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Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas Learmont was Laird of the castle of Ercildoune in Berwickshire. He loved books, poetry, and music, and he loved to study nature and to watch the habits of the beasts and birds that lived in the fields and woods round about his home.

One sunny morning in May it chanced that Thomas left his Tower of Ercildoune and went wandering into the woods that lay about the little stream Huntly Burn that came rushing down from the slopes of the Eildon Hills. It was a lovely morning, fresh, bright, and warm, and everything was beautiful to see and hear.

Thomas felt so happy with it all that he threw himself down at the root of a tree to watch the living things around him. As he was lying there, he heard a horse as it forced its way through the bushes. He looked up and saw the most beautiful lady that he had ever seen coming riding towards him on a grey horse.

She wore a hunting dress of grass-green glistening silk, and from her shoulders hung a velvet mantle to match the dress. Her yellow hair was like rippling gold, and hung loosely round her shoulders. On her head sparkled a diadem that flashed like fire in the sunlight, and her saddle was of pure ivory.

Apparently she was bent on the chase, for she carried a hunting-horn and a sheaf of arrows; and she led seven greyhounds along in a leash, while as many scenting hounds ran loose at her horse's side. As she rode down the glen, Thomas thought it must be Virgin Mary riding on a hunt.

But she read his mind and shook her head. "No, I am not her," she said. "I am the queen of fairyland, and not exactly of heaven."

From that moment Thomas forgot his common-sense. Although he had heard it was dangerous for mortals to meddle with fairies, he was so entranced with her beauty that he begged her to give him a kiss. This was just what she wanted, for then she would have him in her power.

As soon as their lips had met, an awful change came over her, for her beautiful mantle and riding-skirt of silk seemed to fade away, and her beauty seemed to fade away too. She grew old and wan; and all of her abundant yellow hair went grey before his very eyes. She burst into a mocking laugh.

"I am not so fair to look on now as I was at first," she said, "but that matters little; such changes occur to all humans too. And by the kiss you sold yourself to be my servant for seven years. For those who kiss the fairy queen must go with her to fairyland, and serve her there till that time is past."

When he heard these words poor Thomas said, "I wish I knew that beforehand." He fell on his knees in front of her, but could not get any mercy. The queen of elves only laughed, and brought her dapple-grey saddle-horse close up to where he was standing.

"No, no," she said. "You asked for the kiss, and must pay the price. So dally no longer, but mount behind me, for it is full time that I was gone."

Thomas had no other choice than to mount behind her; and as soon as he had done so, she shook her bridle rein, and the grey steed galloped off. On and on they, till they came to the edge of a great desert. It stretched before them, dry, bare, and desolate, to the edge of the far horizon.

Thomas could not help wondering if he and his strange companion had to cross this desert; and if there were any chance of reaching the other side of it alive. But the fairy queen suddenly stopped the grey horse and said, glancing over her shoulder, "Now you must get down to earth, Thomas, and bend down, and lay your head on my knee, and I will show you hidden things that cannot be seen by mortal eyes."

So Thomas dismounted, bent down, and rested his head on the fairy queen's knee; and as he looked once more over the desert, everything seemed changed. For he saw three roads leading across it now. He had not noticed them before. Each road was different.

One of them was broad, level, and even, and it ran straight on across the sand, so that no one who was travelling by it could possibly lose his way.

And the second road was as different from the first as it well could be. It was narrow, winding, and long. There was a thorn hedge on one side of it and a briar hedge on the other. Those hedges grew so high and their branches were so wild and tangled, that those who were travelling along that road would have some difficulty in persevering on their journey at all.

And the third road was unlike any of the others. It was a bonnie, bonnie road, winding up a hillside among ferns, heather, and golden-yellow shrubs, and it looked as if it would be pleasant travelling to pass that way.

The fairy queen said, "I shall tell you where these three roads lead to. The first road is broad, even, and easy, as you see, and there are many that choose it to travel on. But though it be a good road, it leads to a bad end, and those who choose it repent their choice for ever.

"And as for the narrow road, all hampered and hindered by the thorns and the briars, there are few that are troubled to ask where that leads to. But if they asked, perhaps more of them might be stirred up to set out along it. For that is the road of righteousness; and it ends in a glorious city called the city of the great king.

