A lover of supernatural stories, Burns captured these themes best in his epic Tam o’ Shanter Poem.
Is it a tale of witches you’re speering after now? Ach, awa wi you, you’ve had all ma tales. Well, mebbee not all. You’ve heard about the brounies and the bogles, and you know well enow to poke a hole in your eggshells so as the witches canny use them to sink ships. And about elf-shot cattle that sicken and dinnae thrive when a witch puts a spell on them. But I’ve ane tale left that you’ve no heard. Pull up that wee stool then and mind you dinnae stop peelin those tatties. When I wis a wee lassie, I was aye slipping off to do ma ain thing, or threepin at the auld folks to tell me a story – aye, jist like you now, altho I flatter mesel that I’m no as auld as they yins.
But this time, I’d been caught and told to clear out the auld threshing barn. It was a richt stoorie place – fu o spiders. So I wisnae best pleased and I didnae tak ower much time wi ma task. I carried out all the sticks and stalkies to the midden at the back o the yaird, and swept a bit stoor an oose oer the threshold. This still left a wheen o trashtrie frae the hoose at the far end, and I amused mesel by luikin through it. Maist o it was trashed – a luggie that had tint it’s chain, a yoke wi a muckle crack in it, twa bits o a bowl I mind ma sister brak on the hearth. But there was ane thing that caught ma een – a muckle great cauldron, fat and blackened wi fire. It had unco marks around the rim, and seemed to grow in size before ma verra een. All o a sudden the air aroun me grew derksome an I shivered in the cauld. I ran oot the barn screaming o bogles and lang leggity beasties.
They gathered roun and speired at me what the matter was but not ane o them ever minded seeing the cauldron afore. All but the auldest auld yin who nodded and minded a story she’d heard as a wee lassie, jist like I was. A loon wha minded the plough was makin his way hame frae the smiddy, an the road took him along towards the auld Kirk o Alloway. It was an eerie place then as it is now, wi hoolets an siclike craturs, an weel kent as a place o ferlies an unco doings. The nicht was mirk, the rain was plashing and spattering doon, an the wind squalling amang the trees. As he drew close to the Kirk he noted a bricht glow glimmerin roun the auld stanes. His thochts turned to witches, and the verra Deil himself, wha was said tae sit in state in the ruins.
Noo there are twa thochts as to why he did what he did next. Ane says that the Almichty above gave him courage; anither has it that he’d got unco fou at the Smiddy. For whatsoever reason, he took ae step towards the Kirk, an anither, an reached the windae afore he knew what his ain feet were daein. An eerie glow cam frae a fire made up in the middle o the ruins. The place was empty. He heard a soughing noise frae ahint him, and turned tae see derk shapes o men, and wimmin, in the field by the Kirk. Ane by ane, they each pullit up a stalk o the ragwort and cried out some word or words that he didnae catch. An ane by ane each rose into the sky wi shouts and skirls. The ploughboy was left alane.
The flames frae the fire still danced though, sae he loupit up through the windae an drapt doon intae the empty Kirk. Atop the fire he saw a muckle cauldron, black as pitch. The contents seethed and jouked – heids o bairns no yet blessed by a meenister, lang banes o those hangit on a gibbet, an ither foulsome things. He seized the side of the cauldron an rocked it back an forth on its chain, makin the foul liquid spill oer the lip. He poured oot the contents onto the hearth an unhooked the jinkin chain. Empty noo, the cauldron didnae seem sae heavy, sae he raised it oer his head and tuik it hame, where it stayed in his faimly doon through the years tae this day.
The ithers aw laughed an clappit the grandame for the tale, an slipped back awa tae field and fireside. Ma fricht almaist forgotten in the sun, I spiered at grannie to go wi me tae the barn, an see the muckle cauldron for herself. She hirpled oer the yaird an in at the barn. The corner was still derk an fu o shadows. A wee mousie rin oot oer the stanes but she paid it no mind. The cauldron sat there, lowring at us.
“Thon’s but a gey guid parritch kettle,” grannie said, an seized it by the handle to swing in the crook of her arm. She scoured it and rinsed it, and set it on the hearth and cooked her sowans in it on the morn. An afore ye ask, she didna dee til some years after that, an ne’er took ill afore her last. Sae mayhap it was but a tale. An what happened tae the cauldron ye ask? Whit did ye think ye were peeling tatties intae?
Speering – asking
Elf-shot – flint arrowhead thought to be made by fairies
Threepin – insisting or persisting
Stoorie – dusty
Midden – rubbish pit
Oose – fluff
Wheen – indefinite quantity
Trashtrie – worthless rubbish
Luggie – bucket/pail with ‘lugs’ or ears rising up from the staves
Tint – lost
Muckle – big
Unco – strange
Loon – rascal
Hoolets – owls
Ferlies – unusual sight
Fricht – fright
Mirk – dark, gloomy
Fou – drunk
Soughing – noise as of wind through trees
Skirl – shrill, piercing sound, shriek
Loupit – hopped
Jouked – bobbed
Jinkin – making a chinking noise
Clappit – pat affectionly
Grandame – grandmother or great grandmother
Hirple – to walk slowly, to hobble
Lowring – scowling
Parritch – porridge
Sowans – a dish made by soaking oats in water
Written by: Rebecca McCallum Stapley
Illustrations by: Hali Campbell
Audio by: Rebecca McCallum Stapley
Audio recording and mixing by: Scott Andrew