Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Thomas the Rhymer, Melrose

There was once a young man named Thomas, who loved nothing more than to wander the beautiful countryside surrounding his home town of Erceldoune in the Scottish Borders, thought to be modern day Earlston. His favourite spot to sit and admire the views over the mysterious Eildon Hills was a lovely old tree, said by some to be a hawthorn, and later known as the Eildon Tree. One day while taking a rest under the tree, Thomas spotted an elegant lady on a milk white horse:

"True Thomas lay on Huntlie Bank:
A ferlie he spied wi' his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o' the grass green silk,
Her mantle o' the velvet fyne;
At ilka tett of her horse's mane,
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pull'd aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee-
- "All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heav'n!
For thy peer on earth I never did see"-

- "O no, O no, Thomas," she said;
"That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee."

The Queen of Fairyland dared Thomas to kiss her, so he did, and she asked Thomas to come away with her and serve her for seven years in Fairyland. She mounted her horse with him behind, and together they travelled, her horse travelling swifter than the wind itself. She told Thomas to hold his tongue no matter what he hears or sees, or he will never return to the mortal realms. Some say this should not be taken literally, and that it refers to Thomas being told never to speak word of their love incase the Fairy King should hear. On they rode, wading through rivers, and through the roaring of the sea, and through rivers of blood. She explains that all blood shed on earth runs through the springs of this country. They finally came to a green garden, where the Faery Queen plucked an apple from a tree, telling Thomas to take it for his wages and it will grant him "the tongue that can never lie". He protests, saying his tongue is his own, but she commands it so. The story ends that:

"He has gotten a cloth of the even cloth,
and a pair of shoes of velvet green;
And, till seven years were gane and past,
True Thomas on earth was never seen."

This version of the tale is as told by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish border (1802), he says it was collected from a local lady. He continues with an extension of the story where Thomas has returned to Erceldoune seven years later. It is said that the faery folk must pay a teind to hell every seven years, and the Queen fears that this year it will be Thomas, so she returns him to the mortal world. Some versions of the tale say that he returned with the ability to only speak the truth, and others say he had magical powers of prophesy and became famous throughout Scotland. Then one day while Thomas was celebrating with friends in the tower of Erceldoune, a person came running in and told in fear and astonishment that "a hart and hind had left the neighbouring forest, and were, composedly and slowly, parading the street of the village". Thomas arose and left the tower, then followed the animals into the forest, and was never seen again. According to popular belief he currently resides in Elfland, but is one day expected to revisit our mortal realms again.

Interestingly, a man named Thomas Rymour really did live in 13th century Erceldoune. A charter from 1294 mentions "Thomas de Ercildoun, son and heir of Thomas Rymour de Ercildon". Could this be the Thomas the Rhymer of legend? A leaflet I picked up in Melrose refers to Thomas as Thomas Learmont, but according to Briggs' Dictionary of Fairies there is no documented evidence of this name.

If you would like to read more about the various versions of the story, then Jamieson's Popular ballads and songs, volume 2 (1806) is a good starting place. It mentions early manuscripts including one in the Cambridge public library said to be from the 15th century. Interestingly, these early versions do mention places local to modern day Earlston, for example the Lincoln manuscript includes this verse:

"She ledde him in at Eldone Hill,
Underneathe a derne lee,
Where it was derke als mydnight merke,
And ever the water till his knee."

The Eildon Hills are located right next to the present day Rhymer Stone which marking the spot of the Eildon Tree, and dominate the landscape with their 3 peaks that can be seen from miles around. It is said that these hills have been important throughout history, being first inhabited around 1000 BC in the Bronze age, and later inhabited by Celts, Druids, and the Romans, who built the fort of Trimontium at the foot of the hills. Some say that the hills are hollow, and that fairyland lies inside the hills themselves. Another legend tells of a horse dealer who is taken inside the hill by a mysterious gentleman, where he finds King Arthur and his knights sleeping. Some say a single mountain once stood, but it was cleeved into the present day triple peaks by a mighty wizard. Others say that the ancient tumulus Bourjo, on the lower slopes, was once a Druid oak grove where sacrifices were made. Whatever the truth, the Eildon Hills are bursting with folklore and legend, and were obviously seen as an important spiritual and mysterious place.

So, of course, I went to visit... with my trusty map reading boyfriend of course! The first place on my list was the Rhymer's stone, which is said to mark the place where the Eildon tree grew and Thomas first met the Fairy Queen. The stone is dated 1929, but the stone it is mounted on says it was re-erected in 1970, so I wonder if this was it's original location or whether it was moved so it could be accessed more easily. There is also a stone circle laid in the ground with lines from the poem.

