Robert Burns: Do you know the Scots words in his drunken epic Tam O Shanter?

It is Burns’ wonderful epic about the dark consequences of a late boozy night and a rather frightening attempt to get home in one piece.

Tam O Shanter getting "uncoo happy" at Kirkton Jean's inn in the opening scenes of the epic poem. PIC: Creative Commons.
Tam O Shanter getting "uncoo happy" at Kirkton Jean's inn in the opening scenes of the epic poem. PIC: Creative Commons.

Described as a “great carnival of verse”, Tam O Shanter has been named as the favourite Burns poem among Scots in the past. Both funny and full of social comment, it also contains an unforgettable line from the Bard who at the time of writing was involved in love affair and had just come through a spell of bad health.

"But pleasures are like poppies spread, You seize the flower, its bloom is shed; Or like the snow falls in the river, A moment white--then melts for ever".

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The poem is also loaded with some great Scots words as he describes his fraught journey home when he passes a ruined kirk, witnesses a black mass and is then chased home, his poor horse losing its tail in a fine symbol of castration.

Many of the words may seem far out of reach for the modern reader but even if you don’t know them, perhaps you would just like to know them and become more familiar with the language of much of Burns’ work.

Here we look at the Scots words that helped to express so vividly this rather wild night out.

Chapmen billies

When chapmen billies leave the street

Translation: Peddlar lads


And drouthy neibors, neibors meet



While we sit bousing at the nappy

Translation: Strong beer


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And getting fou and unco happy

Translation: drunk

Unco happy

And getting fou and unco happy

Translation: very drunk


She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,

Translation: A rogue


A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum

Translation: A blether


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Thou sat as lang as thou had siller

Translation: Silver, money


That every naig was ca'd a shoe on

Translation: Horse

Skelpit On

Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire

Translaton: hurried or raced on


Whare, in the snaw, the chapman smoor'd

Translation: smothered or suffocated


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A winnock-bunker in the east/There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast

Translation: A window seat

Towzie tyke

A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large

Translation: A shaggy dog


It was her best, and she was vauntie

Translation: Proud

MirkOr catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk

Translation: Darkness

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Tam o Shanter was named as Scots’ favourite Burns poem in a 2012 poll.

Thanks to Dr Rhona Alcorn, CEO of Scottish Language Dictionaries, for the translations.

An online Dictionary of the Scots Language can be viewed here.

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