Written by Scotland’s famous bard, Robert (Rabbie) Burns, ‘Tam O’Shanter‘ is an epic narrative poem, based on an old Scots legend, which still brims over with as much pathos, horror and social comment today as it was when it was originally written in 1790.
It tells the tale of Tam, a drunkard farmer from Ayr, who ignores his wife Kate’s advice and goes out on the piss with his best pal Souter Johnny and his other cronies at the bothy. Once he is suitably inebriated and filled with Dutch courage he finally decides to brave the journey home despite the ferocious storm raging outside. Mounting his grey horse, Meg, Tam sets off on the path home.
His journey takes him through an avenue of trees which have a well-known gruesome and haunting history, so when Tam sees a light ahead coming from an old church, his curiosity draws him towards it and he is intrigued to hear music and laughter coming from within.
When Tam looks through the window he witnesses a wild, satanic party of witches. There are gruesome sights everywhere amongst the dancing, and the Devil himself is holding court, whilst playing a tune on the bagpipes. Although most of the dancers are old and unattractive, one is young and beautiful. She dances enthusiastically in a skimpy shift which barely covers her. Unable to take his eyes off her, Tam eventually gets overwhelmed by her erotic dance and calls out “Weel done, Cutty Sark!”. This alerts the Devil, and all the witches, to Tam’s unwelcome presence and they chase him with the intent of taking him to Hell for his wicked ways.
Tam narrowly escapes by crossing the bridge, as witches are famously unable to cross running water. Tam’s horse, Meg, does not escape so easily, and has her tail pulled off by one of the witches during the escape.
Tam, like us, is left to question the morality of his lifestyle and reflect on the meaning of his experience.