“True Thomas lay o’er yond grassy bank. . .”
Thomas of Erceldoune was a 13th Century Scottish laird who, so the story goes—popularized by professor F.J. Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads—one day met the Fairie Queen, was captivated by her beauty, and consented to accompany her to the Fair Lands—to Faerie. (The Faerie Queen was not exactly forthcoming about her destination him at first, but what else would you expect from Themselves?) She gives him a geas, a prohibition against speaking, and he serves her for seven years. And before being returned to the mortal realm, she gifts him with the power of True Speech. Ever after, he can only speak the truth.
The presence of the Faerie Queen would lead the average person to conclude that this tale is fiction, pure fabrication. Not so fast. So many old tales have their origins in truth . . .
Thomas Learmonth of Erceldoune was a real historical person. He lived in Ercildoune, a town now called Earlston, halfway between Edinbourgh and the border of England. Documents from 1294 prove he existed; he is listed as “Thome Rymour de Ercildoun.” Still standing today, although in ruins, is Rhymer’s Tower, his supposed home, (possibly a later building constructed on his land).
The Faerie Queen’s gift of True Speech brings to mind school tales of George Washington’s mythical “I cannot tell a lie.” Delving deeper into Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border reveals that Thomas’ truth is equated with prophetic vision. He is said to have predicted the death of King Alexander III, the Battle of Bannockburn, and the union of the English and Scottish crowns—this last did not occur until 1603.
I’ve written previously about Thomas the Rhymer and the Christian symbolism in this tale, and the intersections of history and folklore equally fascinate me.
I’m pleased to report that my short story “True Thomas” has been reprinted in Fae Wings and Hidden Things, an anthology about faeries.
Look at this! There’s a Friends of Thomas the Rhymer local history group in Earlston!
“Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune” from Scottish Literary Locations.