Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Robert Burns Lives!
Two Tales of 'Tam O' Shanter' by Sarah M. Dunnigan and Gerard Carruthers

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Today is treat day! Our article focuses on a look at Burns and women as presented by the University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Sarah Dunnigan and Dr. Gerard Carruthers of Glasgow University. While I cannot promise “dueling banjos”, I can promise “dueling perspectives” from our guest writers. While this article first appeared in the popular magazine Southfield’s: Six Point Two in 2000, its message is as fresh and modern as the most recently published book on display today in your local book store.

I wish to thank Sarah and Gerry for allowing Robert Burns Lives! to showcase their masterpiece of masculinity and femininity in the days of Burns with a look through current eyes and thought. It is a fun, modern piece of writing.  Enjoy!

My thanks also go to Dr. Richard Price for his gracious assistance with the article. Dr. Price   was one of the editors of Southfields in 2000. He gave valuable advice regarding “first publication rights” and assisted in attempts to find artist Donald MacLeod whose art appears on the front of the magazine. If any of our readers know how to contact Donald MacLeod and are willing to get in touch with me, I will email him for permission to use his art with the article. They go hand in hand!

Additionally, I would like to thank my “boss” Alastair McIntyre for taking time from a very busy schedule to work his magic and convert this article into a text file (whatever that is!) from a PDF one. Otherwise, this interesting and intriguing piece would still be sitting on my back burner where it has dwelt far too long.

A lot of time “things happen” when an article is being prepared and readied for the publishing date and this was no exception. The end note references completely disappeared, never more to surface. Poof, here one minute and gone the next! My son Scott was able to reinsert them, so a big thank-you goes to Scott who insisted I not mention his input (which I haven’t since this was a printed not verbal conversation). He has always been there to help me when needed.

And, it is time to say thanks again to the most indispensible person working on Robert Burns Lives! She has done so quietly behind the scenes each time a chapter is published – my wife and best friend for nearly 40 years - Susan. She has proofed and corrected 178 chapters on Robert Burns Lives! and she has done the same for 73 book reviews, chats with authors, and other various articles by me in A Highlander and His Books. Without her, there would be no Burns web site on ElectricScotland. She learned something in high school that I did not excel in while a student in high school, college, or graduate school – English, grammar, sentence construction and spelling. She has corrected every introduction and article I have written over the years, as well as those of some authors who, like me, would have been embarrassed without her help of which they were unaware. 

Till next time! (FRS: 8.28.13)

Sarah M. Dunnigan and Gerard Carruthers

My head! Oh my head! - but no matter, ‘tis life;
Far better than moping at home with one’s wife.

Robert Fergusson, ‘Drinking Song’  [i] 

Here lyes a man a woman rul’d
The devil rul’d the woman.

Robert Burns, ‘Epitaph on a Henpecked Country Squire’  [ii]   

Scottish literature loves its hard men. This assertion is a myth in the same way that the poem which is usually taken to embody Burns’ much celebrated masculinity, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, is not what it seems. If not exactly a hard man, Tam o’ Shanter is enthroned as the little man’ of huge stamina as he battles (mock) heroically against the perils of witchcraft and women. In the following critical dialogue, two readings of feminine and masculine formations in the poem are voiced by the Burnsian personae of Clarinda and Sylvander. The two duelling perspectives are not necessarily to be identified with the gender of the article’s authors; however, the spirit of ironic playfulness which imbues Burns’ work is one which this dialogue adopts.

Clarinda: The problem with ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ is that in its world women aren’t welcome, except as devilishly sexual fantasies. What ‘truth’ does ‘honest Tam’ (I.13) really discover except the immemorial dreams and visions of the archetypal feminine? Does the poem really celebrate ‘the wee man’ against the elements? Why is it the most lionised, canonised poem in the history of Scottish literature? If a poem which does so much to cultivate an exclusively masculine world and celebrate the perpetual tyranny of the feminine is taken as the quintessentially Scottish poem, what kind of mirror does this hold up to the Scottish literary psyche? Isn’t it about time we took this time-worn tale of the everyman Scot and tore it to shreds?

Sylvander:    Your response is akin to the reaction of the feminised world of nature in the poem as it assails Tam. You bombard the poem with shrill accusations. The poem does indeed show male and female out of harmony, but this impairment is what it attempts to criticise.

Clarinda: I hope you’re not asserting the masculine supremacy of reason over the feminine province of emotion; that’s an eternal binary opposition which I think you might find in the poem itself.