As we wondered further along the path towards the Eildon Hills, we came to Bogle Burn. According to Scott's Minstrelsy, "A neighbouring rivulet takes the name of the Bogle Burn, (Goblin Brook) from the Rhymer's supernatural visitants".

As we walked up the lower slopes of Eildon Hill we came across a very gnarled old hawthorn tree, and I could almost imagine Thomas sat underneath enjoying the cool breeze on such a warm sunny morning. A blossoming thorn stood a little further up the hill.

It's easy to see why the Eildon hills are seen as such a magical place, the views are breathtaking (and not just because I was so out of breath!) and the carpet of golden gorse fills the air with the enchanting scent of coconuts.

I especially loved the mysterious circle of gorse on the slopes below, it seems to have grown in a perfect circle... most intriguing!

Also spotted a strange stone with a ring of circles on, though no idea what made the pattern, maybe someone else knows?

On the way down the slopes towards Melrose I spotted another beautiful hawthorn tree, decorated with a sprinkling of white blossoms. Again, no Thomas the Rhymer to be seen, but I did keep a careful eye out for the Fairy Queen and spotted a few horse shoe tracks along the pathways.

Kray Van Kirk has written a beautiful song called 'Queen of Elfland' based on the tale of Thomas the Rhymer. His magical and inspiring lyrics can be read here and this enchanting song and many more can be downloaded for free from his website here. Well worth a listen!

Sources & Further Information
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Walter Scott
Popular Ballads and Songs, Jamieson
Modern Antiquarian, Eildon Hills
Site Record for Bourjo
Thomas the Rhymer, Tam-Lin.org

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tam Lin, Carterhaugh

"O I forbid ye, maidens a',
That wear gold on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there."

In a beautiful mossy forest in the Scottish Borders, lies a little piece of folklore history, tucked away and forgotten by many but held dear by those who know the legend of Tam Lin. Most of the forest has long been cut down but part remains, together with a mossy old well hidden among the ferns, and marked with the name of 'Tamlane's Well' though it is well buried beneath the undergrowth and hidden from those who do not seek it.

The legend goes that a young man named Tam Lin or Tamlane was out hunting with this grandfather Roxbrugh when he fell from his horse and was taken away by the Queen of the Fairies herself who dwells in the green hill. She made him a knight of her elven companie and set him the task of guarding the forest of Carterheugh, where according to local townsfolk he would only let those young maidens pass who gave him a token of treasure or else their maidenhood. Despite the warnings, young Janet ventured into the forest, with her green kirtle held above her knee and her wild blonde hair braided. As she was passing the well she came across a milkwhite steed, and she took rest and picked a wild rose growing near the well, and pulled a branch from the tree. At once, Tam Lin appeared and cried:

"Why pulls thou the rose, Janet,
And why breaks thou the wand?
Or why comes thou to Carterhaugh
Withoutten my command?"

Janet is a stubborn young lady and stands her ground, telling him that Carterhaugh belongs to her, a present from her father, and that she will come and go as she pleases without asking his permission. Little is said of what happens next, and how Tam Lin charmed young Janet into giving up her maidenhood, but Janet returns to Carterhaugh and as the days pass her father discovers that she is with child. She refuses to let the blame lie with a knight of her father's company, and stubborn Janet tells her father:

"If that I gae wi child, father,
Mysel maun bear the blame,
There's neer a laird about your ha,
Shall get the bairn's name.

"If my love were an earthly knight,
As he's an elfin grey,
I wad na gie my ain true-love
for nae lord that ye hae'"

Janet returns to Carterhaugh, some say to collect herbs to cause miscarriage, and once again she finds Tam Lin's milkwhite steed stood at the well. Once again she pulls a rose, and Tam Lin appears, enquiring to know:

"Why pu's thou the rose, Janet,
Amang the groves sae green,
And a' to kill the bonny babe
That we gats us between?"

