Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, 1792 (1855 illustrations)

“Tam O’Shanter” is a ghost story written in verse by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. Burns persuaded his friend Francis Grose to include a drawing of Alloway Kirk, in his Antiquities of Scotland (1791), which Grose promised to do if Burns would supply him with a ghost story to go with it. Burns wrote a brief version of the story in prose before starting his 224 line poem. Both versions have been quoted in the following account (see here for the prose and here for the poem).

The poem concerns a farmer, Tam. After a night of drinking and story-telling, Tam must ride home to Carrick through a heavy storm. As Tam passes Alloway kirk-yard it is “the wizard hour, between night and morning”. He sees a bright light streaming from the ruined church and, on investigating, he is “surprised and entertained, thorough the ribs and arches of an old gothic window … to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round”. As the dance grows “fast and furious” the women cast aside their cloths and dance in their “sark” (undershirt). Alone among the many “wither’d beldams, auld and droll” (withered grandmothers, old and comical) Tam notices a “winsome wench” in a “cutty sark” (short shirt). After some time observing the young witch dancing, Tam unwisely cries out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”; at which, the music stops, the lights go out and all the witches give chase. Tam makes for the bridge (since a witch can’t cross running water): “the pursuing, vengeful hags were so close at his heels, that one of them actually sprung to seize him: but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the stream but the horse’s tail, which immediately gave way to her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning.”

The poem was immediately, and immensely, popular: it has been illustrated many times. Artists have shown particular relish in depicting Nannie (the young witch) dancing, chasing Tam, and grasping the tail of Tam’s horse, Meg (or Maggie). The three illustrations below are by John Faed (and engraved by Lumb Stocks and James Stephenson for the 1855 edition). These are some of the best and most frequently reprinted or copied illustrations to Burns’ poem. I have accompanied each illustration (or detail) with a passage from the poem.

A final comment on the subject of Nannie’s negligee: compare the pictures below to Burns’ two descriptions of Nannie’s “sark”: in his prose account of 1790 he writes: “one of [the witches] happening unluckily to have a smock which was considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled that he involuntarily burst out, with a loud laugh.” In his poem of 1791 Burns writes (concerning the attire of the “wither’d beldams”):

… had thae been queans,
A’ plump and strapping in their teens!
Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen!-
Thir breeks o’ mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o’ guid blue hair,
I wad hae gi’en them off my hurdies
For ae blink o’ the bonie burdies!

[… had they been girls,
All plump and strapping in their teens!
Their shirts, instead of greasy flannel,
Been snow-white seventeen hundred linen!-
These trousers of mine, my only pair,
That once were plush, of good blue hair,
I would have given them off my buttocks
For one look on the lovely maidens!]

Tam then notices Nannie, whose “sark” is described:

Her cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longtitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.
Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie
Wi’ twa pund Scots (‘twas a’ her riches)
Wad ever graced a dance of witches!

[Her short shift, of Paisley cloth,
That while a girl she had worn,
In length though very short,
It was her best, and she was vain.
Ah! little knew your reverend grannie,
That shift she bought for her little Nannie,
With two pound Scots (it was all her riches),
Would ever have graced a dance of witches!]

From these descriptions it is clear that Nannie’s shirt is “considerably too short” to cover her backside, and that Nannie herself is just such a girl (All plump and strapping in her teens) that Tam/Burns would give his best pants to see. A sexy witch indeed, and possibly the first.

And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat Auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A tousie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And, by some devilish cantraip sleight,
Each in its cauld hand held a light:

[And, wow! Tam saw a strange sight!
Wizards and witches in a dance:
No cotillion, brand new from France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A window seat in the east,
There sat the Old Devil, in shape of beast;
A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large,
To give them music was his charge:
He screwed the bagpipes and made them squeal,
Till roof and rafters all did ring.
Coffins stood around, like open cupboards,
That showed the dead in their last dresses;
And, by some devilish magic device,
Each in its cold hand held a light]

Detail of previous: Tam looking through the window.

As Tammie glower’d, amaz’d, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious…
And how Tam stood like ane bewitch’d,
And thought his very een enrich’d”

[As Tammie glowered, amazed, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious…
And how Tam stood like one bewitched,
And thought his very eyes enriched]

Another detail of the first illustration: Nannie dancing.

But here my Muse her wing maun cour,
Sic flights as far beyond her power:
To sing how Nannie lap and flung
(A souple jad she was a strang)…
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason a’ thegither

[But here my Muse her winging must stop,
Such flights as far beyond her power:
To sing how Nannie leaped and kicked
(A supple jade she was and strong)…
Till first one caper, then another,
Tam lost his reason all together]

And in an instant all was dark;
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.
As bees bizz out wi’ angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke…
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ monie an eldritch skriech and hollo.

[And in an instant all was dark;
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.
As bees buzz out with angry fret,
When plundering hoards assail their hive…
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
With many an unearthly screech and cry.]

But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake;
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

[But before the key-stone she could reach,
The attack [on her] tail she had to shake;
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie pressed,
And flew at Tam with furious aim;
But little knew she Maggie’s spirit!
One spring brought off her master whole,
But left behind her own grey tail:
The witch clutched her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.]

13 Responses to “Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, 1792 (1855 illustrations)”

  1. The urban witch Says:

    This site completely rocks! Makes me proud to be a pagan!

  2. My thoughts exactly…still just doing the archive…lol!

  3. Where can i purchase a copy of these prints

  4. Red Witch Says:

    Thanks Urban Witch & Red.

    I am sorry kb, the answer is 'not from me': you'll have to buy a copy of the original book like I did. I am hanging onto my digital files of these images until I can publish them in a book. Sorry, but thanks for stopping by.

    RW

  5. michele herbert Says:

    Hello, can you supply your email address as I have a few questions to ask you re Tam OShanter. Thankyou, Michele

  6. caroline fyfe Says:

    I have 2 prints here …with Lumb-Stocks written at the bottom.Found them in my gran’s attic about 30 years ago when she died. Have been curious about them for years and now i have traced their origin thanks to your site! Yeeeeeeehaaaaaaaa…Thankyou :-)))

  7. Iris Aitchison Says:

    We have discovered a copy of the “Tam o’ Shanter, Robert Burns book, illustrated by John Faed, and William Miller. It is a large book which measures 17″ x 12″, front cover is light beige, and it is bound by a wide red leather binding measuring approx 1.75″. On each of the pictures, there is the word “proof” on the left hand side. On the first page, there is a picture, and underneath “For the Members for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, MDCCCLD. We would be interested to sell it.

  8. max macnamee Says:

    Red Witch,
    I took your advice and bought a copy of Tam O’Shanter. I like the modernization of the poem on your site, but it is incomplete. Can you supply the name of the “translator” so I can track down the early verses.
    Thank you, and may your life be filled with witches.

    Max

  9. John Neilson Says:

    John from Adelaide in South. Australia I have 4 prints that my great grand father brought from Scotland in the mid 1800’s. They are in sepia and are in a plaster of Paris frames.

  10. richatd dill Says:

    I purchashed a lithograph at a garage sale that is by John faed R.L.A del .with the quote” And vow! Tam saw an unco site! Warlocks and witches in a dance” it also says lith simpson bell on the right corner and on the back of frame it says was purchased in 1963 in edinborough can anyone tell me its value.

  11. redwitch1 Says:

    See FAQ #10

  12. I have a Full set of these prints depicting the whole story. 6 prints in all.

  13. xe toyota 4runner 1991

    Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, 1792 (1855 illustrations) | Sexy Witch

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