‘Tam o’ Shanter’ (1790) is Robert Burns’s best known poem to lend its name to a sort of hat. It is also his best known poem about Halloween—better known, in fact, and better fitted to the subject than his poem called ‘Halloween,’ which is more anthropology about roasting nuts than poetry.
That ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ is set on Halloween is not entirely obvious, but we know that in eighteenth-century lowland Scotland witches supposedly met the devil, as happens in this poem, at Beltane (30 April) and Halloween. October, with its longer nights, is more suitable. October is also the stormier of the two months, and the poem is storm-lashed. Finally, the reference to ‘frae November to October’ more than likely situates the poem at the beginning of the old Celtic year. (See Robert Burns and the Hellish Legion by John Burnett [National Museums Scotland, 2009] for more.)
Enough of that, though! It is worth explaining what I mean by the title of this post. Compare Tam’s Halloween to the modern celebration of it (which is mostly pumpkin-fucking and rewriting your Twitter name in scary-speak). Think carefully about which is better.
(A brief paraphrase: Tam, pished, goes home on horseback from a pub in Ayr in a storm. He passes a ruined church full of witches dancing to mad, infernal music. He speaks to the witches. They, enraged, pursue him. One tears his horse’s tail off, but Tam and horse escape.)
- Tam is drunk. So are you, probably, but this was in the now almost forgotten era before all Scotland’s malt whiskies were by owned/sold by Diageo and all the world’s sweets were made by Big Corn Syrup. Tam’s tipple is ‘nappy,’ or ale, and it ‘drank divinely.’ Care itself, ‘mad to see a man sae happy, / E’en drown’d himself amang the nappy.’ (See also the congenial drinking narrator in Burns’s ‘Death and Doctor Hornbook.’)
- Tam does not have to wear a costume. And that is one less thing to worry about in the eighteenth century. Basically, his costume is Slutty Tam o’ Shanter.
- There are actual creepy places to visit. Ayrshire is not a fake haunted corn maze.
By this time he was cross the ford,
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor’d;
And past the birks and meikle stane
Where drunken Charlie brak’s neck-bane;
And thro’ the whins, and by the cairn
Where hunters fand the murder’d bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Where Mungo’s mither hang’d hersel.
For those who value the real over the simulacrum, this is a distinct advantage.
- He goes to a sick party. At the ruined Alloway Kirk, Tam spies a coven of witches celebrating their pact with the devil. They are joined in their rite, somehow, by the remains of the local damned: an executed murderer in irons; dead, unbaptised children; a hanged thief still speaking his last words; a parricide. Oh, and the women. Don’t forget the women dancing. And one of them, Nannie (‘Cutty-Sark’), even catches Tam’s eye across the dancefloor.
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 linkit at it in her sark!
I don’t know any colourful club lingo, so I will simply say that he is basically all up in the club.
- The devil is depicted as a dog. He is ‘a towzie tyke [shaggy dog], black, grim and large.’ This is far, far, far better than a man with horns. Good for those who like dogs and are down with the devil, and also good for those who dislike dogs and Satan equally.
- Tam learns a lesson. Or does he? Normally, one doesn’t learn anything at Halloween, except possibly ‘Eat fewer razors next year.’ But Tam, having had a close scrape with Nannie, who pulled his horse Meg’s tail off, has supposedly learned that one may ‘buy the joys [of life] o’er dear’ if one thinks that drinking and witch-watching is a good idea. But of course Tam has got away with it. And given that we must read Tam as an unlikely candidate for reform or temperance, we can assume that he is going to change nothing about his behaviour. Thus the direction to the reader in the last line to ‘remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare’ is supremely ironic. ‘Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare’ is an appropriate resolution to make for a poem set at the beginning of the (old, Celtic) new year in a land that no longer remembers it or honours the old traditions except in dumbshow.