I took a walk through present day Alloway where one of the most famous writers of all time, Robert Burns, was born and raised. I wanted to see what remains of his life over 200 years on. Not only did I see him everywhere but the story of one of his most famous characters came to life before my very eyes.
There are few in literature who’s lives are celebrated as readily and as globally as that of Scotland’s Bard Robert Burns. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, think back to New Year’s Eve when you sang Auld Lang Syne to herald in this year. Robert Burns was the man who wrote it.
The village of Alloway where Burns was born and raised is now a part of the present day town of Ayr, situated about 2 miles south of the town centre. I walked out through town and then skirting a park and golf course. The 358 bus from Smith Street also takes you there.
As I walked into Alloway, there was no doubting either where I was or why it is famous. A large road sign welcomed me to Alloway, Birthplace of Robert Burns and plaques showing Burns appeared on almost every lamp post. Within minutes, I was standing outside Burns Cottage. Currently closed due to the Covid Pandemic, there is a full National Trust Site and museum at this location.
If the thatched roof alone was not indication enough of a unique, famous and ancient building, there’s also a sign on the roof indicating that this is the place where Burns lived. On the roadside in front of the cottage at both ends are plant boxes dedicated to Souter Johnnie, a fictional character from Tam O Shanter. Arguably Burns most famous poem.
A local ruin, even in Burns day, was the remains of Alloway Kirk. A ruined church and graveyard in the woods which, even today, looks like the ideal place for witches, demons and ghouls.
Though Burns was living in Dumfries at the time of writing Tam O Shanter, the kirk in Alloway and the nearby Brig O Doon became ideal the setting for his tale of poor drunken farmer Tam’s encounter with witches, warlocks and the devil himself.
A short walk past Burns Cottage I turned left off the main road onto what is called the Poet’s Path and headed towards the very world of Tam O Shanter, a setting and a story still very much alive today.
Along the path a series of plaques (Designed by Timorous Beasties) illustrate the famous story.
Tam O Shanter By Robert Burns
When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And 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,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
The scene is set. Simple farmer Tam O Shanter is off to the pub for a drink knowing that his wife is sat at home fuming at his absence.
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.)
O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As ta’en thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober;
That ilka melder, wi’ the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That every naig was ca’d a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on;
That at the Lord’s house, even on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon;
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.
Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen’d, sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
Tam’s drunken life and womanising ways are described. His wife Kate has said how such a life will come to no good with Tam either being found drowned in the nearby River Doon or carried off by Warlocks from the Kirk
But to our tale:– Ae market-night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi’ reaming swats, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither–
They had been fou for weeks thegither!
The night drave on wi’ sangs and clatter
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 and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E’en drown’d himsel’ amang the nappy!
As bees flee hame wi’ lades o’ treasure,
The minutes wing’d their way wi’ pleasure:
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious.
O’er a’ the ills o’ life victorious!
The poem describes the drunken night that Tam and his best friend Souter Johnnie are enjoying. Tam is secretly getting very friendly with the landlady of the Inn while Souter Johnnie tells mad stories and the landlord laughs along. The world just seems great to Tam who feels in control of it and all it’s problems.
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 tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
That hour, o’ night’s black arch the key-stane,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in;
And sic a night he taks the road in
As ne’er poor sinner was abroad in.
The wind blew as ‘twad blawn 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 Deil had business on his hand.
As surely as a plucked flower dies, as snow melts in a river, as a rainbow dissolves into a storm, the joyous time in the Inn must come to an end for Tam as man cannot control time or tide. Tam mounts his horse, Meg, and heads for home amidst a heavy storm.
The mention of a ‘Key-Stane’ in this tale is significant and worth consideration. In Engineering terms, a Key-Stane, or Keystone, is the final piece of masonry placed into a structure like an arch, and is the part which supports the entire structure.
Burns description of this hour that Tam must ride into the night as the ‘Key-Stane of the night’s black arch’, suggests that this hour the most important hour of the night in question, pivotal to the whole story. Indeed, it marks a transition from light and laughter into darkness and horror.
This ‘Key-Stane’ imagery features much more prominently later in the story.
Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg–
A better never lifted leg–
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire;
Despisin’ wind and rain and fire.
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
By this time he was cross the ford,
Whare, in the snaw, the chapman smoor’d;
And past the birks and meikle stane,
Whare drunken Chairlie brak ‘s neck-bane;
And thro’ the whins, and by the cairn,
Whare hunters fand the murder’d bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mungo’s mither 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;
Thro’ ilka bore the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.
Atop his horse Tam hangs onto his bonnet and silently sings. They are passing through several places where accidents, suicide and death have taken place and Tam is keeping a watchful eye out for ghosts. As the auld kirk comes into view, Tam notices that it is lit up and there seems to be music and dancing.
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippeny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!–
The swats sae ream’d in Tammie’s noddle,
Fair play, he car’d na deils a boddle.
