Read THOMAS THE RHYMER of Tales From Scottish Ballads , free online book, by Elizabeth W. Grierson, on

“True Thomas lay on Huntly bank;
A ferlie he spied with his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright,
Came riding down by the Eildon tree.”

More than six hundred years ago, there lived in the south of Scotland a very wonderful man named Thomas of Ercildoune, or Thomas the Rhymer.

He lived in an old tower which stood on the banks of a little river called the Leader, which runs into the Tweed, and he had the marvellous gift, not only of writing beautiful verses, but of forecasting the future: that is, he could tell of events long before they happened.

People also gave him the name of True Thomas, for they said that he was not able to tell a lie, no matter how much he wished to do so, and this gift he had received, along with his gift of prophecy, from the Queen of the Fairies, who stole him away when he was young, and kept him in fairyland for seven years and then let him come back to this world for a time, and at last took him away to live with her in fairyland altogether.

I do not say that this is true; I can only say again that Thomas the Rhymer was a very wonderful man; and this is the story which the old country folk in Scotland tell about him.

One St Andrew’s Day, as he was lying on a bank by a stream called the Huntly Burn, he heard the tinkling of little bells, just like fairy music, and he turned his head quickly to see where it was coming from.

A short distance away, riding over the moor, was the most beautiful lady he had ever seen. She was mounted on a dapple-gray palfrey, and there was a halo of light shining all around her. Her saddle was made of pure ivory, set with precious stones, and padded with crimson satin. Her saddle girths were of silk, and on each buckle was a beryl stone. Her stirrups were cut out of clear crystal, and they were all set with pearls. Her crupper was made of fine embroidery, and for a bridle she used a gold chain.

She wore a riding-skirt of grass-green silk, and a mantle of green velvet, and from each little tress of hair in her horse’s mane hung nine and fifty tiny silver bells. No wonder that, as the spirited animal tossed its dainty head, and fretted against its golden rein, the music of these bells sounded far and near.

She appeared to be riding to the chase, for she led seven greyhounds in a leash, and seven otter hounds ran along the path beside her, while round her neck was slung a hunting-horn, and from her girdle hung a sheaf of arrows.

As she rode along she sang snatches of songs to herself, or blew her horn gaily to call her dogs together.

“By my faith,” thought Thomas to himself, “it is not every day that I have the chance of meeting such a beauteous being. Methinks she must be the Virgin Mother herself, for she is too fair to belong to this poor earth of ours. Now will I hasten over the hill, and meet her under the Eildon Tree; perchance she may give me her blessing.”

So Thomas hasted, and ran, and came to the Eildon Tree, which grew on the slope of the Eildon Hills, under which, ’tis said, King Arthur and his Knights lie sleeping, and there he waited for the lovely lady.

When she approached he pulled off his bonnet and louted low, so that his face well-nigh touched the ground, for, as I have said, he thought she was the Blessed Virgin, and he hoped to hear some words of benison.

But the lady quickly undeceived him. “Do not do homage to me,” she said, “for I am not she whom thou takest me for, and cannot claim such reverence. I am but the Queen of Fairyland, and I ride to the chase with my horn and my hounds.”

Then Thomas, fascinated by her loveliness, and loth to lose sight of her, began to make love to her; but she warned him that, if he did so, her beauty would vanish in a moment, and, worse still, she would have the power to throw a spell over him, and to carry him away to her own country. But I wot that her spell had fallen on Thomas already, for it seemed to him that there was nothing on earth to be compared to her favour.

“Here pledge I my troth with thee,” he cried recklessly, “and little care I where I am carried, so long as thou art beside me,” and as he said this, he gave her a kiss.

What was his horror, as soon as he had done so, to see an awful change come over the lady. Her beautiful clothes crumbled away, and she was left standing in a long ash-coloured gown. All the brightness round her vanished; her face grew pale and colourless; her eyes turned dim, and sank in her head; and, most terrible of all, one-half of her beautiful black hair went gray before his eyes, so that she looked worn and old.

A cruel smile came on her haggard face as she cried triumphantly, “Ah, Thomas, now thou must go with me, and thou must serve me, come weal, come woe, for seven long years.”

Then she signed to him to get up behind her on her gray palfrey, and poor Thomas had no power to refuse. He glanced round in despair, taking a last look at the pleasant country-side he loved so well, and the next moment it vanished from his eyes, for the Eildon Hills opened beneath them, and they sank in gloomy caverns, leaving no trace behind.

