Tam o’Shanter: A Poem for All Hallows

  23 Oct '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn


Tam o’ Shanter usually gets an annual outing on Burns Night in darkest January, but this year I submit it for your consideration as a Hallowe’en poem. A tale for wintering nights, it’s about revelry, temptation and terror, and Tam gets an almighty fright. Birlinn’s special illustrated edition combines the text with the work of artist Alexander Goudie to bring Burns’s masterpiece to hair-raising life.

To be clear, the poem is not set specifically on All Hallows Eve but rather on the stormy night of a winter-ish market day that also saw a ‘witches’ sabbath’. All Hallows would surely be the highest of these un-holy days. Tam’s market-jaunt turns to a nightmare after he has one too many. Under present circumstances, the poem’s sense of truant conviviality is especially
bittersweet. We ‘drouthy neebors’ are not meeting, not ‘getting fou and unco happy’, and certainly not in the Newington pub of that name near Birlinn’s Edinburgh office.

Goudie’s paintings for the poem’s opening scenes are an attentive look at a story Burns conjures economically but vividly. On one hand, market-day carousing occupies a fair proportion (72 out of 224 lines) of the poem, but Goudie situates it in a landscape and locality : the daytime depictions of Tam’s farm, the road to Ayr, and the market, gradually darken under a lowering sky that presages the chaos to come. You see and feel the warmth of the inn in amber tones of fire and spirit, but as ‘the night drave on wi’ sangs and clatter’ the smiles get wider and the eyes turn leery. Meg, the patient victim of the tale, stands tethered outside in the dark.

Goudie’s paintings and sketches aren’t a simple sequence in the book, but rather a collection of his life’s work on the poem. There are many different renderings of many scenes, and Tam has many faces, some of which bear more than
a passing resemblance to the artist himself. In his foreword, Lachlan Goudie recalls a day spent in Burns country with his father, who pretended theatrically to ride a horse over the Brig o’Doon; the day ended in the ‘Kirkton Jean’s’ pub.

Burns took the story of Tam o’ Shanter from the witch tales of south west Scotland in general and those which had coalesced round Auld Kirk Alloway in particular. The poem’s origin is typical of late eighteenth-century cataloguing of folk traditions and their appreciation as a kind of history. Tam first appeared as a long footnote in Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland (1791). Burns had provided his friend with an itinerary of Ayrshire sites of interest, and subsequently sent him this brilliant poetic treatment of the same material ‘to print or not as you think proper’. The poem escaped from its antiquarian grave even before Grose’s volumes were published, appearing in the Edinburgh Herald and the Edinburgh Magazine.

The ‘witches sabbath’ that Tam runs across and peeps in on is astonishingly, and apocalyptically brought to life in Goudie’s illustrations. ‘Auld Nick’ skirling on his bagpipes, open coffins, the murderer’s bones still in irons on the communion table – the ghoulish details of the poem abound in detail that recalls Hieronymous Bosch, John Martin, even William Blake. Nannie, in her cutty sark, is fleshly and otherworldly at the same time. Tam’s disastrous, involuntary ejaculation, ‘Weel done Cutty-sark!’ sets the chase in motion, the gray mare streaking out, nostrils flaring, the whites of four eyes picked out in the dark, ahead of a charge of witches, warlocks and beldams. The frantic chase is captured in many images from all perspectives: under, over, head-on on the Brig o’Doon. In black and white, in hellfire, and darkness it’s harum-scarum, terrifying, and comical all at once, right down to the poem’s moral, the injunction to ‘remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare’. In this edition,
you’ll remember her and a whole lot more.

Hallowe’en is the beginning of winter storytelling season. While we wait for the ghosts of Christmas past to call, there’s no better way to open new corners of this poem, and to appreciate Burns outside of the annual haggis and tartanry feast. Pour a dram and savour the frights.

Tam o’ Shanter – A Tale by Robert Burns, illustrated by Alexander Goudie is available in a glorious hardback for £25; a precious few copies of the larger 2013 Limited Edition are still available or contact us on

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