For me, as I suspect for many others, Brigadoon was a romantic musical starring Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Van Johnson. I also had some vague notion of a place or a story called Tam O’Shanter.
Much to my surprise the underlying story has now been revealed. I suppose my ignorance was a product of both migration and my disinclination to read poetry, in particular.
Last week, while at a dinner party in Ayrshire, Scotland, a friend handed me a ballad by the Scots poet Robert Burns. All was suddenly revealed. Tam O’Shanter is a mythic character from the epic ballad off the same name.
Last night I attended a wedding by the Brig O’ Doon. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to find the Scottish village that, in the Hollywood version, appears on the other side of the bridge over the River Doon, once every 100 years. Twice I tried to find the village, but the path on the other side of the bridge quickly narrowed into an unkempt garden of nettles rising up a bank to a strange stone house flying the Stars and Stripes. Hollywood had been here before me and perhaps was still shaping my sense of the place.
Burns’ poem is an absorbing tale of a seasoned drinker, Tam O’Shanter, who late one market day night, leaves a bar in nearby Ayr making for home on his horse Maggie. Near the banks of the Doon he comes upon the grounds of the old Alloway church, ablaze with light. A strange ritual of witches and warlocks, hosted by Old Nick himself, rages in the haunted grounds of the old church.
Filled with whiskey’s false courage Tam rides on provoking the wrath of these sinister creatures. In a desperate dash for the bridge over the Doon, spanning running water that such creatures cannot cross, he escapes but for the loss of Maggie’s tale, grasped at the last by a witch.
If I’m left with any lasting impression of these parts it’s the richness of Burns’ poetry, his incisive observations of human foibles and habits and the warmth of the people of Ayr and the Carricks. The wedding was an outstanding success that went on long after the witching hours without a ripple of disruption. In the morning, long after the band had gone, the Doon’s steady flow still provided background music.