The Real True Thomas

By Poppy Holden, professional singer and singing tutor.


Foreword

Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas the Rhymer, True Thomas: this man of many names, famous for his journey to the land of the fairies and the gifts he gained there, is a prominent figure in the Between Worlds exhibition. In this post, singer Poppy Holden explores the first written account of Thomas and how the seemingly inexplicable events of the story have a curious link to the real world geography of Melrose.

 David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


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Manesse Codex, c.1300

Inter-species sex in the late thirteenth century; travel between worlds; wealthy elves partying nonstop in a castle; magical gifts; prophecies; curious geological phenomena. An interesting story!

Recently, I met some distinguished physicists who were amused that I was investigating a story with characters who move between our world and another, what? Dimension? Something like that. They thought I was being foolish and fanciful, and I might dare to say the same about their daily work searching for dark matter, invisible particles, and so on. We laughed about it, and agreed to differ. No doubt they’ll eventually find what they are looking for and explain it in scientific terms.

Perhaps the wild and magical story of Thomas of Erceldoune will also, one day, find a logical explanation.  His existence in our history can be shown: the signature of Thomas Rymor de Ercildune attests a legal document concerning the old chapel at Melrose, and Thomas’s son conveyed his property at Earlston to Soutra Hospital where powerful mind-altering drugs have recently been unearthed by Dr Brian Moffat’s team of medical archaeologists.

In the richly detailed medieval ballad Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas views from afar a beautiful, richly dressed woman hunting on the Eildon hill near his home. She has everything a well-equipped huntress could possibly want: palfrey, falcon, horn, bow and arrows, three greyhounds and seven bloodhounds. Her outfit is beautiful, her horse is covered in precious stones and silver bells, her stirrups made of crystal embellished with pearls. He assumes she has to be Mary, Queen of Heaven, but she says “I am of another country”. Thomas asks to lie with her and plights his troth to the lady: she warns him it will hurt her, but he persists, and they have sex seven times, taking all day about it: weary and bruised, she takes him on a three-day journey underneath the Eildon hill, wading through deep water to a land of exotic singing birds and fruit trees arriving at her own castle in the middle of a fabulous party. A few days later, to protect him from a fiend, the Queen hustles Thomas back to his home, where he later made good use of the power of prophecy which he exacted as a farewell gift from the Queen. He became famous as a seer, independently of his adventure: and at the end of his life he vanished once more. Some said he was led away by a white hart and hind who appeared in the main street of his town, and he was never seen again. Since his property was gifted to Soutra Hospital, possibly his disappearance from the world might be explained by a hidden illness. One day perhaps another document might be discovered to let us know what really happened.

Eildon Hills

Looking down from Eldon Mid Hill on the LIttle Hill or Lucken Hare (green, to the right). © Poppy Holden.

The landscape setting of the story is very special. The spot where Thomas entered the Eildon hill is known in local legends as the Lucken Hare, from the pre-Christian iconography of three hares, magical women’s familiar spirits, running round in an eternal circle. There is something odd about its geology:

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While I was browsing the National Library of Scotland’s extensive collection of historical maps, I stumbled across a geological survey of the Melrose area.

The map shows there are just two occurrences of volcanic quartz-porphyry rock in the vicinity, one at the exact spot where Thomas first sat and saw his vision of the Queen, on Huntly Banks, and the other at the Lucken Hare or Little Hill on the Eildons, where the Queen took Thomas into Elfland. Sir Walter Scott also recounts a folk tradition of Canobie Dick, who saw the sleeping knights of King Arthur in a cave under the Lucken Hare. A folk name for this quartz-porphyry basalt is Elvan!

Millions of years ago, material from far below the Earth’s surface spurted up to visit our own world.

Marvelous stories have sprouted up in their turn, which embellish and explain this geological anomaly.

 

Further reading:

  • Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew, and Chris Chapman, The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding (2016).
  • Emily Lyle, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition (2007).
  • Brian Moffat, SHARP Practice: Report on Researches into the Mediaeval Hospital at Soutra, Lothian/Borders Region, Scotland (1989).
  • Sir James Murray, The romance and prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune (1875).
  • Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802).
  • Sir Walter Scott, Letters of Demonology and Witchcraft (1830).

 

Poppy Holden is a singer and singing tutor with a particular interest in border ballads. Find out more about her work here. You can also follow her on Twitter.

