Tam o’ Shanter is Robert Burns’s masterpiece. A long, narrative, epic poem written in 1790 by Burns whilst living at Ellisland Farm, Dumfriesshire and published in Captain Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791. Burns apparently wrote this in only one night and it appeared in the book just as a footnote! Now Burns was known to have enjoyed superstitious, supernatural stories as a child. His Aunty- a Betty Davison – told him many and Burns said that“[she] had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs, concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.” The poem is full of wild scenes, dramatic and exciting twists and turns, bloody and gothic content as well as witty machoism through the characters and their antics.
Many artists have been inspired by the poem and some of the artwork produced really brings the poem to life. Some of the most expansive and impressive works are that of Alexander Goudie. He was apparently totally obsessed by Tam o’ Shanter and his lifelong aim was to create 54 complete cycles of images inspired by the epic tale. He accomplished this and the results are spectacular. A select few will be shown and analysed below.
This painting refers to the first two lines of the poem:
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet;
This scene is full of vibrant colours, objects and action: Tam looks well, as does Meg, and they are surrounded by other animals and people greeting them warmly. It is arguably one of the best paintings in the cycle as it has been painted with such attention to detail. This could reflect that this is the part of the poem before Tam boozes at the nappy, thus, he is not intoxicated and he will have a clearer vision now compared to the rest of the poem. The reflection in the window is very life-like as is the woman pulling the curtain aside to have a good nosey at what is happening on the street. It is worth noting that this painting is number twelve – even though it refers to the first two lines of the poem – so Goudie has used his artistic licence and imagination to fill in the gaps of what happened before this point as well as not putting the images in order according to the lines of the poem i.e. No. 11 “As market days are wearing late” is the line after No. 12 “And drouthy neibors, neibors meet” but it comes before it in the cycle.
This of course refers to the beautiful and philosophical extract:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the Rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
This is typical Burns: returning to nature which is his greatest source of inspiration. In the painting Goudie has shown a scene that is a delicate paradise. A moment captured in time with two lovers lying in a field, with the man picking a poppy, and the rainbow overhead. This is very contradictory to the shock and horror that is to follow…
This is one of three images that are in black and white; although this one here has Tam’s clothes clearly visible, with the famous blue tam hat and yellow waistcoat drawing the eye, which isolates him even more so. The crack of lightning has inspired the use of black and white and Goudie has depicted a truly spooky scene with the trees looking ghostly bare and the town and bridge totally empty. It is preparing the viewer for what is about to come next…
This is one of the treasures of the collection. It depicts the chaotic and shocking scene Tam beholds once he has approached the kirk: as a viewer you do not know where to look as it is so full of action and faces. This refers to the below section of the poem which is full of vivid imagery:
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 towzie 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.
You can clearly see the devil glowering in the back corner, with his bagpipes in hand and mouth, casting a huge shadow on the back wall; the witches and warlocks are in a dance spinning each other around; the numerous coffins encircling the dancers with their skeletons holding candles as light. There is nakedness; there is sorcery going on at the table; the full moon can be seen through the window and the party-goers are oblivious to Tam’s presence.
This is another gem of the collection which is similar in the colour and the grotesque but exciting scene depicted as No.31. Tam and Meg are at the mouth of hell itself about to be devoured by the bright flames and are surrounded by all sorts of characters and mythical creatures who are all armed with weapons. Interestingly, the priest and lawyer are present, this inclusion of was famously shocking of Burns back in the eighteenth century. This is a scene which Tam and Meg did not actually suffer but it is a prediction – an insight into the future – of what will happen if they do not escape the ghoulish mob.
This is the moment which Nannie latches onto Meg’s tail just before they get to the key-stone. It refers to this section of the poem:
Now do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o’ the brig:
There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the keystane she could make,
The feint a tale 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.
What I like about this interpretation most is that Tam is positively terrified, not composed at all, and has come off his saddle and is hanging around poor Meg’s neck. Tam o’ Shanter has a bit of sexism in it with all the drinking, men will be men, flirting with the barmaid whilst the wife is at home worrying drama in it but here Goudie has depicted Tam as being utterly at the mercy of a powerful female character: more so than as how Burns depicted him as Goudie has him literally hanging on for dear life.