But Maggie stood, right sair astonish’d,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He scre’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.–
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And by some develish cantraip slight,
Each in its cauld hand held a light.–
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murders’s banes in gibbet-airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen’d bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi blude red-rusted;
Five scymitars, wi’ murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father’s throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o’ life bereft,
The gray hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi’ mair o’ horrible and awfu’,
Which even to name was be unlawfu’.
Three lawyers’ tongues, turn’d inside out,
Wi’ lies seam’d like a beggar’s clout;
Three priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile in every neuk.
As Tam eggs his horse Meg to cautiously approach the kirk, he looks in the window at an amazing sight. The Devil himself sits inside surrounded by witches and warlocks playing reels and dancing. Around them lie various weapons crusted in blood and mud and several body parts including tongues and priests hearts.
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,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark!
Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A’ plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir breeks o’ mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o’ gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi’en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o’ the bonie burdies!
But wither’d beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Louping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder did na turn thy stomach!
But Tam kend what was what fu’ brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and waulie,
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after ken’d on Carrick shore;
(For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish’d mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her cutty-sark, o’ Paisley harn
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie,-
Ah! little ken’d thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
Wi’ twa pund Scots, (’twas a’ her riches),
Wad ever grac’d a dance of witches!
But here my Muse her wing maun cour;
Sic flights are far beyond her pow’r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch’d,
And thought his very een enrich’d;
Even Satan glowr’d, and fidg’d fu’ fain,
And hotch’d and blew wi’ might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason a’ thegither,
And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
The music gets louder and the dancing gets faster as haggard old witches reel and dance. But then a very sexy young witch starts to dance. Even the Devil fidgets with lust watching her and Tam is spellbound. Eventually losing all sense of time and place and losing control he gets completely caught up in the dance and screams out, “Well done Cutty Sark!” and suddenly all the light is gone.
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’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.
Meg barely has time to gather herself and start sprinting away before the hellish witches are out of the kirk and chasing her and Tam.
Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou’ll get thy fairin’!
In hell they’ll roast thee like a herrin’!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy commin’!
Kate soon will be a woefu’ woman!
Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o’ the brig;
There at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
As they sprint through the woods with the witches in frenzied pursuit poor Tam thinks how his wife Kate is going to hear of his death and be left on her own. His only hope is to reach the nearby river Doon and cross over the ‘Key-Stane’ of the bridge before the witches reach him because witches can’t cross running water.
Not only is the position of the Key-Stane, at the apex of the arch of the bridge over the River Doon and, hence, over running water, symbolic in this tale. It’s important also in that it is the most important part of the structure which holds the rest of the bridge together. It is at the very core of Tam and Meg’s route to safety and symbolic of strength against evil.
(Special Thanks to my Dad, Tony Clements, who explained the significance of the Key-Stane to me)
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 gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump
Just as they reach the safety of the bridge the fastest of the witches, Nanny, catches up with them. Meg springs over the Key-Stane taking her and Tam to safety but Nanny catches her tail before it has crossed over and rips it clean off.
No, 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 run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
The last verse is a caution. Yep, we may like drink and loose women but, whenever we are inclined towards either, we should remember the tale of Tam O Shanter and his poor horse.
Having walked along the Poet’s Path and re-lived the story of Tam O Shanter I turned back onto the main road and found myself standing across the road from the actual ruins of the Auld Kirk of Alloway, still standing to this day.
Just through the entrance to the cemetery within it’s outer walls stands the grave of William Burns, father of Robert Burns. His gravestone is also inscribed with a dedication to Robert Burns mother, Agnes Brown. On the back of the gravestone is a dedication to his father by Robert Burns.
Looking at the kirk among the trees it’s easy to imagine how scary this would have been of a night time on the outskirts of the village. I browsed among the graves and walked around the ruins of the church.
I even looked through the very window through which Tam is said to have seen Cutty Sark dance. No such luck for me. Perhaps because it was daylight, perhaps because I was sober.
Pursued only by silence and the first hint of the setting sun, I walked just a short distance down the main road and found myself looking at the Brig O Doon.
After a walk over, below and around the bridge it was time to head for home. I turned around and started the few miles walk back to the centre of Ayr with Tam O Shanter’s story occupying my thoughts. For sure the buildings and the dedications to Burns bring this place to life, and it’s amazing to feel the presence of history and legends radiating in this setting.
But it’s the spirit of Burns, conveyed through the characters he created and the tales he wove them into which brings so much more to life for me. In every sense I’ve sat many a times in the Inn from the story and, like Tam, drunk far too much beer, flirted with any lady who would flirt with me and, for a time, forgot all my problems.
It’s Burns Day tomorrow. No one will be drinking down any inn because the pubs are closed because of Covid. But I’ll sit here in my Ayrshire flat and raise a glass of the finest whisky to the memory of the Bard and the warmth of his writing. Maybe a wee drunken guy called Tam will be heading home in a taxi driven by a woman called Meg past that auld Kirk. For sure they will in my head as Nannie will be doing her sexy dance in her Cutty Sark.