Friday 27 July 2012

Tam Lin

by Gillian Philip
Carterhaugh, a farm on the Buccleuch Estate, here seen across the Ettrick Water.  
As a child I don’t think I was aware of the story of TAM LIN, one of many mortal men stolen away by the Queen of the Faeries. I’m not even sure when I first read or heard such tales; stories of the faery people were simply a kind of background music that I gradually noticed and that came to fascinate me. Tam Lin is just one variation on a theme that sometimes has a happy ending, more often less so: a mortal – more often than not a man – is foolish or brave or naive enough to go away with the faeries.

There’s a recurring notion that once involved with the People of Peace, you’re going to need all your wits, courage and – usually – the help of a friend to get away. More often than not, even all of those aren’t enough, and that makes many of the stories melancholy.

Tam Lin is a little different, and that’s why I’m fond of it. The traditional ballad begins with a warning not to go to the woods of Carterhaugh, because young Tam Lin is there – a man who was taken by the Queen of the Faeries, who now protects their sacred woods, and who will demand a penalty of anyone who trespasses. Earlier versions are pretty clear about what that penalty will be... and when young Janet, whose father nominally owns the wood, dares to go there to pick roses, she comes back not just wildly in love, but pregnant.

Luckily the love is mutual, and Tam explains to Janet that the Queen of Elfland saved and took him when he fell from his horse in these woods. He is her prized mortal lover, but every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe of souls to Hell, and he fears that this Halloween, he will be the tithe. Janet can save him, and free him from the Queen’s thrall, but it will take huge courage. She must wait in the trees till she sees the faery folk ride in procession through the woods. She must let the first two horses pass, but when the third – a milk-white steed – appears, she must pull him down from it. 

The faeries, he warns her, will be enraged, and now will come the hard part. She has to hold onto him whatever happens, though they’ll morph him into many hideous forms to try to make her let go. Sure enough, when she does as he tells her and pulls him from his horse, he is turned into a snake, a newt, a bear, a lion, red-hot iron, then burning lead. Through all the transformations, Janet holds on  for dear life, and at the touch of the burning lead, forewarned by Tam, she tips her burden into the water of the nearby well. Tam climbs out, returned to his human form and free of servitude to the Queen. Though the Queens rails about the ‘theft’ of her dearest mortal, she sullenly admits defeat, and the young couple live, as they should, happily ever after.

Thomas Rhymer & the Queen of Elphame by Kate Greenaway
The story has many parallels and similarities in other traditions and tales – Thomas Rhymer, Cupid & Psyche, Childe Rowland, and even Beauty and the Beast: with the last, for instance, there’s the forbidden forest and the rose motif; the threatening inhuman figure with whom the heroine falls in love; his former identity as a noble young lord; and the fact that the heroine must go through dangers and horrors to rescue him. (There’s a theory that Beauty & the Beast is a later bowdlerisation of the Tam Lin story, leaving out the sex. I’ve always rather liked the Disney version more than their other ‘fairytales’, not least for its gutsy heroine, but it’s difficult to imagine it including ravishing among the roses followed by pregnancy...)

The reversal of ‘traditional’ fairytale roles is one of the most appealing aspects of Tam Lin. Tam is effectively helpless before the Faery Queen, though there’s nothing emasculated about him. It’s Janet who must free him, and she’s willing to undergo torments to do so. The fact that it all ends happily is unusual for a tale of the Faery Court. 

Belief in faeries is still strong in areas of Scotland, which isn’t wholly surprising. There are still places wild enough for the barriers between reality and ‘something else’ to seem remarkably, tangibly thin (not least the haunting Isle of Colonsay, whose former laird MacPhie seems to have had an unusual number of run-ins with the people of the Otherworld). Superstitions still exist quite strongly (my mother-in-law’s gardener swore no good would come of her telling him to cut down a rowan tree, and blamed the foul deed immediately when the house subsequently burned down). At a relative’s baptism I remember being quite sure that an aged aunt’s refusal to drink from a green cup was down to an unwillingness to offend the faeries. As it turned out the prejudice was an extreme sectarian one, but I can’t believe the two aren’t linked, somehow and somewhere in the past.

As for the disappearance of unfortunate mortals, there are surprisingly recent tales. Tomnahurich is a hill in the middle of Inverness that’s long been associated with the Otherworld. A local story tells of two buskers, dressed in kilts and carrying pipes (all perfectly normal) who seemed so disoriented and terrified among the traffic that they spent a night in the police cells. When they were brought before the sheriff next day – luckily a Gaelic speaker, since they could speak nothing else – they explained that their panic was down to the world seeming to have changed a great deal since last night, when they were offered good money to play at a gathering of lords and ladies beneath Tomnahurich hill. 

At a loss, the sheriff returned them for the time being to the cells, where a minister was summoned to the disturbed young men. As soon as he began to pray, and God’s name was mentioned, the young men, their instruments, and their payment all crumbled to dust.

It’s a fanciful story, and appears in many forms over the centuries, but in wilder landscapes it’s not hard to imagine another barely-seen world, repressed (perhaps temporarily...) by modernity and religion. Maybe that’s why the stories and their attached superstitions are resilient enough to survive into the contemporary world. 

