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Tall Tales and Tackety Boots

Robert Burns’ Birthplace, Alloway

It’s ben said that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow. I don’t know how true that is, but I do remember a list being read out on the radio which contained more than fifty words describing the effects of drink. From A to Z, it was a veritable alphabet of intoxication. And a not insignificant number of those words were Scots. Alcohol, it seems, is well-embedded in the life and culture of Scotland.

Perhaps nowhere more so than in that magnificent poem by Robert Burns, Tam o’Shanter. As the poem opens, we find Tam and “his ancient, trusty, drouthy cronie”, Souter Johnnie, comfortably ensconced in Kirkton Jean’s inn, celebrating a good day at the market in Ayr. Happily “bousing at the nappy, and getting fou and unco happy”, Tam is understandably loath to leave the warmth and comfort of the inn for the long journey home. Not least because he knows he’s spent far too much on ale; and that he should have been home long before. Home where his wife Kate grimly awaits his arrival, “gathering her brows like gathering storm, nursing her wrath to keep it warm.” But needs must, and eventually Tam rides out into the storm, where “the wind blew as ‘twad blown its last; … loud, deep and lang the thunder bellow’d; that night a child might understand, the Diel had business on his hand.” And indeed the devil did: as Tam was about to discover at Alloway’s ‘auld haunted kirk’, where our well-oiled hero nearly comes to a sticky end. It’s only after a mad dash across the old Brig o’Doon that Tam escapes unscathed. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of his trusty old mare Maggie, who, thanks to Tam’s love of ‘bousing’, loses her tail and is ‘left with but a stump.’ Too much drink can have dire consequences, as poor Maggie discovers. But there’s nothing quite like fleeing for your life from a horde of witches and warlocks to sober you up fast!

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