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Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland

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Would you want the power to foresee the future? And what if you were forced to tell the truth as well! Do you think people would want to hear what you had to say?
Well this was the choice given one young man, back in the 13th century. He became Scotland's greatest prophet and became as known as 'True Thomas' or 'Thomas the Rhymer'. But how did Thomas came upon his gifts? That is one of the strangest tales of all.

Thomas was born about 1220 and lived near Ercildoune, (now Earlston) in Berwickshire. Close to his home, there was a grove of trees on the banks of the Huntly Burn. Thomas was a writer and poet and loved to lie under one special tree, to play his lute or find inspiration for his work.

One fine day in May, as the young man lay under his tree, to the sound of the birds singing, he saw a beautiful woman on a graceful dapple-grey horse. She was dressed in green silk and velvet and on the locks of her horse's mane there hung 59 silver bells. Her saddle was pure ivory set with precious stones and the bridle was pure gold. A horn hung around her neck and in her belt was a sheath of arrows.

Thomas bowed to the beautiful lady who, he said, must be the Queen of Heaven as he had never seen her like on earth. She replied that she was not the Queen of Heaven but the Queen of Elfland. Thomas was captured by her beauty and the rash young poet readily agreed to kiss her underneath his favourite tree, even though she warned him that, should he kiss her, he would then be in her power.

They kissed and before his eyes she became old and grey, her beauty vanished and her clothes turned to rags. She told him he must serve her for seven years through wealth or woe. The Elf Queen mounted her horse and commanded him to mount behind her. Thomas found he was forced to obey her command.

They galloped towards the Eildon Hills, which opened before them and they entered the caverns of the earth. So swiftly did the horse gallop it seemed they were going faster than the wind.

For many days and nights they rode through the darkness. There was no sun or moon just the roaring of the sea. At times they waded through streams of red blood. For all the blood that was shed on earth ran through the springs of the country through which they were travelling.

At last they came to a beautiful garden full of fruit trees. Thomas was very hungry and wanted to eat some of the fruit but the Queen warned him not to touch it, for it was cursed. If he ate of the fruit, she said, his soul would go to hell. So she offered him bread and wine.

While they rested, she bid Thomas lay his head on her knee and she would show him three wonderful visions. The first vision was of a difficult narrow road, lined with thorns and briars. That, she said, was the path of goodness, which leads to the city of god, a path which few take.

Then she showed him a broad road where roses and lilies bloomed by the wayside. That, she said, was the easy path of wickedness, though some thought it the path to heaven. Then she showed him a fair green road that twisted between wooded rocky glades. Small falls of water ran down the rocks and glistened in the sunlight. That, she said, was the road to the faerie lands where they were going that night.

Once more they rode hard and fast until they saw before them a lovely castle standing on a high hill. Before they entered she warned him that her Lord was served by many knights. He would not be pleased that Thomas had been bold enough to kiss his lady. He must hold his tongue and he must answer none but the Elf Queen herself. If he did not do this, she said, he would never return to his own country.

Suddenly the Queen once more shone with beauty; her clothes became as green as the leaves of spring, and a velvet cloak hung around her shoulders. Her eyes flashed and her long black hair caught the breeze.

Thomas looked down and saw that he too was now clothed in a suit of beautiful soft cloth, and on his feet were a pair of green velvet shoes. The lady raised her horn and blew a note so clear and loud and rode towards the castle gate.

All the court knelt low before the Queen. Thomas followed at her side and the Knights crowded around to ask him tales of his own land but Thomas stayed silent. Inside the castle, the great hall was full of feasting and fun. Beautiful ladies and knights danced happily to the wild music of the harps and lutes.

For seven years he served the Queen in that strange and magic land. The sights he saw passed as if in a dream. It seemed to Thomas that little more than three days had elapsed, when the Elf Queen came to him and told him he must leave. The time had come round, she said, when a tribute had to be paid to Hell. An evil spirit would come and claim their most favoured guest. Thomas was likely to be chosen, so she must guide him back to the world of men.

She brought him again to the border of his own world and sadly he left the Faerie kingdom. Before he left, she pulled an apple from a tree and gave it to Thomas.
"This," she said, "is your wages, for it will give you a tongue that can never lie." He protested that it was a gift he neither wanted nor thought to own, but the Queen insisted.

Then she told him to choose between becoming a great Harper or a great Prophet. He chose the skill of prophesy. He pressed her to stay and for a while they talked and she showed some of the future to him but Thomas wanted more. Finally, she promised they would meet again when she sent two messengers to fetch him. With these words she left.

Thomas then fell asleep and awoke on Huntly Bank under the Eildon tree, where he first saw the Queen. So Thomas returned to the upper-world with the gift of prophesy and a tongue that could never lie. At home, seven long years had passed by and the villagers stared with open mouth as they saw him once again: Where had he been? What had happened?

Thomas used the gifts the Queen had given him to see into the future and tell of many events that would be important for Scotland. He became very famous and people said his skills were as great of those of the most famous magician, Merlin. Thomas made his predictions in the form of songs or rhymes and became known as 'Thomas the Rhymer'.

Thomas's fame spread through Scotland and he became rich. He built a great tower in Ercildoune and each year held a banquet for the villagers. Many years passed and Thomas still missed the Elfland Queen.

One day, during the banquet, news came that, in the village, there walked side by side a hart and a hind, each as white as newly fallen snow, unafraid of the crowd that had gathered to watch.

It was then that Thomas made his final prophesy: he said, "My sand is run; my thread is spun; those messengers are for me."
He set out towards tree under which he had first met the Elf Queen. He was never seen again.

It is believed that Thomas returned to the Faerie kingdom. Today, by the banks of the river Leader, the ruins of an old tower can still be seen, thought to be the home of the ancient prophet. Although Thomas has long gone, his prophesies remain.

Thomas predicted many things: the death of Alexander III, that Robert the Bruce would become king of Scotland, the Scots' defeat at the Battle of Flodden and the defeat of Mary, Queen of Scots' forces in 1567. Thomas' prophesies were so respected that they were even consulted before the Jacobite Uprisings in 1715 and 1745. Like many prophets he also foretold the end of the world:

'When the Cows o' Gowrie come to land,
The Judgement Day is near at hand.'

The Cows of Gowrie are two islands off Ivergowrie, that are rumoured to approach the land at one inch per year. It seems, therefore, that the world will continue for some time yet.

However, we may not have heard the last of Thomas, for local legend says that he lives on in the hollow Eildon hills and one day, like Merlin, he will return to help Scotland in her hour of greatest need.

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