54 paintings make Burns' epic Tam O'Shanter intelligible to Sassenachs

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The Independent Online

Robert Burns' epic poem "Tam O'Shanter" is widely hailed as the Scottish bard's finest work. But one of the greatest and funniest ghost stories ever written is scarcely intelligible to non-Scots because it is written in the rich lowland Scots dialect of more than 200 years ago.

Robert Burns' epic poem "Tam O'Shanter" is widely hailed as the Scottish bard's finest work. But one of the greatest and funniest ghost stories ever written is scarcely intelligible to non-Scots because it is written in the rich lowland Scots dialect of more than 200 years ago.

Now an exhibition aims to make "Tam" more accessible, telling the story of his wild, drunken ride across the Brig O'Doon, to escape pursuing witches, in a series of paintings valued at £500,000.

The 54 paintings, by the Scottish artist Alexander Goudie, have gone on display at Burns' birthplace, Alloway, near Ayr, and will eventually go on tour throughout the world.

Each painting represents a successive stanza in the poem, which was compared by Sir Walter Scott to Shakespeare's best work and is declaimed around the world at Burns' Supper nights.

Every Scot understands full well: "She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, / A bletherin, blusterin, drunken blellum." But not many other folk realise that this, one of the easier passages of "Tam O'Shanter", translates as: "She castigated you for what you are, an inebriated waster, all talk, babble and bluster."

Goudie's paintings, commissioned for the planned but subsequently stalled National Gallery of Scottish Art and Design in Glasgow, were in danger of being sold off in separate lots before the Scottish multi-millionaires Brian Souter and Tom Hunter intervened with £500,000 pounds to keep the collection together.

Its permanent home will be at the South Ayrshire Art Gallery at Rozelle Park, Alloway. The gallery curator Elizabeth Kwasnik said she believed the paintings will attract more visitors than ever to Burns' country. "We also intend getting them out on tour. There are huge Burns' appreciation societies in every country in the world, including China, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Japan."

Some of these societies have made stabs at translating "Tam O'Shanter" into their own languages, though how they coped with "gars me greet" (makes me weep), or "till ilka carlin swat and reekit" (till every woman sweat and steamed), is far from clear. Goudie's "Tam" series will no doubt be an invaluable visual aid to future translators.

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