“Harp and carp….”
This first ever episode is a retelling of a famous ballad from the Scottish borders. It features Elves, a bard, too much prophecy and some wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff.
An introduction to the podcast with one of my favourite stories of all time, the ballad is the first song I ever remember learning in childhood.
Audio quality might not be as good as some later episode, but hopefully the content is just as good.
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The story in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
Thomas the Rhymer
The scene opens on a vast medieval banqueting hall in the Scottish border town of Earlston.
There’s a grand feast going on and the guests are being entertained by the quite exceptional songmanship of a bard.
He took his audience to heights of joy and exaltation, and to depths of misery and despair: the whole rich tapestry of human experience is painted in the minstrel’s song.
As the night goes on his audience remain in rapture until late, late into the evening the final word of the final sad sad song is sung and the last note from the harp hangs in the air.
And then even the strongest and stoutest of the assembled lords find themselves wiping tears from their cheeks. And there is a rousing round of bellowing and applause for this the greatest bard in the land: Thomas The Rhymer.
But he was not always so.
Let’s go back some years. A very young Thomas is lying around on a hill, enjoying to the fullest the sights, sounds and pleasing floral aromas of this beautiful summer day.
A rider comes over a nearby hill. Not unusual in itself, but as she gets closer Thomas can see she that is something quite exceptional to behold: a green silk skirt, a velvet coat, her saddle studded with precious jewels, bells hanging around her horse bedecked with a golden bridle and crystal stirrups.
It probably goes without saying that she was devastatingly beautiful.
This was not the kind of sight that Thomas saw most days. Or indeed any days. It was worth getting up for.
So get up he did, and he met her by the Eildon tree. And he complimented her: “Lovely lady. You must be the Queen of heaven!”
She laughed gently and shook her head – “No, I am just of a different country. Simply out hunting.”
What precisely happened next is unclear – whether Thomas propositioned her or she him, but the consequence was the same, and she and Thomas made love under the tree.
They basked in the post coital glow when Thomas turned to his new found love… and at once recoiled away. For she was gone.. Or changed.. Into someone completely different. Her hair was grey, her face was hideous, her body looked like beaten lead.
He jumped up and tried to flee but she rose calmly behind him and informed him that he was now bound to serve her for seven years.
“And for that time you won’t see the moon nor stars, nor the leaves of the Eildon tree”,. And with that she grabbed hold of Thomas with supernatural strength, pulled him up onto her horse, and they set off at a gallop, riding under the tree and straight into the side of the hill.
Thomas and his kidnapper rode on through the darkness of the hill, water splashing around them. For three whole days they rode. The hunger and thirst eventually grew so much that Thomas had to plead that he would soon have no strength left in him if he could not eat and drink.
Perhaps the need for sustenance at such an interval had simply not occurred to his otherworldly abductress, as upon his words they emerged out of the hill and into a wondrous glade.
Light dappled the ground, fruit bearing trees of all types grew all around and exotic birds sang and played in their branches.
The hungry Thomas reached to pluck an apple and was quickly and firmly prevented from doing so by the woman, whose appearance had returned to be as beautiful as when they met.
“I’ve got wine and bread here and you can have tjat. For if you eat the the fruit here you’ll be damned to hell, forever. You’ve got a lot to learn.”
After they’d eaten Thomas felt far better, and they set off to travel again.
The Lady indicated three directions they could take – She pointed one way to a route narrow and boarded by briars and nettles, “The Road to Heaven” she informed him. “But few take that difficult path”. In the opposite direction was a broad flat road. “The road to wickedness, well trodden.”
Finally she pointed to a third path, in between the other two, which wound around the green hill ahead. “And that, that is the road to fair-elf land, my country, of which I am Queen.” And that’s where we must go.
And a few moments after that Thomas and the Queen of the Elves were on the horse and off again.
Already overwhelmed with everything that happened to him, and unsure of what awaited him, Thomas didn’t need the news that “should the King find out what has happened between me and you it would be the worst for both of us. So I’ll tell him I took your voice at the Eildon tree. And you are talk to no one but me. Understand?”
But unfortunately that was the news he got
There were limited options here so the kidnapped Thomas simply nodded his agreement.
Cut to a couple of days later – and quite to Thomas’s surprise things were going well. Better than well in fact. Despite how he’d been forced to Elfland he was actually rather enjoying it.
