Boys' Caps: The Tam O'Shanter


Figure 1.--This painting, "The Garden Bench" by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, looks to be set in the 1890s. The boy wears a Tam O'Shanter with curls. Tissot was a French artist who painted in England during the late 19th Century.

HBC has realtively little information about the Tam O'Shanter. I am not sure, for example, even with basic information about it such as why the Tam O'Shanter was named after Burns' hero. We do not know if tge cap already existed amd was renamed the Tam O-Shanter or if it was a new style. There are many different sizes of Tam O-Shanter or tams and stlistic variations such as the inclusion of a pom on the top. We have noted tams in a variety of colors, including blue, brown, and red. This color information, however, comes from colorized photographs, lithographs, and paintings. We are not sure just what colors the tams worn by actual boys were. HBC at this time has only limited information on the extent to which the tam was worn in various countries. The Tam O'Shanter is commonly associated with Scottish dress.

The Poem

The Tam O'Shanter cap is named after Tam O'Shanter, one of the best known poems of Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was based on the popular belief that no evil spirits can pass the middle of a running stream. The hero is pursued by witches for disturbing their dance at Alloway Kirk (Scottish for church), and suceeds in crossing the River Doon in saftey. The bridge of course is the bridge in the musucaal Brigadoon.

Composed for Francis Grose to accompany an engraving of Alloway Kirk, and published in the second volume of Antiquities of Scotland in April 1791. It was written in fulfilment of a promise to Grose in 1789 but not carried out before the winter of 1790. In November that year Burns sent the first fragment to Mrs Dunlop. Grose received the complete poem at the beginning of December. Like `Halloween' it draws heavily on the lore of witchcraft which Burns imbibed from Betty Davidson. The story is loosely based on Douglas Graham of Shanter (1739-1811), whose wife Helen was a superstitious shrew. He was prone to drunkenness on market-day and on one such occasion the wags of Ayr clipped his horse's tail--a fact he explained away by this story of witches which mollified his credulous wife.

The poet constituted Douglas Graham, the farmer of Shanter, hero of the legend, and as he really was the jovial careless being he is represented to be in the poem, several ludicrous incidents current about him were introduced into it. The poem was composed in the winter of 1790, and was begun and ended in one day. Mrs Burns told Cromek that she saw him by the riverside laughing and gesticulating as the humorous incidents assumed shape within his mind. But the evidence suggests careful reworking of the poem: Burns thought the poem had `a finishing polish that I despair of ever excelling.'

Burns named it as his `own favourite' of his own works and said `I look on "Tam o' Shanter" to be my standard performance in the Poetical line,' an opinion endorsed by generations of critics beginning with A.F.Tytler who wrote to Burns, on 12 March 1791, `when you describe the infernal orgies of the witches' sabbath and the hellish scenery in which they are exhibited, you display a power of imagination that Shakespeare himself could not have exceeded.' Sir Walter Scott (in the first issue of the Quarterly Review, February 1809) also compared the Burns of `Tam o' Shanter' with Shakespeare: `No poet, with the exception of Shakespeare, ever possessed the power of exciting the most varied and discordant emotions with such rapid transitions.'


Figure 2.--The Tam O'Shanter was a popular cap for boys wearing kilt suits. Notice how this boy's mother has carefully layed out the skirt of the kilt for the photograph. Also note the sash in the made of the same material as the kilt.

Burns confided to Mrs Dunlop, in 1789, that he wanted `to write an epic poem of my own composition.' He never achieved that ambition but did write a masterly mock-epic in `Tam o' Shanter'. On one level, the poem is a comical Odyssey (Burns had read Pope's translations of Homer) following the homewards journey of a farmer to Kirkoswald, in the Carrick area of Ayrshire, from the county town of Ayr. Traditionally the protagonists of the poem are supposedly modelled on characters Burns met when sent to school in Kirkoswald in the summer of 1775: Tam on Douglas Graham of Shanter farm; Kate on Graham's nagging wife Helen; Souter Johnnie on John Davidson, a shoemaker who lived near Shanter farm; Kirkton Jean on Jean Kennedy who, with her sister Anne, kept an ale-house in Kirkoswald; Cutty-sark on Katie Steven, a local fortune-teller.

Above all, though, `Tam O' Shanter' is an imaginative work and it is clear that Burns found the octosyllabic couplet the perfect form for a narrative that moves easily from the natural to the supernatural, from the earthly to the other-worldly, thus giving Tam's odyssey a timeless dimension.

