Home » Victorian Authors List » Robert Burns Biography » “Tam O’ Shanter”: Critical Detailed Analysis And Summary

“Tam O’ Shanter”: Critical Detailed Analysis And Summary


Robert Burns is a Scottish poet of the narrative poem “Tam O Shanter” was written in 1790 while residing in Dumfries it become one of the world’s longest poems with 228 lines in the combination of Scots and English and it was the first published in 1791.

In the poem, we see Tam a farmer in the Scottish town of iron is described as having bad habits and acting impulsively, especially towards his wife who is furiously waiting for him at home. After one such late-night celebration on a market day, Tam goes home on a horse called Meg while a storm develops.

The Book Tam O' Shanter
The Book Tam O’ Shanter

The poem “Tam O Shanter” is widely regarded as one specific poem which is said to have been inspired by an ancient folktale. While undertaking research in Scotland, Captain Francis Bruce who was the author of antiquities of England and Wales published six volumes between the years1773 and 1789 and met Robert Burns.

Gross agreed to Burn’s suggestion that a drawing of the remains of the church called Alloway should be included in his new book as long as he also produced a witches’ tale still to go along with it. Burns told three tales, the first of which contained the plot of Tam o Shanter.

A Quote of Robert Burns
A Quote of Robert Burns

The poem was initially published by Burns in the 1791 issue of the Edinburgh magazine and it was also included in Grose’s second book of the antiquities of Scotland which was later published posthumously in 1798.

The “Tam O’ Shanter” poem has now become well known. Burns’ Tam was credited with giving the name of the traditional Scottish Bonnet he wore, which has been referred to as Tam O Shanter in the early 19th century.

It was originally made of wool and knitted by hand in one piece and after that, they were stretched out on a wooden disc to give them a unique flat shape before being felted. A woollen ball or a “toorie” is then placed in the centre of the Tam O’Shanter as decoration.


Robert Burns’s “Tam O Shanter” reflects the Scottish Vernacular that served as inspiration for many of his works. It is without a doubt that it is Robert Burns’s more successful work and as a result his longest-lasting effort. Robert Burns’s personal experience served as a basis for “Tam O Shanter” which was penned at the time when he was dealing with his problems.

The poem does a really good job of illustrating his mastery of narrative verse which places him at par with the very best poets of the 15th century.

The poem Tam O’ Shanter used iambic pentameter for its rhyming couplets and is based on the narrative of an alcoholic who is oblivious to the fact that he needs to reach home.

As the poem progresses, the reader has introduced to the intoxicating atmosphere of the poem right away with the topographical description; the poem is followed by the poem’s setting and topographical description. The poet conjures up an image of marital strife in which he stirs the reader’s imagination and suggests the reason for marital conflict.

In the poem, Tam, a farmer from the Scottish town of Ayr, has been portrayed as an alcoholic and along with that, he has got a lot of habits and acts impulsively, particularly towards his wife, who is furiously waiting for him at home. Conclusively, after one such late-night celebration on a market day, Tam goes home on his horse Maggie while a storm develops.

On the way, he notices that the nearby haunted church is lit up, complete with the dancing witches, warlocks, and the devil playing the bagpipes. He is still intoxicated, still riding his horse, barely in the light, and he is marvelling at the horrific items, and gibbet irons that have been placed across the area as well as other grotesque objects.

Form & Structure

This story follows Tam as she travels from Kirk Alloway to the River Doon’s neighbouring bridge. The narrative is developed in stanzas of varying lengths, but there are also interjections from the narrator for a variety of reasons. This combines the exciting storytelling with more serene passages in many literary genres.


This poem is in a mock-epic form, with iambic tetrameters, with nine syllables or lines of eight and often four emphasized syllables each line, are used in the composition of the poem. An intentionally obtrusive narrator, Tam is alternately portrayed as a mock-heroic who is galloping carelessly into trouble.

The couplets of lines that rhyme with one another on the following parameters are a/a, b/b, c/c, and so on. This gives the music a brisk and vibrant feel. Tam is the ideal mock hero, galloping carelessly into trouble, which appears to agree with Tam’s wife, Kate.

The supernatural comedy uses folktales that horrified locals or had only recently terrified their hits on the horrifying aspects of eighteenth-century life.


The opening stanza of “Tam o Shanter” perfectly describes the mood towards the close of bustling market day. After a long day at work, the first, six lines convey a sense of calm relief. However, in Line 7, “We think na on thus splitting the stanza in two.

