"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!