Scottish Fairy Book Canonbie Dick and Thomas of Ercildoune
It chanced, long
years ago, that a certain horse-dealer lived in the South of
Scotland, near the Border, not very far from Longtown. He was known
as Canonbie Dick; and as he went up and down the country, he almost
always had a long string of horses behind him, which he bought at
one fair and sold at another, generally managing to turn a good big
penny by the transaction.
He was a very fearless man, not easily daunted; and the people who
knew him used to say that if Canonbie Dick dare not attempt a thing,
no one else need be asked to do it.
One evening, as he was returning from a fair at some distance from
his home with a pair of horses which he had not succeeded in
selling, he was riding over Bowden Moor, which lies to the west of
the Eildon Hills. These hills are, as all men know, the scene of
some of the most famous of Thomas the Rhymers prophecies; and also,
so men say, they are the sleeping-place of King Arthur and his
Knights, who rest under the three high peaks, waiting for the mystic
call that shall awake them.
But little recked the horse-dealer of Arthur and his Knights, nor
yet of Thomas the Rhymer. He was riding along at a snails pace,
thinking over the bargains which he had made at the fair that day,
and wondering when he was likely to dispose of his two remaining
All at once he was startled by the approach of a venerable man, with
white hair and an old-world dress, who seemed almost to start out of
the ground, so suddenly did he make his appearance.
When they met, the stranger stopped, and, to Canonbie Dicks great
amazement, asked him for how much he would be willing to part with
The wily horse-dealer thought that he saw a chance of driving a good
bargain, for the stranger looked a man of some consequence; so he
named a good round sum.
The old man tried to bargain with him; but when he found that he had
not much chance of succeedingfor no one ever did succeed in
inducing Canonbie Dick to sell a horse for a less sum than he named
for it at firsthe agreed to buy the animals, and, pulling a bag of
gold from the pocket of his queerly cut breeches, he began to count
out the price. .
As he did so, Canonbie Dick got another shock of surprise, for the
gold that the stranger gave him was not the gold that was in use at
the time, but was fashioned into Unicorns, and Bonnet-pieces, and
other ancient coins, which would be of no use to the horse-dealer in
his everyday transactions. But it was good, pure gold; and he took
it gladly, for he knew that he was selling his horses at about half
as much again as they were worth. So, thought he to himself,
surely I cannot be the loser in the long run.
Then the two parted, but not before the old man had commissioned
Dick to get him other good horses at the same price, the only
stipulation he made being that Dick should always bring them to the
same spot, after dark, and that he should always come alone.
And, as time went on, the horse-dealer found that he had indeed met
a good customer.
For, whenever he came across a suitable horse, he had only to lead
it over Bowden Moor after dark, and he was sure to meet the
mysterious, white-headed stranger, who always paid him for the
animal in old-fashioned golden pieces.
And he might have been selling horses to him yet, for aught I know,
had it not been for his one failing.
Canonbie Dick was apt to get very thirsty, and his ordinary
customers, knowing this, took care always to provide him with
something to drink. The old man never did so; he paid down his money
and led away his horses, and there was an end of the matter.
But one night, Dick, being even more thirsty than usual, and feeling
sure that his mysterious friend must live somewhere in the
neighbourhood, seeing that he was always wandering about the
hillside when everyone else was asleep, hinted that he would be very
glad to go home with him and have a little refreshment.
He would need to be a brave man who asks to go home with me,
returned the stranger; but, if thou wilt, thou canst follow me.
Only, remember thisif thy courage fail thee at that which thou wilt
behold, thou wilt rue it all thy life.
Canonbie Dick laughed long and loud. My courage hath never failed
me yet, he cried. Beshrew me if I will let it fail now. So lead
on, old man, and I will follow.
Without a word the stranger turned and began to ascend a narrow path
which led to a curious hillock, which from its shape, was called by
the country-folk the Lucken Hare.
It was supposed to be a great haunt of Witches; and, as a rule,
nobody passed that way after dark, if they could possibly help it.
Canonbie Dick was not afraid of Witches, however, so he followed his
guide with a bold step up the hillside; but it must be confessed
that he felt a little startled when he saw him turn down what seemed
to be an entrance to a cavern, especially as he never remembered
having seen any opening in the hillside there before.
He paused for a moment, looking round him in perplexity, wondering
where he was being taken; and his conductor glanced at him
"You can go back if you will," he said. I warned thee thou wert
going on a journey that would try thy courage to the uttermost."
There was a jeering note in his voice that touched Dicks pride.
