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Sketch Book of the North
Tam O’ Shanter’s Ride


Never is a man more conscious of his manhood than when, with bridle in hand and a good horse under him, he takes the road at a gallop. As his steed stretches out and the hoof-beats quicken, as the milestones fly past and the cool air rushes in his face, he casts care to the winds, his pulse beats stronger, he rejoices to breathe and to live. The pride and the pleasure of this experience have ever appealed to the poets, and the ringing of horse-hoofs echoes through the verse of all ages—in the warrior chants of Israel; through the sounding Virgilian lines; to the reverberating rhythm of the "Ride from Ghent to Aix." But the maddest, most riotous gallop of all is, perhaps, that of the grey mare Meg and her master from Ayr to the Shanter farm. Burns was never more fortunate in his subject than when thus fulfilling his promise of providing a legend for "Alloway’s auld haunted kirk." He did not, it is true, with the nice precision of the Augustan laureate, trim his verse to a mechanical imitation of sound; but the wild rush and deftness of the movement of the poem, the quick succession of humour on pathos, scene upon scene, the ludicrous, the startling, the horrible, carry away the breath, and suggest more vividly than any mere measuring rhythm the mad daring of that midnight ride.

There is a little, old-fashioned, deep-thatched inn still standing where the street leads southwards out of Ayr. Under its low, brown-raftered roof it is yet easy to imagine how the veritable hero Tam may have sat with his cronies "fast by the ingle, bleezing finely," while "the night drave on wi’ sangs an’ clatter," and the storm outside hurled itself fruitlessly against the little deep-set window. It would need all the liquor he had imbibed to fortify the carouser for that fourteen-mile ride into Carrick. A midnight hurricane of rain and wind would be no pleasant encounter on that lonely road, to say nothing of the eerie spots to be passed, and at least one point more than a trifle dangerous. But Tam o’ Shanter was a stout Ayrshire farmer, and moreover he was accustomed to face worse ragings than those of the elements, so it may be supposed that, when he had hiccupped a last goodbye to his friends, and, leaving the warm lights of the inn streaming into the street behind him, galloped off into the blackness of the night, it was with no stronger regret than that he must go so soon. Half a mile to his right, as he bucketted southward along the narrow road, he could hear the ocean thundering its diapason on the broad beach of sand, and at the places where he crossed the open country its spray would strike his cheek and fly inland with the foam from Maggie’s bit. Sometimes, when the way lay through belts of beech and oak woods, the branches would roar and shriek overhead as they strove with maniac arms against the tempest.

The old road to Maybole, and that which Tam o’ Shanter took, ran a little nearer the sea than the one which did duty in Burns’ time, and still serves its purpose; and about a mile out of Ayr it crosses the small stream at the ford where "in the snaw the chapman smoored," at which, on the newer road, a curious adventure is said to have befallen the poet’s father. There was formerly no bridge across this stream; and the legend runs that William Burnes, a few hours before the birth of his son, in riding to Ayr for an attendant, found the water much swollen, and was requested by an old woman on the further side to carry her across. Notwithstanding his haste he did this; and a little later, on returning home with the attendant, he was surprised to find the woman seated by his own fireside. It is said that when the child was born it was placed in the gipsy’s lap, and she, glancing into its palm, made a prophecy which the poet has turned in one of his verses:—

He’ll ha’e misfortunes great and sma’,
But aye a heart aboon them a’;
He’ll be a credit till us a’—
We’ll a’ be prood o’ Robin.

If all gipsy predictions were as well fulfilled as this of the poet, the dark-skinned race would be far sought. and courted.

A few strides beyond the stream his grey mare had to carry Tam past a dark, uncanny spot— "the cairn whare hunters fand the murder’d bairn." It was covered then with trees, and one of them still stands marking the place. To the left of the old road here, and hard by the newer highway, lies the humble cottage, of one storey, where Robert Burns was born. It has been considerably altered since then, having been used until recently as an alehouse, and further accommodation having been added at either end. But enough of the interior remains untouched to allow of its original aspect being realised. The house is the usual "but and ben," built of natural stones and clay, and neatly whitewashed and thatched. In the "but," the apartment to the left on entering from the road, there is little alteration; and it was here, in the recessed bed in the wall, that the poet first saw light. The plain deal dresser, with dish-rack above, remains the same, and the small, square, deep-set window still looks out behind, over the fields his father cultivated. An old mahogany press with drawers still stands next the bed; the floor is paved with irregular flags; and the open fireplace, with roomy, projecting chimney, occupies the gable. An extra door has been driven through the south-east corner to allow the profane crowd to pass through, and a larger window has been opened towards the road that they may see to scratch their names in the visitors’ book; but the rest of the apartment towards the back is little changed, if any, since the eventful night when "Janwar’ winds blew hansel in on Robin."

The hour of his ride was too dark, however, for the galloping farmer to see so far over the fields. A weirder sight was in store for him. A few hundred yards further on, when, by a well which is still flowing, he had passed the thorn, now vanished, where "Mungo’s mither hanged hersel," just as the road plunged down along the woody banks of Doon, there, a little to his left,

glimmering thro’ the groaning trees
Kirk Alloway seemed in a bleeze.

The grey walls of the little kirk are standing yet among the graves, though the last rafters of the ruined roof were carried off long since to be carved into mementoes. The tombs of Lord Alloway’s family occupy one end of the interior, and a partition wall has been built dividing off that portion, but otherwise the place remains unchanged. The bell still hangs above the eastern gable, and under it remains the little window with a thick mullion, the "winnock bunker" in which the astonished farmer, sitting on his mare, and looking through another opening in the side wall, saw the queer musician ensconced. A more eerie spot on a stormy night could hardly be imagined, the trees shrieking and groaning around, the Doon roaring in the darkness far below, while the thunder crashed overhead and the lurid glare of lightning ever and again lit up the ruin. But with the unearthly accessories of warlocks and witches, corpse lights and open coffins, with the screech of the pipes and grotesque contortions of the dancers, the place must pass comparison in horror. Yet, inspired by "bold John Barleycorn," the farmer looked eagerly in on the revels till, fairly forgetting himself in the height of his admiration, with his shout of "Weel done, Cutty Sark!" the lights went out, the pipes stopped, and the wrathful revellers streamed after him like angry bees. A few bounds of his mare down that narrow, winding, and rather dangerous road would carry Tam to the bridge, and the clatter of terrified Maggie’s hoofs as she plunged off desperately through the trees seems to echo there yet. All the world knows how she carried her master in safety across the keystone of the bridge at the cost of her own grey tail. The feat was no easy one, for the single arch (still spanning the river there) was high and steep and narrow. Beyond the Doon the old road rises inland, covered deep with ash and saugh trees, to the open country; and Tam, pale and sober no doubt, but breathing freer, had still twelve long miles before him to the far side of Kirkoswald in Carrick, where sat his wife—

Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.


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