Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland - origins
Who was Thomas?
The Elf Queen
Thomas the Rhymer or 'True Thomas', was a legendary character said to be the author of many verses that predicted the future.
The character is thought to be based on a real person -Thomas Rimor de Ercildoun or Thomas Learmonth. He was a 13th century Scottish laird and poet, born around 1220, near Ercildoune, now Earlston in Berwickshire.
Little is known for certain of his life but the traditions that have built up around him may be rooted in real events. He is mentioned in a charter dating from 1260-80 and also in the 1294 chartulary of the Trinity House of Solfra. This second charter mentions lands inherited by "Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun".
Living during the time of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, Thomas has also been associated with the nationalist cause. During Edward the First's ravaging of Scotland, he was thought to be an active traveller and seer. There are two theories about his death. The first is that he was murdered for political reasons and that he foresaw this death accurately. The second is that he lives on in the hollow Eildon hills and, like Merlin or Arthur, will one day return.
Thomas's fame was such that, until the late 1800's, many people continued to regard him with veneration, and continued to study his sayings. The magical hawthorn tree associated with the legend supposedly lived until 1814, when it was blown down in a gale. The local people apparently attempted to revive the roots with whisky. It did not work.
Thomas had prophesied that 'As long as the Thorn Tree stands, Ercledoune shall keep its lands.' In that same year, a chain of financial disasters struck the community, and all common land was sold in payment of debts. The site is now marked with a stone.
How did the myth arise?
Fairy ladies are very beautiful
The accuracy of what happened to Thomas has become confused over the centuries. As with many tales about heroes, it is a mix of fantasy and reality.
However, few stories have been taken as seriously as Thomas's meeting with the Queen of Elfland. After all, it was based on a real person and his predictions were written down.
The myth is essentially a "fairy story" but one which seeks to explain how Thomas was able to predict some of the most important events in Scottish history. The "fairies' gift" changes his life and gives him extraordinary powers. Many years ago it would have been thought that such abilities must have a supernatural cause.
Several different versions of the story exist but there are common threads running through every variation. Thomas is transported to Fairyland, where he serves the queen until she tells him to return with her. He returns with the ability to foretell the future.
This may seem a strange explanation to many people today, but many years ago belief in the fairy kingdom was widespread. This is not the only tale of a fairy woman capturing a handsome man. It has many elements in common with the Arthurian legend of Morgan le Fay and Ogier Le Danois and another Scottish "Tom" captured by the Faerie Queen in "Tam Lin". In both stories there is a beautiful fairy Queen, time is different in fairyland, and there are warnings about speech and behaviour.
It provides a description of what the fairy kingdom was meant to be like. A world so real, that some people have suggested that the fairies were based on an ancient race of people that were displaced to the margins of the land. The long distant memory of this, they say, is what led to the tales developing.* Although currently these ideas have fallen out of favour with scholars.
The idea that Thomas lives on, and will return to help Scotland in her hour of need, is a common theme that has also been applied to King Arthur and Merlin the Magician. It is also known in Ireland, where the Mighty Finn MacCool is thought to be sleeping in a cave, waiting to awaken and defend Ireland.
What of Thomas's Predictions?
The Battle of Bannockburn by W.Hole
Thomas is one of a number of prophets that left behind predictions in words, poems or music.
As with the prophecies of Nostradamus, some are hard to understand, others have been linked to important events such as:
- The death of King Alexander III in 1286
- Scottish success at the Battle of Bannockburn 1314
- The succession of Robert the Bruce to the throne
- The removal of Edward Balliol during second war of Scottish independence in 1332
- The battle of Halidon Hill, 1333
- The defeat of King James IV at Flodden in 1513
- The defeat of Mary Queen of Scots' forces at the Battle of Pinkie in 1567
There are many more predictions. Thomas was such an important figure that some leaders found it useful to support their own policy by linking their actions to Thomas's prophesies; undoubtedly some of these were made up. One such prophesy was the prediction of the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.
The first prediction of Thomas of Erceldoune's recorded in a manuscript is dated to before 1320, and he is referred to with other soothsayers in the Scalacronica, a French chronicle of English history begun in 1355.
Thomas's prophesies were consulted by the Jacobites before the Uprisings in both 1715 and 1745. From the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century, they were printed in Chapbooks. At one time most farm-houses in Scotland had a copy.
When was the story first told?
Where Thomas met the Elf Queen
The story was first written down a long time ago. Thomas's meeting with the fairy queen is the first part of a three part poem.
There are several versions of this meeting. The earliest was written a little before the middle of the fifteenth century, two others around 1450, the fourth later. The second and third parts of the poem were written down in an even later manuscript.
However, all four of the complete versions speak of an older story. The older story was thought to be the work of Thomas himself, written about his life, although no copies exist.
There is also a 14th or 15th century romance. The original story was probably a simplified version of this, without the prophecies. The romance can be dated to around 1401. It gives a narration of the legend and the strangeness felt by Thomas, during the course of his captivity in Faerie Land.
The Ballad was retold by Sir Walter Scott in his work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1804. A version was also published in Francis Child's 'The English and Scottish Popular Ballads' (1886-98).
We have included some of these versions on the site; why not listen to how the tale would have been told long ago?
The story of True Thomas also underlies two fantasy novels, Ellen Kushner's 'Thomas the Rhymer' and Diana Wynne Jones's 'Fire and Hemlock' (which blends the stories of Thomas Rhymer and Tam Lin). In recent years, a recording of the ballad has been made by the Scottish folk musician, Ewan MacColl.
*Rev. Peter Roberts 'The Cambrian Popular Antiquities'
An Introduction to the Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, 1875, by James Augustus Henry Murray.
Sir Walter Scott -'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders'
'The Romance of True Thomas and the Lady Gaye'