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Significant Scots
Thomas Rymer


RYMER, THOMAS, of Ercildon, commonly called Thomas the Rhymer, and otherwise styled Thomas Learmont, was a distinguished person of the thirteenth century. So little is known respecting him, that even his name has become a matter of controversy. How the name of LEARMONT came to be given him, is not known; but in none of the early authorities do we find it; and although it has long been received as the bard’s patronymic, it is now, by inquiring antiquaries, considered a misnomer. In a charter granted by his son and heir to the convent of Soltra, he is called Thomas Rymer de Erceldun. Robert de Brunne, Fordun, Barbour, and Winton, call him simply Thomas of Erceldoun, while Henry the minstrel calls him Thomas Rymer.

Erceldoune, or, according to the modern corruption, Earlstown, is a village on the right bank of the Leader water, in Berwickshire. At western extremity of this village, stand, after a lapse of seven centuries, ruins of the house which Thomas inhabited, called Rhymer’s Tower; and in the front wall of the village church, there is a stone with this inscription on it:—

Auld Rymer’s race
Lies in this place.

The poet must have lived during nearly the whole of the thirteenth century. His romance of "Sir Tristram" is quoted by Gottfried of Strasburg, who flourished about 1230; and it is known he was alive, and in the zenith of his prophetic reputation, in 1286, at the death of Alexander III. He must have been dead, however, before 1299, as that is the date of the charter, in which his son calls himself Filius et hoeres Thomas Rymour de Erceldon. Henry the minstrel makes him take a part in the adventures of Wallace, in 1296; so, if this authority is to be credited, he must have died between that year and 1299.

To this day, the name of Thomas the Rhymer is popularly known in Scotland as a prophet; and it is only by a late discovery of the MS. of a metrical romance called "Sir Tristram," that he has acquired a less exceptionable claim to remembrance. "The Prophecies of Thomas the Rhymer," were published, in Latin and English, at Edinburgh, in 1615, and have been repeatedly reprinted, copies of them being still to be found among the country people of Scotland. He is mentioned in his prophetic capacity by many of our early writers. Among the most noted of his predictions, is the following, regarding the death of Alexander III., which is thus narrated by Boece, as translated by Ballenden:—"It is said, the day afore the kingis dethe, the erle of Marche demandit ane prophet namit Thomas Rhymour, otherwayis namit Ersiltoun, quhat wedder suld be on the morow. To quhome answerit this Thomas, that on the morow afore none, sail blow the gretist wynd that ever was hard afore in Scotland. On the morow, quhen it was neir noon the lift appering loane, but ony din or tempest, the erle send for this propheit, and reprevit hym that he prognosticat sic wynd to be, and nae apperance thairof. This Thomas maid litel answer, bot said, noun is not yet gane. And incontinent ane man came to the yet, schawing the king was slain. Than said the prophet, yone is the wynd that sail blaw to the gret calamity and truble of all Scotland. Thomas wes ane man of gret admiration to the peple, and schaw sundry thingis as thay fell." The common sense translation of this story is, that Thomas presaged to the earl of March that the next day would be windy; the weather proved calm; but news arrived of the death of Alexander III., which gave an allegorical turn to the prediction, and saved the credit of the prophet.

Barbour, Winton, Henry the Minstrel, and others, all refer to the prophetic character of Thomas. In Barbour’s Bruce, written about 1370, the bishop of St Andresvs is introduced as saying, after Bruce had slain the Red Cumin:--

I hop Thomas’ prophecy
Off Hersildowne, werefyd be
In him; for swa our Lord halp me,
I half gret hop he schall be king,
And haiff this land all in leding.
Bruce, ii. 86

Wintoun’s words are these:--

Of this sycht quhilum spak Thomas
Of Erceldoune, that sayd in derne,
Thare suld meet stalwarty, stark, and sterne.
He sayd it in his prophecie,
But how he wist, it was ferly.

Henry the Minstrel represents him as saying, on being falsely told that Wallace was dead:--

"Forsuth, or he decess,
Mony thousand on feild sall mak thar end.
And Scotland thriss he sall bring to the pess;
So gud of hand agayne sall nevir be kend."
Wallace, B. ii. ch. 3.

