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Book of Scottish Story
Thomas the Rhymer: an Ancient Fairy Legend


By Sir Walter Scott

THOMAS OF ERGELDOUNE, in Lauderdale, called the Rhymer on account of his producing a poetical romance on thesubject of Tristrem and Yseult, which is curious as the earliest specimen of English verse known to exist, flourished in the reign of Alexander III. of Scotland. Like other men of talent of the period, Thomas was suspected of magic. He was also said to have the gift of prophecy, which was accounted for in the following peculiar manner, referring entirely to the Elfin superstition. As Thomas lay on Huntly Bank (a place on the descent of the Eildon hills, which raise their triple crest above the celebrated monastery of Melrose), he saw a lady so extremely beautiful that he imagined it must be the Virgin Mary herself. Her appointments, however, were those rather of an amazon, or goddess of the woods. Her steed was of the highest beauty, and at his mane hung thirty silver bells and nine, which were music to the wind as she paced along. Her saddle was of "royal bone" (ivory), laid over with "orfeverie" (goldsmith’s work). Her stirrups—her dress—all corresponded with her extreme beauty and the magnificence of her array. The fair huntress had her bow in hand, and her arrows at her belt. She led three greyhounds in a leash, and three raches, or hounds of scent, followed her closely.

She rejected and disclaimed the homage which Thomas desired to pay to her; so that, passing from one extremity to the other, Thomas became as bold as he had at first been humble. The lady warns him that he must become her slave, if he should prosecute his suit towards her in the manner he proposes. Before their interview terminates, the appearance of the beautiful lady is changed into that of the most hideous hag in existence. A witch from the spital or almshouse would have been a goddess in comparison to the late beautiful huntress. Hideous as she was, Thomas’s irregular desires had placed him under the control of this hag, and when she bade him take leave of the sun, and of the leaf that grew on the tree, he felt himself under the necessity of obeying her. A cavern received them, in which, following his frightful guide, he for three days travelled in darkness, sometimes hearing the booming of a distant ocean, sometimes walking through rivers of blood, which crossed their subterranean path. At length they emerged into daylight, in a most beautiful orchard. Thomas, almost fainting for want of food, stretches out his hand towards the goodly fruit which hangs around him, but is forbidden by his conductress, who informs him that these are the fatal apples which were the cause of the fall of man. He perceives also that his guide had no sooner entered this mysterious ground, and breathed its magic air, than she was revived in beauty, equipage, and splendour, as fair or fairer than he had first seen her on the mountain. She then proceeds to explain to him the character of the country.

"Yonder right hand path," she says, "conveys the spirits of the blest to paradise. Yon downward and well-worn way leads sinful souls to the place of everlasting punishment. The third road, by yonder dark brake, conducts to the milder place of pain, from which prayer and mass may release offenders. But see you yet a fourth road, sweeping along the plain to yonder splendid castle? Yonder is the road to Elfland, to which we are now bound. The lord of the castle is king of the country, and I am his queen. And when we enter yonder castle, you must observe strict silence, and answer no question that is asked at you, and I will account for your silence by saying I took your speech when I brought you from middle earth.”

Having thus instructed her lover, they journeyed on to the castle, and entering by the kitchen, found themselves in the midst of such a festive scene as might become the, mansion of a great feudal lord or prince.

Thirty carcases of deer were lying on the massive kitchen board, under the hands of numerous cooks, who toiled to cut them up and dress them, while the gigantic greyhounds which had taken the spoil lay lapping the blood, and enjoying the sight of the slain game. They came next to the royal hall, where the king received his loving consort without censure or suspicion. Knights and ladies, dancing by threes, occupied the floor of the hall, and Thomas, the fatigues of his journey from the Eildon hills forgotten, went forward and joined in the revelry. After a period, however, which seemed to him a very short one, the queen spoke with him apart, and bade him prepare to return to his own country.

"Now,” said the queen, "how long think you that you have been here?"

“Certes, fair lady," answered Thomas, " not above these seven days.”

"You are deceived," answered the queen ; " you have been seven years in this castle ; and it is full time you were gone. Know, Thomas, that the arch-fiend will come to this castle to-morrow to demand his tribute, and so handsome a man as you will attract his eye. For all the world would I not suffer you to be betrayed to such a fate; therefore up, and let us be going.”

This terrible news reconciled Thomas to his departure from Elfin land, and the queen was not long in placing him upon Huntly Bank, where the birds were singing. She took a tender leave of him, and to ensure his reputation bestowed on him the tongue which ‘could not lie’. Thomas in vain objected to this inconvenient and involuntary adhesion to veracity, which would make him, as he thought, unfit for church or for market, for king’s court or for lady’s bower. But all his remonstrances were disregarded by the lady, and Thomas the Rhymer, whenever the discourse turned on the future, gained the credit of a prophet whether he would or not ; for he could say nothing but what was sure to come to pass.

