ALLOWAY KIRK was originally the church of the quoad civilia parish of Alloway; but this parish having been annexed to that of Ayr in 1690, the church fell more or less to ruin, and when Burns wrote had been roofless for half a century. It stands some two hundred yards to the north of the picturesque Auld Brig of Doon, which dates from about the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, and in Burns’s time was the sole means of communication over the steep-banked Doon between Carrick and Kyle. The old road to Ayr ran west of the Kirk: the more direct road dating from the erection of the New Brig – a little west of the old one – in 1815.
Burns’s birthplace is about three-fourths of a mile to the north; so that the ground and its legends were familiar to him from the first. Writing to Francis Grose (first published in Sir Egerton Brydges’ Censura Literaria, 1796), ‘Among the many witch-stories I have heard,’ he says, ‘relating to Alloway Kirk, I distinctly remember only two or three. Upon a stormy night, amid whistling squalls of wind and bitter blasts of hail – in short, on such a night as the devil would choose to take the air in – a farmer, or farmer’s servant, was plodding and plashing homeward with his plough-irons on his shoulder, having been getting some repairs on them at a neighbouring smithy. HIs way lay by the Kirk of Alloway; and being rather on the anxious look-out in approaching a place so well known to be a favourite haunt of the devil, and the devil’s friends and emissaries, he was struck aghast by discovering through the horrors of the storm and stormy night, a light, which on his nearer approach plainly shewed itself to proceed from the haunted edifice. Whether he had been fortified from above on his devout supplication, as is customary with people when they suspect the immediate presence of Satan, or whether, according to another custom, he had got courageously drunk at the smithy, I will not pretend to determine; but so it was, that he ventured to go up to, nay into, the very Kirk. As luck would have it, his temerity came off unpunished. The members of the infernal junto were all out on some midnight business or other, and he saw nothing but a kind of kettle or cauldron, depending from the roof, over the fire, simmering some heads of unchristened children, limbs of execut4ed malefactors, etc., for the business of the night. It was, in for a penny, in for a pound with the honest ploughman: so without ceremony he unhooked the cauldron from the fire, and pouring out the damnable ingredients, inverted it on his head, and carried it fairly home, where it remained long in the family, a living evidence of the truth of the story. Another story, which I can prove to be equally authentic, was as follows:- On a market-day in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick, and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway Kirkyard, in order to cross the river Doon at the old bridge, which is about two or three hundred yards further on than the said gate, had been detained by his business till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard hour between night and morning. Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the Kirk, yet, as it is a well-known fact, that to turn back on these occasions is running by far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road. When he had reached the gate of the Kirkyard, he was surprised and entertained, through the ribs and arches of an old Gothic window, which still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round their old sooty blackguard master, who was keeping them all alive with the power of his bagpipe. The farmer, stopping his horse to observe them a little, could plainly descry the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman was dressed, tradition does not say, but that the ladies were all in their smocks: and one of them 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, “Weel luppen, Maggy wi’ the short sark!” and recollecting himself, instantly spurred his horse to the top of his speed. I need not mention the universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream. Lucky it was for the poor farmer that the river Doon was so near, for notwithstanding the speed of the horse, which was good one, when he reached the middle of the arch of the bridge, and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing vengeful hags were so close at his heels that one of them actually sprang 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 at her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning; but the farmer was beyond her reach. However, the unsightly tailless condition of the vigorous steed was, to the last hour of the noble creature’s life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers not to stay too late in Ayr markets.
‘The last relation I shall give, though equally true, is not so well identified as the two former with regard to the scene; but as the best authorities give it for Alloway, I shall relate it. On a summer’s evening, about the time nature puts on her sables to mourn the expiry of the cheerful day, a shepherd boy, belonging to a farmer in the immediate neighbourhood of Alloway Kirk, had just folded his charge and was returning home. As he passed the Kirk, in the adjoining field, he fell in with a crew of men and women who were busy pulling stems of the plant ragwort. He observed that as each person pulled a ragwort, he or she got astride of it and called out, “Up horsie!” on which the ragwort flew off, like Pegasus, through the air with its rider. The foolish boy likewise pulled his ragwort, and cried with the rest, “Up horsie!” and, strange to tell, away he flew with the company. The first stage at which the cavalcade stopt was a merchant’s wine-cellar in Bordeaux, where, without saying by your leave, they quaffed away at the best the cellar could afford until the morning, foe to the imps and works of darkness, threatened to throw light on the matter, and frightened them from their carousals. The poor shepherd lad, being equally a stranger to the scene and the liquor, heedlessly got himself drunk; and when the rest took horse he fell asleep, and was found so next day by some of the people belonging to the merchant. Somebody that understood Scotch, asking him what he was, he said such a one’s herd in Alloway; and by some means or other getting home again, he lived long to tell the world the wondrous tale.’
For the rhythmus of Tam o’ Shanter, see ante, Prefatory Note to The Twa Dogs (p. 319). The motto is the eighteenth verse of Gavin Douglas’s sixth ‘Proloug’ (Eneados), and should read thus:- ‘Of browneis and of bogillis full this buke.’