 

Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250

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Neighbourly Devils – Fairies, witches and demons

By Lisa Tallis, Assistant Librarian of the Special collections Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library, Cardiff University


Foreword

Whilst Palace Green Library’s Between Worlds exhibition looks to dispel modern misconceptions of fairy folk in Northern Britain, Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University chose to delve right into the dark side of Welsh folklore.

Here, Lisa Tallis tells us about the special collection currently on display in the Arts and Social Studies Library at Cardiff University (on show until 31 March 2018). The exhibition studies the folklore, myths, and history surrounding spiteful fairies and demons in Wales, looking at first-hand accounts, poetry, and artwork from the fifteenth century up until modern times.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


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To coincide with the Welsh Government’s Year of Legends, Special Collections and Archives decided to curate an exhibition based on the theme of myths and legends. As the Assistant Librarian, I was aware that our collections were incredibly rich in materials relating to these themes, especially works on folklore and Celtic myths. The fairies were an ideal subject since they touch upon so many aspects of these themes, from the supernatural to their almost human characteristics and conducts.

Appropriately, we launched the exhibition on Halloween with a fascinating talk by Professor Diane Purkiss entitled ‘Darkness Made Visible: What Are Fairies?’. A supernatural setting for our exhibition – Neighbourly Devils – was a welcome spin, for as the title suggests, one of the themes that I was especially keen to highlight was the darker side of these intriguing beings.

Known variously as Y Tylwyth Teg (The Fair Family) and Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), so called because of their bestowing blessings on selected mortals whom they favoured, the fairies could also invoke fear as they reputedly stole new-born babies from their cradles and replaced them with their own ugly offspring known as changelings.

Goblins Dazzy Walters

‘Jennet Francis struggles with the fairies for her baby’, illustration by T. H. Thomas from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880).

Naming them by a harsh epithet was known to invoke their anger, and it was essential to show them kindness as they were known to punish those who failed to do so, quite severely in some instances. Fairies were considered secretive people who lived in caves, hollows, or ‘sepulchral mounds’ – a ‘Between Worlds’ existence certainly. They were believed to have supernatural powers that enabled them to hear what was spoken in the air and whisk people away on otherworldly adventures.

 

Hence we have on display an edition of Ellis Wynne’s Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard). First published in 1703, this classic piece of Welsh religious prose describes how it was the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ who ‘lifted me on [to their] shoulders’ and took the bard on his otherworldly journey where he witnessed scenes of earthly vice, death, and hell.

This belief is also expressed in a small book of Welsh folktales named Ysten Sioned (Sioned’s Pitcher), based on the character of a beggar woman who would collect any charities offered, no matter what they were, in her pitcher. So too this book gathers together an eclectic mix of Welsh tales and traditions, one of which relates to Ellis Wynne and the popular belief that he was whisked away to the top of Moelfre mountain by the fairies who then took him with them through ‘the whole world’.

ysten-sioned

Extract from D. Silvan-Evans, Ysten Sioned (Wrexham, 1894), relaying the popular belief that the fairies have taken Ellis Wynne away from them.

It is interesting that Ellis Wynne initially mistook the fairies for a bunch of ‘witsiaid-melldigedig’ – accursed witches. This brought to mind the story of the ‘old woman of the mountain’ recorded by the author and Independent minister, Edmund Jones (1702-1793) in his Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (1790), which we also have on display. This apparition, believed to be the ghost of a witch named Juan White, would haunt Llanhyddel mountain in Monmouthshire, leading travellers astray.

Goblins Old Woman

‘The Old Woman of the Mountain’ by T. H. Thomas. Frontispiece from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880), where various versions of the tale are recorded.

Again, what’s interesting is this connection between fairies, witches, and ghosts because they do share certain characteristics. Like fairies, witches were known to punish those who had caused them offence and were also believed to be able to transport people on supernatural journeys, while fairies were thought to be spirits of the dead who would converse with witches or cunning folk. However, the one figure that does bind them all is of course the Devil!