The narrator then lists the challenges Tam must overcome between the tavern and his house because of his intoxication.  The depiction of the stereotypically mistreated and furious wife that follows illustrates the gap between the carousing man and the responsible, dependable and alone woman.

Her brows were furrowed as if a storm was brewing, which is a metaphor for the weather to come. Nursing her rage to keep it warm metaphorically calls to mind her duty to care for the family and home, but it also paints her as a figure of retaliation.

After cheerfully reciting Kate’s wise counsel in its entirety, the narrator goes back to the sincere Tam before declaring that he is a bleating, blustering, drunken blellum. The amalgamation of alliteration, with onomatopoeic heavy sounds, and assonance brilliantly dismisses him as a clumsy and self-deluded oaf.

After that, she makes a dire prophecy about by conjuring the images of necromancers and the eerie in a way so that our minds are haunted by Alloway Kirk.

Next, we are astounded by the tavern scene because it is remarkable and memorable by itself. It’s fluid and feminine rhymes aid in illustrating how quickly this alcohol-charged evening is moving along. Lastly, the winning portrayal of Tam’s friendship with Souter Johnny is evident.

“They had been fou for weeks thegither” sums up the inebriated and comradely mock-heroic atmosphere.

The second half contains many dramatic ironic undertones as we begin to question the genuineness of the landlady’s secret, sweet and valuable favours as well as the landlord’s laughter. Tam does the same mistake of believing that it was a true friendship which seems to be as foolish as neglecting the brewing storm.

The use of contrast and juxtaposition that follows is superb. Glorious and victorious are the two-word choices that emphasize the feeling of joyful celebration, and care is symbolized as a care partner who gives an attempt to influence Tam.

Instead of Scots warning that joys pass quickly, the speaker tends to offer an inventory of similes in “poetical” English: “the rainbow’s lovely form/Evanishing amid the storm”.

The tone alters spontaneously with the fateful metaphor such as given below:
“The hour approaches Tam maun ride”
“Nae man can tether time nor tide”

Broadly speaking, the alliteration connects the words tether, time, tide, and Tam, and there is a sense of monosyllabic tragedy in “Tam maun ride”.

The Gallop

Burns needs to keep things moving while intensifying the horror in this part. Even though the storm is bad, Meg the horse, and Tam appear to outperform it once they get going. Skelpit’s word choice encapsulates their bold attitude, and Despisin’ wind, rain, and fire’s galloping rhythm demonstrate Tam’s vigour and mastery.

While Tam sings and scans his surroundings, the repetition of “Whiles holding fast”…”Whiles crooning o’er”…and “Whiles glow’ring” builds pace and suggests some anxiousness.

Burns increases the journey’s gothic folktale dread in the following stanza. It consists of two sections: a description of the escalating storm and the erratic galloping of past scenes.

Kirk Alloway

Light, Laughter, and dancing are activities that offer a bewildering contrast to nature’s imposing forces. The speaker quickly brings up Tam’s inebriation:
“The swats sae ream’d in Tammie’s noddle”

“Fair play, he car’d na deils a boddle”

Noodle and boddle are the two hilarious word choices that imply carefree, inebriated bravery.

Tam seems to be prepared for an adventure but Maggie is unwilling and with one trifle descriptive touch- “stood richt sair astonished” adds a crucial element to the growth of her character. She is a rational and careful animal who is much wiser than Tam.

The next few lines give a lovely account of raucous, but they are broken up in the midst by a horrifying account of the sacrilegious use of the haly table. Tam notices a variety of horrifying objects in fast succession, but the dance captures his interest.

Burns depicts the witches dancing to jigs, reels, hornpipes, and strathspeys. Auld Nick, whose sole important function is that of a musician and who stays nearby in a wincock bunker.

“Screw’d and skirl” are two words that alliterate to convey furious jollity and cause the edifice to reverberate in response: “Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl”. The letter “r” has been integrated with alliteration and consonance. The movement of the witches and fury are well captured in the depiction of their dancing.

The rhythm of dancing resonated with the word combinations from amaz’d and curious to swat and reekit. Another set of words like fun, fast and furious contains alliteration, and The Piper contains repetition. An effective line “They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit” is a short but powerful phrase that is followed by the coming and going of partners.


Robert Burns’ personal experiences served as the basis for Tam O’ Shanter, which was penned at a period when the poet was dealing with his troubles. The poem does a good job of illustrating his mastery of narrative verse, which places him on par with the very best poets of the fifteenth century.

