By Marilyn McPhie
Robert Burns, an icon of Scottish literature, who is celebrated annually on his late-January birthday, wrote a long narrative poem telling the old Scottish legend of Tam O’Shanter. Here’s how the story goes:
It was a dark and stormy night in a cozy neighborhood pub. There at the bar sat Tam O’Shanter, a local farmer relaxing after a long day of hard work. As the hour grew late, Tam stood up and headed for the door. He knew all too well, that his wife would be waiting for him at home. And he knew all too well that she would not be happy.
His favorite horse, Meg, was waiting for him, too. Tam mounted unsteadily, glad that Meg knew the way home. It was almost midnight as they started across the moor. It was dark, and rain fell all around as Tam rode near Alloway past the ruins of an ancient church. Tam had ridden past this church many times, but this night something was different.
Even through the rain, Tam heard music. And light was streaming from the church windows. Now Tam had never believed in the supernatural. Ghosts? Witches? Demons? Tam thought them the vague imaginings of unsteady folks. Oh, he had heard the tales that the church was haunted, and now curious, he rode closer to the church to see what could be seen.
And what did he see? To begin with, there was a fire blazing away, right there in the middle of the church. And around that fire creatures were dancing. Witches. Warlocks. A piper! But what a piper? It was a large shaggy black dog, and clearly it was the devil himself, in the middle of a circle of grotesques, writhing and leaping. As Tam looked on in amazement, his eyes fastened on one dancer who was not like the others. It was a woman, a young woman and a great beauty. And such dancing! Tam had never seen the like. She twirled and jumped with skill and charm. Her short skirt, known as a “cutty sark,” made her dancing even more enchanting.
Tam was so taken by the sight, that he lost track of where he was and his need to remain out of sight. Finally his enthusiasm got the better of him and he called out, “Well done, ‘Cutty Sark.’”
That did it! At that very moment, the fire was extinguished. Clearly, the celebration was over. The creatures turned around, searching for the one responsible. Tam, in fear and horror, spurred Meg and galloped away as fast as he could. He knew two things: That he was racing for his life. And that witches and demons could not cross running water. So he headed for the bridge that crossed the river Doon.
Meg surely felt the fear, as she galloped at full speed towards the river, with the demons in close pursuit, the young girl in her cutty sark, in front of the pack. Tom and Meg were fast, but the young woman was even faster. The gap between them was closing, with the young witch reaching out to grasp Tam. They were almost to the bridge when the girl made a last burst, and reaching out, her fingers closed on Meg’s tail. Terrified, Meg made a final leap and crossed the bridge, with Tam clinging desperately to her back.
Tam was safe! He paused for a good while so he could calm his wildly beating heart and give the faithful, and now tail-less Meg a chance to rest, too.
Tam’s wife was waiting, as he had expected. Her initial anger was soon replaced with relief, as Tam told his story.
By the next day, Tam’s tale was all over the village, and over time the story grew. It served as a cautionary tale to the youths of the village, who were — for a time at least — careful to make their way home long before midnight. And they always gave the old ruined church a wide berth, for there was always the fear of the young woman in the cutty sark, now known as Nannie Dee, was lying in wait for them.
And as for the faithful Meg, her tail never grew back. Years later, a man named John Willis had a beautiful clipper ship built. It was designed to be fast and nimble, and it was christened the Cutty Sark. The figurehead was a young woman in a short dress — a woman clutching the tail of a grey mare.