The sulky sullen dame bites back

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
The Immortal Memory is almost upon us. The annual ritual renditions of one of the greatest narrative poems of all time are currently being polished for appreciative audiences the length and breadth of Scotland. We all have unexpected extensions to our personal learning curves thrust upon us. For me this New Year means a first-ever invitation to speak at such a Burns Night. The task: respond to the Toast to the Lassies. The instructions: keep it amusing and inside five minutes. The evening will lead with a highly professional performance of Tam o' Shanter.

This has set me wondering as to the sequel to Tam's scary ride home past old Alloway Kirk. I mused upon the Bard's familiar description of Tam's long-suffering wife: "We think na on the lang Scots miles, the mosses, waters, slaps and styles, that lie between us and our hame, whare sits our sulky sullen dame, gathering her brow like gathering storm, nursing her wrath to keep it warm."

I began to wonder if the spin doctors have been absolutely fair to Kate. It is possible that Burns's genius makes us his accomplices in Tam's treatment of his long-suffering wife. Timeously I came across the poetic sequel to the story of Tam's laddish behaviour: Kate o' Shanter (ghost-written of course, but there is little doubt that Burns, high-profile lover of spirited women, would have approved).

With appropriate literary acknowledgement to an unknown Australian, her story has now come to light, and we realise that there's no keeping a good woman down. Justice should be done. Space here permits an appetiser.

"And where, do you suppose was Kate When market days were wearing late While Tam frequented wretched dives And fooled around with landlords' wives And rode poor Meg through mud and ditches And had an eye for handsome witches Played Peeping Tom at Alloway And yelled and gave himself away And fled from there, amid the din And Maggie barely saved his skin?" The answer is not where you think. Kate was a hard worker and a good mother. There was the farm to run and the twins to support. She baked and cleaned, washed and mended, fed hens, milked cows, collected eggs, made cheese and butter: "for Tam to sell on market day And drink the proceeds half away."

She reaped the oats and corn too, to say nothing of making hay with ploughboy Jim: "A neighbour lad they hired by day To do Tam's work, while Tam's away. "

When Tam finally regains consciousness, if not sobriety, after that nightmare ride, he finds himself where he had fallen many hours previously, beneath his patient and tail-less mare, Meg. He staggers from but to ben - and finds the unexpected.

"For Kate had left a note for him: I've sailed for Montreal with Jim And we expect to settle, soon, Out on a farm near Saskatoon.

Forgive me Tam, and don't be sore - I couldn't take it any make.

I had to find a better day Before I'd slaved my youth away.

I had to try to save myself - You'll find the oatmeal on the shelf - Don't fash yourself about the twins: I might as well confess - they're Jim's. "

And what of long-suffering Meg? In memory of Tam's noble beast, this whole poem will be sent to any reader who sends (to 11 Ann Street, EH4 1PL) an SAE together with donation (cheque) made out to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Burns suppers will never be the same again.

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