This final image is in reference to the conclusion of the poem:
Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to Drink you are inclin’d,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o’er dear;
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
Here Goudie has used his artistic licence again to create the scene he must have imagined when reading this ending. With only Tam and Meg in the painting: your sole focus is on them. Tam looks haggard, totally drained and panting heavily with his tongue sticking out. He looks like he has aged ten years form his traumatic experience. Meg – the hero of the poem – has also suffered this dramatic change same as Tam. Yes, her tail is gone with only the bloody stump left but she looks aged, thin – bony even – and is cowering by Tam with her head down in fear and she has soiled herself. Altogether, it is not a pretty sight, but a great visualisation of the moral warning in which the poem ends.
All of these paintings are now in the collection of Rozelle House Galleries (and some are on permanent display). This is situated in a historic mansion, surrounded by beautiful grounds and also boasts a tea room too. It is just a two minute drive away from the Burns Cottage and only six minutes from Ayr town centre. I would thoroughly recommend any art or Tam o’ Shanter lover to visit.
By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee
 The Bard by Robert Crawford, p20
Robert Burns was raised to devoutly honour and respect the Kirk’s teachings and principles by his father, William Burnes. However that does not mean Burns always had an amicable relationship with the Kirk; you could say it was quite tumultuous at times. Robert Burns’s relationship with the Kirk took a distinct downturn during the years he was living at Mossgiel, near Mauchline. In 1786, Burns was sentenced to three penitential appearances by the Kirk session for his fornication, a humiliating experience in front of the entire congregation. This occurrence certainly affected Burns and he openly expressed his discontent at the Kirk’s hypocrisy in his personal and public writings.
In 1785 Burns wrote a poem called The Holy Fair, in which he exposed the moral tug-of-war that people felt between the Kirk and the pub. This feeling of being torn between the morality of the Kirk and the sociability of the pub was something that Burns himself would have experienced. This poem is a character study of a twice-yearly open aired Holy Fair that aimed to prepare the righteous for Communion in the parish. This consisted of preaching and prayer meetings lasting several days prior to Communion. But as Burns highlights in this poem, the purpose of the Holy Fair had deteriorated into a mixture of propriety and merriment.
We can see the character of Robert Burns entering the gate with a lassie on his arm; this lassie is called Fun, who the narrator met on his journey to the Fair. In the background we can perceive two more women, Superstition and Hypocrisy, who are introduced to us in the poem. The two sisters cloaked in black do not seem to interest the narrator as:
Their visage wither’d, lang an’ thin,
An’ sour as onie slaes.
In contrast to her sisters, Fun is vivacious and sociable; the narrator appears to take an instant liking to her friendly manner and accompanies her for the rest of the journey.
Quo’ she, an’ laughin as she spak,
An’ taks me by the han’s.
The three sisters personify the vying emotions at a Holy Fair. Many like Fun go ‘to spend an hour in daffin,’ since the sociability aspect of the Fair would have created a carnival atmosphere in the rural village. Fun personifies and exposes the truth that all those attending may not be thinking devoutly, but rather on the appearance and behaviour of others.
‘On this ane’s dress, an’ that ane’s leuk,
They’re makin observations;’
Furthermore many others attending merely went out of superstitious fear, even if they did not necessarily practice what was preached. The religious import of the Fair was not be equally felt by all though (even if they should wish it), since only those able to pay the entrance fee could have received preparation for Communion. This would certainly have caused a rift within the community, as those not attending would be judged for their lack of religious fervour. This fervour to the faith should be openly visible and embodied by the parish minister, but even he is not where you would think to find him. He is not preaching within the confines of his Kirk, instead he is outside with the social revellers. Is he preaching from his lofty position or equally enjoying the libations of the Holy Fair too? This sense of hypocrisy and superstitious fear was fuel for Robert Burns’s literary fire. This granted him the opportunity to create a cutting and humorous depiction on the seemingly sanctimonious behaviour of the Kirk and wider community.