"And the third road - the appealing road that runs up the hillside among the ferns, leads to fair elfland; and that road we will take.

"And, mark, Thomas, if ever you hope to see your own Tower of Ercildoune again, take care of your tongue when we reach the end of our journey, and speak not a single word to anyone save me, for the mortal who opens his lips rashly in fairyland must stay there forever."

Then she bade him get up on her horse again, and they rode on. The ferny road was not so bonnie all the way as it had been at first, however. For they had not ridden along it very far before it led them into a narrow ravine that seemed to go right down under the earth, where there was no ray of light to guide them, and where the air was damp and heavy. There was a sound of rushing water everywhere, and at last the grey palfrey plunged right into it, and the water crept up, cold and chill, first over Thomas's feet, and then over his knees.

His courage had been slowly ebbing ever since they had parted from the daylight, but now he gave himself up for lost; for it seemed certain to him that his strange companion and he would never come safe to their journey's end.

But at last the darkness began to lighten and the light grew stronger, until they were back in broad sunshine.

Then Thomas took courage, and looked up. They were riding through a beautiful orchard where apples and pears, dates and figs and wine-berries grew abundantly. He stretched out his hand to pluck some of it; but his companion turned in her saddle and forbade him. "There is nothing safe for you to eat here," she said, "except an apple I will give you. If you touch anything else you are bound to remain in fairyland forever."

So Thomas restrained himself. They rode on slowly until they came to a tiny tree all covered with red apples. The fairy queen bent down and plucked one, and handed it to her companion.

"I can gladly give you this," she said, "for these apples are the apples of truth; and whoever eats them gains this reward, that he will never more be able to tell a lie."

Thomas took the apple, and ate it; and graceful truth was on his lips from then on.

They had only a little way to go after this, before they came in sight of a magnificent castle standing on a hillside. "I live over there," said the queen, pointing to it proudly. "There lives my lord and all the nobles of his court. Since my lord has an uncertain temper and shows no liking for any strange gallant that he sees in my company, I pray you to say not a word to anyone who speaks to you. If anyone should ask me who and what you are, I will tell them that you are dumb. In such a way you will pass unnoticed."

With these words the lady raised her hunting-horn and blew a loud and piercing blast. As she did so, a marvellous change came over her again. Her ugly ash-covered gown dropped off her, and the grey in her hair vanished, and she appeared once more in her green riding-skirt and mantle, and her face grew young and fair.

And a wonderful change passed over Thomas too: his rough country clothes had been changed into a suit of fine brown cloth, and on his feet he wore satin shoes.

As soon as the sound of the horn rang out, the doors of the castle flew open, and the king hurried out to meet the queen. With him were so many knights and ladies, minstrels and page-boys that Thomas had no difficulty in passing into the castle unobserved after he had slid from the horse.

Everyone seemed very glad to see the queen back again, and they crowded into the great hall in her train, and she spoke to them all graciously, and allowed them to kiss her hand. Then she passed, with her husband, to a dais at the far end of the huge apartment. Two thrones stood there, and the royal pair seated themselves to watch the revels that now began.

Poor Thomas, meanwhile, stood far away at the other end of the hall and felt very lonely, yet fascinated by the scene he was gazing on.

For, although all the fine Ladies, and Courtiers, and Knights were dancing in one part of the Hall, there were huntsmen coming and going in another part, carrying in great antlered deer, which apparently they had killed in the chase, and throwing them down in heaps on the floor. And there were rows of cooks standing beside the dead animals, cutting them up into joints, and bearing away the joints to be cooked.

Altogether it was such a strange, fantastic scene that Thomas took no heed of how the time flew, but stood and gazed, never speaking a word to anybody. This went on for three long days. Then the queen rose from her throne and stepped from the dais, crossed the hall to where he was standing.

"It's time to mount and ride, Thomas," she said, "if you would ever see the fair Castle of Ercildoune again."

Thomas looked at her in amazement. "You spoke of seven long years, lady," he exclaimed, "and I have been here but three days."