Sylvander: Quite the reverse. Remember the line ‘Tam tint his reason a’ thegither’ (I.188). The poem mocks the phoney, male emotion of brotherhood engendered by alcohol

And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither. (II.41-44)  [iii]  

Clarinda: ‘Brotherhood’: you’ve caught the poem in a nutshell. That’s why Burns is loved and cherished, isn’t it? Burns clubs have their precedent for excluding the fairer sex in Tam’s drinking brethren. After all, this is a poem which depends upon the exclusion of the feminine to permit a brief space of male carnival. Look at those pronouns, ‘we, our...’, deliberately, but in that insidiously innocuous way, sprinkled throughout.  [iv]  These are obvious grammatical devices of inclusion and exclusion which demarcate masculine and feminine spaces, geographically and conceptually: ‘While we sit bousing at the nappy, And getting fou and unco happy’ (II.5-6). Woman, thou shalt not trespass upon man’s sanctified drinking realm. And don’t say that I’m not getting the joke but if we see it simply in that light we miss the ironies of Tam’s fantastic feminine world. We shouldn’t get too ironic, or shouldn’t we? Anyway, even Freud asserted that the sexual joke was always constructed to exclude women.

Sylvander: There are lots of laughs in the poem but these are, in fact, largely at the expense of the male-figure, Tam. His fantasy with the figure of Nannie or Cutty Sark is akin to a laughable kind of onanism when he has a comely wife waiting at home for him. It is because he cannot see clearly enough the real feminine world that its fantasy version justly assaults him. We should be very aware of the Burns who wrote of nature (or even God, perhaps) in ‘Green grow the rashes’:

Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses O.  [v]  

This is Burns the radical libertarian who was, in fact, sceptical of the usual socially-constructed assumptions about gender in the 18th century.

Clarinda: Thank you for another critical myth about Burns; and ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ must be an allegorical, proto-revolutionary fable too in which ‘the common man’ triumphs against overwhelming odds, except that it depends crucially upon its exclusion of the feminine. The main female protagonists - Kate and Nannie - both represent a power that destroys and represses male agency and carnival; this is a revolution suppressed by women. Anyway, I accept your point about onanism: isn’t Burns really writing pornography for the 18th century male masses? And what exactly is the ‘real’ feminine world with which the predictably erotic phantasmagoric world contrasts: isn’t Kate’s cliched female wisdom or advice really set up as the repression of the instinctive, healthy male spirit?

Sylvander: If you want real pornography from Burns it is to be found in The Merry Muses of Caledonia. You are right, to some extent though, about female rhetoric in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Kate’s advice is couched, feminine-traditionary, in terms of a recommendation to the reality principle that Tam then maniacally evades in his pursuit of the pleasure principle. What I think we have here is a classic diagnosis of two people imprisoned in their roles: the responsible wife/female and the wayward or childish husband/male.

Clarinda:  So you’re accepting, then, that Burns is dealing in gender stereotypes?

Sylvander: Not exactly, Burns does not deal in such stereotypes, but utilises and deconstructs them. Burns is sceptical about received roles. I think we have to bear in mind, as you’ve pointed out, a much stronger ironic frame to the poem than is usually allowed by traditional Bumsians. We see this ironic purchase also in the exclusive pronouns you mentioned before. The poem taps into a traditional conspiratorial male voice (‘Whare sits our sulky sullen dame’, I.10); but Tam is then set up for a disconcerting ride that exposes his drink-fuelled, macho naivete. The masculine narrative voice invites us to empathise with Tam but, if we fall for this, we soon find that we are empathising with a very silly creature. This is the trick that Burns plays on the reader with a satirical panache which is too often overlooked in appreciation of the bard.    

Clarinda: But that’s precisely my point: irony underscores the poem. This is what a reading which deconstructs the role of the feminine in the poem can achieve. Yet, if the narratorial voice is so ironic and precludes ultimate identification with a less than heroic Tam, then what about the final envoi:

Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare. (II. 220-24)

This warning, essentially about drink and women, is confined to men (and why highlight the feminine as the maternal at this point?). Is this not why the poem is so enshrined in the machismo-fuelled critical heart of Scottish literature? And how should the (fe)male reader respond to the apostrophe to ‘gentle dames’ (I. 33)? I hardly think it’s Bums in proto-feminist role, empathising with the beleaguered wives of errant men: is it not a mocking, authorial voice which yet again reinstates the masculine point of view? Try as it might, the poem can’t evade its entrenched masculinism!