The Holy Fair is still held every year in Mauchline, with the Kirk and pub still prominent landmarks on either side. The sociability aspect of the Fair seems to have won out over religion, since the day is dedicated primarily to celebrating the village’s history and heritage instead. During the day there are often live performances outside and within Mauchline Parish Kirk, stalls from local businesses, and family activities. In addition to this, there is full access to the local museums and sites, many of which are dedicated to Burns. So it would seem Robert Burns’s exposé on the Holy Fair proved to be right after all, religion and sociability go hand-in-hand at the Fair. Unfortunately for the Kirk, it not only has to compete with the pub now, but Caledonia’s National Bard too.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham
It is universally acknowledged that Robert Burns was very advanced in his time; he is seen as both an egalitarian and a humanist. He was not afraid to lambast people in positions of authority or challenge accepted social norms that he found distasteful. He openly hated hypocrisy, cruelty and pomposity, championing instead kindness, honesty and fairness. He wrote a poignant poem from the viewpoint of a slave in his work The Slave’s Lament, voicing the hardships that slaves felt as they were stolen from their homeland. This empathy and depth of emotion extended upon humans though. One of his most famous poems To a Mouse even delves into the feelings of an animal, and the similarities that exist between men and beasts. So how could a man like that have considered working on a slave plantation? The truth is there are many facets to Burns, and this complexity continues to make him a man truly difficult to understand and know even to this day.
His renowned song Is There for Honest Poverty, better known as A Man’s a Man for a’ That, is praised for its sense of social equality and morals. After all:
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that
But even a man from the poorer classes who had:
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
This is Robert Burns reinforcing what truly matters in life. Yes he grew into his fame during his own lifetime, but he never forgot where he came from. He was proud of his origins and never shied away from who he or his family was. I imagine his time in Edinburgh only further supported this. Although he was the glittering icon admired by the literati, he was kept at an acceptable distance from the elite’s young ladies; he was after all just a Heaven-taught Ploughman. This song was first published anonymously in 1795 in the Glasgow Magazine, nearly a decade after he considered working in Jamaica. Therefore Burns’s feelings upon egalitarianism and democracy had significantly developed within this time; it is hard to consider this Burns employed on a slave plantation. The last two lines of this song truly encapsulate his viewpoint on mankind’s connection to each other:
‘That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.’
So was there a reason why a younger Burns of 1786 considered life in Jamaica a viable pursuit? The truth is there are many; Burns was having a difficult time both financially and emotionally. At this point in his life he was struggling to earn a living at Mossgiel, whilst also being deemed a fornicator by the Kirk. James Armour had repudiated Burns as a son-in-law, and Burns was subsequently separated from a pregnant Jean. This greatly angered and hurt Burns as he was forced to go into hiding from James Armour’s writ. In addition to this, he had make several penitential appearances in Mauchline Kirk for his indiscretions, a very humiliating and humbling experience in front of his peers. Therefore it is not surprising that Burns was tempted by a new life, in a new land, with a new woman (Highland Mary). He wanted to escape the woes and responsibilities that were currently shadowing him. This was not merely a passing thought for Burns, since he secured himself the post of assistant overseer on an estate owned by his friend, Dr Patrick Douglas. He also put down a deposit of nine guineas and obtained himself passage on the ship Nancy. The prospect of leaving Scotland forever was a real possibility, which is evident in this melancholy verse which he wrote in August 1786:
‘Farewell, my friends, farewell, my foes!
My peace with these, my love with those.
The bursting tears my heart declare—
Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr!’
However life for Burns took a turn for the better after his Kilmarnock Edition was an overnight success. His old love, Jean, had also given birth to twins Robert and Jean, which delighted him. He abandoned his plans for Jamaica and headed to Edinburgh instead, his future on a slave plantation had been averted.
