Tam O'Shanter

I just finished annotating one of the most famous of all supernatural poems, the 1791 chased-by-witches poem by Robert Burns titled "Tam O'Shanter." Between the Scottish dialect, the place names, and the supernatural allusions, it has taken a long time to create what I hope is the ultimate annotated text of this poem. It's intended to help students, scholars and casual readers get the full meaning of a poem that is truly fun to read. It's part of a great tradition of horseback chase poems. German ghost ballads like "Erlkonig" and "Lenore" belong to the same class of narrative.

Sooo, for those who dare, here is the text, interspersed with the annotations, broken up as it will appear in my forthcoming Volume 2 of "Tales of Wonder."

Tam O’Shanter
[A Tale.
     “Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke.”]a

When chapman billies1 leave the street,
And drouthy2 neebors,3 neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
An’4  folk begin to tak the gate;5 
While we sit bousing6 at the nappy,
An’ getting fou7 and unco8 happy,
We think na9 on the lang Scots miles,10
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,11 
That lie between us and our hame,12
Whare13 sits our sulky sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

[a] The subtitle “A Tale” and the Epigraph appear in Burns’ Collected Poems, but did not appear in the Lewis volume.
1. Chapman billies. Peddler boys.
2. Drouthy. Thirsty.
3. Neebors. Neighbours.
4. An’. And.
5. Tak the gate. Return home.
6. Bousing. Drinking.
7. Fou. Drunk.
8. Unco. Very.
9. Na. Not.
10. Lang Scots miles. Long Scots miles. Scotland had its own mile, based on the distance from the castle to Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. Scotland did not adopt English miles until 1824.
11. Mosses, waters, slaps and styles. Bogs, waters, pools, and styles. Styles are openings or breaches in fences or stone walls.
12. Hame. Home.
13. Whar. Where.
          This truth fand14 honest Tam O’Shanter,
As he frae’15 Ayr ae16 night did canter,
(Auld17 Ayr wham18  ne’er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonny19 lasses.
O Tam! had’st thou but been sae20 wise,
As ta’en thy ain21 wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld22 thee weel?23 thou was a skellum,24
A blethering,25 blustering, drunken blellum;26
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae27 sober;
That ilka melder,28 wi’ the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;29
That every naig was ca’d a shoe on,30
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on ;
That at the L——d’s house,31 even on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesy’d that, late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon;32
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,33
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.’34
14. Fand. Found.
15. Frae.  From.
16.  Ae.  One.
17. Auld. Old.
18. Wham. Whom.
19. Bonny, or bonnie. Handsome.
20. Sae. So.
21. Ain. Own.
22. Tauld. Told.
23. Weel. Well.
24. Skellum. A rogue. 
25. Blethering. Talking idly, chattering.
26. Blellum. A babbler.
27. Nae. Never.
28. Ilka melder. Each installment of grain, .i.e., Tam gets drunk while waiting for the miller to grind his grain into flour.
29. Siller. Money, from silver.
30. That every naig was ca’d a shoe on. Every time a horse had a shoe nailed on.
31. L——d’s house. Lord’s House. An act of self-censorship on the part of Lewis’s printer. Burns spells it out in his text. Printers in England were wary of blasphemy charges.

Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet35
To think how mony36 counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen’d sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
     But to our tale: Ae market night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle,37 bleezing38 finely,
Wi’ reaming swats,39 that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter40 Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;41
Tarn lo’ed him like a vera brither;42
They had been fou for weeks thegither.43
The night drave44 on wi’ sangs and clatter;45
And ay the ale was growing better :
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
Wi’ favours, secret, sweet, and precious:
The souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus :
The storm without might rair’46 and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
32. Doon. The River Doon.
33. Mirk. Dark.
34. Alloway Kirk. The roofless church of Alloway, two miles south of the town of Ayr, abandoned in 1756.
35. Gars me greet.  Makes me weep.
36. Mony. Many. 37. Ingle. Fire.
38. Bleezing. Burning.
39. Reaming swats. Foaming ale.
40. Souter. A shoemaker.
41. Crony, or cronie. an old acquaintance.
42. Vera brither. Very brother.
43. Thegither. Together.
44. Drave. Passed.
45. Sangs and clatter. Songs and discourse.
46. Rair. Roar.

Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E’en drown’d himself amang the nappy,47
As bees flee hame wi’ lades48 o’ treasure,
The minutes wing’d their way wi’ pleasure:
Kings may be bless’d, but Tam was glorious,
O’er a’49 the hills o’ life victorious!
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white — then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form,
Evanishing amid the storm. —
Nae man can tether50 time or tide ;
The hour approaches Tam maun51 ride;
That hour, o’ night’s black arch the key-stane,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in;
And sic52 a night he tacks53 the road in,
As ne’er poor sinner was abroad in.
     The wind blew as ‘twad blawn54 its last;
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 deil55 had business on his hand.
47. Amang the nappy. Among the ales.
48. Lades. Loads.
49. A’. All.
50. Tether. Tie.
51. Maun, Must.
52. Sic. Such.
53. Tacks. Takes.
54. As ’twad blawn. As if it would have blown.
55. Deil. The Devil.

Weel56 mounted on his grey mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit57 on through dub and mire,58
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles59 holding fast his gude60 blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning61 o’er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glow’ring’62 round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles63 catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets64 nightly cry. —

56. Weel. Well.
57. Skelpit. Galloped.
58. Dub and mire. Pools of water, and mud.
59. Whiles. Sometimes.
60. Gude. Good.
61. Crooning. Humming or singing.
62. Glow’ring. Staring.
63. Bogles. Bad spirits.
64. Ghaists and houlets. Ghosts and owls.


By this time he was cross the ford,65
Whare in the snaw66 the chapman smoor’d;67
And past the birks68 and meikle staine,69
Whare drunken Charlie brak’s neck-bane;70
And thro’ the whins,71 and by the cairn,72
Whare hunters fand73 the murder’d bairn;74
And near the thorn, aboon75 the well,
Where Mungo’s mither76 hang’d hersel. —
Before him Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm 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;77
Thro’ ilka bore78 the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing. —

65. Tam crosses a stream called the Slaphouse Burn. Since this stream had bridges and no known local ford, this detail is considered to be imaginative.
66. Snaw. Snow.
67. The chapman smoor’d. The peddler smothered.
68. Birks. Birch trees.
69. Meikle stane. A large stone.
70. Brak’s neck-bane. Broke his neck-bone.
71. Whins. Gorse plants.
72. Cairn. A heap of stones, often a prehistoric burial site. The cairn still stands, on the Campusdoon estate in Ayr.
73. Fand.  Found.
74. Bairn. A child.
75. Aboon. Above.
76. Mungo’s Mither. Mungo’s Mother. St. Mungo’s Well, located just west of Alloway Church. The suicide is imaginary, as St. Mungo is associated with Glasgow. The Alloway Church had been dedicated to St. Mungo, since Glasgow Cathedral had owned the land. Mungo here might simply refer to a person born in Glasgow, St. Mungo’s See. Doubtless the idea of a saint’s mother being a suicide verges on the blasphemous. St. Mungo’s mother was herself canonized as St. Thanew (Harvey 64).
77. Bleeze. Blaze.
78. Ilka bore. Every crevice.
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!79
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippeny,80 we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquebae81 we’ll face the devil! —
The swats82 sea ream’d in Tammie’s noddle,83
Fair play, he car’d na84 deils a boddle;85
But Maggie stood right sair86 astonish’d,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco87 sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent new frae France,88
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys,89 and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker90 in the east,
There sat auld Nick,91 in shape o’ beast;
A towzie-tyke,92 black, grim, and large,
To gie93 them music was his charge:
79. John Barleycorn. The personification of the spirit of ale.
80. Tippeny. A weak ale, sold for two pennies a pint.
81. Usquabae. Whisky.
82. Swats. Fumes.
83. Noddle. head.
84. Car’d na. Minded not.
85. Bodle.  A farthing, a coin worth one quarter of a penny.
86. Sair. Sore, seriously. 
87. Unco. Strange.
88. Cotillion brent new frae France. Cotillion brought new from France. The French cotillion, a variety of contredanse, became popular in England in the 1700s. Placing dancers in square formation, it encouraged flirtation, and is the ancestor of the American rural square dance.
89. Strathspey. A slow and stately Scottish dance in 4/4 time, slower than a jig or reel. The melody for a strathspey often contains many “snaps,” short notes followed by dotted notes. Strathspeys were composed and arranged both for fiddles and for bagpipes.
90. Winnock-bunker. Window seat.
91. Auld Nick. Old Nick, the Devil.
92. Towzie-tyke. A shaggy dog. Mephistopheles first appears in Goethe’s Faust in the form of a black dog. — BR
93. To gie. Give.

