Robert Burns: Tam O’Shanter (Part 1)

Tam O' Shanter, Robert Burns,
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter is one of my favourite poems. The use of the Scottish dialect is beautiful, and the story that is told in the poem is delightfully dark; full of demons, bad behaviour and Scottish humour. The language in the poem can be off-putting to those who don’t have a dictionary of the Scottish dialect to hand. But fear not, I’m here to guide you through the main parts of the poem, and to give you a re-telling that (I hope) will not cause the poet to turn in his grave.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns, Alexander Nasmyth
Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

Robert Burns (1759 –1796) is a bit of a cultural icon in Scotland. Some say he was a handsome womaniser, while others say that he wasn’t much of a looker. (The picture on the left shows him to be rather dashing, but the accuracy of this picture has been questioned*).

It is generally agreed that Burns liked a drink or a “dram” and every year, on the 25th of January, Scottish people celebrate his birthday by eating haggis, getting drunk, and giving slightly misogynistic speeches in the form of “A Toast to the Lassies”. As a student, my friend and I used to subvert things slightly by giving a “A Toast to the Laddies”. Serves them right, if you ask me.

Burns is famous for his poem/song, Auld Lang Syne, which is sung all over the world, usually to bring in the New Year. Translated literally, “auld lang syne” reads “old long ago”, but in modern speech we would probably say “times long gone”. So, next time you raise your glass and sing “for auld lang syne”, at New Year, you’ll know that you’re toasting, perhaps with a touch of nostalgia, the passing of time.

Tam O’Shanter

I’ll show you most of the poem. I might skip a verse here and there. (Please don’t shoot me). I’ll translate as we go along, and commentary will be in green. Horizontal lines indicate a new verse. I’ve illustrated parts of the story too. The story is split into three parts, as it is quite long for one post. Here is part 1.

When chapman billies leave the street,

When salesmen leave the street

And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,

And thirsty neighbours, neighbours meet

As market-days are wearing late,

An’ folk begin to tak the gate;

And folk begin to head home

While we sit bousing at the nappy,

While we sit drinking ale

An’ getting fou and unco happy,

And getting drunk and very happy

We think na on the lang Scots miles,

We don’t think about the long Scots miles

The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,

The mosses, rivers, gaps and styles. Styles are wooden/stone structures built beside a fence/wall to help you boost yourself over to the other side.

That lie between us and our hame,

That lie between us and our home.

Whare sits our sulky sullen dame,

Gathering her brows like gathering storm,

Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

In the three lines above, Burns appears to be addressing his male readers. It’s our sulky sullen dame who sits at home, rather than a sulky sullen dame. The use of “our” creates a we’re-all-in-it-together kind of atmosphere; an intimacy between Burns and his male reader. Even though I’m female, I don’t like the sound of this woman either. 

Sulky sullen dame, Tam O' Shanter, Robert Burns
Gathering her Brows


This truth fand honest Tam O’ Shanter,

This truth – that we don’t think of the long miles and our sullen dame when we’re getting steaming drunk with our friends – found honest Tam O’Shanter.

As he frae Ayr ae night did canter

As he, from Ayr, one night did canter. Burns was born in Ayrshire, maybe Robert sees a bit of himself in Tam.

(Auld Ayr wham ne’er a town surpasses;

For honest men and bonny lasses.)

Old Ayr which/where never a town surpasses; for honest men and pretty girls.

I think Burns is adopting a tongue-in-cheek tone here. As you will come to see, the central character of this story is none too honest, and the characters we meet later are none too pretty.  

Oh Tam! hadst thou but been sae wise,

Oh Tam! if only you had been wise

As ta’en thy ain wife Kate’s advice!

And taken your own wife Kate’s advice

She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,

She told you well you were a rogue

A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;

A chattering, blustering, drunken scoundrel

That frae November till October,

That from November till October

Ae market day thou was nae sober;

One market day, you weren’t sober

That ilka melder, wi’ the miller,

Whenever the meal was ground with the miller

Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;

You sat as long as you had silver

That ev’ry naig was ca’d a shoe on,

That every pony that was put a shoe on

The smith and thee gat roaring fou on;

The blacksmith and you got roaring drunk on

That at the Lord’s house, ev’n 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;

You would be found drowned, deep in the River Doon

Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,

Or caught with warlocks in the dark

By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.

By Alloway’s old haunted church.

Burns plays something of the devil’s advocate in this passage and at different parts throughout the poem. He’s trying to show that there are two sides to this story. There’s the humourous, perhaps exaggerated account of the wife’s anger at this “skellum”, “this blethering, blustering, drunken, blellum”, which reminds us of the unpleasant, “sulky sullen dame” referred to earlier. But Burns is also acknowledging that Tam is a fool:

“Oh Tam! Hadst thou but been sae wise, an ta’en thy ain wife Kate’s advice.” 

He’s dropped the we’re-all-in-it-together attitude and addresses Tam directly: “if only you had been wise and taken your own wife’s advice”, instead of “if only we had been wise and taken our own wife’s advice”.

But to our tale: ae market night,

Tam had got planted unco right;

Tam had got very settled. ‘Planted’ is a great word to describe someone who has settled themselves into a chair, and won’t move for anything. It’s a word that tells of commitment to the cause which, in this case, is drinking.

Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,

Now by a fireside, blazing finely

Wi’ reaming swats, that drank divinely;

With frothing beers, that drank divinely

And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,

And at his elbow, Cobbler Johnny

His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;

Tam Lo’ed him like a vera brither;

Tam loved him like a very brother

They had been fou for weeks thegither.

They had been drunk for weeks together. Souter Johnny is depicted in the picture at the top of this article. I think he’s the one in the overall, since he’s at Tam’s elbow, and he looks like a cobbler.

The night drave on wi’ sangs and clatter;

The night drove on with songs 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,

The storm outside might roar and rustle

Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

Tam did not mind the storm one bit.

Tam O' Shanter, Robert Burns, Pub, Souter Johnny, Kirkton Jean
At the Pub


As bees flee hame wi’ lades o’ treasure,

As bees flee home with loads of 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!

Over all the ills of life victorious.



But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed:

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white – then melts forever.

I’m fond of the poignancy of these lines. I’m also interested in the fact that, aside form the word “flow’r”, these lines are written in English rather than in the Scottish dialect. This shift perhaps make the lines stand out as different, and somewhat apart from the others. These are lines that Burns wants us to take more seriously than the others, perhaps. 

…Nae man can tether time or tide;

The hour approaches Tam maun ride…

The hour approaches, Tam must ride



The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last;

The wind blew as if it were blowing 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.

The devil had business on his hand.

If you want to find out what happens on Tam’s way home, look out for Part 2 which will be posted tomorrow. Tam is in for a surprise…

*For more information on what Robert Burns might have looked like, Click Here


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