Everyone had swallowed the mute line and accepted him as the Queen’s latest servant. And as such he was able to join in with the Elves day to day lives. Which consisted mostly of enjoying the pleasures of life: songs and banquets, dancing and hunting. It was a blissful, easy life.
Sitting there three days in he was actually thinking that this seven years was going to be a breeze.
It was of course at precisely this juncture that the Queen came up beside him: “You have got to leave, right now, I’m taking you back to the Eildon Tree.”
“What?” said the surprised Thomas, “but….. seven years?”
“Thomas – it has been almost seven of your years” said the Queen. But he didn’t have time to really digest this as she was adding – “and that means that we will have to pay a Tithe to hell. One soul. And if the fiend that comes from that place finds you here it will take you.”
“So up and come with me Thomas, and we will away from here.”
To the Eildon tree they returned, the Queen gave her thanks to Thomas, and turned to leave. But before she did Thomas, perhaps for the first time since they’d met, showed some initiative.
He’d been gone for seven years, apparently, he needed something to prove he wasn’t insane! “Lady, Give me some token that will show that I have spoken with you!”
Perhaps surprisingly she stopped, turned back to him. “I will give you gifts Thomas. Gifts unlike any mortal gifts.
You will be the greatest singer in all the land, you will never be able to tell a lie, and I will give you knowledge of what is to come.”
And it was that simple. He felt different, he knew that her words had been fulfilled. He was changed.
“Shall I see you again?” asked Thomas.
“Aye”, she replied, “when the Hind and Hart by moonlight roam, return here for me”
And with that she rode off into the hill.
The years passed. Thomas used his gifts to great effect, becoming renowned for his skill at song and his many prophecies. He lived a rich life. But though his time with her had been short he remembered the Elven Queen dearly.
And we’re back at the end of the feast we opened the story with. Or a couple of hours after it, when the guests have gone to bed.
Lord Douglas of Earlston has been woken from his sleep. For something most unusual is going on in the town below.
When he arrives on the scene he finds two deer, one a Stag, or Hart, and the other a doe, or hind walking calmly through the town together. An odd site to say the least.
Deliberately they strode across the snow carpeted streets, ignoring the astonished crowds that had begun to gather to watch them.
Lord Douglas surveyed the situation, stroked his chin for a little and considered: “Send for True Thomas for he knows of such things.” And so Thomas was roused from his bed and came himself to see what the disturbance was all about.
And, when he saw, he recalled those words from long ago. It was time.
He followed the hind and the hart down to the Eildon tree, stopping occasionally to cast a few glances back at the Castle and the Town, soaking in as much of the human world as he could for the final time.
And though Lord Douglas took up his fastest horse in pursuit he soon found he could see the man no more. And indeed, in all the lands of the living Thomas was never seen again.
“True Thomas sat on Huntley Bank. And he beheld a lady gay”– Maddie Prior
Featured Folklorist: Sir Walter Scott
You can read Walter Scott’s version of Thomas the Rhymer here: Thomas the Rhymer, by Walter Scott, and learn more about the man himself in the article below.
The ballad performed – Steeleye Span
You can get the whole story in record quick time by listening to the ballad sung by world famous folk band Steel Eye Span (of “All around my hat” fame).
While I don’t want to spoil the podcast I rather suggest that you do give it a listen. I’ve belted it out of tune many a time as a child and only slight less as an adult.
It includes the famous phrase that I somehow didn’t mention in the episode: “Harp and Carp”, which basically means to play and sing.
The Rhymer’s Stone and Earlston
Today a stone telling the story of the ballad has been erected in the Eildon Hills near the spot where the faithful meeting was meant to occur. A little way away is the village of Earlston where the Rhymer’s tower can be found.
According to legend this was Thomas’s very own castle. Capitalising on the huge fame of the place there’s a Rhymer’s Tower Coffee shop and Restaurant.
Sadly this was closed due to Covid restrictions at the time of my visit. But given I didn’t get time to climb the hill either, it’s all the more reason to go back and see if this time I can get abducted by the Elven Queen.
Artist Elven Queen: Ayy Kaplan
- Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders – Sir Walter Scott, 1803, Vol II
- Wikipedia Page – It’s a popular tale and Wikipedia is surprisingly good on this one!
- The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune: printed from five manuscripts; with illustrations from the prophetic literature of the 15th and 16th centuries – This was my primary source for the episode. It really goes on a bit if you want to get into it