Sunday, 25 October 2015

Thomas the Rhymer

Patron’s La Belle Dame sans Merci painting

Thomas the Rhymer (fl. c. 1220 – 1298), also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas of Learmont or True Thomas, was a 13th-century Scottish laird and reputed prophet from Earlston (then called "Erceldoune") in the Borders. In literature he appears as the protagonist in the tale about Thomas the Rhymer, who was carried off by the "Queen of Elfland" and returned having gained the gift of prophecy, as well as the inability to tell a lie. The tale survives in a medieval verse romance in five manuscripts, as well as in the popular ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad number 37). The original romance ca. 1400 was probably condensed into ballad form ca. 1700, though there are dissenting views on this.

Beneath the Eildon Tree.

Sir Walter Scott expanded the ballad into three parts, adding a sequel which incorporated the prophecies ascribed to Thomas, and an epilogue where Thomas is summoned back to Elfland after the appearance of a sign, in the form of the milk-white hart and hind. Numerous prose retellings of the tale of Thomas the Rhymer have been undertaken, and included in fairy tale or folk-tale anthologies; these often incorporate the return to Fairyland episode that Scott reported to have learned from local legend.

The ballad was first printed by Walter Scott (1803) then by Robert Jamieson (1806).

 The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul.

Eildon Hills
Taken from Scott’s View on a morning when the whole of the Tweed Valley was shrouded in mist.
Keith Robeson
Path with purple heather on The Eildon Hills, Scottish Borders.
There is some evidence that prehistoric peoples regarded the Eildon Hills as a holy place and scholars believe they may have been a place of ceremonial gatherings. There are several holy springs around the base of the hills, now dedicated to Christian saints, but probably originally sacred to Celtic deities
Eildon is said to be a "hollow hill", and is mentioned in the legend of Thomas the Rhymer. Some believe Thomas went under the hill itself, and certainly part of the ballad occurs in the vicinity. Sir Walter Scott tells the tale of a horse dealer who is paid in 'ancient coin' by an elderly buyer in old-fashioned dress and taken inside the hill at night. A host of armed knights lie asleep at their horses' feet; their sleeping leader is King Arthur. Shown a horn and a sword, in confusion the dealer blows the horn: the men begin to awake and a loud voice indicates that he has been proved a coward for not seizing the sword first. A whirlwind ejects him from the chamber and outside he tells his story to some shepherds before dropping dead of exhaustion. Scott identifies the elderly man as Thomas the Rhymer.

Sir Thomas was born in Erceldoune (also spelled Ercildoune – presently Earlston), Berwickshire, sometime in the 13th century, and has a reputation as the author of many prophetic verses. Little is known for certain of his life but two charters from 1260–80 and 1294 mention him, the latter referring to "Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun".

Thomas became known as "True Thomas", supposedly because he could not tell a lie. Popular lore recounts how he prophesied many great events in Scottish history, including the death of Alexander III of Scotland.

Thomas' gift of prophecy is linked to his poetic ability. It is not clear if the name Rhymer was his actual surname or merely a sobriquet. He is often cited as the author of the English Sir Tristrem, a version of the Tristram legend, and some lines in Robert Mannyng's Chronicle may be the source of this association.

"This Thorn-Tree, as lang as it stands,
Earlstoun sall possess a' her lands."

or "As long as the Thorn Tree stands / Ercildourne shall keep its lands".

This was first of several prophecies attributed to the Rhymer collected by Chambers, who identified the tree in question as the one that fell in the storm in either 1814 or 1821, presumably on the about the last acre that was left that belonged to the town of Earlstoun. The prophecy was lent additional weight at the time, because as it so happened, the merchants of the town had fallen under bankruptcy by a series of "unfortunate circumstances". According to one account, "Rhymer's thorn" was a huge tree growing in the garden of the Black Bull Inn, and its proprietor named Thin, had its roots cut all around, leaving it vulnerable to the storm that same year.