`Tam o' Shanter' first appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine (March 1791) and the Edinburgh Herald (18 March 1791) then as a footnote (pp 199-201) to the account of Kirk Alloway in the second volume of Grose's `The Antiquities of Scotland (April 1791). In these first printings, four lines completed the section ending `Which even to name wad be unlawfu".

The question arrises as to whether the Tam O'Shanter of the poem was based on a real person? One HBC contributor suggests that he was a contemporary of Burns. I recall that in a letter to his editor, describing his ideas for Tam o'Shanter, Burns cited several local legends concerning haunted Kirk Alloway, a farmer who had been chased by witches, a boy who had observed a dance of witches, and the character of Nannie--as the basis for the events of his great narrative poem. I don't recall a reference to the Tam character, per se, but he may well have been based on a friend or aquaintance.

Chronology

I'm not sure when the caps first appeared and where. I have first noticed the caps in mid-19th century paintings of boys wearing kilts. Subsequently theu were worn by boys in many other outfits such as Little Lord Fauntleroy suits during the 1880s. They subsequently declined as boys' wear in America. HBC knows less about Scotland. The tam has nerver entirely disappeared. Fashion magazines occasionally show smartly dressed younger boys in Tam O'Shanters.

Styles

I have been able to find virtually no information about Tam O'Shanters. The best I can determine, a Tam O'Shanter or Tam is basically a beret with a pom of various sizes and colors on top. Some have ribbon streamers. There are different styles of Tam O'Shanters. The primary destinguishing features of these styles is the size and degree of floppyness. HBC has noted drawings of boys wearing very large, floppy tams. We do not know, however, if such rams were actually worn by boys and to what extent. The floppy styles were worn by Irish soldiers in the British Army during and after World War I. I am not sure if the styles worn by boys were also floppy during this period.


Figure 3.--This boy in a image dated probably in the 1890s wears a Tam O'Shanter with its characteristic pom, in this case the same color as the tam. He looks to be wearing a smock or tunic with it. HBC is not sure about the nationality of this image, but it looks French.

Colors

We have noted tams in a variety of colors, including blue, brown, and red. This color information, however, comes from colorized photographs, lithographs, and paintings. We are not sure just what colors the tams worn by actual boys were.

Terminology

HBC has noted different terms for the Tam O'Shanter. Often just "tam" is used. French fashion magazines in the late 19th century just referred to it as a "beret". The "Balmoral" cap worn by Scottish and Irish troops in World War I is essentially a Tam O'Shanter. We are not sure what the foreign language terms for tams are.

Use

They are, however, often worn by men and boys wearing kilts for formal occasions. The Tam O'Shanter was commonly worn by British boys and girls. It also was worn by Irish regiments in the British Army in both World War I and II. They may also be worn by small boys during the fall and winter for dressy occasions. We note some children wearing tams to school. Avaialble images suggest that in the 1880s that the tam was widely worn by children throughout Britain. We have noted for example a charming school scene in Cornwall, as far as you can get in Britain from Scotland--"School Is Out", painted by Elizabeth Armstrong in 1889. It shows children, both boys and girls, wearing knitted tams as everyday wear to school.

Features

One noticeable optional feature is the short black streamer worn at the back. The military tams have these streamers. Some tams also have poms. These may have been most prevalent in France.

Countries

HBC at this time has only limited information on the extent to which the tam was worn in various countries. The Tam O'Shanter is commonly associated with Scottish dress. When worn as part of Scottish outfits, the headband might have have tartan designs. Tams seem in any may ways similar to a Balmoral cap. I'm not sure at this time just what the differences are between a Tam O'Shanter and Balmoral. We have noted French boys wearing tams. It was also worn in England and America in the late 19th century, but was not much seen after World War I (1914-18). We have noted drawings of English boys wearing quite large tams, but we are not sure to what extent these oversized tams were actually worn. We are not sure to what extent tams were worn in other countries.

Clothing

Tams were worn with a wide variety of different outfits. This varied somewhat by country. The tam might be a different color and material than the suit or other outfit. We notice some tams that matched the outfits. Some suits for younger boys actually had matching tams. A good example is an unidentified American boy about 1870. We note an English boy, Harry Shaw, wearing a tam with a sailor suit about 1890.








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Created: March 14, 1999
Last updated: 4:06 AM 2/8/2009