In my early twenties I made a pilgrimage to a city in Austria based entirely on a line from a poem which I had studied for my GCSEs. For some reason the last line of Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess‘ had become stuck in my head, so as soon as I could afford a EuroRail ticket, I set out for Innsbruck (possibly hoping to find a bronze sculpture of Neptune taming a sea horse, but I never did).
Since then I have travelled far and wide to visit particular exhibitions or even to see a specific painting, but I don’t think I have ever made an effort to visit a location because of a poem since my Browning/Innsbruck mission. That is, until last week.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you visit Dumfries & Galloway and its bordering neighbour, Ayrshire, is that the whole area is very much Robert Burns territory. Even if you’d never heard of Robert Burns or ever read any of his poems, after a few days sightseeing in this part of Scotland you’ll quickly come to notice dozens of museums, monuments, statues, parks and buildings dedicated to the ‘Bard of Ayrshire’ – a man who is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, but is held in high regard all over the world. To get a bit more of an idea of the cultural significance of the man and his work, you only need to read this list: https://tinyurl.com/y7lmb4z4
The most logical starting point for a Robert Burns pilgrimage trail is his birthplace, the village of Alloway, 2 miles outside of Ayr. Here you can visit the cottage he was born in over a quarter of a century ago, as well as visit the Burn’s Birthplace Museum (I particularly love the museum’s tag line, Birthplace of a Genius). Best of all, both attractions are run by National Trust for Scotland so entry is free for all National Trust members.
But I didn’t go to Alloway for the musuems – my mission was to walk in the footsteps of the eponymous character from one of Burns’ most famous poems, the darkly funny tale of Tam O’ Shanter.
The poem tells the tale of a drunken salesman’s journey on a dark stormy night. After a heavy drinking session with his friend, Souter Johnie, he sets off on his horse Meg, but on his travels, the tale turns to supernatural horror when he spots a wild gathering of witches and warlocks partying with the devil. He drunkenly calls out to one of the witches, alerting them to his presence, leading him to make his escape with the ‘hellish legion’ in hot pursuit.
Across the road from Burns’ Cottage in Alloway you will find the wonderful Poet’s Path – a walkway lined with weather vanes which recount the tale of Tam O’ Shanter in a series of striking silhouettes. These are so beautifully and cleverly done that it is possible to have a good understanding of the story even without having ever read the poem. (But acquainting yourself with the poem before you visit Alloway is definitely recommended).
Now, with the narrative fresh in your mind, you will reach the end of Poet’s Path and the journey of the ‘bletherin’, blusterin’, drucken blellum‘ really begins. Cross the road again and you will come to Alloway Auld Kirk, the setting for the sight of ‘Warlocks an’ witches in a dance‘. (New entry on the Bucket List: to see this place at night during a storm to get that extra authentic Tam O’ Shanter experience)!
Before him Doon pours all his floods,
The doubling storm roars thro’ the woods,The lightnings flash from pole to pole,
Near and more near the thunders roll,
When, glimmering thro’ the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem’d in a bleeze,
Thro’ ilka bore the beams were glancing,
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.
In the ruined old church (which was a ruin when Burns wrote the poem), Tam O’ Shanter witnesses a satanic party, attended by the devil himself – ‘There sat auld Nick, in shape o’beast‘, and adorned with open coffins ‘That shaw’d the Dead in their last dresses‘. It is an exaggerated and gruesome scene, reminiscent of an 18th century Gothic horror novel – in fact, during your visit to Alloway, why not try conjuring up the horrific imagery which Burn’s describes whilst you are standing in the graveyard? A fun activity for the whole family!
In the poem, after Tam drunkenly calls out to a ‘winsome wench‘ whom he has taken a liking to – “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” – the gathering realise that he is watching them and then the chase is on.
When you leave the Auld Kirk, cross the road again and continue down towards The Burns Monument and Gardens. This in itself is a beautiful place with a whole other fascinating story of its own. But for now, in order to continue our retracing of Tam O’ Shanter’s journey, we will head straight through the gardens where you will come to the magnificent Brig O’ Doon.
Since witches cannot cross running water, the bridge was Tam’s means of escape. You can go across the bridge and imagine his relief when he reached the top of the bridge and is safely away from the nightmare (although not forgetting that poor Meg does lose her tail to the witches right at the end of the story).