The main part of the ‘Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune’ is present in four main manuscripts: The Thornton MS (Lincoln MS.91), dated 1419-50 A.D.; Cambridge MS Ff.5.48, and Cotton Vitellius E.x, dated c.1450 and Lansdowne 762, dated 1500-25. All manuscripts have essentially the same text with some additions and subtractions.

In the romance, the queen declares that Thomas has stayed three years but can remain no longer, because "the foul fiend of Hell will come among the (fairy) folk and fetch his fee" (modernized from Thornton text, vv.289–290). This "fee" "refers to the common belief that the fairies "paid kane" to hell, by the sacrifice of one or more individuals to the devil every seventh year." (The word teind is actually used in the Greenwood variant of Thomas the Rymer: "Ilka seven year, Thomas, / We pay our teindings unto hell,.. I fear, Thomas, it will be yerself".) The situation is akin to the one presented to the title character of "Tam Lin" who is in the company of the Queen of Fairies, but says he fears he will be given up as the tithe (Scots: teind or kane) paid to hell. The common motif has been identified as type F.257 "Tribute taken from fairies by fiend at stated periods" except that while Tam Lin must devise his own rescue, in the case of the Rymer, "the kindly queen of the fairies will not allow Thomas of Erceldoune to be exposed to this peril, and hurries him back to earth the day before the fiend comes for his due." J. R. R. Tolkien also alludes to the "Devil's tithe" as concerns the Rhymer's tale in a passing witty remark.

It has been suggested that John Keats wrote the poem La Belle Dame sans Merci having borrowed the motif and structure from the legend of Thomas the Rhymer.

The ballad around the legend of Thomas has been catalogued Child Ballad #37 "Thomas the Rymer," by Francis James Child (1883).

Music score to the ballad of "True Thomas", from Scott's Minstrelsy.

In Minstrelsy, Walter Scott published a second part to the ballad out of Thomas's prophecies, and yet a third part describing Thomas's return to Elfland. The third part was based on the legend Scott said he was familiar with, that "while Thomas was making merry with his friends in the Tower of Ercildoune," a news "a hart and hind.. was parading the street of the village," at which Thomas got up and left, never to be seen again. The popular belief being that he had gone to Fairyland but is "one day expected to revisit earth."

In Walter Scott's "Third Part" to the ballad, Thomas finds himself in possession of a "elfin harp he won" in Fairyland in a minstrel competition, which is a departure from either the traditional ballad or the medieval romance, where the queen tells Thomas to choose wither "to harpe or carpe," that is pick a choice of either the gift of music or speech. The "hart and hind" is now being sung as being "white as snow on Fairnalie" (Farnalie has been properly identified by Lyle, as discussed above). Some prose retellings incorporate some features derived from this third part.

The brief outline of the ballad is that Thomas was lying outdoors on a slope by a tree in the Erceldoune neighborhood, when the queen of Elfland appeared to him riding a horse, and beckoned him to come away, and when he consents, shows him three marvels, the road to Heaven, to Hell, and to her own world. After seven years, Thomas is brought back into the mortal realm, and asking for a token to remember the queen by, is offered the choice of the gift of a harper or a prophet, at which he chooses the latter option.

Music score to the ballad of "True Thomas", from Scott's Minstrelsy.
The scene of Thomas's encounter with the elf-queen is "Huntly Bank" and the "Eildon Tree" (versions B, C, and E) or "Farnalie" (version D) All these refer to the area of Eildon Hills, in the vicinity of Earlston: Huntly Bank was a slope on the hill and the tree stood there also, as Scott explained, while Emily B. Lyle was able to localize "farnalie" there as well.

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 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.


The queen wears a skirt of grass-green silk and a velvet mantle, and is mounted on either a milk-white steed, or a dapple-gray horse.  The horse has nine and fifty bells on each tett (Scots English. "lock of matted hair") on its mane/nine hung on its mane/and three bells on either side of the bridle/ nine bells in her hand, offered as a prize for his harping and carping (music and storytelling).