Some people in Wales believed that fairies were the souls of Druids who, not being Christians, could not enter heaven but were too good to be cast into hell and therefore condemned to exist in limbo. For many others, however, their origins were far more ominous. Several sources portray fairies as spiritual beings of demonic origin. In 1677, the Puritan Charles Edwards describes them as neighbourly, or friendly devils (cythreuliaid cymdeithgar), a phrase that lent itself very well as an exhibition title as it captures their mischievous and demonic nature.  Edwards explained how these ‘vermin of darkness’ used to appear as a visible ‘swarm’ to drag people away to their merriments. Edmund Jones was also in ‘no doubt’ that fairies were ‘evil Spirits belonging to the Kingdom of darkness’, while an anonymous author of an early eighteenth-century tract against witchcraft and conjuration claimed they were spirits that were conjured by cunning-folk, and argued that it was forbidden to seek help from those who converse with ‘the dead’ (y meirw). The author was under no doubt that that such spirits were, in fact, devils.

Popular Antiquities

The Fairies by Peter Roberts. Illustration appears in his Cambrian popular antiquities: or, An account of some traditions, customs, and superstitions, of Wales; with observations as to their origin, &c. (London, 1815).

These demonic understandings of the fairies might surprise those of us who are more familiar with the delicate, winged depictions that became popular with the increase in fairy tale publications and the development of Victorian fairy illustration. This is yet another key theme that the exhibition explores as many of the works included featured beautiful illustrations by some of Wales’s most talented artists. Most of these follow the Victorian tradition of romanticising the appearance of fairies, such as Margaret Lindsay Williams’ paintings of the Llyn y Fan Fach Legend, or the lady of the lake.

Llyn y Fan 1 WG30(1917)

He saw a girl sitting on the lake’s smooth surface illustration by Margaret Lindsay Williams, from William Rees, Chwedl Llyn y Fan (The Legend of Llyn y Fan) (Liverpool, 1917).

However, some artists appreciated the darker side of the Tylwyth Teg and created haunting images that reflected this, one of which provided the initial inspiration for the exhibition. So, I will leave you to ponder the following from the proofs of Shirley Jones’ book Chwedlau (Legends) and her description of creating this particular print, and what happened next…

Llen y Werin, Chwedlau Proofs, Artists Books

Shirley Jones, ‘Llên Werin’: Chwedlau: page proofs (Brecon, 2005).

‘Llen Werin, or Folklore, was the final chapter in my artist book, Chwedlau, an exploration into fifteen centuries of Welsh myths, legends and folklore. I thought a fitting image would be of a candle, by which so many of these tales were told. I drew our own candle in its holder, and burnished out this image on a mezzotint copperplate. I left the finished plate overnight, in my studio, protected by a sheet of paper, having decided it needed nothing more added to it. I locked my studio door, as usual, intending to take a print from it next day. But this was when I had a shock: there was now smoke coming from the candle on my mezzotint plate! I hadn’t burnished it out, and no one else could have. And I have never known how it came to be there.’

 

Special Collections and Archives’ exhibition Neighbourly Devils/Cythreuliaid Cymdogol is open until 31 March, 2018, and is available online at neighbourlydevils.weebly.com.

Find out more at www.cardiff.ac.uk/special-collections. Follow Cardiff University’s Special Collections Archives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @CUSpecialColls.

 

Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250

Photographing Folklore

By James Brown, Science Communicator and photographer


Foreword

One of the main themes of the Between Worlds exhibition is the relationship between encounters with fairies and specific geographical locations. As the exhibition developed, photographer James Brown visited the sites where the selected stories were set, capturing these locations as they appear today and looking for traces of the folklore which forms their history.

David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


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© James Brown

The fish served at breakfast had been caught just 90 minutes previously by two of the guests, obviously regular visitors to the B&B for the fishing opportunities that were available in the rivers around the Eildon hills. They were more than happy to share their catch with the table, garnished with stories and tales of their morning work in the mist. I’m not a fisherman, but even I thought that the picture they painted of the early morning river bank sounded rather idyllic.  Eventually, the topic of conversation turned to me and the purpose of my visit. Unable to resist, I explained that, like them, I was there to capture something out in the wild; I was on the hunt for fairies.

When I was asked by Dr Victoria Flood if I would be able to contribute some pictures of the locations of fairy tales for the Between Worlds exhibition, I leapt at the opportunity. I wasn’t familiar with any of the stories she forwarded me, nor the places where they occurred. The extent of my knowledge about the subject was limited to having read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in a different world.

