A retelling of the ballad of the Scottish borders
A second Scottish border ballad, this time with the wrong character named in the title and featuring our old friends the Fair Folk. Musical credits, sources and more at https://talesofbritainandireland.com/episode-2-tam-lin/ #myth #mythology #folklore #legends
“Gae ye not into Carterhaugh woods…”
This second episode there’s another ballad from the Scottish borders, featuring what might be one my favourite opening sequences to any story.
The titular character has clearly been chosen incorrectly, the Queen of the Elves makes another appearance, there’s tithes to pay, lust and its results, one BAMF woman and a climax which goes to some unusual places.
A very popular tale which has worked its way into all kinds of modern Faerie and Elf lore, song and fiction over the years.
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…
The warning to Janet was very clear. “Don’t you be going to Carterhaugh Woods. For Tam Lin is there at the well and none can go there without having him take their green mantles, rings or else their maidenhead”
”Yeah yeah..” said Janet, barely listening. “Hang on… what was that last bit again?”
“For in Carterhaugh Woods Tam Lin is to be found!”
“No, the other bit – the maidenhead bit..”
“And none can go there without having him take their green mantles, rings or else their maidenheads”
“Right…. Awful stuff, terrible, ermmm.. thanks for the heads up er… I’ve just got something I’ve got to do, you know, young woman stuff.
Back soon, but don’t wait up,” and with that Janet set straight off for Carterhaugh woods.
Janet was the daughter of the Lord of Cauterhaugh. She knew what she wanted and how to get it.
There was no sign of Tam Lin when she arrived, her hair braided, her skirt strategically pinned up. But she had an idea how elves worked. She saw the roses by the well. She took one up, and snapped its stem. As she snapped the stem of a second he was suddenly there.
“Why do you come here snapping roses?” he demanded.
“My father’s land this, I can do what I want”, said she.
“Is that so?” he asked stepping closer to her.
“It is” said she, stepping closer to him.
The air between them fair buzzed.
A few months later and it became apparent to the women of the castle that Janet had fallen pregnant. Out of wedlock.
This was at a time when such an event was a huge scandal with implications not just for Janet but for all her family.
Janet’s father, the Lord of Carterhaugh summoned his wayward daughter to the great hall. Demonstrating his considerable skills as a good dad he had his knights and advisors there with him too.
Prior to this meeting a few unwed Lords (usually much older, widowed gentleman) had approached Janet with what they thought was a plan for the best to both of them. They’d fess up, call the baby theirs, Janet could marry them and danger averted!
When she entered the hall a number of hopefuls were waggling their eyebrows indicating that now was the time to pick them.
“Now what is this I hear Janet?” asked her father.
“Let me be very clear father. I am with child as you will have heard. But there is no Laird within this Castle who shall give this child his name. My lover is an Eleven Lord, and I wouldn’t trade him for ten of these men.”
And at that she turned and out of the hall she strode leaving the Lairds a bristling and the ladies whispering under their breath words to the effect of “You go girl”.
Yet despite her bravado there was no disguising that this was a bad situation for Janet. But she had a plan. Back she went to the well. Elves knew about herbs didn’t they? She’d ask him about particular properties of some and put an end to it that way.
When he appeared to the snapping of rose stems he knew at once: “Why do you come here again picking at the roses, and intending to rid yourself of our child to be?”
“Ach, do not ask me such questions, how can I have a child with me a Christian woman, and you, an elf of the woods. If you have a better suggestion I’m all for it, but I ain’t seeing one.”
Tam Lin sighed deeply… and launched into his back story.
It turned out that despite his association with the Elves and the powers he possessed he had once been a human Knight who had become lost in a storm when out hunting. Thrown from his horse it seemed like he would die in a snow drift. But the Elven Queen had found him, and rescued him, of a sort.
More accurately she had kidnapped him. And worse still she had terrible designs upon him. For the Elves had an arrangement whereby they had to pay a tithe of one soul, given to hell every seven years. And Tam Lin was soon to be that payment.