He screw’d the pipes and gart94 them skirl,95
Till roof and rafters a’96 did dirl.97
Coffins stood round, like open presses,98
That shaw’d99 the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantrip100 slight,
Each in its cauld101 hand held a light. —
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,102
A murderer’s banes’103 in gibbet airns;104
Twa span-lang,105 wee,106 unchristen’d bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,107
Wi’ his last gasp his gab’108 did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi blude109 red-rusted,
Five scymitars’,110  wi’ murder crusted;
94. Gart. Made.
95. Skirl. Squeal.
96. A’. All.
97. Dirl. Rattle, shake.
98. Presses. Linen closets or wardrobes.
99. Shaw’d.  Showed.
100. Cantrip. A charm or spell.
101. Cauld. Cold.
102. Haly table. Holy table, the church altar.
103. Banes. Bones.
104. Airns. Irons.
105. Twa span-long. Two spans in length. A span is the width of the hand from the end of the thumb to the end of the little finger, with the fingers fully-extended. The span was used in the absence of measuring tapes or rulers as a rude unit of measure.
106. Wee. Little.
107. New-cutted frea a rape. New cut from a rope.
108. Gab. Mouth. / 
109. Blude. Blood.
110. Tomahawks . . . scymitars. Massive emigration from Scotland began around 1725 and accelerated after English repression of Scots culture after the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Tens of thousands, dispossessed by land “clearances” that resembled “ethnic cleansing,” fled to America. Scots were also prominent in the British armed forces, placing them in the campaigns such as the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War in America) and Scots figured prominently on both sides of the American Revolution. Revolutionary soldiers in America received tomahawks as part of their kit (Thayer XX). Burns here reminds his reader that Scots were dying in faraway places, killed by Indians, Colonials, or Turks, and that their ghosts would nonetheless return to Scotland. —BR
A garter, which a babe had strangled,
A knife, a father’s throat had mangled,
Whom his ain111 son o’ life bereft,
The grey hairs yet stack112 to the heft;113
     [Three lawyers’ tongues, turn’d inside out,
     W’ lies seam’d like a beggar’s clout;114
     Three priests’ hearts, rotten black as much,115
     Lay stinking, vile in every neuk.116]117
Wi’ mair118 o’ horrible and awefu’,
Which ev’n to name wad be unlawfu’.119
As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d, and curious,
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,120
Till ilka carlin121 swat122 and reekit,123
And coost her duddies124 to the wark,125
And linket126 at it in her sark!127
111. Ain. own.
112. Stack.  Stuck.
113. Heft. Haft, handle.
114. Clout. A patch in a cloth.
115. Much. Muck. Excrement, manure or other rotting organic matter. “Much” appears to be an idiosyncratic Burns spelling, as this does not appear in OED.
116 Neuk. Nook, small corner or recess.
117. Three lawyers . . . / . . . every neuk. Burns suppressed these four lines at the behest of a friend, a judge, and replaced them with the two lines following. They did not appear in Lewis’s edition, or in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland.
118. Mair. More.
119. Unlawfu’. Unlawful. A nod to the censorship laws that clamped down on English publishing after the French Revolution.
120. Cleekit. Linked together.
121. Carlin. A stout old woman.
122. Swat. Sweated.
123. Reekit. Smoked, steamed.
124. Coost her duddies. Cast off her clothes.
125. Wark. Work.
126. Linkit. Danced.
127. Sark. A shirt or shift, an undergarment.

Now Tam, O Tam! had thae128 been queans,129
A’ plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen,130
Been snaw-white’131 seventeen hunder linnen!132
Thir breeks133 o’ mine, my only pair,
That ance134 were plush, o’ gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi’en them off my hurdies, 135
For ae blink136 o’ the bonnie burdies!137
But wither’d beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie138 hags wad spean139 a foal,
Lowping140 an’ flinging on a crummock,141
I wonder didna142 turn thy stomach.

128. Thae. These.
129. Queans. Young women.
130. Cretshie flannen. Greasy flannel.  Flannel, orginally made from wool, was manufactured in Wales starting in the 17th century.
131. Snaw-white. Snow-white.
132. Seventeen hunder linnen. Fine linen, 1700-thread gauge. Huguenots settling in Ulster, Ireland after 1695 established the linen-making industry there, and the use of linen expanded rapidly after 1700.
133. Thir breeks. These breeches. Men’s trousers, extending just below the knee. Would be considered an undergarment, as it is the first item one would put on, and the last one would take off.
134. Ance. Once.
135. Hurdies. Buttocks, hips. — OED
136. Ae blink. One look.
137. Bonnie burdies. Pretty creatures.
138. Rigwoodie. Dried-up and wrinkled, resembling twisted twigs, straw or rushes.
139. Wad spean. Lewis footnotes this as “would wean.” Weaning foals seems a rather benign activity for ghosts and witches. Spean also means “to abort,” and “foal” is also used to describe a pregnant mare (OED). This is almost certainly what Burns would have wished to express, since witches were accused of causing stillbirths among humans and animals. The euphemism of weaning for abortion is certainly ironic – abortion being premature weaning! Local “wise women” were midwives and many knew the secrets of abortifacients. Scotland had been swept with witch mania in the 1600s, so this lore would be familiar to Burns’ readers.
140.  Lowping. Jumping.
141. Crummock. A crutch.
142. Didna. Did not.

