Celebrate Burns Night with an extract from Tam o’Shanter

  24 Jan '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Funny, scurrilous, chilling and gloriously inventive, Tam o’ Shanter is widely regarded as Robert Burns’ masterpiece, and one of his pieces most celebrated annually on Burns Night. Our magnificent edition of the poem features the work of Alexander Goudie, one of Scotland’s greatest twentieth-century artists who, over a period of many years, was inspired by the poem to produce some of his most powerful and imaginative paintings, which capture all the menace and comedy of Burn’s poem. Below is an extract from the introduction of the book, in which Goudie’s son, Lachlan Goudie, reminisces about a sketching trip he embarked on with his father at the height of his ‘Tam fever.’

Extract from ‘In Pursuit of Alexander Goudie’ by Lachlan Goudie, from Tam o’Shanter

On a dark November evening in 1986 I stood with my father in the rain. The Main Street of Kirkoswald is dreich at the best of times: a h hamlet clinging to the edges of the A77, where it streaks down from Maybole. Articulated lorries, hurrying towards the ferry at Stranraer, don’t even reduce their speed, leaving the cottages to shiver in the spray as they thunder past.

It had been a long Saturday. That morning, in the first throws of “Tam fever”, my father had bundled me into the car and we had driven off on a sketching trip through Ayrshire. I was ten, and the opportunity of spending a day alone in his company was virtually unheard of. Tracing our progress from Glasgow on the map, the journey seemed to lead us in search of place-names each more sodden than the next – Mauchline, Tarbolton, Mossblown. They sounded strange to me, but to my father, born in Paisley in 1933, they formed a mental chart, a geography of Robert Burns which had been familiar to him since childhood.

On the shelves of the small flat in Kelburne Drive, where he grew up, a leather-bound anthology of Burns had sat amidst spartan company. Books passed through the house from the local library but few were owned. This well-thumbed anthology, however, was one of the exceptions, sandwiched between the complete Dickens and the family dictionary.

Each 25 January his own father, David, would tumble home after a Burns Night dinner and re-enact the evening’s readings. Sandy and his elder brother John would listen intently, absorbing the knowledge of a poetry whose source lay over the Gleniffer Braes, the moorlands at the southern edge of Paisley.

That Saturday afternoon, forty years later, it was my turn to listen to tales about Burns. In the car we followed a route that took us through the town of Ayr and into Alloway. There, at his insistence, I photographed my father theatrically pretending to ride a horse over the Brig o’Doon and afterwards peering through the windows of the ruined Kirk. In the photograph he mouths an expression of astonishment which may not have been entirely contrived, for in his mind’s eye he must have seen, spread before him, the horror which would later be caked onto canvas. As I put the camera away he retrieved his pencil and, in an instant, outlined the crooked bell tower, the collapsing gravestones, the claw of a tree scraping at the sky. Then, as the sun began to dip, we headed down to the waves at Girvan where my father had spent many holidays as a boy. He never used to take any of his three children to revisit the nostalgic haunts of his own childhood so I felt strangely privileged that day.

No wrath would be incurred by our late arrival home that night, since the house in Glasgow was empty. My mother was in France visiting her parents. Marie-Renée Dorval had left the Breton village where she had grown up at the age of eighteen, exchanging one Celtic culture for another. She had arrived in Scotland to learn English and ended up staying for fifty years. She never lost her accent and gained a husband instead.

My parents visited Brittany on a number of occasions before their wedding in 1962, but those early trips only hinted at the richness which Mainée and her homeland would bring into his life. In Scotland my father was increasingly known as a portrait painter, but under towering Breton skies the sources of his inspiration grew proportionately. The land and the sea gave him a harvest of imagery which he cultivated over several decades. It introduced him to a different language, demanded the use of an unfamiliar palette and revealed Gauguin, Matisse and the entire French school of painting in a new light.

As this world became more familiar, Tam o’ Shanter started to run through my father’s mind and his gaze shifted. He found that rural Brittany with its farmers, fishermen and peasant folk could also be translated into Burns’ Ayrshire. From amidst the archive of sketchpads and photos accumulated over decades of annual visits to France, he began to draw out the characters which peer at
us from the paintings in this book with their narrow eyes and weathered skin.

During our night-drive back from Kirkoswald those faces must have crowded his mind alongside the regulars at Kirkton Jean’s. For my part, I stared out of the window as the darkness slipped by in a blur of road signs and tangled undergrowth. The cassette player blared out Strauss’ Salome and my father, lost in a red-eyed fug, mouthed the words, “When chapman billies leave the street . . .” Hedgerows, tree branches, old twisted fences, a flurry of litter, a startled crow and then, suddenly, a fork in the road. The violent climax of Strauss and wailing tyres brought our car tearing to a standstill. The smoke of burnt rubber clouded across the headlamps whilst my father, his hand stretched out over the gearstick to fasten me into the passenger seat, breathed heavily. I watched him fumble to switch off the radio.

“I’m a stupid man, Lachlan! A very stupid, stupid man!” I was taken aback by his fierceness but continued looking at him and nervously mumbled, “No, Dad. No you’re not.”

“Yes I am. A stupid man. I’m sorry.”

The remainder of our journey was slow and steady. He whispered his penance to himself as the glow of Glasgow drew us home. We didn’t mention the incident again, nor the tree trunk which had loomed over the bonnet of the car in the darkness.

The next morning my father woke up, took me to the airport and we flew to London for the day. There was an exhibition of Frans Hals at the National Gallery and he wanted to see it. Yesterday’s scribbler of blasted hedgerows and Ayrshire types had awoken as the society portrait painter, searching for lessons in the old masters. We walked across St James’s Park, inspected Buckingham Palace, where he would one day paint the Queen, swapped Kirkton Jean’s for Green’s of St James’s and had oysters for lunch. We were both dressed in suits and wearing bow ties.

“Life is but a day at most”, wrote Robert Burns. My father packed a lot into those fleeting hours, and for the people who spent time in his company it could feel like being carried along in the chase. There was noise, hoopla, turmoil and occasional frenzy – an enthusiasm for stretching out and always grabbing a handful of experience. The paintings illustrated across these pages encapsulate that spirit. They are an invitation to join the pursuit, to strive for exuberance, to raise your pulse and grasp at the vital energy of life which courses through the words of Robert Burns.

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