Wad ever grac’d a dance of witches! – The Art of Tam O’Shanter


These words open one of Robert Burns’ most famous works, the poem Tam O'Shanter. Now an iconic piece of Scottish literature, the story of one man’s brush with the world of the supernatural has inspired countless artists since its publication. Here in the Scottish National Gallery, we have a number of works by 19th century Scottish artists.

Based on a number of folk tales, it was written for a friend of Burns, Captain Francis Grose. It was to be included in his book, the Antiquities of Scotland, to complement an illustration of Alloway Kirk, a ruined church close to where Burns lived. Grose had agreed to include the illustration in the book, on the condition that Burns provide a story to go alongside the illustration. 

John Kay, Captain Francis Grose

The story begins at the end of the weekly market in Ayr, where our hero Tam is having a few with his pal Souter Johnnie. The times are good, but alas he must begin to ride for his home and his (presumably angry) wife Kate. It is on the ride home however, that the story really begins. As he passes Alloway Kirk, he sees lights glimmering through the trees and goes to investigate. What he finds within, is an 'unco sight'.

John Faed, Illustration to 'Tam O'Shanter' by Robert Burns. Study for an Engraving

He has stumbled across a Witches Sabbath; where they are dancing through the Halloween night. The music is led by the devil, who is playing the bagpipes and the dead have been brought out their coffins to hold the torches to light their gathering.

As Tam peers into the kirk, he gets caught up in the action and makes a dangerous mistake, shouting out 'weel-done cutty sark!' and giving himself away to the gathering.

By Terence Gould