Who said that I was afraid? he retorted. I was just taking note
of where this passage stands on the hillside, so as to know it
The stranger shrugged his shoulders. Time enough to look for it
when thou wouldst visit it again, he said. And then he pursued his
way, with Dick following closely at his heels.
After the first yard or two they were enveloped in thick darkness,
and the horse-dealer would have been sore put to it to keep near his
guide had not the latter held out his hand for him to grasp. But
after a little space a faint glimmering of light began to appear,
which grew clearer and clearer, until at last they found themselves
in an enormous cavern lit by flaming torches, which were stuck here
and there in sconces in the rocky walls, and which, although they
served to give light enough to see by, yet threw such ghostly
shadows on the floor that they only seemed to intensify the gloom
that hung over the vast apartment.
And the curious thing about this mysterious cave was that, along one
side of it, ran a long row of horse stalls, just like what one would
find in a stable, and in each stall stood a coal-black charger,
saddled and bridled, as if ready for the fray; and on the straw, by
every horses side, lay the gallant figure of a knight, clad from
head to foot in coal-black armour, with a drawn sword in his mailed
But not a horse moved, not a chain rattled. Knights and steeds alike
were silent and motionless, looking exactly as if some strange
enchantment had been thrown over them, and they had been suddenly
turned into black marble.
There was something so awesome in the still, cold figures and in the
unearthly silence that brooded over everything that Canonbie Dick,
reckless and daring though he was, felt his courage waning and his
knees beginning to shake under him.
In spite of these feelings, however, he followed the old man up the
hall to the far end of it, where there was a table of ancient
workmanship, on which was placed a glittering sword and a curiously
When they reached this table the stranger turned to him, and said,
with great dignity, Thou hast heard, good man, of Thomas of
Ercildoune Thomas the Rhymer, as men call him he who went to
dwell for a time with the Queen of Fairy-land, and from her received
the Gifts of Truth and Prophecy?
Canonbie Dick nodded; for as the wonderful Soothsayers name fell on
his ears, his heart sank within him and his tongue seemed to cleave
to the roof of his mouth. If he had been brought there to parley
with Thomas the Rhymer, then had he laid himself open to all the
eldrich Powers of Darkness.
I that speak to thee am he, went on the white-haired stranger.
And I have permitted thee thus to have thy desire and follow me
hither in order that I may try of what stuff thou art made. Before
thee lies a Horn and a Sword. He that will sound the one, or draw
the other, shall, if his courage fail not, be King over the whole of
Britain. I, Thomas the Rhymer, have spoken it, and, as thou knowest,
my tongue cannot lie. But list ye, the outcome of it all depends on
thy bravery; and it will be a light task, or a heavy, according as
thou layest hand on Sword or Horn first.
Now Dick was more versed in giving blows than in making music, and
his first impulse was to seize the Sword, then, come what might, he
had something in his hand to defend himself with. But just as he was
about to lift it the thought struck him that, if the place were full
of spirits, as he felt sure that it must be, this action of his
might be taken to mean defiance, and might cause them to band
themselves together against him.
So, changing his
mind, he picked up the Horn with a trembling hand, and blew a blast
upon it, which, however, was so weak and feeble that it could scarce
be heard at the other end of the hall.
The result that followed was enough, to appal the stoutest heart.
Thunder rolled in crashing peals through the immense hall. The
charmed Knights and their horses woke in an instant from their
enchanted sleep. The Knights sprang to their feet and seized their
swords, brandishing them round their heads, while their great black
chargers stamped, and snorted, and ground their bits, as if eager to
escape from their stalls. And where a moment before all had been
stillness and silence, there was now a scene of wild diri and
Now was the time for Canonbie Dick to play the man. If he had done
so all the rest of his life might have been different.
But his courage failed him, and he lost his chance. Terrified at
seeing so many threatening faces turned towards him, he dropped the
Horn and made one weak, undecided effort to pick up the Sword.
But, ere he could do so, a mysterious voice sounded from somewhere
in the hall, and these were the words that it uttered:
Woe to the coward, that ever he was born,
Who did not draw the Sword before he blew the Horn.
And, before Dick knew what he was about, a perfect whirlwind of
cold, raw air tore through the cavern, carrying the luckless
horse-dealer along with it; and, hurrying him along the narrow
passage through which he had entered, dashed him down outside on a
bank of loose stones and shale. He fell right to the bottom, and was
found, with little life left in him, next morning, by some
shepherds, to whom he had just strength enough left to whisper the
story of his weird and fearful adventure.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.