Tam rides home through Burn’s own landscape from Dumfries to Ellisland Farm on the River Nith. He sees lights at a ruined church, the scene of a witches’ ceilidh, but he's drunk so much he's more curious than scared.
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry
Wi’ usquebae we’ll face the devil
Warlocks and witches in a dance
Hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels
It's raucous and wild but Tam's been drinking for days and his senses are both heightened, and dulled. He's not sure, we're not sure what is fantasy and hallucination. He faces the devil and and the whirling witches, most are vile but Nannie the witch looks fetching to the besotted Tam who is overcome with lust and cries out
Weel done, cutty sark
Cutty Sark!! I knew of the tea clipper and the tall ships race. And there's a Cutty Sark whisky. All originate with the scanty nighty worn by Nannie the witch at Alloway Kirk. Usquebae is whisky and I didn't know that either. You learn a lot in the riot of Tam of Shanter. No wonder Burns was dead at 37, burnt out possibly.
Along his ride Tam sees grim sights
A murderer’s banes in gibbet airns,
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen ‘d bairns
’A thief, new-cutted frea the reape-
Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape
Tam escapes but his horse Meg has her tail yanked off by a witch as he approaches the river bank. A symbol of castration, suggests a critic in BBC Scotland's Inside the mind of Robert Burns. Tam escapes but it's chancy. On his wild ride he sees the spot where a drunk drowned in a ditch and the landscape is strewn with misadventure.
Tail-pieces, or tale pieces, bring me to Thomas Bewick, a contemporary of Burns. Burns loved the landscape about Ellisland Farm, his home beside the River Nith. Bewick lived at Cherryburn Farm , Northumbria. Both the poet Burns and the engraver Bewick lived close to Nature and farm work was part of their lives. Bewick's tail-pieces are engravings that would illustrate Tam o Shanter perfectly.
Bewick's are disturbing landscapes, there is darkness and malevolence abroad. Here is an England lost and not altogether regretted. There is the motif of the gibbet and birds of ill-omen come with obscure tales of violence: the long-eared owl prefaces a suicide hanged from a bough over a river; two ravens show an ominous interest in a hanged man.
( copyright Jan WIltshire About Scout Scar)
You may read my blog Brigsteer Rise and the Ghosts of Wildlife, 21/3/2022. It's a tribute to Burns wonderful poem 'To a Mouse.' Burns regrets destroying a mouse's nest when he's out in the pastures with a hand-plough . The destruction is dwarfed by the scale of environmental damage witnessed in housing development.
I had neglected Robbie Burns poetry and song, finding his dialect a challenge. Now I'm immersed in Tam of Shanter. Tam plunges into a world dark and malevolent but there's a richly ironic and comic vein through the poem, and an irrepressible vigour. And if you go with the dialect of late 18th century lowland Scots it becomes immersive and a romp.
The witches ceilidh at Alloway Kirk is the lurid height of the drama and illustrations show Tam clinging to his horse Meg and Nannie the witch in her cutty sark clinging to Meg who leaps free, leaving her tail in the witch's grasp.