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".

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.

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    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


    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


    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


    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

    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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