For three days Thomas and the lady travelled on, in the dreadful gloom. It was like riding through the darkness of the darkest midnight. He could feel the palfrey moving beneath him; he could hear, close at hand, the roaring of the sea; and, ever as they rode, it seemed to him that they crossed many rivers, for, as the palfrey struggled through them, he could feel the cold rushing water creeping up to his knees, but never a ray of light came to cheer him.

He grew sick and faint with hunger and terror, and at last he could bear it no longer.

“Woe is me,” he cried feebly, “for methinks I die for lack of food.”

As he spoke these words, the lady turned her horse’s head in the darkness, and, little by little, it began to grow lighter, until at last they emerged in open daylight, and found themselves in a beautiful garden.

It was full of fruit trees, and Thomas feasted his eyes on their cool green leaves and luscious burden; for, after the terrible darkness he had passed through, this garden seemed to him like the Garden of Paradise.

There were pear trees in it, covered with pears, and apple trees laden with great juicy apples; there were dates, and damsons, and figs, and grapes. Brightly coloured parrots were flitting about among the branches, and everywhere the thrushes were singing.

The lady drew rein under an apple tree, and, reaching up her hand, she plucked an apple, and handed it to him. “Take this for thine arles," she said; “it will confer a great gift on thee, for it will give thee a tongue that cannot lie, and from henceforth men shall call thee ’True Thomas.’”

Now, I am sorry to say that Thomas was not very particular about always being truthful, and this did not seem to him to be a very enviable gift. He wondered to himself what he would do if ever he got back to earth, and was always obliged to tell the truth, whether it were convenient or not.

“A bonnie gift, forsooth!” he said scornfully. “My tongue is my own, and I would prefer that no one meddled with it. If I am obliged always to tell the truth, how shall I fare when I once more go back to the wicked world? When I take a cow to market, have I always to point out the horn it hath lost, or the piece of skin that is torn? And when I talk to my betters, and would crave a boon of them, must I always tell them my real thoughts, instead of giving them the flattery which, let me tell you, Madam, goes a long way in obtaining a favour?”

“Now hold thy peace,” said the lady sharply, “and think thyself favoured to see food at all. Many miles of our journey lie yet before us, and already thou criest out for hunger. Certs, if thou wilt not eat when thou canst, thou shalt have no more opportunity.”

Poor Thomas was so hungry, and the apple looked so tempting, that at last he took it and ate it, and the Grace of Truth settled down on his lips for ever: that is why men called him “True Thomas,” when in after years he returned to earth.

Then the lady shook her bridle rein, and the palfrey darted forward so quickly that it appeared to be almost flying. On and on they flew, until they came to the World’s End, and a great desert stretched before them. Here the lady bade Thomas dismount and lean his head against her knee. “I have three wonders to show thee, Thomas,” she said, “and it is thus that thou canst see them best.”

Thomas did as he was bid, and when he laid his head against the Fairy Queen’s knee, he saw three roads stretching away before him through the sand.

One of them was a rough and narrow road, with thick hedges of thorn on either side, and branches of tangled briar hanging down from them, and lying across the path. Any traveller who travelled by that road would find it beset with many difficulties.

The next road was smooth and broad, and it ran straight and level across the plain. It looked so easy a way that Thomas wondered that anyone ever wanted to go along the narrow path at all.

The third road wound along a hillside, and the banks above it and below it were covered with beautiful brackens, and their delicate fronds rose high on either side, so high, indeed, that they would shelter the wayfarer from the burning heat of the noonday sun.

“That is the best road of all,” thought Thomas to himself; “it looks so fresh and cool, I should like to travel along it.”

Then the lady’s voice sounded in his ears. “Seest thou that narrow path,” she asked, “all set about with thorns and briars? That is the Path of Righteousness, and there be but few, oh, so few! who ever ask where it leads to, or who try to travel by it. And seest thou that broad, broad road, that runs so smoothly across the desert? That is the Path of Wickedness, and I trow it is a pleasant way, and easy to travel by. Men think it so, at least, and, poor fools, they do not trouble to ask where it leads to. Some would fain persuade themselves that it leads to Heaven, but Heaven was never reached by an easy road. ’Tis the narrow road through the briars and thorns that leads us thither, and wise are the men who follow it. And seest thou that bonnie, bonnie road, that winds up round the ferny brae? That is the way to Fairyland, and that is the road which lies before us.”

Here Thomas was about to speak, and to remonstrate with her for carrying him away, but she interrupted him.

“Hush,” she said, “thou must be silent now, Thomas; the time for speech is past. Thou art on the borders of Elfland, and if ever mortal man speak a word in Elfland, he can nevermore go back to his own country.”