Although it is recorded that Sir Walter Scott once saw Burns burst into tears at the sight of a Banbury print; Burns was always a practical, hard-working man. He was a survivor, and he did what was necessary to survive. This is evident through his struggles living in Dumfries, since he became an Exciseman to supplement his farming and writing income. The prospect of working on a slave plantation is a hard truth to reconcile with our image of a humanist Burns, but it was an option he had to consider in difficult times. Thankfully his true calling of poetry and songs became a viable possibility in 1786; otherwise the Burns we know today may have taken a drastically different path in life.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham
In the cottage where Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759, there lies a box-bed in the corner. Visitors from around the world look to this bed as the place where Scotland’s National Bard was born. In 2009 a new blanket was specially commissioned for this bed, and this work was undertaken by Christine McLeod and a team of volunteers at Kilbarchan Weavers Cottage. The National Trust for Scotland has endeavoured to preserve the character and authenticity of the eighteenth-century cottage, so careful thought and time was dedicated in making sure this modern creation was appropriate. Although the blanket is a twenty-first century creation, it was woven on an eighteenth century loom within the Weaver’s Cottage, so tradition was very much treasured and remembered in this blanket’s construction.
The weavers decided to create the blanket with 1759 threads, which symbolises the birth year of Robert Burns. Furthermore, the tartan’s pattern and colours were also carefully selected by Christine McLeod, since only colours common in the eighteenth century such as maddor (red) and ochre (brown) were used. Each colour also conveys a significant meaning that connects back to the poet’s family. Maddor represents Agnes Broun (Burns’s mother) who had red hair. Ochre is for William Burnes (Burns’s father), whose work as a gardener and farmer always connected him to the soil. These darker hues are offset by strands of gold, which refers to the poet’s genius and imagination. But Robert is not the only child of William and Agnes celebrated in the blanket’s structure. The intersecting lines represent the four children born in the cottage, times by the total number of children born to William and Agnes. Therefore this blanket helps to convey a personal sense of the family’s history and elements of their personality to the modern visitor.
When first glancing at this artwork one is instantly aware that what you are gazing at is an intimate moment: in this lovely oil painting we are given an insight into what we think may have occurred between Robert Burns and the legendary Margaret Campbell or “Highland Mary”. It depicts tranquil forest scenery (presumably a spot near Ayr) whereby the stream is trickling peacefully, the plants are in the full bloom of spring and the golden warmth of a fine Scottish sunny day is bathing the two lovers in light. The artist has masterfully captured the balance between light and shadow which is always in extremes whilst one is in thick woodland areas and the rich, deep browns of the trees, brilliant greens of the plush growth, as well as startling blue of the sky, make this scene a vibrant array of colours for the eye and altogether a harmonious setting.
At the centre of the painting is a moment captured in time between the two individuals; presumably the pair stopped here after a walk together or it is a meeting place as Burns’s walking stick is propped up against a tree and Mary is bathing her feet in the stream. Burns is down on one knee and offering a bible to Highland Mary: the pairs eyes are locked with one another’s, one of Mary’s hands is outstretched, whilst the other is clutching to her heart in surprise, and her face seems serene alike to her surroundings. This gesture was commonly regarded as a solemn oath or even a proposal of marriage. Interestingly, the museum collection boasts the bible believed to have belonged to Mary which is pictured here.
The bible itself is two volumes, contains Burns’s Masonic mark and the words ‘Robert Burns Mossgavill’ as well as biblical verses in Burns’s handwriting. It also has a lock of hair in it said to have belonged to Mary.
Burns is recognizable by the presence of his border-collie sheepdog Luath – who was immortalized in the poem The Twa Dogs – and his tam hat. Mary is depicted as a fair, blue eyed, blonde woman: interestingly the hair contained in the bible is visibly blonde. Records do describe her thus so perhaps it really is Mary’s hair!
Burns and Highland Mary’s love affair is steeped in mystery and it has become quite the legend with many variations to the tale, but one thing is pretty much universally understood, it was a passionate and short affair with a tragic ending. The affair took place during the spring and summer of 1786. Very little evidence survives regarding her identity or the details of their relationship, but Highland Mary is believed to have been a servant from Campbeltown whom Burns met while she was working in Ayrshire. It is thought that the two lovers would rendezvous on the banks of the river Ayr. The story goes that the pair planned to immigrate to Jamaica together; however, after travelling back to her parent’s home in Greenock, she died of typhus on the way back to meet with Burns.
