The Vulgar Morality of Tam o’ Shanter: A Tale by Robbie Burns

Crisis Magazine | 1/21/2019 | Sean Fitzpatrick
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January 25 marks the birthday of Robert Burns (1759-1796), the national poet of Scotland, and is observed worldwide with the Robbie Burns Supper, a night of poetry, song, toasts, haggis, and “Tam o’ Shanter.” The tale of Tam and his devilish interloping is customarily enacted in vaudevillian style during the Supper, bringing the flare and flavor of the ghostly realm to this feast that celebrates all things earthy together with their power to draw folks on to other realms. “Tam o’ Shanter” is horrifying even as it is humorous, but most horrifying and humorous of all is the moral conclusion it winkingly draws from its terrors.

There is a well-entrenched tradition both chilling and charming in fireside tales where an unsuspecting hero leaves the world as men know it behind as he trespasses into the unhallowed wilderness, there encountering eerie beings that spark chases, epiphanies, or transportations. On the American folklore front, the chief characters of this scheme are Ichabod Crane, Rip Van Winkle, and young Goodman Brown. Of worthy mention among these ghostly gatecrashers is their Scottish counterpart, Tam o’ Shanter, whose adventure has been immortalized in memory in the rollicking burr of the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire, Robbie Burns.

Tam - O - Shanter - Ayrshire - Burns

Tam o’ Shanter, hailing from Ayrshire even as Burns did, is a man with two serious problems: one, he is strongly inclined to drink, and, two, he has a wife with a strong opinion on this inclination. As Tam sallies from one drunken engagement to the next, his wife Kate warns him that the day is fast coming that his intemperate ways will land him drowned in the River Doon or, worse, in the clutches of warlocks in the woods by Alloway’s old haunted church. But even as the Supper teases the intricate affairs that the sexes enjoy with...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Crisis Magazine
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