much impression on him. In the pub, he is enjoying the cheerful company of his cronies, especially Souter Johnnie;

"Tam lo'ed him like a very brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither."

However, time is flying, the evening is growing late and it is soon time to leave;

"Nae man can tether Time nor Tide,
That hour approaches Tam maun ride"

The story continues with Tam riding somewhat unsteadily home on his grey mare Meg or Maggie. He comes to the old Kirk of Alloway which is abandoned, and there he sees lights in all the windows and hears music. He has had quite a few drinks and is feeling brave so he climbs up in order to look through a window into the church and there he sees a terrible sight. All the coffins are open and the dead are lying there in their funeral clothes. Sitting on the communion table is "Old Nick" or the devil playing the fiddle furiously. The church is full of witches and warlocks who are dancing wildly to the music, which gets even faster and more furious. All the dancers are pretty ugly but there is one young witch who has not yet lost her looks. She is wearing a short petticoat or “cutty sark” and Tam calls her Nannie. After watching for a while, Tam is so engrossed in the spectacle that he forgets where he is and suddenly shouts 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 monie an eldritch skriech 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,
An left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Burns finishes off with a warning to all men.

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.

You will find the complete text of the poem here, Rabbie Burns Poems.


Use the dictionary http://www.scots-online.org/dictionary/ to translate the beginning of the poem into Standard English. Compare and comment on the two versions. What effect does the language have on the atmosphere created in the poem?


Use the excerpts above to answer the following questions.

  1. What in this poem is characteristic of the Romantic Period?
  2. What type of poem is this?
  3. Who is speaking in the poem?
  4. What about the rhyme and rhythm? Does this vary in different parts of the poem? (Watch and listen to the videos)
Sist oppdatert 26.11.2018
Skrevet av Anne Scott Hagen


Literature from 1780 to 1840