Sylvander: Yes - an analysis of gender roles does reveal a much subtler poem than is usually thought, but I reiterate that Bums is in control of these roles. We have in the poem an Enlightenment Burns taking a blowtorch to superstitous folk-beliefs, and reading underneath the bricolage of the folk-tale much darker psychological elements: for example, all Tam’s sublimated sexual impulses. The narrative makes use of the folk register (through which we are invited to enjoy a ghost-story) and also uses a very literary register (where, for example, we have resonant, high-style metaphors such as the infamous ‘pleasures are like poppies spread’, I.59). Ultimately, Burns subscribes neither to the credulity of the ‘folk-mentalite’ nor to the sententiousness of neo-classic literary declamation. Indeed, he explodes each of these elements in their collision. The reading of conservative moralism, which you take from the poem, also duped that man of non-humour, Wordsworth. Ultimately, the poem has no solid moralism other than its mockery of all human formulations of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ either from low or high culture. Burns stands behind this poem mocking both human non-rationalism and rationalism. He points to how easily human inhabitation of either of these mindsets can be undermined. This, more than anything, explains the master-trope of drunkenness.

Clarinda: I would much prefer Tam o’ Shanter to be the intellectually anarchic poem such a reading implies. I also believe that the vein of high literariness which you identify is also one strand of the poem’s feminine symbolism. The supposedly sententious image of the poppies and the flower, ‘its bloom. ..shed’, must surely be recognised as a euphemism for the loss of fragile female virginity.

Sylvander:  Yes - the poem is full of innuendo. I don’t think this corrodes the overall texture of the poem, but rather adds to it. Again, the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ element is another invitation to the unsubtle reader to enjoy the simple, laddish fun; he (and I especially mean he) does this at his peril, however. Just as there are various devilish traps laid the naive Tam, so too there are traps laid for the naive reader.

Clarinda:  So we agree that the poem has multiple layers of meaning, not least in its very literary fabric. In one sense, we might acknowledge the medieval roots of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. It can be read as a fable of desire and the subversion of masculine reason in the way of Dunbar’s ‘The Golden Targe’. Look at the poem’s vision of hellish female beauty. Tam is a voyeur; woman is temptation: isn’t this the Ovidian fable of Acteon who snatched an illicit vision of the goddess Diana bathing and was punished for it? Nannie, the most beautiful woman, is a witch (of course, a typical icon of feminine evil and social subversion), invested with similar powers of punishment and retribution. Look at the relation between the progress of Tam’s desire and the nature of the vision: the anticipated sight of beautiful women (‘had thae been queans, A’ plump and strapping in their teens, Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen, Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!’, II. 151-54) is subverted and its repulsive substitute offered: ‘wither’d beldams’ (I. 159). This promised, then retracted, vision of ripe young beauty tempting Tam, narrator and reader reinstates an enduring ‘manichaeism’ or dualism constructed around the figure of woman. Is it not the myth of the angel/whore being reworked by Burns? Classical fable and ‘Tam o’ Shanter’: both are allegories of desire which ultimately depict woman as demonic, unknowable, subversive. Bums’s demonisation of the female has a venerable literary pedigree.

Sylvander: The precedents for the scenario of the poem are as you rightly have them, but I would reiterate the point that the poem takes these stock-situations and manipulates them. Tam invents these female demons/demonised females according to his orthodox imaginative conceptions of women. He does transmogrify, if we follow a psychological reading, his desire for women into something hellish and this is his real sin. His deeply entrenched view of women deserves, and can produce no other than, a dangerous version of woman. It is at this point that we can refer to the notorious depiction of Kate, ‘Gathering her brows like gathering storm, Nursing her wrath to keep it warm’ (II.11-12). Kate too is rendered unnaturally dangerous in Tam’s chauvinistic outlook. Nannie and the hellish brood are a kind of poetic justice for Tam in the face of this habitual male misidentiflcation of ‘her indoors’.

Clarinda: You’ve surprised me with this superlative feminist exegesis. But the persistent trouble is the opacity of such irony as you identify. As Christopher Whyte has observed, ‘“Tam o’ Shanter” must be the most invisible poem in Scottish Literature.’  [vi]  

Sylvander:  I think this is true because the poem has, notwithstanding the complexity of voices I’ve argued for, a very smooth surface over which it is easy for the reader to glide. Underneath this racy narrative panache and beyond the clear signposts (for instance, woman=danger/evil), however, is the implied message that this infernal female world does not really exist unless we wilfully conjure it into existence, as Tam’s fear of the feminine makes it exist. If we capitulate to the racy narrative we are as guilty as Tam of taking a ‘wild ride’; we too as readers, if we so act, are exposed in our belief of the authenticity of Tam’s received vision of womanhood.

Clarinda: Your answer confirms my unease that the reader is explicitly gendered male. Where does this leave access to the poem for the female reader? If the temptation scene, as I’ve suggested, casts Tam, the narrator, and the reader in the position of desiring voyeurs - the posture of Acteon - which entails inevitable punishment, what does the cautionary warning mean at the end? Can it sustain its burden of meaning?