As previously stated, there are some who believe that this version of events has been thwarted and twisted, for instance academics at the University of Glasgow have said the myth between the two lovers was largely constructed to lend cultural significance to the poet himself. They believe that Highland Mary died only a few weeks after meeting Burns in 1786. Professor Murray Pittock, director of the Robert Burns – Beyond Text project, said the legend of Mary was largely constructed by Burns’s subsequent biographers from objects such as statues and snuff boxes – rather than any written documentation – and he stated that such objects dictated the social and cultural legend of Highland Mary throughout the 19th Century and afterwards. Thus, the provenance and details of the love story between the lovers has been, and still is, vehemently disputed.
However, the Bard did go on to publish works dedicated to her, for example, The Highland Lassie, To Mary in Heaven and O, Highland are all thought to have been inspired by her. So, even if they had only known each other for a few weeks, it was still enough time to have a massive impact upon Burns emotionally and creatively. We know that Burns was a great romantic and lover of women. Some of his most famous works such as My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss and his first ever song O Once I Loved a Bonnie Lass all have the theme of love, romance or heartbreak at the core of them. In my opinion, I think it is possible Burns only knew Highland Mary for a short but sweet few weeks of his life before fate cruelly snapped her away from him, but, this was enough time for him to have fallen head over heels in love because that was in his nature and he repeatedly did that with various other love interests throughout his lifetime. Does time dictate the power and strength of a couple’s love? Or is the intensity of their feelings for one another that determines that, however fleeting they may be?
Years after her death Burns would think of her fondly and with great sadness. The poem “To Mary in Heaven” was written at Ellisland Farm on the third anniversary of her death. Jean Armour recalled that towards evening, the night before, Robert grew sad, and wandered in solitary contemplation along the banks of the River Nith and about the farmyard in extreme agitation. Even though he was repeatedly asked to come into the house, he would not. Burns entered the house at daybreak, sat down and wrote his address to Highland Mary who was now in heaven.
This painting is on display within the main exhibition space at the museum and it is perfectly and purposefully located in the ‘From the Heart’ display case. In terms of other objects or artworks – that focus on Highland Mary and Burns – which we have here at the museum there are three others which portray Burns and Highland Mary. These include a statue, a postcard and an engraving. All of these objects yet again depict the couple canoodling.
Last but not least I think it only fair to mention the artist himself. This painting is typical for William Henry Midwood, who was a British painter, born 1833 and died 1888: if you look at his style, technique and subjects in his other works they employ similar genre scenes. They concentrate on the humble domestic interior: groups of figures are portrayed in idealized scenarios of family life and scenes of courtship prominent in his subject matter. Three works in particular, which are fairly similar to the Burns and Highland Mary painting, include Rustic Courtship (confusingly two have the exact same title) and The Proposal. The titles themselves are closely connected as they refer to an offer of marriage or two individuals “winching” in the countryside. The colour, the light, the shadowing and the technique which is employed are very similar, however, in all three of these paintings the women, the female counterpart in the work, all seem to have very different expressions on their faces in comparison to Highland Mary. Let it be noted that they do not look like happy expressions; instead they are either looking the opposite way thoughtfully – but not happily – or looking directly at their partner with contempt on their face. The delicate sense of surprise captured in Highland Mary’s face is not present in these other paintings. This may give us an insight into how he personally regarded Burns and Highland Mary’s relationship: that of a great love story.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Officer Trainee)
Commonplace Books first became significant in early modern Europe as a way of compiling knowledge. ‘Commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin phrase locus communis which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’. This original definition has been expanded to now mean a collection of materials on a certain theme by an individual. Importantly, commonplace books are not diaries or journals, as they are structured thematically rather than chronologically, and do not necessarily relate to the personal lives of their compilers. By the 17th Century, commonplacing was prevalent enough to be formally taught at places such as Oxford University, and there is a strong tradition of literary figures such as John Milton, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy compiling them.
