Tam o' Shanter

'Tam o' Shanter' is reckoned to be one of the greatest narrative poems in the language.

Robert Burns wrote the poem to accompany Captain Grose's description of Alloway Kirk in his collection 'Antiquities of Scotland'.

Folk-lore of witchcraft

The themes and imagery which the poet deployed drew heavily on the folk-lore of witchcraft which he learned from his childhood nurse, Betty Davidson.

The burning of witches was a small-town Lowland phenomenon in Scotland, and had stopped in Burns's day. But many people still believed in witchcraft.

'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.'

Painting showing Tam and horse chased by a witch
Tam o' Shanter. Full 'Tam' image

In my infant and boyish days … I owed much to an old Maid of my Mother's, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition. — She had … the largest collection … of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks … and other trumpery. — This cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy; but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places.

— Autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, London, 2 August 1787: part of the Cowie Collection'.