Sylvander: No, it can’t sustain the burden of meaning, as you eloquently put it; the whole poem is about the burden of meanings which we so readily import to the explication of life and of which ultimately we should be sceptical. You’ve been looking to criticise the facile gender-philosophy that you believe to be present in the poem. I believe that the poem throws up the question of epistemology: conventional assumptions about gender and how we construct our vision of the world, or any vision for that matter, real or fantastic, are handled and broken apart. On the question of voyeurs, Tam is a voyeur and the reader (couched, certainly, in male terms) a voyeur also; but it is up to the reader to break the glazed-voyeuristic gaze. My reading sees the poem in the way that some critics have responded to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ so that it is the reader’s response that holds the key. The reader is responsible for sweeping the trumpery of the poem away and seeing through it to Tam’s purblind human situation.

Clarinda: But does that view not return us to the original position of the ‘invisibility’ of the feminine within the poem if, ultimately, the ‘human’ situation is what underlies it? I still maintain that ‘the feminine’ holds the key to the poem, a concept which lies right at the heart of Tam’s tale. In fact, it is the figure of woman - subversive, anarchic, destructive of stability - which prevents ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ from possessing any secure meaning; the reason why, after all, we’re engaged in this discussion.

Sylvander: If you’re talking about the hollowness of meaning, then it’s instructive to look at the end of the tale, the tail of the tale when Maggie has her tail pulled off. In the late 20th  century, this act is often read as symbolic castration - a kind of warning to Tam - do this again and you’ll lose more than your tail. The mock moralitas concluding the poem:

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.    (Il .221-4)

is just that - ‘mock’: Tam has had an experience, as a voyeur, where he has engaged with nothing and lost nothing. The whole poem becomes a cycle of over-inflated experience where there are no real stakes being played for; where nothing is, in fact, ventured and nothing is gained. The (mock) heroic resonances of the poem are a charade, just as Tam’s supposed masculinity is a charade. The end of the poem confirms its ultimate feebleness. It is a female mare on whom the ‘castration’ is performed.

Clarinda: To those who entirely dismiss the symbolic castration theory, I would draw attention to who pulls off the tail: Nannie. Nannie is left with the end of the tail/tale, literally and metaphorically. This, above all, confirms the importance of the feminine throughout the poem, however ironic that might seem: Nannie can be considered to have possession of the final symbolic act which may, or may not, have meaning. The semantic and symbolic richness of the feminine ultimately defeats the supposed moral triumph of both the narrator and Tam’s escape. This is prefigured in one sense by the narrator’s confessed inarticulacy: ‘But here my Muse her wing maun cour; Sic flights are far beyond her pow’r; To sing how Nannie lap and flang’ (Il. 179-81). This sums up the unrepresentability of the feminine as well as the limitations of literary voyeurism. The female demonic presence in the poem is associated with the unknowable but is also linked with excess, a power which defies control. Hence, ultimately, conventional femininity is uncontainable. Nannie herself is ‘cut off, as the infernal is separated from the earthly, the feminine from the masculine and, most significantly for any reading, women (or woman) remain outside the formal closure of the poem where Tam is returned to morality, and the narrative voice to its spurious morality.

Sylvander: I think it is interesting to contrast a version of the tale - ‘The Galloway Tam’, where an alternative folk-version of the story of the poem features a Nannie who is unmasked the day following Tam’s adventures as the wife of a neighbour to Tam. She is consequently burnt as a witch within water-mark on the Solway Firth. [vii]   This ‘rounded’ version, which utterly destroys the demonic feminine, does indeed take to extremes its own misogynistic logic. Strangely, this alternative version, which Allan Cunningham claimed to be traditional and a superior narrative that Burns ought to have used, is an entire invention on the part of Cunningham. It is also a feeble, stock-gothic morality tale of a kind entirely alien to Burns’ design in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.

Clarinda: Since I might be about to say that Burns was kinder to the fair sex after all, let’s cut the tale off here...


i    The Unpublished Poems of Robert Fergusson edited by William E. Gillis (Edinburgh: M. Macdonald, 1955), p. 18.

ii   James Kinsey ed. , Burns. Poems and Songs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.188, II. 3-4.

iii   All references to ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ are made to Kinsley’s edition, pp. 443-9.

iv   See Christopher Whyte, “Defamiliarising Tam o’ Shanter’, Scottish Literary Journal 20.1 (1993), pp. 5-18 (6-7), for an analysis of ‘gender divisive’ naming.

 v    Kinsley ed., p. 44, II. 17-20.

 vi   ‘Defamiliarising Tam o’ Shanter’, p. 5.

 vii   John Gibson Lockhart, The Life of Robert Burns, 2 vols (Liverpool: Henry Young & Sons Ltd. , 1914), vol 2, pp.    47-8.         

Return to Robert Burns Lives! Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus