Robert Burns: Tam O’ Shanter (Part 3)

Tam O' Shanter, Robert Burns
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

When last we saw Tam in Part 2, he had travelled through a stormy night on his horse, Meg, and ended up at Kirk-Alloway where witches and warlocks danced wildly. Knives lay on the table with blood encrusted, and coffins stood open showing the dead. 

In the final part of this story, we join Tam as he investigates the goings-on in Kirk-Alloway.


As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d and curious,

As Tammie stared, amazed 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,

Basically, they did a lot of Scottish country dancing

Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,

Till every witch sweated and steamed

And coost their duddies to the wark,

And cast their clothes to the work (I’m not sure what it means to cast something to the work, but I assume it means to cast something aside) 

And linket at it in her sark!

And tripped at it (got on with the dancing, I assume) in her shirt


Now, Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,

Now, Tam, O Tam! had they been girls

A’ plump and strapping in their teens,

Steady on, Burns…

Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen,

Their shirts, instead of greasy flannel

Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!

Been snow-white and finely woven. The juxtaposition of the image of snow white clothing with the reality of greasy flannel, highlights the struggle between the good and the bad, or the righteous and the sinful. Burns laments, “had they been queans”. If only they had been good young girls, dressed in virginal white, rather than old dirty women, full of sin.


But wither’d beldams, auld and droll,

But withered old women.

Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,

Stringy hags that would put a foal of its mother’s milk. Bloody hell…

Lowping and flinging on a crummock,

Leaping and flinging on a crook

I wonder didna turn thy stomach.

I wonder it didn’t turn your stomach


But Tam kend what was what fu’ brawlie,

But Tam knew what was what very well,

There was ae winsome wench and wawlie,

There was one ample wench

That night enlisted in the core,

That night enlisted in the company.

It seems that Tam was able to see his way through the horrible old witches to find an “ample wench”. In the character of Tam, Burns is showing his readers how tempting and alluring sinful behaviour can be, and how any man could be lured into it. Tam is, after all,  a fairly ordinary, albeit roguish character, who is not unlike other men of his time. It’s interesting that these hellish scenes take place within a church. The juxtaposition of Satan playing the bagpipes in a church calls to mind the struggle between good and evil that runs through this poem.

(Lang after kend on Carrick shore;

This ample wench was long after known on Carrick shore;

For mony a beast to dead she shot,

For many a beast to death she shot,

And perish’d mony a bony boat,

And shook baith meikle corn and bear,

And shook lots of corn and barley

And kept the countryside in fear)

Her cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn,

Her coarse linen shirt, of Paisley cloth,

That while a lassie she had worn,

In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,

Though, in longitute it was sorely wanting,

It was her best, and she was vauntie.-

It was her best, and she was proud.


…And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch’d,

And thought his very een enrich’d;

And thought his very eye enriched

Ev’n Satan glowr’d, and fidg’d fu’ fain,

Even Satan stared, and wriggled with delight

And hotch’d and blew wi’ might and main:

And jerked and blew with might and main.

Till first ae caper, syne anither,

Till first one caper (one dance, perhaps), then another

Tam tint his reason a’ the gither,

Tam lost his reason altogether

And roars out, ‘Weel done, Cutty Sark!’

And roars out “Well done, Course Shirt!”

And in an instant all was dark;

And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,

When out the hellish legion sallied.

As eager runs the market-crowd,

When ‘Catch the thief!’ resounds aloud;

So Maggie runs, the witches follow,

Wi’ mony an eldritch skreech and hollow.

With many an unearthly screech and holler


Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! Thou’ll get thy fairin!

Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! You’ll get your comeuppance

In hell they’ll roast thee like a herrin!

In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin!

Kate soon will be a woefu’ woman!

Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg.

And win the key-stane of the brig:

And get to the key-stone of the bridge. “the key-stane of the brig” refers to the stone at the mid-way point of a bridgeAccording to Meikle and Beattie (1946 p159-160). 

“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”

There at them thou thy tail may toss,

There (at the key-stane) you may toss your tail at them 

A running stream thy dare na cross.

A running stream they dare not cross

But ere the key-stane she could make,

But before the key-stane she could make

The fient a tale she had to shake!

The fiend she had to shake

For Nannie, far before the rest,

For Nannie (the cutty sark) ahead of the rest

Hard upon noble Maggie prest,

Pressed hard upon noble Maggie

And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;

And flew at Tam with furious intent

But little wist she Maggie’s mettle –

But little was she Maggie’s match

Ae spring brought off her master hale,

One spring carried her master away (Maggie leapt across the river carrying her master to safety)

But left behind her ain grey tail:

But left behind her own grey tail.

The carlin claught her by the rump,

The witch clutched her by the rump

And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

And left poor Maggie with nothing by a stump

Tam O' Shanter,  Robert Burns, Cutty Sark, Meg



Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,

Now what this tale of truth shall read,

Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed:

Every 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,

Think, the joys may be very costly indeed

Remember Tam O’Shanter’s Mare.


Tam O’ Shanter is a poem in the public domain, and you can read the whole poem on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website here.

If you wish to hear the whole tale narrated, you are in for a treat in the following video. It is narrated by Bryan McCormack and illustrated by Joseph Shearer.

Works Cited

Meikle, H.W. & Beattie, W. (eds.) 1946, Robert Burns, Penguin Books


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