From a sordid tale to the fanciful Tam O’ Shanter

This week my tale is about one of Ayrshire’s famous sons, Robert Burns, who as a young man was an avid listener to many tales, in particular to those he learned from old Betty Davidson whose stories were, in the main, of the supernatural.

One such tale was about a Carrick farmer who after a successful day at Ayr market was quietly riding his mare home when he noticed a light coming from the ruins of Alloway Kirk. Being curious as to what was afoot he approached a window and saw a row of opened coffins with each ghastly inmate holding a lighted candle aloft whilst around them witches danced an eightsome reel to the pipes played by Old Nick himself.

The witches were all old and hideous except for one, who was young, buxom and familiar in some way. He was puzzling over this familiarity as she danced faster and faster to the music and before he could stop himself he gave a loud ‘HOOCH’ Immediately the lights went out and the horde issued forth to give chase, as he had seen something which no mortal should ever witness. He raced to cross the Doon because witches could not cross running water, but unfortunately as they reached the keystone of the bridge the mare stumbled allowing the young witch to leap forward and grasp the mare’s tail. The farmer drew his dirk, leant back and made a frenzied slash behind him to free his horse which then galloped back to the farm. The farmer went quietly to bed thinking that no-one would believe his tale let alone his wife. However in the morning he was disturbed to find his wife in great distress over the news of a neighbouring farmer’s young wife who was seriously ill but refusing to let her husband call in the doctor. She beseeched him to go over and offer help but when he went to get his mare he found a woman’s hand severed at the wrist firmly holding onto the horse’s tail. He did not know what to make of it, put the hand in his pocket for the time being and rode over to the neighbouring farm. The young farmer explained that his wife frequently went to bed early so it was not until the morning that he had noticed her condition. Our farmer found her very pale and he noticed blood on the blanket, which on turning down saw that her right hand had been severed at the wrist. He quietly took the hand from his pocket laid it beside her before turning to leave..

So you see Burns had the makings of a good tale here which he put it in verse and turned it from a sordid brutal story into the fanciful one of ‘Tam O’Shanter’.