But Tam kend143 what was what fu’ brawlie,144
There was ae winsome145 wench and wawlie,146
That night enlisted in the core,147
(Lang after kend on Carrick148 shore;
For mony a beast to dead149 she shot,
And perish’d mony a bonnie boat,
And shook baith150 meikle corn and bear,151
And kept the country-side in fear),
Her cutty sark,152 o’ Paisley harn,153
That while a lassie154 she had worn,
In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie. — 155
Ah ! little kend thy reverend grannie, 
That sark she coft156 for her wee Nannie,
Wi’ twa pund Scots,157 (’twas a’ her riches),
Wad ever grace a dance of witches!

143. Kend. Knew.
144. Brawlie. Very well.
145. Winsome. Buxom.
146. Wawlie. Comely.
147. Core. Corps.
148. Carrick. An Ayreshire district, earldom of the famous Bruce family. — BR.
149. To dead. To death.
150. Baith. Both.
151. Bear. Barley.
152. Cutty sark. A short shift.
153. Paisley harn. A cotton woven in a distinctive pattern, made in the town of Paisley in the Scottish lowlands. The town had a reputation for radical politics and free-thinking, so the wearing of Paisley probably had a caché of radicalism about it. — BR
154. Lassie. Little girl.
155. Vauntie. Proud.
156. Coft. Spun.
157. Twa pund Scots. Two pounds in Scottish currency. The Scots pound was worth only about one-twelfth of the British pound sterling during the period of this poem. It took more than two centuries for the two currencies to merge into one. — BR.

But here my Muse her wing maun cour;158
Sic159 flights are far beyond her pow’r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,160
(A souple161 jade162 she was and strang),163
And how Tam stood, like ane164 bewitch’d,
And thought his very een165 enrich’d;
Even Satan glowr’d, and fidg’d fu’ fain,166
And hotch’d and blew wi’ might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,167
Tam tint168 his reason a’ thegither,169
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.

158. Maun cour. Must lower.
159. Sic. Such.
160. Lap and flang. Jumped and flung.
161. Souple Supple.
162. Jade. A term of reprobation applied to a woman. Also used playfully, like hussy or minx. — OED.
163. Strang. Strong.

164. Ane. One.
165. Een. Eyes.
166. Fidg’d fu’ fain. Became very restless.
167. Syne anither. Then another.
168. Tint. Lost.
169. A’ thegither. Altogether, entirely.


As bees bizz170 out wi’ angry fyke,171
When plundering herds172 assail their byke;173
As open pussie’s174 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’ mony an eldritch skreech175 and hollow.
Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! thou’ll get thy fairin!176
In hell they’ll roast thee like a herrin!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin!177
Kate soon will be a woefu’ woman!
Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane of the brig;178

170. Bizz. Buzz.
171. Fyke. Mood.
172. Herds. Shepherds.
173. Byke. Bee-hive.
174. Pussie’s. A hare.
175. Eldritch screech. A frightful scream. The term “elrich screik” dates to 1513, in Douglas’ Aeneis, VII. 108. Eldritch is a word seldom used outside of the small circle of supernatural writers, but the OED does cites its use by Burns, Hawthorne, Lord Lytton and William Dean Howells. It was one of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite adjectives. —BR
176. Fairin. A fairing, a present.
177. Comin. Coming.
178. Key-stane of the brig. Key-stone of the bridge, i.e., the centermost part of a stone bridge. “It is a well-known fact that witches, or any evil spirits, have no power to follow a poor wight any farther than the middle of the next running stream. It may be proper likewise to mention to the benighted traveller, that when he falls in with bogies, whatever danger may be in his going forward, there is much more hazard in turning back.” — RB

There at them thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail179 she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;180
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle —
Ae spring181 brought off her master hale,182
But left behind her ain183 gray tail:
The carlin claught184 her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
Now, wha185 this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk186 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,187
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
179. The fient a tail.  Fient is a petty oath, as, “The devil a tail.”
180. Ettle. Zeal.
181. Ae spring. One jump.
182. Hale. Whole.
183. Ain. Own .
184. Claught. Seized hold on.
185. Wha. Who.
186. Ilk. Each.
187. O’er dear. Too dear.



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