Tam O’Shanter: Telling the Big Tale

Just in time for Burn’s Night, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop run by Donald Smith, exploring the dramatic mastery of the Bard’s seminal work: Tam o’Shanter. Those attending had a myriad of interests in Burns; some had experience performing the poem to an audience, whilst others like myself were wary of finding the sometimes-tricky Scots text difficult to vocalise. The 2-hour course covered the contextual history of the poem, examined the story of the enigmatic tale and, of course, gave ample occasion to pick the brains of Smith, who has had a life-long curiosity for Tam o’Shanter and the elusive perfect delivery.

This seminar was a wonderful introduction to (or elaboration of) an iconic story, seeped in the rich Scottish landscape that inspired Burns to write in such an arresting way. Tam o’Shanter is a unique piece, quite unlike his other poetry. It has a complex narrative which drives the pace onward, making it an ideal work for performance. The story of Tam the drunk and his poor horse Meg is filled with delicious imagery such as the haunted kirkyard, in which Satan plays the bagpipes to which all manner of beasts, witches and demons dance. Indeed, the piece comes into its own when set loose amongst those who have a passion for storytelling.

The small, intimate group size and varied age ranges meant there was a comfortable and engaged atmosphere. Smith ensured everyone had the chance to give their interpretation of how to vocalise the poem in small sections, as well as giving opportunities to those who wished to raise questions or thoughts.

I did at times feel the workshop was perhaps trying to cover too much in just the one session, by being focused on both performance and interpretation. It would have also been nice to continue the Q&A into a group discussion with a more open-format to allow further back-and-forth. Regardless, the event made for an enjoyable and educational afternoon. The experience was further enriched by being amongst individuals of an older generation who have a professional or keen social interest in Burns and their stories of how performing his poetry had enriched their lives.

It is a shame that more students do not take up the wealth of opportunities presented by the Scottish Storytelling Centre. It is an invaluable asset, especially to those with an active interest in literature and performance. The centre contributes many of the events that enrich the cultural calendar of the City of Edinburgh.

I left with a fully whetted appetite for 25 January, when I will celebrate the Bard’s legacy dram in hand. I used to wonder why we celebrated Burns at night, but now I sense it is because all the best stories are told in the dark.

Tam O’Shanter: Telling the Big Tale took place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Saturday 20th January.

To browse upcoming events at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, please see their website. 

Image: Rebecca Heap.

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