“Tam O’Shanter” was a favorite with Burns, who described the work in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop (April 11, 1791): “I look on Tam O’Shanter to be my standard performance in the poetical line.” He goes on to say that his “spice of roguish waggery” shows a “force of genius and a finishing polish that I despair of ever excelling.” The idea for the story came from several legends popular in the neighborhood of the poet’s birthplace, which is within a mile of Alloway Kirk (church). One of Burns’s friends, Francis Grose, sent him a prose account of the legend, one upon which Burns probably drew. If a reader compares the flat style of Grose with Burns’s jolly version, then he or she can better assess the poet’s talent. The conclusion of Grose’s narrative is as follows: “the unsightly tailless condition of the vigorous steed was, to the last hour of the noble creature’s life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers not to stay too late in Ayr markets.” Burns’s rendering is: “Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,/ Each man and mother’s son take heed;/ Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,/ Think! ye may buy the joys o’er dear;/ Remember Tam O’Shanter’s mare.”
Tam himself may have been based loosely upon the character of Douglas Graham, whose father was a tenant at the farm of Shanter on the Carrick shore. Noted for his habits of drunkenness, Graham was, like Burns’s hero, afflicted with a scolding wife. According to D. Auld of Ayre (whose story was taken from notes left at the Edinburgh University Library), a local tradition held that once, while Graham was carousing at the tavern, some local humorists plucked hairs from the tail of his horse, tethered outside the tavern door, until it resembled a stump. As Auld’s account has it, the locals swore the next morning that the unfortunate horse had its tail depilated by witches.
Burns’s narrative is that oxymoron , a rollicking ghost story. With gentle, tolerant humor, the poet moralizes over the foibles of Tam, commiserates with his good wife, Kate, and philosophizes on the brevity of human happiness. Most of the narrative is perfectly clear to readers, so long as they follow notes on the Scottish words glossed from a well-edited text. The matter of the “cutty-sark,” however, confuses some. Burns has in mind, first, the short skirt worn by the most audacious of the witches; then he refers to the witch herself, when Tam blurts out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark”—meaning the hag who dances wearing the clothing. At this point in the narrative, Tam upsets the witches’ frolic dances, and witches and warlocks chase after the hard-riding Tam to the keystone of the bridge. Why cannot the...
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