Janet took a moment to digest this unexpected information, but quickly she turned her mind to its consequences both good and ill.
“So if you could somehow escape the Elves then we could be married. And raise our child together. And you would not have to go to hell. How do we do that?”
Janet was a non-nonsense woman of action.
“Normally I’d say it would be completely impossible,” said Tam Lin, but soon there will be a very very small chance. For tonight is, of course, Halloween, and the Elven host will tonight ride down to Miles Cross. At which point there will be a small opportunity that I could escape them. But it won’t be easy. I am bound by strong magics and it would be on you to do it. You would have to do exactly as I say and it would be awfully dang…”
Janet cut him off briskly. “Just tell me what I need to do.”
So that night, as midnight approached, the pregnant Janet slipped out of the castle and made her way to Miles Cross prepared to take on the might of the Faery Host. With her she brought a pail of water as per Tam Lin’s instructions.
Then she waited in the chilly night. After a long while she thought she heard the far away tinkling of tiny bells, as of a bridle, and then, quite suddenly, the gentle sound became a sudden rush as the horde appeared all together, right at the witching hour.
The ringing of the bells, the snort of horses, and the deep rumble of their hooves against grass filled the night with a roar of sound.
Janet stayed low, hidden where they couldn’t see her. Not that they’d be looking for a human foolish enough to be out at midnight on Halloween.
Two companies of riders passed her by. And in the third, as he’d said he would be, was Tam Lin.
And now Janet burst out of her hiding place. She ran to Tam Lin and bodily tore him from his horse, and summoning all her strength she dragged him back towards the pail of water.
The riders of the faery cavalry turned to look at her, as the transformations began.
The cloaked figure Janet was holding shifted beneath her and what had been her love was now a monstrous serpent, with deadly jaws dripping with poison. It seemed sure to bite her and every instinct told her to throw it and run. But she was made of the strongest stuff, and she trusted Tam Lin. So she did what he’d told her and she held on for dear life.
The snake jerked and twisted and changed and now Janet was holding tightly to a mighty bear, two clawed arms dangerously close to her face. She kept hold.
Then it changed again into a lion which gave a savage raw, and she was sure the weight of it would crush her, but she held on.
Change after change, things she’d never heard of, couldn’t imagine, until the bundle began to grow hot, unbearably blisteringly hot, and now she held a lump of burning iron. Which she dropped into the bucket of water. It hissed with tremendous force. Steam rose. And formed itself into a naked Tam Lin, who collapsed to the ground.
Janet’s heart leapt with joy, but it was only now that she had time to turn and consider the masked ranks of Faerie who watched her.
The fairy queen herself, all terrible and magnificent, brought her enchanted mount up to the reunited couple.
She looked down at Janet with eyes full of cold rage: “Curses on you, for stealing away my sacrifice.” Janet met her gaze as unflinchingly as she did any other.
“And you”, the Queen turned her gaze to Tam Lin. “If I was to have my time again I should pluck out your eyes and replace them with coals, and take that flesh heart of yours and put a wooden one in its place.”
But it was not to be. For the Elves did not attack. Could not.
And Janet was left alone, triumphantly cradling her prize.
Tam Lin in Depth
If you really want to dig deep into this story you are in look. The website https://tam-lin.org/ has a frankly astonishing amount of material on there about it featuring different versions, the history of it, images and, as they say, so much more.
It is incredibly deeply researched, this is one of the most in depth looks at a tale I’ve ever had the fortune to encounter and a no brainer if you’re interested in this tale.
Featured Folklorist: Sir Walter Scott
The ballad with music, by Steeleye Span
You can get the whole story by listening to the ballad sung by world famous folk band Steel Eye Span (of “All around my hat” fame).
At nearly 10 minutes long it’s a bit of a beast but still not as long as the podcast!
Tam Lin is also the name of a rather good fiddle reel… if you’re into that kind of thing I’d suggest giving it a google.
- Tam-Lin.org It may not be done to have just one source but if you want more they’re all linked from here – leave this website and go to Tam-lin.org immediately if you want to know more about the tale