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


Anonymous said...

What a beautifully-written post!

It's funny just how often you hear the same stories about sleeping knights under hills and fairies living in prehistoric barrows. It seems to be country-wide.

Twitter was interested in Tam Lin yesterday, and I'll bet they'd be interested in this one, too. I'll post it in a min.

Walter Scot also did a lot of digging here in Cumbria, including about the 'wizard' Michael Scot. I keep meaning to work that into a post... I'll get 'round to it!

Ishtar said...

Very good article and the pictures were inspiring. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

just discovered your blog - and bookmarked it straight away, it looks fascinating.

the circles on the stone look like cup and ring marks to me, a prehistoric art form that you'll find all over Northumberland and southern Scotland

-see for example


The Faery Folklorist said...

Thank you all for the lovely comments :)

Esmeralda - It's very funny how the same stories keep popping up, especially that sleeping knight one! At least with this many people knowing the story, if someone does stumble across the sleeping knights again they'll hopefully draw the sword and not blow the horn and wake the knights up! Would love to read a post on Michael Scot if you do write one!

Ishtar - Thank you, i'm glad you liked it :)

Why-Lydia - Always lovely to hear that someone new has stumbled across my blog, I tend not to advertise it much and trust that people who are interested in it will find it one way or another :) That's very interesting about the cup and ring marks, i've heard a lot about them and seen a couple on standing stones, but never in a place I wasn't looking for them! The stone just seemed to be a stepping stone, so very strange if it should contain cup and ring marks hiding there undiscovered, I wonder where the stone came from originally!

Valkrye said...

I did not think you could top your last post for subject matter and great photos but I think you may just have. You have now explored two of my long time favorite faery story -legends. Just superb! Many thanks for all that you share with those of us who love and are fascinated with all aspects of these stories .

The Faery Folklorist said...

Aw thank you Valkrye! The pleasure is all fine, i'm so lucky to have the chance to visit all these lovely places, and its so nice to see that even when hundreds of years have passed since the stories first began, the places still truly hold their magic! :)

Heronmist said...

Glad I found this. I'm about to go up to the Melrose area and intended looking for True Thomas associations. I'll certainly seek out that stone. And the bonny road that lies across the ferny brae!

The Faery Folklorist said...

Hi Heronmist! You're so lucky to live in such a beautiful area, as fond as I am of Northumberland i'd happily give it up for bonny Scotland! Hope you enjoy visiting the Rhymer stone, sure you will! :D

Kray Van Kirk said...

Hi folks~

My apologies for posting such a tardy response here; I just ran across your blog today! I'm a singer-songwriter up in Alaska, and I'm getting ready to release a new version of my website (www.krayvankirk.com). One of my tunes is a version of Thomas the Rhymer, and I was hoping to get your permission to use one or two of the very nice photos from this post on the 'notes' page for the tune.

Thanks so much! I really enjoy the blog - please keep at it and I'll be sure to work my way through the entire thing.


The Faery Folklorist said...

Hi Kray! Go right ahead, use as many as you like :) By strange coincidence I have some tracks of yours that I download quite so time ago, and thoroughly enjoyed them! Keep up the beautiful music, and be sure to post a link here when you've uploaded your Thomas song so everyone can give it a listen :)

Kray Van Kirk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kray Van Kirk said...

Thanks so much! The new website is up and running, and here's the link to the Lyrics page for The Queen of Elfland; the song itself is on the Songs page. If you've some of the older ones, you've likely heard it. I'm so pleased and rather surprised you've heard any of them!! I do have a new one, Three Days to England, about Tristan and Iseult, waiting to be recorded; I'll keep you posted. :-)


The Faery Folklorist said...

Just giving Queen of Elfland a listen now, and what a beautiful song it is! Your lyrics capture the legend perfectly. Please write a song based on Tam Lin!! :D Would love to hear your take on that famous legend! Thanks for linking back to my blog, though couldn't get the link to work but think that might be a problem at my end, still getting used to the new version of Internet Explorer! Please do keep me posted on your new songs :)

Kray Van Kirk said...

Just a quick update- I'm filming a music video to The Queen of Elfland in Vancouver, BC in a few weeks. I've cast a wonderful actress from Ireland as the Queen, and I'm really looking forward to how the whole thing comes together.

The Faery Folklorist said...

That sounds wonderful Kray! Let me know when the video is online and i'll share it around :D

Anonymous said...

Love these, lovely tales, I have lived in the beautiful scottish borders all my life, used to live in Earlston, very near Rhymers Tower, thats whats left of his house near the site of the Rhymers Stone, is the new Borders Cremetorium most stunning, and beautiful setting at the bottom of the lovely Eildon Hills, a beautiful part of Scotland, I am very very proud of my stunning and historical Borders.