Probably Burns drew the suggestion of his hero, Tam o’ Shanter, from the character and adventures of Douglas Graham – born 6th January 1739, died 23[rd] June 1811 – son of Robert Graham, farmer at Douglastown, tenant of the farm of Shanter on the Carrick Shore, and owner of a boat which he had named Tam o’ Shanter. Graham was noted for his convivial habits, which his wife’s ratings tended rather to confirm than to eradicate. Tradition relates that once, when his long-tailed grey mare had waited even longer than usual for her master at the tavern door, certain humourists plucked her tail to such an extent as to leave it little better than a stump, and that Graham, on his attention being called to its state next morning, swore that it had been depilated by the witches at Alloway Kirk (MS. Notes by D. Auld of Ayr in Edinburgh University Library). The prototype – if prototype there were – of Souter Johnie is more doubtful; but a shoemaker named John Davidson – born 1728, died 30th June 1806 – did live for some time at Glenfoot of Ardlochan, near the farm of Shanter, whence he removed to Kirkoswald.
In Alloway Kirk and its surroundings, apart from its uncanny associations, Burns cherished a special interest. ‘When my father,’ says Gilbert, ‘feued his little property near Alloway Kirk the wall of the churchyard had gone to ruin, and cattle had free liberty of pasturing in it. My father and two or three other neighbours joined in an application to the Town Council of Ayr, who were superiors of the adjoining land, for liberty to rebuild it, and raised by subscription a sum for enclosing this ancient cemetery with a wall; hence he came to consider it as his burial-place, and we learned the reverence for it people generally have for the burial-p-lace of their ancestors.’ When, therefore, Burns met Captain Grose – then on his peregrinations through Scotland – at the house of Captain Riddell, he suggested a drawing of the ruin; and ‘the captain,’ Gilbert says, ‘agreed to the request, provided the poet would furnish a witch story to be printed along with it.’ It is probable that Burns originally sent the stories told above for insertion in the work, and that the narrative in rhyme was an afterthought. Lockhart, on Cromek’s authority, accepts a statement, said to have been made by Mrs. Burns, that the piece was the work of a single day, and on this very slender evidence divers critics have indulged in a vast amount of admiration. Burns’s general dictum must, however, be borne in mind:- ‘All my poetry is the effect of easy composition, but of laborious correction’; together with his special verdict on Tam o’ Shanter (letter to Mrs. Dunlop, April 1791) that it ‘showed a finishing polish,’ which he despaired of ‘ever excelling.’ It appeared in Grose’s Antiquities -published in April 1791 – the captain’s indebtedness being thus acknowledged:- ‘To my ingenious friend, Mr. Robert Burns, I have been seriously obligated: he was not only at the pains of making out what was most worthy of notice in Ayrshire, the county honoured by his birth, but he also wrote, expressly for this work, the pretty tale annexed to Alloway Church.’
Ere Grose’s work was before the public, the piece made its appearance in The Edinburgh Magazine for March 1791; and it was also published in The Edinburgh Herald of 18th March 1791. The MS. now in the Kilmarnock Museum – MS. (A) – of which a photolithograph was published in 1869, is of special interest for some of its deleted readings. The copy at Lochryan – MS. (B) – was written in or before November 1790 (Letter to Mrs. Dunlop). Sometime before publication Burns recited Tam o’ Shanter to Robert Ainslie, when he visited Ellisland, and, after his departure home, sent him a copy, which Ainslie gave to Sir Walter Scott, and which is now at Abbotsford – MS. (C). It is thus prefaced:- ‘Alloway Kirk, the scene of the following poem, is an old ruin in Ayrshire, hard by the road from Ayr to Maybole, on the banks of the river Doon, and very near the old bridge of that name. A drawing of this ruin, accompanied perhaps with Tam o’ Shanter, will make its appearance in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland.’ The piece is inscribed in the Afton Lodge Book at Alloway – MS. (D) – and the Glenriddell Book at Liverpool – MS. (E). There is also a copy in the Observatory at Dumfries: it is so framed as to show the front page alone.
LINE 8. ‘The water, mosses, slaps, and styles,’ MSS. (B, D and E). 25. ‘That every naig was ca’d a shoe on,’ 1793. 27. ‘T the L–d’s even on Sunday,’ periodicals. 28. ‘Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday’:- The Jean referred to is supposed to have been Jean Kennedy of Kirkoswald, who with her sister kept a very respectable tavern, sometimes called the Ladies’ House. 29. ‘She prophesy‘d that late or soon,’ 1794. 30. ‘Thou wad be found deep drwoned in Doon,’ MSS. and periodicals. 37. ‘But to our tale: ae market night,’ 1794. 44. ‘They had been fou for weeks tegither,’ Grose. 47. ‘The landlady grew unco gracious,’ MS. (B). 48. ‘Wi’ favours, secret, sweet, and precious,’ 1793 and 1794. 50. ‘The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus’:- On MS. (C) Robert Ainslie has noted that when Burns recited to him the poem at Ellisland he added these lines:-
‘The crickets joined the chirping cry,
The kittlin chased her tail for joy.’