Thomas remained several years in his own tower near Erceldoune, and enjoyed the fame of his predictions, several of which are current among the country people to this day. At length, as the prophet was entertaining the Earl of March in his dwelling, a cry of astonishment arose in the village, on the appearance of a hart and hind, which left the forest, and, contrary to their shy nature, came quietly onward, traversing the village towards the dwelling of Thomas. The prophet instantly rose from the board; and acknowledging the prodigy as the summons of his fate, he accompanied the hart and hind into the forest, and though occasionally seen by individuals to whom he has chosen to show himself, he has never again mixed familiarly with mankind.

Thomas of Erceldoune, during his retirement, has been supposed, from time to time, to be levying forces to take the field in some crisis of his country’s fate. The story has often been told, of a daring horse-jockey having sold a black horse to a man of venerable and antique appearance, who appointed the remarkable hillock upon Eildon hills, called the Lucken-hare, as the place where, at twelve o’clock at night, he should receive the price. He came, and his money was paid in ancient coin, and he was invited by his customer to view his residence. The trader in horses followed his guide in the deepest astonishment through several ranges of stalls, in each of which a horse stood motionless, while an armed warrior lay equally still at the charger’s feet.

"All these men," said the wizard in a whisper, "will awaken at the battle of Sheriffmuir.”

At the extremity of this extraordinary depth hung a sword and a horn, which the prophet pointed out to the horse-dealer as containing the means of dissolving the spell. The man in confusion took the horn, and attempted to wind it. The horses instantly started in their stalls, stamped, and shook their bridles ; the men arose and clashed their armour, and the mortal, terrified at the tumult he had excited, dropped the horn from his hand. A voice like that of a giant, louder even than the tumult around, pronounced these words :-

“Woe to the coward that ever he was born, That did not draw the sword before he blew the horn!”

A whirlwind expelled the horse-dealer from the cavern, the entrance to which he could never again find. A moral `might, perhaps, be extracted from the legend,—namely, that it is best to be armed against danger before bidding it defiance. But it is a circumstance worth notice, that although this edition of the tale is limited to the year 1715, by the very mention of Sheriffmuir, yet a similar story appears to have been current during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, which is given by Reginald Scot. The narrative is edifying as peculiarly illustrative of the mode of marring a curious tale in telling it, which was one of the virtues professed by Caius when he hired himself to King Lear. Reginald Scot, incredulous on the subject of witchcraft, seems to have given some weight to the belief of those who thought that the spirits of famous men do, after death, take up some particular habitations near cities, towns, and countries, and act as tutelary and guardian spirits to the places they loved while in the flesh.

"But more particularly to illustrate this conjecture,” says he, "I could name a person who hath lately appeared thrice since his decease, at least some ghostly being or other that calls itself by the name of such a person, who was dead a hundred years ago, and was in his lifetime accounted as a prophet or predicter, by the assistance of sublunary spirits; and now, at his appearance, did also give strange predictions respecting famine and plenty, war and bloodshed, and the end of the world. By the information of the person that had communication with him, the last of his appearances was in the following manner :—‘ I had been,’ said he, ‘to sell a horse at the next market town, but not attaining my price, as I returned home, by the way I met this man, who began to be familiar with me, asking what news, and how affairs moved through the country. I answered as I thought fit; withal I told him of my horse, whom he began to cheapen, and proceeded with me so far that the price was agreed upon. So he turned back with me, and told me that if I would go along with him, I should receive my money. On our way we went,—I upon my horse, and he on another milk-white beast. After much travel, I asked him where he dwelt, and what his name was. He told me that his dwelling was a mile off at a place called ‘Farran’, of which place I had never heard,* though I knew all the country round about. He also told me that he himself was the person of the family of Learmonths,** so much spoken of as a prophet. At which I began to be somewhat fearful, perceiving we were on a road which I had never been on before, which increased my fear and amazement more. Well! on we went till he brought me under ground, I knew not how, into the presence of a beautiful woman, who paid me the money without speaking a word. He conducted me out again through a large and long entry, where I saw above six hundred men in armour laid prostrate on the ground as if asleep. At last I found myself in the open field, by the help of the moonlight, in the very place where I first met him, and made a shift to get home by three in the morning. But the money I received was just double of what I esteemed it when the woman paid me, of which, at this instant, I have several pieces to show, consisting of ninepennies, thirteenpence-halfpennies, &c.

It is a great pity that this horse-dealer, having specimens of the fairy coin, of a quality more permanent than usual, had not favoured us with an account of an impress so valuable to medallists. It is not the less edifying, as we are deprived of the more picturesque parts of the story, to learn that Thomas’s payment was as faithful as his prophecies. The beautiful lady who bore the purse must have been undoubtedly the Fairy Queen, whose affection, though, like that of his own Yseult, we cannot term it altogether laudable, seems yet to have borne a faithful and firm character.

Footnotes: * and **

*In this Sir Walter confesses himself “ in the same ignorance as his namesake Reginald, though having at least as many opportunities of information.”

** In popular tradition, the name of Thomas the Rhymer was always averred to be Learmonth, though he neither uses it himself, nor is described by his son other than Le Rymour. The Learmonths of Dairsie, in Fife, claimed descent from the prophet.


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