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.
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