Thomas the Rhymer
Young Thomas of Ercildoune walked out one May morning along I Huntlie Burn,
that lovely stream that rushes down the slopes of the Eildon Hills. He
had come a long way and lay down to rest on the greening banks.
As he lay there, half dreaming, he heard the sound of horse's hooves and
the tinkling of what sounded like a hundred tiny bells.
up, he spied a beautiful lady riding toward him on a line horse. She wore
a hunting dress of glistening grass-green silk and a velvet mantle of the
same hue. On her head was a diadem of precious stones. On every tuft of
her horse's mane was hung a silver bell.
leaped up and snatched off his cap, then fell to one knee. "Hail to thee,
queen of Heaven," he cried, "for thy peer on Earth I have never seen."
threw back her head and laughed, and her laugh was even lovelier than bells.
"I am neither queen on Earth or in Heaven. I am the queen of fair EIfland,
come to visit here for a while."
Thomas all but fell in a swoon before her. "Pray give me a kiss, lady,
or I will die." He said it knowing the power of the fairy queen, but he
was already in her thrall.
"A kiss you shall have, Thomas," she replied. And then she kissed him on
At the very meeting of their lips, he felt such sweetness, he almost fainted,
but when he opened his eyes, he no longer saw the beautiful queen before
him. In her place was an old hag, her face a mass of deep, wrinkles
and her silken gown a gray rag.
"Am I no longer fair, my Thomas'?" asked the queen.
He could not speak, neither yea nor nay.
She smiled, and the smile did not go all the way to her eyes. "It does
not matter, my lad, for with that kiss you are mine for seven years."
"Mercy," Thomas said, a small word for such a big request. "No, no
mercy, Thomas. You asked for the kiss without asking the price.
Now you must pay its worth without complaint. Seven full years you
must dwell with me. So mount up behind."
He could not disobey. So with many a sigh and groan of terror, he
got up behind her and away they went, leaving the land of the living behind.
They rode on and on and on, coming at last to a broad desert where three
roads lay before them. One was broad and level, and it ran straight
across the sand. One was narrow and winding with a thorn on one side
and a briar on the other. The third was a bonnie road, winding easily
among the bracken and heather.
"Which road would you choose, my Thomas?" asked the queen. But before
he could reply, she added: "That broad road is the way to Hell, and the
narrow one the way to Heaven. But the third road is the way to Elfland
where you and I must go."
Sitting behind the queen, Thomas shivered, though he was not cold.
"One warning I will give you, Thomas, before we get to my kingdom."
"I hear, my lady," he whispered from behind her.
"If you ever hope to see your home in Ercildoune again, you must guard
your tongue. Do not speak a single word in Elfland to anyone but
me. For the mortal who opens his lips rashly in Elfland must bide
there forever and a day."
So off they trotted along the bonnie road, but it was not bonnie for very
long. Soon the way became tangled and dark. The air felt heavy
and dank. They crossed a river of blood, red and cold, and Thomas might
have fallen off and drowned but that he had his arms round about the old
And in this way they rode through darkness into light and came at last
to an orchard filled with fruit trees: pears and peaches and figs and dates.
"Stop, mistress, I beg you, and let me have something to eat, for I have
not had a bite this whole day."
The queen would not stop, saying only, "There is nothing here that you
can eat, save an apple I shall give you a little ways on, for if you have
a bite of anything but that which I give to you, you will remain in Elfland
So they rode on and on till they came at last to a small tree on which
grew seven red apples. The fairy queen reached up and plucked one.
She gave it to him, saying, "These apples are the Apples of Truth, and
once you have eaten but a single bite, you will never again be able to
tell a lie." Thomas ate the apple, pips and all, for he was that hungry.
As soon as he was done, he saw, that they were in Elfland proper, and suddenly
they were surrounded by all manner of strange folk: sprites and fairies,
pixies and elves, men with antlers and ladies with hooves, swan maidens
and seal maidens, and fiddlers and fools.
The fairy queen blew upon a hunting horn that hung at her side. At the
sound of the blast, she changed back into the beautiful lady, young and
handsome, in grass - green silk. And lo! Thomas was transformed as
well, his rough country clothes now a silken suit, and on his feet satin
"This is True Thomas," the queen said to the Elfland folk who assembled
before her. "He cannot speak. Nor will he for the seven years he
lives among us. And so it was. One day and the next and the
Thomas was astonished at everything he saw: the fairy ladies with their
wings, the pixie men with their red caps, the nuggles and the boggles and
the fairy fiddlers who played tunes that made the heart to sing and the
feet to dance.
Three days and three nights he was at the fairy court and did not say a
At the end of that time, the fairy queen came to him and said, "You must
mount behind me and ride, True Thomas, if you would ever see your home
He shook his head in amazement. "But I have been here only three days."
The fairy queen smiled. "Time passes strangely for mortals in fairyland.
Though it has been but three days here, it has been seven years on the
Earth. I would have you stay longer, but for your own sake, True
Thomas, you must go. Every seven years we here in Elfland must pay
a tithe to Hell. The Devil himself comes to pick one soul, and as
you are such a goodly fellow, I fear it might be you."
So up behind her Thomas mounted again, and they passed across the river
of blood and through the darkness to the light, arriving at last at where
the three roads came together.
There the queen turned and said, "Thomas, I have given you the gift of
Truth, but I shall give you the gift of Prophecy as well, for you were
a fine servant for seven years and did not once speak. And because
humans do not believe what they cannot see, I will give you a fairy harp
as well, so you can make the sweetest music ever heard by man."
"But I cannot play," Thomas said.
"The harp will teach you how," she answered. Then she bade him dismount
and before he could say good-bye, she was gone on the bonnie road and out
Thomas of Ercildoune found his way back home, and his friends and family
were surprised to see him alive, for he had been gone seven long years,
and they thought him dead for sure. Indeed no one but his old dog
recognized him at first, for Thomas was gaunt and wild-eyed, and his beard
had grown down to his belt.
But at last shaven and shorn, he was welcomed home where, with his gift
for the truth, they called him True Thomas. And because of his gift
for poetic prophecies that always came true, they called him Thomas the
Rhymer as well.
He married a local girl and raised a family, and in time, when his father
died, he became the Laird of Ercildoune.
So for fourteen years, which he thought must be but six days in Faerie,
Thomas spoke truly and played his fairy harp. He was a generous laird,
good to his tenants, and fair.
Then one evening he gave a great feast for all the Scottish armies that
were resting by the banks of the Tweed, not far from his home.
That night after the feast, a soldier on guard in the encampment saw a
snow-white hart and hind going slowly along the road between their camp
and Thomas's tower home.
The captain sent a message to Ercildoune asking if True Thomas could tell
them the meaning of such a wonder. Would they win their battle or lose
Thomas was in bed when the messenger came, but he sat up at once. "It is
a summons from the queen of Elfland," he said. "It has come at last."
He arose, got dressed, and followed the boy back to camp. But instead
of speaking to the captain or his men, Thomas went straight up to the white
deer. The deer paused for a moment, nodding as if greeting him. Then
the three of them disappeared down an embankment and were gone from sight.
The soldiers searched through the night and into the dawn, but Thomas of
Ercildoune was never seen again. The folks who knew said that he
had gone back along the bonnie road to Elfland where his heart had ever
been, leaving wife and family and Ercildoune far behind.