Kinuko Craft

Such a queen appears in the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, but she is queen of a nameless world in the medieval verse romance. The name "Queen of Elfland" is mentioned for her only in a later ballad (version A). Thomas the Rhymer's abduction by the queen was not just familiar folklore, but described as a kindred experience by at least one witch (Andro Man). The "Queen of Fairies" in Tam Lin may be the queen of the same world, at least, she too is compelled deliver humans as "tithe to hell" every seven years.

In Scottish popular tradition the Fairy Queen was known as the Gyre-Carling or Nicnevin, In one metrical legend, "The Faeries of Fawdon Hill" is where the Fairy Court is held, presided by Queen Mab.

In both the ballad and romance forms of the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, the supernatural queen initially mistaken for the Queen of Heaven (i.e., Virgin Mary) by the protagonist, but she identifies herself as "Queen of Elfland" (ballad A) or the queen of some supernatural realm that remains nameless (romance). The nameless land or romance is the same as the Elfland of ballad insofar as the queen is able to show Thomas three paths, one leading to her homeland and the other two to Heaven and Hell, and J. A. H. Murray says it is a place which would be called "Faërie or Fairy-land" in tales from later periods.

The Fairy Queen or Queen of the Fairies was believed to rule the fairies. Based on Shakespeare's influence, in English-speaking cultures she is often named Titania or Mab.

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen by Johann Heinrich Füssli, c. 1788.

In Irish folklore, the last High Queen of the Daoine Sidhe - and wife of the High King Finvarra - was named Oona (or Oonagh, or Una, or Uonaidh etc.). In the ballad tradition of Northern England and Lowland Scotland, she was called the Queen of Elphame.

John Duncan

Both Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare used folklore concerning the Fairy Queen to create characters and poetry, Spenser in The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare most notably in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In The Faerie Queene, Spencer's fairy queen is named Gloriana, and is also referred to as Tanaquill, which "appears to be an epithet for Gloriana, Queen of Faeries" derived from the name of the wife of Tarquinius Priscus. She is the daughter of Oberon, who in Shakespeare's later play is married to Titania, a name derived from Ovid as an epithet of the Roman goddess Diana. Diana was regularly portrayed as the ruler of the fairy kingdom in demonological literature, such as king James VI of Scotland's Daemonologie, which says that she belongs to "the fourth kind of spirits, which by the Gentiles [non-Jews] was called Diana and her wandering court, and amongst us is called Fairy (as I told you) or our good neighbours".

Meadow Elves, by Nils Blommér, 1850

Alfheim (Old Norse: Ālfheimr, "Land Of The Fairies"), also called Ljosalfheim (Ljósálf heimr, "light-elf home"), is one of the Nine Worlds and home of the Light Elves in Norse mythology.

A hall called Gimlé and the southernmost end of heaven that shall survive when heaven and earth have died, explains:

It is said that another heaven is to the southward and upward of this one, and it is called Andlang [Andlangr 'Endlong'] but the third heaven is yet above that, and it is called Vídbláin [Vídbláinn 'Wide-blue'] and in that heaven we think this abode is. But we believe that none but Light-Elves inhabit these mansions now.

It is not indicated whether these heavens are identical to Álfheim or distinct. Some texts read Vindbláin (Vindbláinn 'Wind-blue') instead of Vídbláin.

Modern commentators speculate (or sometimes state as fact) that Álfheim was one of the nine worlds (heima) mentioned in stanza 2 of the eddic poem Völuspá.

Fairyland may be referred to simply as "Fairy" or "Faërie," though that usage is an archaism. It is often the land ruled by the "Queen of Fairy," and thus anything from fairyland is also sometimes described as being from the "Court of the Queen of Elfame" or from Seelie court in Scottish folklore.

The Scots word elfame or elphyne "fairyland" has other variant forms, attested in Scottish witch trials, but Elf-hame or Elphame with the -hame stem (meaning "home" in Scots) were conjectural readings by Pitcairn.

