So this is it. The kirk where a passing Tam o’Shanter had paused to watch the witches’ ceilidh. I immediately feel that I am being manipulated in some way with the twisted tree which is fixed as arrestingly as forked lightning over this ruined building. It seems to have been extracted whole from a horror scene in a Disney cartoon. The tree might have been here when Tam passed the kirkyard, but, if so, it would have been not much taller than the nettles.
Roofless, the kirk is now a bare stone crib, with space enough between its headboard and footboard for a giantess to put her baby to bed. The kirkyard is as still and peaceful as a nursery at naptime. It is a small plot of land and a self-contained tank of preserved historical atmosphere. You are supposed to leave the last two centuries at the gate. Tam would have come galloping up the road outside, he brave with the usquabae and his horse scaredy-sober. The goodwives would have danced inside one of those rooms, with the black dog playing the bagpipes. Their treasures, the dead babies and the inside-out lawyers’ tongues, would have been laid out over on the altar…
I have to shake my head. Tam and the witches were never real, and yet I have unexpectedly tumbled straight into their world. Their church looks improbably vivid. I was half-aware that the auld Kirk Alloway was a real place but I was unprepared by how it seems to transport you, like a portal, into the climax of Robert Burns’ best narrative poem.
Incidentally, the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne was troubled by the same sense of incongruity when he visited the kirk in 1857 (and later wrote about it in Our Old Home, 1863). He complained that “poetry and fun have clambered and clustered so wildly over Kirk Alloway that it is difficult to see it as it actually exists.” Hawthorne was unhappy about the graves, calling those buried in the kirkyard “squatters” because “it is impossible not to feel that these good people, whoever they may be, had no business to thrust their prosaic bones into a spot that belongs to the world.”
When I was a schoolboy, I would visit the churchyard in my home village, with one of my little pals, to raid it for conkers. The army of the dead were camped beneath huge, floating horse-chestnut trees and, tiptoeing over the graves, we would throw sticks up into the branches to dislodge the conker husks. The churchyard was a place of both gravity and freedom; for all of its spooky solemnity, it was ours to loot. Hawthorne, writing in “Sunday At Home” (1837), implicitly compares the town church, which is exiled from the adult world on weekdays, with the figure of the lonely author. The steeple “speaks a moral to the few that think, it reminds thousands of busy individuals of their separate and most secret affairs.” Yet Hawthorne proposes that the church should be banished to the “outskirts of the town, with space for old trees to wave around it, and throw their solemn shadows over a quiet green.”
Kirk Alloway was already exiled from the world when Burns was a child. Alloway had been going to church in Ayr since 1690 and the kirk had stood in ruins since the 1740s. Usually, kirks fall derelict because they are too big for their dwindling congregations to maintain, but this one must have been too much of a squeeze.
Cattle roamed the kirkyard and it was no doubt a place where children could retreat to play unsupervised and lovers could tryst in privacy. The witches’ dance in all probability caricatures the sort of antics which were already going on in and around the property. But, aside from the kirk, Burns’ tame witches are holding a barn dance. His witches are familiar rather than frightening; their murder weapons and dead babies are hardly unnerving when they festoon the dance hall like party decorations. Indeed, Burns required a priest’s heart on the table to put a clear space between these partygoers and the human revellers whom Tam has left behind in the pub.
It is as unthinkable that the witches could have laid a finger on Tam as it is that they could have existed in the first place. The final pun, about ne’er do wells remembering Tam’s “mare,” confirms Kirk Alloway as a monument to Enlightenment. Whether a mare whose tail has been cut off by a mischievous Souter Johnny or a drunken “nightmare,” it is all too easy to explain away the witches and spoil the fun. Enlightenment may be right and proper, but, to repay Burns in his own punning currency, its application would prove as bad as witchcraft in cutting the tale off.