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

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, 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 toasts to the Lassies and the Lads, “Tam o’ Shanter” joins the spousal repartee as it croons:

Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen’d sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!

But to our tale. As Kate prophesied, Tam does indeed tipple towards his comeuppance as he stumbles out of a tavern into a storm where “a child might understand, / The Deil had business on his hand.” Mounted on his gray mare, Meg, Tam blunders through the blast, singing snatches of song and clutching the Scottish bonnet which has become his namesake. He rides through the murk, having fallen from his kingly throne by the innkeeper’s fire where he “was glorious, / O’er a’ the ills of life victorious” down into the shivering maw of mystery and legend. Stealing by monuments of ancient horror and crime, Tam’s stalwart attempts to keep his spirits as high as the spirits swirling in his brain are suddenly matched by the spirit world. Tam shambles to the edge of a clearing where he hears an unearthly cacophony of music and dancing.

Venturing on the scene, Tam discovers a reeking host of warlocks and witches in a dance with Satan himself providing music on the pipes as he presides in beastly shape over the bacchanalia and the unholy, grisly shrines that surround the terrifying spectacle. Tam, upheld with the inspiration of “bold John Barleycorn,” espies a winsome witch whose vigorous footwork causes her to doff her sweaty, greasy garb and continue dancing in her “cutty-sark,” or cut-off shift. This provocation is too much for Tam, and he roars out his famous compliment: “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”

With that, the scene is swallowed in darkness. As Tam rushes to escape, the hellish legion comes screaming and scrambling through the trees to overtake him. The chase is on and it is madcap and desperate. Tam drives his steed headlong towards a stream, knowing well that fiends cannot cross running water. Reaching the bank at the very moment the necromancers are bearing down upon him, Meg leaps across, carrying her master off whole, even as the witch wearing the cutty-sark grasps the mare’s tail and rips it out by the roots. And the moral of this tale?

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare. 

In other words, anyone of wayward inclination should take heed and rethink his course lest his carousing leave his horse without a tail—motivating words of wisdom indeed, especially given how universally and deeply drunkards and philanderers care for the state of their horses’ tails. Such a delightfully vulgar moral there never was.

This bold vulgarity is no reason to shy away from “Tam o’ Shanter.” There is a venerable custom of vulgar humor, and even vulgar morality, in good folklore and great literature: Aristophanes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes are but a few masters famous for presenting the coarser side of life. Such themes as portrayed by Burns in “Tam o’ Shanter,” and in much of his poetry, deal with the rude and ribald characteristics of human nature in droll fashion without shame or apology. The boorish folk tradition deals with things that most avoid acknowledging in a manner so direct they become delightful. In so doing, a moderate, well-wielded vulgarity can serve to expose those deviant aspects of nature, which can paradoxically draw man closer to the Divine by demonstrating with humility and hilarity how much he needs his God.

Though care must be taken not to stray far into the woods, poems like “Tam o’ Shanter” and parties like the Burns Supper create an atmosphere of moral relaxation in a spirit of festivity for the sake of moral fortitude, as they both concede and caution against the lower leanings and foibles of man. The body is prone to corruption, and the vulgar caricature presents that tendency in a laughing pedagogy rooted in realism rather than hedonism. The tale of Tam is more ontological than moral, recognizing human fallibility without condemnation or consent.

The refined vulgarity of Robbie Burns is a rebellion against Gnosticisms that denounce the body as insignificant or insidious. Allowing the crude to occupy a lively corner on the horizon of a Catholic worldview fends off the heresy that the body is evil and must be held at bay and at all costs. God gave man a body, and the earthy arts not only emphasize this but also point out that the body is a comic thing rather than a corrupt thing. Though there are natural human comforts that are good which can become unnatural and harmful if pursued to excess, the poetry of Robbie Burns, and “Tam o’ Shanter” in particular, presents an analysis of such temptations that is both celebratory and cautionary.

“Tam o’ Shanter” is a tale of real terrors that real people are subject to, and as such, it reinforces the easily-forgotten fact that people are just people. The reality of the Church is that it is comprised of every type of Chaucerian pilgrim with all their faults and flaws. In short, the Church is comprised of sinners, not of saints; moreover, a race against the devil and his minions is not a thing foreign to most folks. Tam is a happy and un-sanctimonious reminder that men and women are weak and in need of self-correction and Divine redemption; and that among the best responses to sin is to laugh at it, treating it as the specious thing it is with jolly, silly songs and tales that revel reservedly in a holistic vision of the human condition.

“Tam o’ Shanter” may have a vulgar moral, but it does not glorify debauchery. By the saving grace and health of humor, the poem presents sin as a matter of fact and not something to be paralyzed by. Sin should not inspire fear, for then it can claim victory through scrupulosity. God knows anyone scrupulous enough to be concerned for his horse’s tail will be hard pressed to enjoy and appreciate the good things of the earth, making Tam o’ Shanter’s mare a thing to remember indeed.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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