Tam O’ Shanter or “Tammie” is a traditional Scottish bonnet worn by men and it is frequently abbreviated as “Tam O Shanter” in the Scottish Military. The name was derived from “Tam O Shanter”, a titular character in a ballad by Robert Burns written in 1790.  It is a humorous and absurd folktale for the modern day.

Life is what it emphasizes, not witches or devils. According to some descriptions, the poem is a celebration of the delights of this world and although human pleasure seems to be too ephemeral, it is all more valuable because of this.

The only instance of this type of narrative poetry in any of Burns’ poems and the one that has received the greatest attention is Tam O Shanter.

This poem was composed when Robert Burns was moving through a tragic phase of his life and the composition revealed him to be the master of verse narrative as no other Scots poet had shown such grand proficiency in poetry before him at that time.

Robert Burns demonstrated a high level of proficiency while composing the poem which is evident from the speed and verve of the narration, the couplet’s fine, and flexible use, and the verse paragraph’s efficient management.

The opening sentence vividly describes a lively small town after a bustling market day. In the evening numerous sounds including the horseshoes clattering, harness jangling, and crowds of people pressing in. But very immediately, the poem establishes a distinctively Scottish contrast between the frightful outside weather and the cosy hearth inside.

The opening section defines that Tam is enjoying a drink at the inn, and it has its structure and it moves to a peak in the paragraph of the seventh verse.

The parenthetical comment about Auld Ayr and its inhabitants provides precisely the right amount of familiarity and firsthand experience that the poem’s tone calls for. This is a story narrated by someone familiar with the protagonist and his surroundings.

Tam becomes a part of us and Ayr’s casual note of compliment to Ayr makes the reader feel as though they are both up at the bar enjoying a drink. The lines that follow slightly alter the viewpoint.

Literary Devices

Burns’ mock-epic voyage was shaped by his extensive experience collecting Scottish folktales and ballads. The traditional ballad “Tam O’ Shanter” is an action-packed tale narrated carefully in controlled couplets. As a symbol of poetry’s acceptance by the general public, the ballad symbolizes one of poetry’s oldest traditions.

The ballad expresses a love of wonderful stories as well as admiration for patterned beats and predictable rhyme. Recitation is included in the poetry of antiquity and is reflected in the tight form.

The predictable rhyme pattern and steady beat resemble songs; in fact, many ballads were adapted to music and performed by itinerant minstrels as they travelled from town to town.


Why did Robert Burns write ‘Tam O Shanter’?

In 1791, the poem Tam O Shanter was published. Francis Grose originally desired to give it a go with a picture of Alloway Kirk in his book. At the time, Robert Burns’s age would have been thirty-two years.

What is the story behind ‘Tam O Shanter’?

The story in the poem Tam O Shanter starts with Tam, a farmer who met a group of witches. Tam, who was caught spying, was pursued aggressively by the lovely witch Nannie, who is dressed in a “cutty sark” or short dress. He almost makes it out, but not before Nannie rips the tail of Maggie, Tam’s horse.

When did Robert Burns write ‘Tam O Shanter’?

The 1791 publication of Robert Burns’ mock-heroic ballad “Tam O Shanter” is one of his most well-known works.

What does the Selkirk Grace mean?

A prayer in the Scots language called the Selkirk Grace is customarily recited after a Burns supper. The host will typically say some words to welcome their guests and explain the purpose of the get-together.

Is ‘Tam O Shanter’ a real story?

One of Burn’s longest poems, Tam O’ Shanter has 228 lines. There is a chance that Tam was modelled after a real-life human. A person named Douglas Graham who lives in Carrick was notorious for getting exceedingly inebriated.

What is the ‘Cutty Sark’ in ‘Tam O Shanter’?

Nannie Dee, who is a mythical witch in Robert Burn’s poem Tam O’ Shanter, was given the name Cutty Sark which is Scottish for a short camisole or undergarment.

What is the moral of ‘Tam O Shanter’?

Tam O’ Shanter is based on the realization that although human pleasure is nonetheless extremely valuable it is albeit temporary.

What is the name of Tam O Shanter’s horse?

Meg Maggie is Tam’s horse’s name.

What does TAM mean in Scottish?

Tam is a short form of Thomas.

How many lines does Tam O’ Shanter have?

Tam O’ Shanter has a total of 228 lines.