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
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)
Our forthcoming exhibition, The Real Face of Burns, explores the legend of imagery that has grown up around our bard. While we think we know what Burns looked like, the majority of Burns imagery is based on a portrait done by the artist, Alexander Naysmith. Yet, while Naysmith knew Burns, the other images done during the life of Burns seem to conflict. Who is the real Robert Burns here, in our collection of images, and will he please stand up?
This is our main image of Burns, isn’t it? It has become the most popular and the most often copied, perhaps because its original creator, Alexander Naysmith, was a famous painter and his images were well known and seen. However, while Naysmith was well acquainted with Burns, has he perhaps idealised his friend in this image? Robert Burns in the Naysmith style is handsome, perhaps even slightly ‘pretty’, with slim features and fashionable dress. While the Scottish countryside evokes Burns’s farming background, the muck and pleiter of farming life seems absent in this Edinburgh painting.
There are other paintings of Robert Burns done by people who knew him and saw him, and they differ substantially. There is the Peter Taylor portrait in our collection here at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which shows Burns again in Scottish landscape, still fairly slim, sitting quite formally with a large farmer’s bunnet, but with none of the refined air of Naysmith. Sir Walter Scott, who had met Robert Burns, said of the portrait that ‘I would not hesitate to recognise this portrait as a striking resemblance of the Poet.’
Then, to confuse us further, there is also the Alexander Reid miniature of Burns. This shows him fairly swarthy in face and with a sturdier figure. Yet this portrait was painted only 6 months prior to Burns’s death, at which point he was often described as looking visibly ill and worn. Nonetheless, Burns himself said that this portrait was the best likeness of him that had been taken, and the thicker figure also seems to match with silhouettes taken at the time.
So who is the real Robert Burns? Is it the slender man gazing across the ethereal landscape? Is it the sturdy farmer with ruddy cheeks? Or are these depictions merely focusing on specific aspects of the man, perhaps adapting his image to portray him as they saw him, or wished to see him? The romantic poet, the Ayrshire farmer, the common man, the heaven taught ploughman, the lover, the debater, are all different sides of the real face of Burns.
So come along to the Real Face of Burns and discover old and new ways of seeing Robert Burns! Exhibition opens February 21st at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.