Thursday 21 July 2016

Thomas the Rhymer: King of the Fairies

In The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Volume 82 (1818), a correspondent shares the tale of how the Fairy King was born… 


[The following communication, which is from the pen of a very respectable and worthy correspondent, will, we apprehend, be interesting to such of our readers as are gratified by the preservation of the fast-fading remains of the popular superstitions and peculiar dialect of our old Scottish peasantry. The author had prefixed a short introduction to his paper, in which he strenuously defends the almost exploded doctrine of “the visible interference of spirits” in human affairs, - professes himself a determined adherent to the ghostly creed of his venerable grandmother - and, moreover, gravely professes his actual belief in the “Fairy Mythology,” of which he has given such curious details; but as we are not quite sure that we rightly understand our author's meaning or real “mood of mind,” in this singular introduction, we have for the present withheld it from the public. We are happy, however, in the prospect of soon hearing from him again, in continuation. - Edit.]


During my infancy, it was the custom, at rockings, to entertain each other with stories of apparitions and unearthly visitations; a numerous collection of fairy tales, also, formed part, and no inconsiderable part, of the general amusement; and he was esteemed the most acceptable rocker, whose memory was most plentifully stored with such thrilling narratives. But a very great change has taken place within these fifteen years, the date to which my recollection reaches. The inhabitants of Clydesdale, for I speak of that portion of Scotland only with which I am most intimately acquainted, in place of frequently meeting and entertaining each other with the romantic traditionary lore of former times, seldom have any merry meetings at all; and when one does happen to take place, the conversation even of the very youngest persons present is either about the shortest and surest way to riches, or else consists of puerile scandal concerning absent lads and lasses. With extreme interest and with delight, mingled with piercing terror, have I formerly listened, however, every night for weeks and months to these fearful tales; and as my memory is pretty deeply imbued with the mythology of at least my native county, if it be consistent with the plan of your Magazine, I shall tend you from time to time a short account of the Fairies, Brownies, Witches, Kelpies, &c. who still linger amongst our hills and glens, as loth to forsake that beloved land wherein they formerly reigned so long with unquestioned dominion.

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful ThingsThe first of my little essays shall be upon the Fairies; but I must be permitted to observe, that after the detailed and extremely interesting memoir on the fairy superstition introduced into the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, it would be a presumptuous work of supererogation in your humble correspondent, as well as a thankless labour, were he to attempt to give a fuller or more explicit account of this most elegant branch of our national mythology. But notwithstanding all the multifarious anecdotes which the indefatigable industry of Mr Scott has collected, several curious traditions have escaped his search, which tend in some degree to shew, that the opinions of the “people of the west” concerning the Fairy Folk, though in general agreeing with those of the romantic borderers, yet differ from them in various particulars.

 According to popular belief in most parts of Scotland, the fairies are under the dominion of a Queen, but in Clydesdale, at least in the Upper Ward, they have a King to rule over them, who is no less a personage than Thomas the Rhymer, who now for many centuries has swayed the Elfin sceptre with great splendour. He obtained the monarchy neither by conquest nor election, but by a transference of the queenly power, to which their ancient and legitimate sovereign was compelled by the great love which she bore for “True Thomas”. According to an old traditionary ballad, an indisputable authority in these matters, but which I cannot at present completely recover, Thomas, while a young man,

“-gade doun to the cashie wud 
   To pu; the roses braw,
An’ the blossoms that hing frar the rowan tree 
"Under the Eildon tree Thomas met the lady."   As white as the driftit snaw.

The ouzel an’ the mavis grey 
   Rejoicit in their sang,
An’ the lustie cushat scoup’t through the shaw,
   An’ currooit the trees amang.

The eerie scaddows o’ the aiks,
   Fell black ower the skinklan grun’ 
As frae a heap o’ blude-reid cluds 
   Brast furth the mornin’ sun.

He faadnae call’d on the Halie Name 
   That scugs in the evil hour,
An; thraws a bield roun’ sinfu’ man, 
   Frae the blasts o’ fairy power, 
Whan he was aware of a lady fair 
   Come out of a birken bower.

Her rude was redder than rose on rice 
   On Caimie-castle lea 
Her teeth was the dew on the heather-bell,
   The diamon’ stane her ee; 
Her mantle greener nor the gerse 
   Soup’t doun alang the grun’. 
At the turn o’ her ee the branches swirl’t
   As muv’t by a whirlwin’.

To Thamas sho cam ridin’ up 
   Wi’ mickle state an’ pride,
An’ ye maun gang wi’ me. luve Thamas,
   I’ll be your winsome bride;
An’ we will lig in the brumie braes,
   Or daff in the birken shaw, 
An’ tak our till o’ drouerie,
   An’ nae man can it knaw.”

 Thomas rather ungallantly persists in refusing to comply with the request of the queen, though her Elfin Majesty presses her suit in terms which I beg leave not to be compelled to repeat. The virtue of Thomas is inflexible, till at last the princess offers him her hand, and along with it her crown, with perpetual sovereignty over Fairy Land.

 Plate from The Song of Los
“An’ I will gie to thee luve Thamas,
   My han’ but an’ my crown,
An’ thou shalt ring ower Fairy Lan’
   In joy an’ grit renown. 

An’ I will gie to thee, luve Thamas,
   To live for evermare,
Thine arm sail never feckless grow,
   Nor hoary wax thy hair:
Nae chaneran grief we ever thole,
   Nae wastan pine we dree, 
An endless life’s afore thee placed 
   O’ constant luve an; lee.”

These were no doubt alluring offers, and the temptation, as was to have been expected, proved too powerful for the virtue of the poor Rhymer, who from thenceforward became King of the Fairies.

Next week, we return to Clysedale for more tales of the fairies!


Sarah said...

I know the version of True Thomas that was used and sung by Steeleye Span, which I also have in a book of myth and rhyme from the British Isles. Span anglicised the lyrics somewhat, and here's their version with links to notes!
and here is the proper version from Mudcat Cafe, THE best site for traditional songs:
this one has a glossary at the end. He was a lot more willing to be taken in this version!

Catherine Curzon said...

Haha, I suspect so too!

Unknown said...

That version is on "Songs of Witchcraft and Magic" CD from Museum of Witchcraft.

Catherine Curzon said...

I didn't know that, wonderful!