How far Rymer himself made pretensions to the character of a prophet, and how far the reputation has been conferred upon him by the people in his own time and since, it is impossible to determine. It is certain, however, that in almost every subsequent age, metrical productions came under public notice, and were attributed to him, though, it might be supposed, they were in general the mere coin of contemporary wits, applied to passing events. There are, nevertheless, a considerable number of rhymes and proverbial expressions, of an antique and primitive character, attributed to Thomas the Rhymer, and applicable to general circumstances: of some of these we deem it by no means unlikely that they sprung from the source to which they are ascribed, being in some instances only such exertions of foresight, as a man of cultivated understanding might naturally make; and in others, dreamy vaticinations of evil, which never have been, and perhaps never will, be realized. Many of these may be found in the Border Minstrelsy, and in "Popular Rhymes of Scotland," and the "Picture of Scotland," compilations by the editor of the present dictionary. It may also be mentioned, as illustrative of the forceful character of this early and obscure genius, that he and his predictions are as well known in the Highlands and Hebrides as in our southern counties. The Cambrian and Caledonian Magazine, 1833, gives the two following Gaelic predictions, as imputed to him by the Highlanders

"Cuiridh fiacail nan caoraich an crann air an sparr."
The teeth of the sheep will lay the plough on the shelf.

"Bithidh muileann air gach alt, agus ath air gach cnoc, tombac aig na buachaillean a’s gruagaichean gun naire." i e. There shall be a mill on every brook, a kiln on every height; herds shall use tobacco, and young women shall be without shame.

In the introduction to Robert de Brunne’s Annals, written about 1238, Thomas of Erceldoune is commemorated as the author of the incomparable romance of Sir Tristrem. Gottfried of Strasburg, also, a German minstrel of the 13th century, already alluded to, says, that many of his profession told the tale of Sir Tristrem imperfectly and incorrectly, but that he derived his authority from "Thomas of Britannia, (evidently our Thomas) master of the art of romance, who had read the history in British books, and knew the lives of all the lords of the land, and made them known to us." This work, of our poet was considered to be lost, till a copy of it was discovered among the Auchinleck MSS. belonging to the library of the faculty of advocates Edinburgh, and published, with introduction and notes, by Sir Walter Scott.

From the opening lines of this copy, viz.

I was at Erceldoune,
With Tomas spak y thare,
Ther herd y rede in roune,
Who Tristrem gat and bare, &c

a doubt has arisen whether it be the identical romance composed by Thomas of Erceldoune, which was preferred by his contemporaries to every minstrel tale of the time. But the celebrated editor very satisfactorily demonstrated, from the specific marks by which Robert de Brunne, a contemporary of Thomas, describes the work, that this must be the genuine Sir Tristrem, taken, probably, from the recitation of a minstrel who had heard and retained in his memory the words of Thomas. The date of the MS. does not seem to be much later than 1330, which makes an interval of about forty years between it and the author’s time, a period in which some corruptions may have been introduced, but no material change in the formation of the language. Accordingly, the structure of the poem bears a peculiar character. The words are chiefly those of the fourteenth century, but the turn of phrase is, either from antiquity or the affectation of the time when it was written, close, nervous and concise, even to obscurity. The stanza is very complicated, consisting of eleven lines, of which the 1st 3d, 5th and 7th rhyme together, as do the 2d, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th. A single stanza will serve to show its intricate and difficult structure. This one speaks of the education of Tristrem by Roland:

Fiftene yere he gan him fede,
Sir Rohant the trewe;
He taught him ich alede,
Of ich maner of glewe,
And everich playing thede,
Old lawes and newe,
On hunting oft he yede,
To swiche alawe he drewe,
Al thus,
More he couthe of veneri,
Than couthe Manerious

It may be remarked that a complicated verse has been a favourite among the Scottish poets down to the present time. Burns, for instance, has injured some of his best pieces by adopting the jingling stanza of the "Cherry and the Slae."

By the recovery of this work, Scotland can lay claim to a poem more ancient than England; and, indeed, it would appear from what is said by Robert de Brunne, and other circumstances, that the gests of the northern minstrels were written in an ambitious and ornate style which the southern harpers marred in repeating, and which plebeian audiences were unable to comprehend; in other words, that the English language received its first rudiments of improvement in this corner of the island, where it in now supposed to be most corrupted.


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