THE 15th century cobblestone bridge crossing the River Doon at Alloway, looks idyllic and picturesque by day and on most tourist photographs, or even on our crisp Â£ 5 notes, but, of course, it has another life. darker and more dramatic in the imaginations of Scots and those around the world who enjoyed our bard’s Tam O’Shanter story.
He is an icon of supernatural and local superstition. A seductive reminder of the strange and the strange.
In the darkness of our mind, witches rush there. A gray mare delivers, its tail flying in the wind and rain. Nah, jump to grab it. This is the place, famous, to which the drunken Tam fled on his mare, Maggie, pursued by this “infernal horde”, knowing that “a running stream they dare to cross”.
For Robert Burns, the great narrative poem was not purely invented. It was based on a local tradition and history, recorded in a letter to his friend, the art critic and antiquarian, Captain Francis Grose. There were notes from Burns in this epistle, three stories of witches associated with Alloway Kirk. Among these “authentic” tales was that of a farmer in Carrick who saw a witch dance in the haunted Kirk and had to flee for his life with witches and wizards at his horse’s tail.
“I need not mention,” Burns writes, “the universally known fact, that no evil power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream. Lucky for the poor farmer that the River Doon was. so close, because despite the speed of his horse, which was good, he instead reached the middle of the arch of the bridge and consequently the middle of the stream, pursuing him, vengeful witches were so close to his heels, that the one of them rushed forward to grab him.
By day, Brig o ‘Doon, is almost too neat and picturesque – just above the Brig, an ornamental garden, with nine pillars representing the muses – the setting so neat in its topiary, it feels like he must be hiding something, even now, a little darker. What, of course, so many places do, when the sun goes down over the horizon and we turn to a drink or find our minds a little thirsty.
Robert Burns: The Life and Loves of the Scottish Bard
The Brig and its horror story seem to symbolize the fine line alcohol takes us between glory and disaster. As Burns wrote in the last lines of Tam O’Shanter: “No, what is this story of truth to read / Man and mother’s son take heed / When you drink you are prone, / Or cutty-sarks run into your attention, / Think!