Rhymer's stone 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, is this the original location or was moved so it could be accessed more easily. There's also a stone circle laid in the ground with lines from the poem.

 Rhymer's stone
A path towards the Eildon Hills, leads 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". 
 Lower slopes of Eildon Hill ~ a very gnarled old hawthorn tree

Down the slopes towards Melrose, another beautiful hawthorn tree

The Eildon tree died before our earliest records. Its place was apparently marked by the Eildon [tree] Stone, which was present by time Walter Scott wrote about it in 1802 (p.249). You can still visit the Eildon stone today.

Three main clues have suggested to writers over the last century that the Eildon tree was a magical hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) (e.g. Kendall, 2012):

Thomas and the Queen enter and exit the Otherworld underneath it.
Thomas first sees the Queen besides it, and knows he can meet her there.
The Queen could have taken Thomas’ speech there, and a pact can be made there.
In the modern period the hawthorn has been identified as a common folkloric portal between the earth and the Otherworld. The tree is especially magical when in flower during May, at the time our story is set.

The hawthorn seems to have stood as a symbol of carnal love in the medieval period (Eberly, 1989), and the identification of the Eildon tree as a hawthorn is therefore tempting. However it is unlikely to be the original intention for the author(/s) for three reasons: (i) I can find no reliable reference to the idea of hawthorn as a portal prior to the twentieth century. (ii) Ecologically the identification is unlikely as we shall see. Finally (iii) the identification probably stems from a misreading of one of the prophecies later attributed to True Thomas:

This thorn-tree, as lang as it stands
Earlstoun shall possess a’ her lands.

Most of Thomas’ prophecies were written by the Eildon tree, and so some have assumed Thomas was talking about that tree. However he was not. The thorn tree has been identified as the ‘Rhymer’s Thorn’ which was accidentally killed in 1814, whereas the Eildon tree was dead long before Scott wrote in 1802 (Scott, 1802, p.249; Murray, 1875, p.lxxxv). After Rhymer’s Tree died, the land was lost.

The tree we are looking for was probably not being pollarded or coppiced or even grown for timber. It may have just contributed to the area as a landmark, or have been grown for fruit. It is likely to be long-lived and tall enough to ride under, as well as dominating the area. It is green and found in a woodland. To be suitable for romantic trysting it cannot have been prickly or borne large fruit or berries in May.

The most probable native species which does have these properties is the English oak tree (Quercus robur). This tree is long-lived, green, and grows in forests. It is the most common kind of tree in Britain but also dominates areas where it grows. It is the quintessential English ‘greenwood’ tree (Johnson, 2004, p.216).

The Eildon tree is part of the texture of the story of Thomas the Rhymer. It was retained in all versions, and is even found in the later ballads. It appears to have been a vital part of the setting of the story. It is symbolic of the idyllic, lazy human world of the greenwood where birds sing all day.


Hawthorn, or Whitethorn, was once used to decorate May poles. At one time Hawthorns were believed to be Witches who had transformed themselves into trees. Witches have long danced and performed their rites beneath the thorn.

The Whitethorn is sacred to the Faery Queen, the Welsh Triple Goddess Olwen of the White Track, as well as the Flower Maiden, Blodeuwedd.

The Whitethorn (or Maythorn or Hawthorn) blooms brightest during the season of Beltane.  In April, May and June, it is full, bushy, strongly perfumed, and buzzing with a thousand bees drawn to the nectar that that heady fragrance shows off. Under the gauzy femininity of the Whitethorn in flower, are branches studded with long, sharp, penetrating thorns. The thorns are masculine: protective and phallic.  Flowering in Spring, the Whitethorn is associated with fertility; it stimulates eroticism, and encourages the fulfillment of desire. Its pallor brings it under the rulership of the Moon, long the Queen of Romantic Love, and Mother of Souls. The Moon in this role can also be compared with the Queen of the Bees that harvest the honey of the Whitethorn.

love and light

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