So Thomas held his peace, and climbed sadly on the palfrey’s back, and once more they started on their awful journey. On and on they went. The beautiful road through the ferns was soon left behind, and great mountains had to be crossed, and steep, narrow valleys, until at last, far away in the distance, a splendid castle appeared, standing on the top of a high hill.

It was built of pure white marble, with massive towers, and lovely gardens stretched in front of it.

“That castle is mine,” said the lady proudly. “It belongs to me, and to my husband, who is the King of this country. He is a jealous man, and one greatly to be feared, and, if he knew how friendly thou and I have been, he would kill thee in his rage. Remember, therefore, what I told thee about keeping silence. Thou canst talk to me, an thou wilt, if an opportunity offers, but see to it that thou answerest no one else. There are knights and squires in abundance at my husband’s court, and doubtless they would fain question thee about the country from whence thou art come, but thou must pay no heed to them, and I shall pretend that thou talkest in an unknown tongue, and that I learned to understand it in thine own country.”

While she was speaking, Thomas was amazed to see that a great change had passed over her again. Her face grew bright, and her gray gown vanished, and the green mantle took its place, and once more she became the beauteous being who had charmed his eyes at the Huntly Burn. And he was still more amazed when, on looking down, he found that his own raiment was changed too, and that he was now dressed in a suit of soft, fine cloth, and that on his feet he wore velvet shoon.

The lady lifted the golden horn which hung from a cord round her neck, and blew a loud blast. At the sound of it all the squires, and knights, and great court ladies came hurrying out to meet their Queen, and Thomas slid from the palfrey’s back, and walked humbly at her elbow.

As she had foretold, the pages and squires crowded round him, and would fain have learned his name, and the name of the country to which he belonged, but he pretended not to understand what they said, and so they all came into the great hall of the castle.

At the end of this hall there was a dais, and on it were two thrones. The King of Fairyland was sitting on one, and when he saw the Queen, he rose, and stretched out his hand, and led her to the other, and then a rich banquet was served by thirty knights, who offered the dishes on their bended knees. After that all the court ladies went up and did homage to their Royal Mistress, while Thomas stood, and gazed, and wondered at all the strange things which he saw.

At one side of the hall there was a group of minstrels, playing on all manner of strange instruments. There were harps, and fiddles, and gitterns, and psalteries, and lutes and rebecks, and many more that he could not name. And when these minstrels played, the knights and the gay court ladies danced or played games, or made merry jokes amongst themselves; while at the other side of the hall a very different scene went on. There were thirty dead harts lying on the stone floor, and stable varlets carried in dead deer until there were thirty of them stretched beside the harts, and the dogs lay and licked their blood, and the cooks came in with their long knives and cut up the animals, in the sight of all the court.

It was all so weird and horrible that Thomas wondered what manner of folk he had come to dwell among, and if he would ever get back to his own country.

For three days things went on in the same manner, and still he looked and wondered, and still he spoke to no one, not even to the Queen.

At last she spoke to him. “Dress thee, and get thee gone, Thomas,” she said, “for thou mayest not linger here any longer. Myself will convey thee on thy journey, and take thee back safe and sound to thine own country again.”

Thomas looked at her in amazement. “I have only been here three days,” he said, “and methought thou spakest of seven years.”

The lady smiled.

“Time passes quickly in this country, Thomas,” she replied. “It may not appear so long to thee, but it is seven long years and more, since thou camest into Fairyland. I would fain have kept thee longer; but it may not be, and I will show to thee the reason. Every seven years an evil spirit comes, and chooses someone out of our court, and carries him away to unknown regions, and, as thou art a stranger, and a goodly fellow withal, I fear me his choice would fall on thee; and although I brought thee here, and have kept thee here for seven years, ’twill never be said that I betrayed thee to an evil spirit. Therefore this very night we must be gone.”

So once more the gray palfrey was brought, and Thomas and the lady mounted it, and they went back by the road by which they had come, and once more they came to the Eildon Tree.

The sun was shining when they arrived, and the birds singing, and the Huntly Burn tinkling just as it had always done, and it seemed to Thomas more impossible than ever that he had been away from it all for more than seven years.

He felt strangely sorry to say farewell to the beautiful lady, and he asked her to give him some token that would prove to people that he had really been in Fairyland.

“Thou hast already the Gift of Truth,” she replied, “and I will add to that the Gift of Prophecy, and of writing wondrous verses; and here is a harp that was fashioned in Fairyland. With its music, set to thine own words, no minstrel on earth shall be to thee a rival. So shall all the world know for certain that thou learnedst the art from no earthly teacher; and some day, perchance, I will return.”

Then the lady vanished, and Thomas was left all alone.

After this, he lived at his Castle of Ercildoune for many a long year, and well he deserved the names of Thomas the Rhymer, and True Thomas, which the country people gave him; for the verses which he wrote were the sweetest that they had ever heard, while all the things which he prophesied came most surely to pass.

It is remembered still how he met Cospatrick, Earl of March, one sunny day, and foretold that, ere the next noon passed, a terrible tempest would devastate Scotland. The stout Earl laughed, but his laughter was short, for by next day at noon the tidings came that Alexander III., that much loved King, was lying stiff and stark on the sands of Kinghorn. He also foretold the battles of Flodden and Pinkie, and the dule and woe which would follow the defeat of the Scottish arms; but he also foretold Bannockburn, where

“The burn of breid
Shall run fow reid,”

and the English be repulsed with great loss. He spoke of the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, under a prince who was the son of a French Queen, and who yet had the blood of Bruce in his veins. Which thing came true in 1603, when King James, son of the ill-fated Mary, who had been Queen of France as well as Queen of Scots, began to rule over both countries.

In view of these things, it was no wonder that the fame of Thomas of Ercildoune spread through the length and breadth of Scotland, or that men came from far and near to listen to his wonderful words.

Twice seven years came and went, and Scotland was plunged in war. The English King, Edward I., after defeating John Baliol at Dunbar, had taken possession of the country, and the doughty William Wallace had arisen to try to wrest it from his hand. The tide of war ebbed and flowed, now on this side of the Border, now on that, and it chanced that one day the Scottish army rested not far from the Tower of Ercildoune.

Beacons blazed red on Ruberslaw, tents were pitched at Coldingknowe, and the Tweed, as it rolled down to the sea, carried with it the echoes of the neighing of steeds, and of trumpet calls.

Then True Thomas determined to give a feast to the gallant squires and knights who were camped in the neighbourhood such a feast as had never been held before in the old Tower of Ercildoune. It was spread in the great hall, and nobles were there in their coats of mail, and high-born ladies in robes of shimmering silk. There was wine in abundance, and wooden cups filled with homebrewed ale.

There were musicians who played sweet music, and wonderful stories of war and adventure went round.

And, best of all, when the feast was over, True Thomas, the host, called for the magic harp which he had received from the hands of the Elfin Queen. When it was brought to him a great silence fell on all the company, and everyone sat listening breathlessly while he sang to them song after song of long ago.

He sang of King Arthur and his Table, and his Knights, and told how they lay sleeping under the Eildon Hills, waiting to be awakened at the Crack of Doom. He sang of Gawaine, and Merlin, Tristrem and Isolde; and those who listened to the wondrous story felt somehow that they would never hear such minstrelsy again.

Nor did they. For that very night, when all the guests had departed, and the evening mists had settled down over the river, a soldier, in the camp on the hillside, was awakened by a strange pattering of little feet on the dry bent of the moorland.

Looking out of his tent, he saw a strange sight.

There, in the bright August moonlight, a snow-white hart and hind were pacing along side by side. They moved in slow and stately measure, paying little heed to the ever-increasing crowd who gathered round their path.

“Let us send for Thomas of Ercildoune,” said someone at last; “mayhap he can tell us what this strange sight bodes.”

“Yea, verily, let us send for True Thomas,” cried everyone at once, and a little page was hastily despatched to the old tower.

Its master started from his bed when he heard the message, and dressed himself in haste. His face was pale, and his hands shook.

“This sign concerns me,” he said to the wondering lad. “It shows me that I have spun my thread of life, and finished my race here.”

So saying, he slung his magic harp on his shoulder, and went forth in the moonlight. The men who were waiting for him saw him at a distance, and ’twas noted how often he turned and looked back at his old tower, whose gray stones were touched by the soft autumn moonbeams, as though he were bidding it a long farewell.

He walked along the moor until he met the snow-white hart and hind; then, to everyone’s terror and amazement, he turned with them, and all three went down the steep bank, which at that place borders the Leader, and plunged into the river, which was running at high flood.

“He is bewitched! To the rescue! To the rescue, ere it be too late!” cried the crowd with one voice.

But although a knight leaped on his horse in haste, and spurred him at once through the raging torrent, he could see nothing of the Rhymer or his strange companions. They had vanished, leaving neither sign nor trace behind them; and to this day it is believed that the hart and the hind were messengers from the Queen of the Fairies, and that True Thomas went back with them to dwell in her country for ever.