Billy Kay: A masterpiece that strikes fear and excitement, an incomparable epic tale all Scots can be proud of

I WAS born in 1951 and belong to a generation of Ayrshire-educated weans who were given a prize by the Burns Federation one day a year for reciting Rabbie’s poetry – and given the belt the other 364 days for speaking his guid Scots tongue.

The Scottish Antisyzygy in a nutshell – no wonder it was Caledonians who also produced Jekyll and Hyde and The Divided Self.

However, I will be forever grateful for that one day a year, because over the years we were given passages of Tam o’ Shanter to learn, and eventually it dawned on me that I had just about learned the whole anarchic, steirin, masterpiece.

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What I had absorbed was arguably the greatest performance poem in the world, which thrills its listeners into rapt submission whenever it is recited well.

When we hear it, we regress to being bairns again who want to be told a story that strikes fear and excitement in equal measure.

Since learning it lang syne, I have recited it in diverse settings from a fisherman’s hut in Penang, to the Library of Congress in Washington, but it always creates a frisson of recognition – recognition that we have participated in one of the great storytelling tours de force in world literature.

The only thing I know that comes near it in rhythm, and eldritch atmosphere is Goethe’s Erlkönig – the Earlking – but that is much shorter and lacks the leavening of laughter that enhances Tam’s tale.

I have other cherished poems and songs from the bard. One of his most tender and poignant is The Poet’s Welcome to his Illegitimate Child, which has the beautiful ending:

Guid grant that thou may aye inherit

Thy mither’s person, grace and merit

And thy puir worthless daddy’s spirit

Without his failins

‘Twill please me mair to see and hear it

Than stockit mailins’

When my mother died, my sisters and I chose a line from My Love is Like a Red, Red, Rose for her headstone, which conveyed exactly the loss we felt and the love that would endure “till aw the seas gang dry”.

My pride swells when I hear A Man’s a Man for a’ That and thrill to the image of its German version, Trotz alledem, being quoted by the socialist leader Karl Liebknecht before his execution.

Scots Wha Hae is a great expressions of national freedom in the face of overwhelming force. I could talk about Burns’s work till the kye comes hame, but when I stand up at the Publishing Scotland Burns Supper in Edinburgh, I’ll end with the incomparable epic tale of Tam o’ Shanter.

Billy Kay is a writer and broadcaster.