Or possibly it’s because the fairy stories are so entangled with religion and superstition and the beliefs of even more ancient times. The Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle in Perthshire is believed to house the spirits of the local dead, in a way that echoes the far older beliefs of those who buried their dead in chambered cairns. Catherine Czerkawska’s play The Secret Commonwealth is the tale of Aberfoyle minister Robert Kirk, who wrote a book of the same title, and whose knowledge was thought to come straight from the faeries themselves. He’s another one who meddled with them at his own peril: angry at his betrayal of their secrets, the faeries were said to have faked his death while abducting him to the Otherworld. He came to his cousin in a dream, telling him of his captivity and promising to appear at his own funeral – at which moment the cousin must throw a knife over his head to free him. Kirk duly appeared – but alas, the cousin was too gobsmacked to perform the required act, and the minister was never seen again.

It’s a chilling and wonderful story, but in Czerkawska’s play it’s used also as a metaphor for the loss of the ancient beliefs, the gradual withdrawal of an older tradition before the Christian ascendancy. What’s so fascinating about the fairy traditions is the way they were not discarded, but woven into the new beliefs: loathed by the Church, becoming associated with the devil and necromancy – but never wholly dying out. 

Yet that mingling isn’t all bad. One of the loveliest cross-traditions, and my favourite, is the one – varying from region to region – that says the faeries are the rebel angels. Thrown out of Paradise by an angry God, the angels that fell into the sea became seals and seal people. The ones that were caught in the sky as they fell became the Merry Dancers, the Northern Lights. And the ones that fell on land? They became the Faeries.

Gillian Philip writes across genres: ‘anything that comes into my head, including fantasy, crime, science fiction and horror’. 'Bad Faith' is a Scottish-set dystopia about a society ruled by a tight-minded religious elite, and ‘Crossing the Line’ is a hard-edged thriller with a hint of the supernatural. As Gabriella Poole she has written the 'Darke Academy' series for Hothouse. 

Gillian’s 'Rebel Angels' series ('Firebrand', 'Bloodstone', and - out in August - 'Wolfsbane') have to be some of the best new fantasies of recent years. Beginning in the 16th century at a time of witch hunts and burnings, it follows the fortunes of Seth MacGregor, bastard prince of the Scottish faeries, the Sithe, and an attractive hero in every sense of the word: lover, warrior, and owner of a sinister and beautiful waterhorse from the loch.  The books are rooted in the history and folklore of Scotland, and quite unflinching about the cruelty and hardship of the times. The Sithe are ruled by a queen, Kate NicNiven, who is volatile, cruel and devious in the best traditions of fairy queens, and who deliberately stretches the loyalty of her subjects, Seth and his brother Conan included, almost to breaking point. There’s a protecting Veil between the land of the Sithe and the mortal world, and Kate wants to tear it away. And she invokes the help of some hauntingly unpleasant creatures called the Lammyr…
Picture credits: Carterhaugh:  The copyright on this image is owned by Richard Webb and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Thomas the Rhymer & the Queen of Elphame by Kate Greenaway, d. 1901. Wikimedia Commons. Cleaned up from a scan found at Winterspells


  1. Fascinating! I love the tale of Tam Lin and first became acquainted with it through Sandy Denny when she sang the old folk tale with Fairport Convention.

  2. Wonderful essay, thank you! There have been some fascinating re-tellings of this story, and novels based on it - I love Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, set in a liberal arts college in the 1970s.

  3. Oh I love that book too, Juliet! And Minerva, thanks for the comment and the link!

  4. Excellent post, and I do love Gillian's books :)

    I looked into some older faery traditions in Cumbria and came across the theory that faery processions - of which there are many stories - could be folk memory of ancient funeral processions. This seemed very fanciful until I saw that we have a lot of 'Elfhowes' (howe=hill) and similar, which link perfectly to all those stories of magical people living under hills (faeries, King Arthur, et al). A good quantity of those 'elf hills' have Bronze Age burial mounds on them.

    This is why I love folklore. Some of it is complete fiction, but some of it points the way to history that's *almost' forgotten.

  5. I have always loved the story of Tam Lin-ever since I was a little girl so I appreciated this off the bat but the more modern stories that have that Tam Lim feel were ones I was not familiar with-so fantastic!

  6. Love the story of Tam Lin, probably my favourite of all! Carterhaugh is a beautiful place, well worth a visit :) If you haven't come across it, there's a lovely version of the tale sung by Tricky Pixie:

  7. Tam Lin has always been one of my favorite stories as well -- mostly because the story creates a heroine whose power lies in her fertility. Janet (or Margaret) is heavily pregnant when she fights for Tam Lin and "re-births" him back into humanity through monstrous transformations until she succeeds in returning him to naked man in her arms. In some versions of the song, she gives birth immediately after rescuing Tam Lin.Frankie Armstrong's version of the song was my favorite -- very dramatic.

  8. The way this article presented itself in my reader, the title appeared to be "Tam Lin - by Gillian Phillip Carterhaugh". In the plain text, there was no comma until after the first word of the picture caption.

    That got my attention. For a moment I was expecting a family tell-all, until I realized my error. Very well done article. It's a favorite story with my children (the Jane Yolen version).

  9. I can see how that would get your attention, Josh! And yes, isn't the Jane Yolen version great? and with such amazing pictures too.

  10. I love the story so much I named my son for Tam Lin, which seemed a bit risky when we found ourselves househunting near Earlston, home of Thomas the Rhymer. In the end we moved south of the border, but the first thing I did was plant a rowan tree in the garden.

  11. I, too, came to the legend of Tam Lin via the ballad on Fairport Convention's Liege and Leaf album. I remember being transfixed by the haunting beauty of the words and Sandy Denny's voice - have been loved it ever since. There are few ways for us to discover fairy lore proper, Tam Lin is one of them.