The queen smiled. "Time passes quickly in fairyland, my friend," she replied. "You think that you have been here but three days. It's seven years since we two met. And now it is time for you to go. I would have preferred to have you with me longer, but I dare not, for your own sake. For every seventh year an evil spirit comes from the regions of darkness and carries back with him one of our followers, whoever he chances to choose. And, as you are a goodly fellow, I fear that he might choose you.

"So, as I would be unwilling to let harm befall you, I will take you back to your own country this very night."

Once more the grey palfrey was brought, and Thomas and the queen mounted it and returned to the Eildon Tree near the Huntly Burn by the route they had come.

Then the queen bade Thomas farewell. As a parting gift he asked her to give him something to show that he had really been to fairyland.

"I have already given you the gift of truth," she replied. "I will now give you the gifts of prophecy and poesy so that you will be able to foretell the future, and also to write wondrous verses. And, besides these unseen gifts, here is something visible: a harp that was made in fairyland. Farewell, friend. Perhaps some day I will come for you again."

With these words the lady vanished, and Thomas was left alone, feeling a little sorry at parting.

After this he lived for many a long year in his castle of Ercildoune, and the fame of his poetry and of his prophecies spread, so that people came to call him True Thomas and Thomas the Rhymer.

He foretold among other things the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland under a prince who was the son of a French queen, and who yet bore the blood of Bruce in his veins. The last of these two prophesies came true in 1603, when King James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, became king of both countries.

Fourteen long years went by, and people were beginning to forget that Thomas the Rhymer had ever been in fairyland. Then one day, when Scotland was at war with England, the Scottish army was resting not far from the Tower of Ercildoune. The owner of the Tower decided to invite all the nobles and barons who were leading the army, to sup with him.

That feast was long remembered. For the Laird of Ercildoune took care that everything was as fine as it could possibly be. And when the meal was ended he rose in his place, and taking his elf harp, he sang to his assembled guests song after song of the days of long ago. The guests listened thankfully, for they had never heard such wonderful music from any bagpipe.

Later that very night, after all the nobles had gone back to their tents, a soldier on guard saw in the moonlight a snow-white hart and hind moving slowly down the road that ran past the camp.

There was something unusual about the animals, so a crowd of officers and soldiers started to follow them. "There is something uncanny about this," said one soldier at last. "Let us send for Thomas of Ercildoune, perhaps he can tell if it is an omen or not."

"Yes, send for Thomas of Ercildoune," cried all the others. A little page-boy was sent in haste to the old tower to rouse the Rhymer from his slumber.

When he heard the boy's message, his face grew grave and he looked settled. "It's a summons," he said softly, "a summons from the queen of fairyland."

When he went out, he walked straight up to the now-white hart and hind, instead of joining the little company of waiting men. As soon as he reached the animals, they paused for a moment as if to greet him. Then all three moved slowly down a steep bank that sloped to the little river Leader, which was in full flood, and in the foaming waters they disappeared.

The soldiers searched for him with care, but no trace of Thomas of Ercildoune was found afterwards.

(Retold from Grierson 1910, 1-17)

The story

The tale is spun around a Scottish lord and reputed prophet from the 1200s, Thomas Learmonth (c. 1220 – c. 1298) from Earlston, then called "Erceldoune". His name is also spelled Learmount, Learmont, or Learmounth. He is better known as Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas, prophet. Little is known for certain of his life. His reputation for supernatural powers for a time rivalled that of Merlin. Thomas 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. An example:

York was, London is, and Edinburgh shall be
The biggest and bonniest o' the three.

Scots may still have the time to do it - Several different variants of the ballad of Thomas Rhymer exist. Most of them have the same basic theme. They tell how Thomas either kissed or slept with the queen of elfland and either rode with her or was otherwise transported to fairyland. And only one version tells that the queen changed into a hag.

There is also romance, "Thomas of Erceldoune", with accompanying prophecies, from the 1300s. The romance tells a very similar story to the ballad.

(Wikipedia, "Thomas the Rhymer")


Big Black Ian

There was before now a King who went with his three sons to the hunting hill. When they reached the hilltop they sat down on a pretty, little green knoll, behind the wind and before the sun, where they would see every man, and no man would see them. The eldest son, as he was sitting on his father's right hand and his two brothers on the left, said, "That man who would come and strike a blow at my father and knock a tooth mouth, would need to be well able to defend himself."

