The nights are getting longer, the days getting darker and as all the bright faerie-folk of the Summer scurry away to their slumber, so do all the malevolent characters of folklore begin their infernal dance upon the earth.
According to folklore, it is the time when Dwarves tunnel up out of the earth, wrinkled gnomes camouflage amongst the crinkled barks of trees, Will O’ The Wisps and evil spirits roam the moors in search of witless victims, and at the stroke of midnight, witches joyride around the ASDA carparks on their broomsticks.
Whether or not you believe in any of these fantastical and fictional entities, Autumn is certainly a magical season. The world turns orange! It suddenly becomes so much colder and there are shadows everywhere. I can well understand why, in days gone by, all sorts of spooky tales started to appear around autumn’s quarter of the year. It seemed to become a tradition to think up terrifying things to scare each other witless at this time of year (a trend that must have been somewhat exacerbated when gothic fiction came into fashion) and still lives on to this day thanks to Halloween.
One more recent example of such a tale is Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns. I distinctly remember studying Tam O’Shanter when I was in primary School in Scotland. It was in preparation for Halloween and something about it really stuck with me.
This poem is already directly responsible for inspiring one particular verse in Sing For The Island, and once again I’m using the dark and enchanting atmosphere, which I feel truly captures autumn, to inspire the mood for this seasons’ song entries.
The poem (if you haven’t read it) is essentially the story of a drunkard who gets lost and ends up witnessing a gathering of some of the worst demons in hell. And where have all the hoards of hell chosen to have their fun? A church; the one place on Earth where we’d hope to be safe from such evils. To people in the 18th Century this very notion must have been genuinely terrifying. However, I think that it very accurately sums up the mood of a place that is going through the changes of autumn: it’s getting colder, it’s getting darker, and there’s no stopping it.
Tam O’Shanter seems to reach into the darkest corners of our imaginations and pull out everything that is ghastly and horrifying, yet we still read on. And enjoy it.
Below is an extract from Tam O’Shanter which really gets down to the nitty gritty. Basically, it’s a load of grisly demons having a whale of a time dancing along to some folk tunes. So, for my collection of autumnal folk songs and tunes, I’ve tried to tap into that cold and blustery night and play the folk songs to which Tam O’Shanter’s devils dance.
Warlocks and witches in a dance: No cotillion, brand new from France, But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, Put life and mettle in their heels. In a window alcove in the east, There sat Old Nick, in shape of beast; A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large, To give them music was his charge: He screwed the pipes and made them squeal, Till roof and rafters all did ring. Coffins stood round, like open presses, That showed the dead in their last dresses; And, by some devilish magic sleight, Each in its cold hand held a light: By which heroic Tom was able To note upon the holy table, A murderer’s bones, in gibbet-irons; Two span-long, small, unchristened babies; A thief just cut from his hanging rope – With his last gasp his mouth did gape; Five tomahawks with blood red-rusted; Five scimitars with murder crusted; A garter with which a baby had strangled; A knife a father’s throat had mangled – Whom his own son of life bereft – The grey-hairs yet stack to the shaft; With more o’ horrible and awful, Which even to name would be unlawful. Three Lawyers’ tongues, turned inside out, Sown with lies like a beggar’s cloth – Three Priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck Lay stinking, vile, in every nook.