52. ‘Tam did na care the storm a whistle,’ deleted reading in MS. (A). 54. ‘E’en drown’d himself amang the nappy,’ 1794; ‘among,’ MS. (D):- This line and the previous one are in MS. (A) written on the margin, being evidently an afterthought. 55. ‘As bees flee hame laden wi” teasure,’ deleted reading in MS. (A). 56. ‘Ilk minute winged its way wi’ pleasure,’ deleted reading in MS. (A). 62. ‘Or like the snow falls in the river’:- The relative ‘that’ or ‘which’ should be understood between ‘snow’ and ‘fall.’ Chambers gave this preposterous attempt at amendment:- ‘Or like the snowfall in the river’; and Scott Douglas took upon him to affirm that Burns would have preferred ‘snowflake’ before ‘snowfall.’ Plainly Burns preferred the line as it is. 71. ‘And sic a night he took the road in,’ MSS.; ‘Tam,’ deleted reading for ‘he’ in MS. (A). 73. ‘The wind blew as twould blawn its last,’ MS. (A). 74. ‘The rattling show’rs rose on the blast,’ 1794. 79. ‘Weel mounted on his grey meare Meg,’ MSS., Grose, and periodicals. 83. ‘Whiles hadding fast his guid blue bonnet,’ periods. 84. ‘Whiles crooning o’er an Auld Scots sonnet,’ MS. (A). 85. ‘Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,’ 1793. 95. ‘And near the tree aboon the well,’ deleted reading in MS. (A). 113. ‘She ventur’d forward to the light,’ periodicals. 114. ‘And wow! Tam saw an unco sight,’ MSS. and Grose. 116. ‘Nae cotillon brent new frae France,’ MSS. and Grose:- ‘Brent new’ means quite new: new from the fire or forge. The term is no doubt agricultural. 125-8. ‘Coffins stood round,’ etc.:- Of these four matchless lines the first draft, as deleted in MS. (A), was:-
‘The torches climb around the wa’
Infernal fires, blue-bleezing a’.’
136. ‘Five Scymitars,’ etc.:- After this line these two, deleted in MS. (A), were inserted:-
‘Seven gallows pins; three hangman‘s whittles;
A raw o’ weel seal’d Doctor’s bottles.‘
142. ‘Which even to name,’ etc.:- At this point, these four lines occur in all the MSS. and in Grose and the periodicals:-
‘Three Lawyers’ tongues, tunred inside out,
Wi’ lies seamed lie a beggar’s clout;
Three Priests’ hearts, rotten black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile, in every neuk‘:-
but on Tytler’s advice they were omitted from the Author’s Editions. 153. ‘Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flainen,’ MSS. and Grose. 154. ‘Seventeen hunder linen’:- Woven in a reed of 1700 divisions. 160. ‘Rigwoodie hags would spean a foal’:- The rigwoodie is the rope or chain that crosses the saddle of a horse. Some editors translate the phrase as gallows-worthy. ‘Rig’ is also a name for a strumpet, and the word read backwards might mean ‘gallows-strumpet.’ On the other hand, the simile refers to a mare, and it is probable that ‘rigwoodie’ here means ancient or lean. 170. ‘And held the country-side in fear,’ alternative reading in MS. (A). 175. ‘Ah little thought thy reverend grannie,’ MSS., Grose and periodicals. 182. ‘A souple jade she was and strang,’ 1793 and 1794. 188. ‘Tam lost his reason a’ thegither,’ 195. ‘When plundering herds’:- Boy-herds who were in the habit of plundering the hives of humble-bees. 199. ‘When “haud the thief” resounds aloud,’ MSS. (B and C). 201. ‘Wi’ mony an eldrich shout and hollo,’ MSS. (B, C, D, and E), and Grose:- It is probable that ‘shout‘ was suggested by Grose as a substitute for ‘skriech,’ but MS. (A) has skriech, and the poet reverted to it in ‘93 and ‘94; ‘holow,’ Grose and Editions ‘93 and ‘94; but the MSS. have either ‘hollo’’ or ‘holla,’ even including MS. (A), where the ‘w‘ in hollow is deleted. 206. ‘And win the key-stane o’ the brig’:- ‘It is a well-known fact that witches, or any evil spirits, have no power to follow a poor wight any farther than the middle of the next running stream. It may be proper likewise to mention to the benighted traveller, that when he falls in with bogles, whatever danger may be in his going forward, there is much more hazard in turning back’ (R. B. in Editions ‘93 and ‘94). 207. ‘Thy fairin’ – See Note to Death and Dr. Hornbook, STANZA XXX. Line 6, p. 393. 214. ‘But little kend [or Kent] she Maggie’s mettle,’ MSS. 220. ‘Each man,’ and mother‘s son take heed,’ MSS. 225. ‘Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s meare,’ MSS., Grose, and periodicals.