The youngest son answered: " We never heard mention of any man who would do that except Big Black Ian."

No sooner had he said it than Big Black Ian came like the hunting falcon from the rocky summit, struck the king on the mouth, and took with him a tooth knocked out of his mouth.

Then the king's three sons stood up and vowed that they would not let mire out of brogue or water out of hose until they found their father's tooth. Home they stretched, got a vessel ready, and set her course in the direction where they thought Big Black Ian's country lay, and

The vessel was a beauteous sight,
With prows under;
Her masts, well hewn, slim and narrow,
Beneath the white sails' show.

After they had sailed for many days, the youngest son, Ulin, climbed the mast to see if he could catch sight of any land. When he got as high as he could go, the others cried to him if he saw anything at all. He said that he did.

"What do you see?" said they.

"Little it is if an island and big it is if a bird," answered he, and then descended. At the end of a good spell he went up again; but as yet he could only say, as he had done already, that what he saw was little if an island but big if a bird.

After a long while he climbed the mast the third time, but before he reached the top, he cried aloud, "It is land," and they made straight for it.

As soon as they reached the shore they landed, and travelled onwards to see what would happen to them. They had not gone very far when they came to the edge of a precipice. There they saw a little, shrivelled, withered, old manikin standing, and near him a basket with a long rope tied to it. They asked him who he was and what he was doing over there. He answered that he was the gatekeeper of Big Black Ian, and that no man could go to his castle unless he went down the precipice in the creel.

The eldest brother went over to the edge of the precipice and looked down; but when he saw the depth beneath, he was so filled with horror that he would not descend.

Then the second brother went over to the edge of the precipice, but when he looked over, such dread seized him that he would not go down in the creel either.

At length young Ulin went into the creel, and when going over the edge of the rock, he cried to his brothers, "Return home with the ship, and if I live, I will reach you soon or late."

He arrived at the foot of the rock safely, and there he saw a big castle surrounded by a high rampart a short way from him. He made for the castle, and on the way he met his own wife, who had been stolen from him by Big Black Ian a year earler, and that he had with him in the castle. But Ulin had not known till then who had stolen her or where she had been taken. He wondered greatly to meet her in that place, but not less did she wonder to meet him there.

She returned with him to the castle, and after she had tended him well with meat and drink, she told him that Big Black Ian and his four warriors were in the hunting hills, and that they would come home in the evening. "But," she said, "we will shut the gates, and though they are mighty, they cannot enter."

The evening came, and Big Black Ian and his companions with him. When he found the gates closed, he called on the woman to open them for him. But he did not get as much as an answer. He cried a second and a third time, but though he did, it was in vain. At last he understood that young Ulin had come, and that he was in the castle. With that he cried to him, "Surrender or combat."

"Surrender or combat," said young Ulin, "you won't get tonight; but prepare to defend yourself early enough tomorrow."

When the sun rose next morning, young Ulin went up to the rampart and cried, "Shall I get the fair play of the Feinn?"

Big Black Ian answered, "You shall get a combat with one man, or a combat with two or three men, as you like."

Young Ulin did not listen to any more talk, but sprang over the rampart and cried, "I'll take a combat against one man."

He got that, and he and the champion of the Red Shield closed with one another. They fought hard all day long, but when evening drew close, young Ulin was faint and wearied. Then he recalled that he was far from friends and near to foes, and dealt a bloody blow that struck the head off the other.

Then he sprang over the castle rampart; but before he was barely in, Big Black Ian's "Surrender or combat" reached him.

He answered as he had done on the night before, "Surrender or combat you won't get from me tonight, but make ready to defend yourself tomorrow morning."

Early next morning young Ulin went up to the rampart of the castle, and again asked the fair play of the Feinn. He got that, and he and the champion of the Green Shield met one another. He was getting the better of the champion in the beginning of the day, but when the sun was about to go down in the west, he grew wearied and faint. But when he thought that he was far from his friends and near to his foes, he roused himself, and with one bloody stroke he struck the champion's head off. He then sprang over the rampart, but Big Black Ian sent a new challenge after him, as on the night before.

