Scotlands Culture\|Scotlands Stories

Story of Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas of Ercildoune lived in Berwickshire in the Border in the 13th century. He was well known as a poet, but he was also called True Thomas and was renowned for his gift of prophesy. All this came about one fine May day as he sat under a tree by the banks of the Huntly Burn enjoying the sweet scent of flowers on the warm breeze; at one with the nature that surrounded him. Suddenly he heard the sound of tinkling bells and a horse’s hooves on the soft ground and a rustling among the ferns. Hounds danced around in excitement as a white horse with fifty nine tiny silver bells hanging from its mane pushed its way through the bushes and undergrowth and walked over to where Thomas sat in amazement. While the horse was beautiful to behold, the woman that rode it was like a vision of loveliness that made Thomas’s head spin. She worse a silk dress of emerald green and around her shoulders hung a green velvet mantle over which her long, golden hair cascaded like sunbeams. A golden hunting horn was around her neck and a quiver of arrows hung by her side. Thomas thought that this must be the Blessed Virgin Mary and he knelt down on one knee and bowed his head before her.

'Greetings to thee, oh Queen of Heaven,' said Thomas.

The lady smiled and said, 'I am not the Queen of Heaven, as you think Thomas, but they do call me Queen. I am the Queen of Elfland.'

Thomas looked into those two deep pools of sparkling blue that were her eyes, and at her lips that were as red as ripe strawberries, and he couldn’t help but long to taste them to see if they were as sweet as they looked.

'I know what you desire Thomas,' said the Elf Queen, 'you want to kiss me.'

'That I do,' said Thomas, 'if I could be so bold.'

'You may kiss me if you like,' she said, 'but it comes at a price.'

'I would pay any price to kiss those lips,' said Thomas.

'If you kiss me, then you will be in my power, and you will have to come with me to Elfland where you will be my servant for seven years.'

'I gladly accept those terms,' said Thomas.

The Queen of Elfland got down off her horse and Thomas embraced her and their lips met. That kiss was sweeter than strawberries to Thomas, sweeter even than the honey from the wild bees’ nests. Once the kiss was over he fell completely under her spell. He mounted the white horse behind the Queen of Elfland, and they rode off on their long journey to Elfland.

Long they rode, onwards and on, until they seemed to ride down into the ground. They came to a river and the horse waded through it, although the water rose to Thomas’s thigh. Through rivers of water and through rivers of blood they rode until eventually they came to a green garden where the trees hung heavy with fruit. Thomas was hungry and he reached out to pluck some of this delicious looking fruit, but the Queen of Elfland stopped him, saying,

'This fruit is cursed and carries the plagues of Hell. To eat it would spell your doom.'

She took a loaf of bread and a flask of blood-red wine from a bag and invited Thomas to get down off the horse and eat it with her. They ate and drank, and then she told Thomas to lie down with his head in her lap so that she could grant him the power to see what was hidden from mortal eyes. He saw three roads lying head of them. The first road was broad and flat with pretty flowers growing by the sides of it. The second was steep and rocky and covered on both sides by high hedges of brambles and thorn bushes that thrust cruel barbs across the road. The third was a green road banked by ferns that ran up the hillside and through the heather and the broom. The Queen pointed to the first road, saying,

'That road which is flat and fair to look at is the path of wickedness and sin and it leads to Hell. The second road that is steep and covered with thorns is the path of righteousness that leads to Heaven. The third road leads through the hills is the road to Elfland, and that is the way that we must go.'

The Queen of Elfland gave Thomas a lovely red apple to eat, and told him, 'This apple will give you the gift of truth. Eat it and a lie will never again pass your lips.'

Thomas ate the apple, and after that he was incapable of telling a lie. That was why they called him True Thomas, because they knew that what he spoke was the truth.

After riding a long time they arrived at a large castle and the Queen blew her golden hunting horn to announce her arrival. She turned to Thomas and said:

'Now you must wait here as my servant, but whatever you do you must not speak to anyone but me. If you ever want to return to your home again, then talk to no one and don’t eat or drink anything you are offered. If you have but one mouthful of food in this land then you can never go back home.'

Inside the castle the Queen was warmly greeted by her husband and her subjects. Two large thrones sat at the end of the great hall and the King and Queen of Elfland sat there as the feasting started. There was music and dancing, but Thomas kept himself at the back of the room and spoke to no one. Huntsmen carried in the carcases of deer for the cooks to prepare for the dancers, and fruit was piled high on golden plates on the tables for all to enjoy. Three days passed like this until the Queen rose from her throne and walked over to where Thomas stood.

'It is time to ride home, Thomas,' said the Queen.

'But it has only been three days,' said Thomas, 'not seven years like you said.'

'The time passes quickly in Elfland Thomas,' said the Queen, 'and seven of your years have passed since you left Ercildoune. You must leave, because every seven years we folk of Elfland have to pay a tribute to the Lord of Darkness who has us in his power. An evil spirit will choose the one whose fate it is to be carried away to Hell, and as you are a fine looking young man, I fear that it will be you.'

With that Thomas mounted the white horse behind the Queen of Elfland and they rode away from the castle. After a while Thomas found himself by the banks of the Huntly burn once more, and had to say goodbye to the Queen of Elfland.

'Lady,' said Thomas, 'can you give me a gift to show that I was in Elfland?'

'I have already given you the gift of truth,' said the Queen, 'but I will give you the gift of prophesy and of poetry, which will make you a rich man. I will also give you this harp that was made in Elfland, as something that mortal eyes can see to be real.'

With that the lady left Thomas, who returned to his old home.

Thomas used his gift of prophesy to foretell many great events in Scotland, like the death of King Alexander III, the Battle of Bannockburn and the union of Scotland and England under a king born of a French queen. These prophesies were given in verse, which led to him being called Thomas the Rhymer. It was said that one night word was brought to Thomas that a strange sight was to be seen outside the walls of his tower; a snow-white hart and hind were walking along the village street and showed no sign of fear. Thomas knew that this was a message from the Queen of Elfland and he went to where the deer stood and they turned and walked towards the forest followed by Thomas the Rhymer, who was never seen again.

© Tom Muir.

May be freely used within schools and early years centres in Scotland.

Rights of reproduction for commercial purposes are strictly not permitted without prior written permission