local history

Goudie’s Dazzling Tam o’ Shanter Paintings

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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.”[1] 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.


No. 12 “Drouthy Neibors Meet”


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.


No. 25 “Pleasures are like poppies spread”


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…


No. 17 “As he frae Ayr ae Nicht did canter”

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…


No. 31 “An Unco Sight”

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.


No. 42 “In hell they’ll roast thee like a herrin!”

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.


No. 47 “Claught by her rump”

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.


No. 54 “Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed”

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



[1] The Bard by Robert Crawford, p20

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The Bar at Burns Cottage

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This May 16th, as part of the Museums at Night 2015 festivities, we are turning the clock back once more to the days when Burns Cottage was a pub. But how did the Cottage become a pub, and what was it like? Learning Intern, Mhairi Gowans, delves into the Cottage’s unusual past.

A wooden sign from the Burns Heid Inn
A wooden sign from the Burns Heid Inn

After the Burnes family left the Cottage in the 1760’s to the farm at Mt Oliphaunt, Burns Cottage (originally named ‘New Gardens’) was left vacant until William found a buyer in the Shoemakers Incorporation in 1781. Buying before the publishing of the Kilmarnock Edition, the Shoemakers managed to land themselves a bargain: what they bought for £160, they would sell for £4000 a hundred years later.

An engraving showing two extensions made by the Shoemakers Incorporation
An engraving showing two extensions made by the Shoemakers Incorporation

By the time of Robert Burns’s death, the Cottage was already receiving a great deal of interest and the tenant present in 1803, John (Miller) Goudie, made the decision to transform the Cottage into a pub called the Burns Head Inn, adding on a new section to the Cottage building. The first public mention of the pub comes from the Scots Magazine of 1805, which states that ‘the person who occupies it at present has turned it into a snug public house. At this house, early on the birthday of the poet, a social party meet to celebrate it with festivity.’

Architectural drawings made of the pub extension
Architectural drawings made of the pub extension

Festivity seems to be the word to use in regard to Miller Goudie, who appears in anecdotes as an infamous local character. For example, an Irish lawyer visiting in 1810 said he saw ‘Miller Goudie, the man that transformed it into a public house, sitting drunk in the corner where ‘the saint, the father, and the husband prayed.’ Keats said about his visit in 1818, that the innkeeper was a ‘mahogany faced old jack ass,’ while a 1904 book published by the Monument Trustees says that, ‘Goudie’s chief aims in life seem to have been pledging the Poet’s memory with anyone who would furnish him with the wherewithal to do so.’ It also said that Miller Goudie claimed to know Burns, although the writer of his obituary in the Ayr Advertiser in 1842 stated that ‘he seems to have retained but very slight recollection of the Poet. The Miller thought he was eccentric, and ‘no that richt in the head.’

A photograph of Burns Cottage with the Innkeeper and prominent residents.
A photograph of Burns Cottage with the Innkeeper and prominent residents.

Following the death of Miller Goudie, the Inn and Cottage passed through the hands of several tenants over a short period of time. One of the tenants, Davidson Ritchie, was photographed here with some notable Alloway residents. However, the Cottage’s time as a public house was coming to an end as the Monument Trustees, with aid from the Earl of Stair, bought the Cottage in 1880. However, the roaring trade of sight seers to the Burns Head Inn has left its mark in the form of graffiti. If you have ever been to Burns Cottage you might have noticed the writing on the doors: initials, names, dates, all scrawled onto the wood. If you look even closer you will also find graffiti on some of the windows: all from historic visitors wanting to write messages to their favourite poet, or to show that they had been there.

Graffiti from the Cottage's time as a pub can still be found on windows and doors!
Graffiti from the Cottage’s time as a pub can still be found on windows and doors!

So come along to the Burns Head Inn this May 16th and while you’re toasting the Bard spare a thought for the infamous Miller Goudie!

For information and tickets for the event please click here!