Next day and the day after that again everything happened as on the first two days, and he struck the heads off the champion of the White Shield and the champion of the Black Shield. The four champions were all dead now, but next morning he was challenged to meet Big Black Ian himself.

Young Ulin had time to spring in over the rampart again, and that night his wife treated him as well as she could.

Next morning he sprang out as usual, and he and Big Black Ian drew near each other. They fought first with their swords, but some time during the day they came so close to one another that they went into a hard wrestling bout. They would make quagmires of quagmires and knolls of knolls. Where it was softest they were sinking to the eyes, and where it was hardest to the knees, and where it was not so hard and not so soft, they were sinking to the thick end of the thigh. When the sun was going down, young Ulin put Big Black Ian under him and struck off his head.

When his wife saw this, she ran to the gate and opened it, so that her husband should not have to leap over the rampart that night.

They stayed together in the castle until young Ulin's wounds were healed. Then they made ready to return home, and they took with them all the gold and silver in the castle. They also took with them Big Black Ian's horse, hound, hunting falcon, and the tooth of Ulin's father. The distance was long, and they took a long time on the way. At length they came in sight of the place of his father's castle. But, instead of going to it, they went to the miller's house. They wanted to stay there till they saw how things were going on about the place. They did not let on who they were, and the miller did not recognise them, though he had been well acquainted with them before.

When night came and they were talking together beside the fire, the miller said to young Ulin, "You have as handsome a horse as I ever saw. Tomorrow you should go with him to the horse-race at the king's castle. "

"I will not go," said young Ulin, "but you may take him with you and go there, if you please."

The miller accepted the offer whole-heartedly, and next day he went to the race with the horse. He reached the castle in good time. The horses were drawn up at the end of the racing field, and the order to start was given. With a stride or two the miller's horse shot out ahead of all others, and left them further behind him with every step he took, until he reached the winning-post. He was then a long distance before the rider next to him, and he got the prize.

The miller returned home in the evening, full of pride because he had won the race. He told young Ulin all the brave things he had done with the horse, and then he said, "A dog race is to be held at the castle tomorrow. Three stags are to be let go before the dogs, and the dog that is fastest and that kills most will get the prize. You should go with your dog."

"I won't go," said young Ulin; "but take the dog and go with him."

The miller wanted nothing more, and when the time came, he went away with the dog on a leash. He reached the place. The deer were let go, and the dogs after them. But before they had gone very far, the miller's dog killed two deer, and the dog next him one. When the race was over the king came to the miller and asked him where he had found the horse and the dog he had. The miller answered that he had loaned them from a man who had come to his house and got permission to stay; and that the man had as fine a hunting falcon as any man ever saw too.

"Go home and tell him that a falcon race will be held here tomorrow," said the king, "and be sure that you will take with you himself and his falcon to the race."

The miller went home and told the stranger how things had gone at the race, and the message the king had sent.

Next morning young Ulin and the miller went away with the falcon, and in due time they reached the castle. Six pigeons were let off, and the falcons after them. But before the pigeons had gone far, young Ulin's falcon killed the six.

Then the king went where the owner of the falcon. Neither he nor any other present knew who he was. The king said to him, "Will you sell your horse, dog, and falcon? I will give you a handsome price for them."

The stranger answered that he would not, but that he had another small thing that he would give him for nothing. He then took the tooth out of his pocket and handed it to the king, saying, "See how that will suit you."

At once the king recognised his son, and rejoiced greatly to see him safe and sound. He then praised him for the service he had done him.

"I have done something else that was equally good. I have taken home my wife who was stolen from me a year before I left home."

"If so, bring her here without delay, that I may see her."

They sent for her at the miller's house, and when she came to them, the king rejoiced greatly to see her again. She took the tooth and placed it where it first was in his mouth. Then a great feast was made for all who were at the races.

(MacDougall 1910, 40-56)


A Country Man Visits a Lawyer

A man from the country applied to a respectable lawyer in a nearby town for legal advice. After detailing the circumstances of the case, he was asked if he had stated the facts exactly as they were.

"'Yes, sir," said the man. "I thought it best to tell you the plain truth. You can put the lies to it yourself."

(Chambers 1880, 28)



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