There are two commonplace books belonging to Robert Burns in existence. The first, begun in 1783, was almost certainly not intended for publication, and entries cease in October 1785. The second, begun in Edinburgh in 1787 and sometimes referred to as the Edinburgh Journal, has many interesting entries including early versions of the Bard’s poems and musings on people he knew. On its first page, Burns explains his desire to record his experiences in Edinburgh (where he had just moved), and his observations on the people he has met, while they are still fresh in his mind. He quotes Gray, saying ‘half a word fixed upon… is worth a cart load of recollection’ showing his preference for the written word over memory.
Near the beginning of the Book, Burns starts a discussion relating to his patron, the Earl of Glencairn, and laments the fact that a man with little talent and high social status (the Earl) would naturally be treated with more respect than a man of genius but low social status due to an accident of birth. He says, with similar sentiment to his work ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’:
Imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving that “honor to whom honor is due”; he meets as a Great man’s table a Squire Something, or a Sir Somebody; he knows the noble landlord at heart pays gives the Bard or what- ever he is, a degree o share of his good wishes beyond any at table perhaps, yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eight penny Taylor and whose heart is not worth three farthings meet with attention and notice that are forgot to the Son of Genius and Poverty?
Burns does confess to being torn, however, because Glencairn was so pleasant to him when they met.
Also near the start of the book is a first draft of the song ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’ referring to the incident in which the gable end of Burns Cottage blew down during a storm in the first few weeks of Robert’s life. Interestingly, in this version, the opening line is ‘There was a birkie born in Kyle,’ as opposed to ‘there was a lad was born in Kyle’. There are then two versions of a poem written in Carse Hermitage on June 1st 1788, with a note beside the first draft instructing the reader to instead read the second draft further into the book. There is also a draft of his more famous poem, On seeing a wounded hare, along with other notes on his works.
Burns’s second commonplace book is on display in our museum collection and is a fascinating insight into some of the Bard’s personal thoughts, and also on how he drafted his poems. We wonder how many of our readers keep scrapbooks of this kind?
Poetry, songs and women are widely known to have been Robert Burns’s great passions, but he also loved to step onto the dancefloor as well. In 1779, Burns as a young man decided to attend dancing lessons in Tarbolton. This decision allowed him to temporarily escape the financial difficulties that the family were enduring at Lochlea. Therefore Burns used to regularly walk to a humble thatched house after the farming work was done to enjoy some time with his friends. In the museum collection you will see a beautifully restored fiddle with a red, green and black floral design work. This fiddle was played by Burns’s dance teacher, William Gregg, while Robert learned and practiced his steps. According to Burns he took up dancing to ‘give my manners a brush.’ But improving his manners and exercise were not the only benefits that dancing would give, as it granted Burns an opportunity to get acquainted with the local girls as well. This early time of social and sexual exploration played an important part in shaping Burns into the man he would famously become. To our twenty-first century minds dancing seems like a harmless pastime; but to his father William Burnes, this was an act of rebellion. According to Gilbert their father was often irritated by Robert’s dancing, as it was a clear sign that Robert was no longer listening to William’s advice and counsel. As a consequence of this, Burns himself acknowledged that his decision to continue with his dancing lessons compromised his relationship with his father.
In Burns’s narrative poem Tam O’Shanter you can feel the excitement of the dance unfolding, yet all the while there is a dark truth to this particular social gathering:
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.’
This scene of enjoyment is not only watched by the protagonist Tam, but also by Auld Nick who played the music to make them dance. This negative perception of dance being sinful is more in keeping with William’s opinion rather than his son. Nevertheless this moral outlook is undermined by the poem’s greater sense of adventure and humour. These two opposing viewpoints mirror the different standpoints of William and Robert in 1779, one saw dance as wicked and the other saw only pleasure. Despite all of William’s disapproval Robert Burns continued to love music, dance and social gatherings throughout his life. Tam O’Shanter was published in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791, which reveals that Burns never forgot his father’s outlook on dance.
If you are a lover of dance yourself, you can follow in the Bard’s footsteps and take part in Scottish country dances set to his songs. For instance Ae fond Kiss is a reel, or perhaps you would prefer a livelier jig to the poem Halloween. One of the most popular times to toast Burns and celebrate his life is at a Burns Supper, so perhaps in the future you will follow his example and take to the dancefloor.
‘The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit.’
By Kirstie Bingham