She demands that Tam Lin tell her where he comes from, and he reveals his mortal past to her, telling her that fairyland is a pleasant place but at the end of every seven years the fairy folk must pay a tiend to hell, and he fears that he has been chosen. It is the night of Halloween, when the veils between the faerie lands and mortal realm are lifted, and Tam Lin tells Janet that at the midnight hour the fairy folk will ride past Miles Cross and she may rescue her true love and win him back from the Fairy Queen. She must first let pass the black horse, and then the brown, and then quickly run to the mlkwhite steed and pull the rider to the ground, as this fairy knight shall be none other than Tam Lin. He warns her that he will be turned into all manner of beast and horror, including a newt, a snake, a bear, a lion, a red hot iron, then a burning coal or gleed when at once she must throw him in to well water, and then finally he shall turn into a naked man. At once she must cover him with her green mantle and hide him out of sight. She does exactly as told, freeing Tam Lin, much to the anger of the Fairy Queen:

"Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,
And an angry woman was she,
"Shame betide her ill-far'd face,
And an ill death may she die,
For she's taen awa the bonniest knight
In a' my companie."

"But had I kend, Tam Lin," said she,
"What now this night I see,
I wad hae taken out thy twa grey een,
And put in twa een o tree."

This final verse seems to suggest the Fairy Queen wishes that she had taken out Tam Lin's grey eyes and replaced them with wood, taking away his sight of the fairies and perhaps never allowing him to have fallen in love with Janet. Another version of the tale has the Fairy Queen wishing she had taken out his heart and replacing it instead with stone.

According to Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) it  is thought that the story of Tam Lin was first found in the 1549 book "The Complaynt of Scotland" and that perhaps it is connected to "The dance of Thom of Lyn", though it is not known for certain exactly how old this romantic ballad is. The exact lyrics of the ballad vary considerably, and many of the variations can be found in Francis Child's 'The English and Scottish Popular Ballads', where #39A is thought to perhaps be the oldest and most popular.

On a lovely not-so-sunny bank holiday weekend, myself and my partner (and his newly purchased collection of Scottish Borders ordinance survey maps) headed off for a long weekend in the Scottish Borders. My first port of call was of course Carterhaugh, the most likely location for where the tale took place, though as with most folklore stories the exact location can never be known for sure, and others have suggested that perhaps Carter Bar in the Cheviot hills may have been the location in the ballad. Carterhaugh certainly fits the descriptions though, and the magical feel of the place is undeniable. I must admit even I found it slightly eerie that the field behind Carterhaugh farm, where Carterhaugh forest once stood, contains only 3 horses... one black, one brown, and one white, exactly as in the story. Perhaps the farm owners are aware of the story and have a good sense of humour, or perhaps something magical is at work here. Below are the photographs from my visit to Carterhaugh Woods and Tam Lin's well.

According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland website, "The trough into which this well flowed, and water pipe are still in situ, but the well, which was in the bank 2.5 m N of the trough, is now filled in." which suggests that perhaps there was once a deeper well, that a person could indeed have fitted into. If you're thinking of visit Carterhaugh, please be considerate of the farm house, and do not trespass on their land. The well can be found at the side of the road and is easily accessible though buried in undergrowth, and the woodlands behind can be accessed by walking from the nearby Bowhill Country Estate (entry fee charged) or the very limited parking at the road side.

Next, I went in search of the bridge, where rumour has it Janet met Tam Lin on Halloween night and won him from the Fairy Queen. The location in the ballad is most often given as 'Miles Cross', but this location is not marked on any present day maps. Alternative versions of the ballad give the location as the 'Mill Bridge', which may refer to Carterhaugh bridge as this seems to be the nearest to the well, and is a cross roads of sort. Though, as pointed out on the Tam-lin.org website, if Janet did indeed have to drop Tam Lin in the well once he took the form of the burning coal or gleed, then this is quite a long way to run. Here are some photos of the bridge as it stands today:

Finally on the journey of Tam Lin, I went in search of Janet's home, said in the ballad to be a nearby castle. According to Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), "Newark Castle; a romantic ruin, which overhangs the Yarrow, and which, we may suppose, was the habitation of our heroine's father." The castle can be reached by walking from the Bowhill Estate, and is a magnificant ruin. I fear my photos do not do it justice.

The other possible location for Janet's father's castle is said to be Oakwood Castle, presently known as Aikwood. Though this is slightly further away, so perhaps less likely. The castle today is rented out as holiday accommodation, and is also home to other local legends including the Warlock of Aikwood.

I would like to give special thanks to the owner of the Tam-Lin.org website, as their website was a huge help in my research and a wonderful read. I would also like to thank Tricky Pixie for recording such a magical musical version of the Tam Lin tale, which can be heard and purchased on the Tricky Pixie website. It provided the perfect soundtrack on the long drive to Carterhaugh!

Sources & Further Information
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Sir Walter Scott
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis Child