From ‘The Thoughtbooks of Kathy McVittie’, 22 September 2019:
… woke up today thinking about various, one of them being the phrase in line 12 of ‘Tam O’Shanter’ by Robert Burns, which the Beloved quotes – with relish – as:
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm
and which relates to the wifey left at home while Tam (Tom in the local Scottish dialect) is out at the pub drinking.
Now, whenever Beloved has quoted from the poem – a ballad filled with Tam’s lurching ride homewards on his grey mare Meg, past the graveyard where the witches are performing their exciting yet terrifying rituals, at first unaware of their witness; across the stream over which Tam spurs his horse, to escape the deadly grasp of the witches … homewards, homewards – I have always (up to now) felt a weight of censure on behalf of that resentful, killjoy wife; have identified with her. Guilty as stated, m’lord.
Yet maybe also I have always wanted, secretly, to identify with the prodigality of Tam; with his blurry desires; with his curiosity and terror both; with his debauched delight in Nannie the youngest witch, whom he nominates “Cutty Sark” (short petticoat) – a little bit of what you fancy doesn’t do you any harm. The thrill of the chase.
If in this case the chase involves Tam, on his mount Meg, and the witches following oh! so close behind, and Meg’s tail being the unwilling casualty…
Then yes, even in my forty-year stance as “wife at home” I have in some deep place carried a folk memory of the conviviality of an evening at the lit tavern, the lurch of the inebriated stagger towards the stable; the shadows opening under the night sky. The awful fascination for the performance of the witches as they dance with – ah, now I remember it – the Devil himself. For yes, it is Old Nick who plays the bagpipes, the theme music for the desecration of the Kirk.
Tempting fate, loitering as a bystander – wanting to be drawn in to the scene of mirth and the dances “new from France” that the witches and warlocks are enjoying – Tam is at first transfixed by the goings-on in the church, defying the foulness of the hags and the accoutrements of their vile deeds. He knows that there will likely be an appearance of the newest, youngest witch, the feisty Nannie, whose dancing in her very short petticoat (which had been bought by her grandma for “two Scots pounds”) will not disappoint.
Indeed, Nannie’s performance is so enticing that even Satan’s bagpipe music takes off with new inspiration and exhalation, and Tam himself can not resist shouting out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” – which is his vocal undoing. All goes dark. “Peeping Tom” has been discovered, and all the powers of hell stream after him like angry bees as he tries to make his getaway.
To the river! To the bridge, which crosses the running water over witches are reputed not to be able to cross! Last chance of escape, or else Tam’s wife Kate will become a widow tonight. Oh no, they’re catching up with the fugitive, with Nannie the front runner. As Tam passes the keystone of the bridge, Nannie grabs Meg’s tail and pulls hard, just as Tam accelerates his mount one last time…
History does not relate the humiliating homecoming; nor whether Meg’s tail grows back; how long she has to endure the pain of depilation, decaudation; nor how acutely she feels the torment of the flies that she cannot flick away of a summertime evening.
Nor does the Beloved’s re-telling of the poem, with a gleeful twinkle from his Dumfriesshire childhood, relate the internal bubblings, seethings, lacerations, and self-harm of a woman who fights not just against her stay-at-home situation but also with her feisty alter persona, as she struggles with the complexity of resentment, envy and longing, waiting in her kitchen, with the potions and the pans, the rolling pin, and the pin-cushion, Stoking the Fires.
And who am I, pray? With which character do I now relate? Wife, drunkard, innkeeper, horse, voyeur, witch, hag? And where is my partner cast in this play?