 

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For each location I visited (Melrose, Aberfoyle, Middridge, and Inglewood), I would read the tale(s) and then spend a day or two walking the surrounding area taking photographs. In both Aberfoyle and Melrose it very quickly became apparent that these tales were still in the forefront of the local consciousness. The woodland around Aberfoyle has been decorated with carved fairy houses, warning signs about the supernatural denizens of the woods, and of course the Fairy Tree perched atop the hill with its brightly coloured but weathered ribbons containing prayers, wishes, hopes and dreams. Despite the carefully maintained paths and walkways, there is still enough superstition contained in the mound of dense woodland on the edge of town to compel people to make a pilgrimage up to this site of special supernatural interest.

Similarly, in Melrose there are plenty of signs that the old tales are still remembered. At the base of the Eildon hills there is a monument to Thomas the Rhymer, sheltered by an Eildon tree, which relates to his story. Like Aberfoyle, the landscape has been tamed and sanitised, but the stories have not been erased – they are there to be discovered, hewn into the rock (literally in the case of Melrose), perhaps as a reminder of what lurks in the shadows.  Rhymer’s glen is still marked on the OS maps and in fact is advertised at the local tourist information office. When I visit the path is closed off; industrial logging is taking place and it’s unsafe to enter. Danger has returned to the woodlands again, at least for a short time.

 

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If both Melrose and Aberfoyle proudly display their links to the fairly world in the midst of modernisation, Middridge and Inglewood have no trace of the stories that are set there. Inglewood forest itself has almost gone entirely. A small copse of trees surrounded by farm land, it is a tiny time capsule back to a pre-cultivated Britain. It feels like the modern world has slowly encroached on the woodland down to this last bubble which could pop at any moment. Yet it holds out, surrounded by barbed wire and ditches to keep people out (with the exception of intrepid fairy hunters).

 

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In Middridge, this battle between ancient and modern is much less a done deal. The village and surrounding farms feel under siege from the natural world. Bus stops are dwarfed by trees, houses are covered in ivy, fences strain to hold back the weeds from carefully manicured lawns. The allotments on the edge of the village are half-way between cultivated and untamed. The people of Middridge are in a constant war, trying to hold back the green tide from their little corner of civilisation. Totems line the road, human simulacra designed to ward off the dangers from outside the village (well – reckless drivers at least).

 

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As I say, I’m not a fisherman, but I understand the attraction of heading out of the town and into the wild. All the locations I visited, the scenes of these fairy tales, demonstrate the push and pull between humans and their relationship with the wild borders around their homes. These twilight areas where town and country meet are fertile ground for stories and tales, inspired by the landmarks that dominate the local geography and have a strange attraction to those of us who want a little less civilisation every now and then.

 

James Brown is a Science Communicator with a particular interest in developments around genetic technologies. You can follow him @jcwbrown27 on Twitter and see more pictures on Instagram @jcwbrown.

 

Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250.

If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=37740.

An Interview with the Brothers Gillespie

Foreword

The Brothers Gillespie showcased their musical and vocal talents during a performance at Palace Green Library in November 2017, captivating the audience with songs and stories which brought characters from the Between Worlds exhibition to life. 

This interview with The Brothers Gillespie goes deep into their roots. It allows us to get to know their story and how they created their set-list for the Between Worlds exhibition.

Katie Braithwaite, Project Officer at Palace Green Library


BG fell rock filtered (1)

We are James and Sam Gillespie, brothers raised in Northumberland, specifically Wall in the North Tyne Valley, Hexham and the surrounding area. We are musicians inspired very much by the beautiful wild and troubled lands and histories of these isles we call home. We are drawn to music partly because of its power to create shared spaces of reverence within our cultural milieu, which seems of particular importance given the widespread tendency we are seeing to aggressively rationalise away the sacred or to adopt a posture of all pervasive sarcasm. It’s our belief that it is through our capacity for reverence and listening that we have a chance of hearing and receiving what is really going on between us beneath the chatter and noise. Like the Fairy Realms, for instance, that our ancestors lived their lives in connection with and which the Palace Green exhibition reverently reminds us of.

How did you first become interested in folk music?

We first became interested in folk music as teenagers through discovering the artists of the 60’s folk revival: Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Sandy Denny, The Incredible String Band, Richard Thompson, Anne Briggs, Nick Drake and many others. They carried such a spirit of wildness, freedom and rebel soul that we had up to that point been finding mostly in Rock and Grunge music. Up until then, because of our ignorance of the depth of the tradition I think, folk maybe seemed a bit tame and anachronistic, like Morris men waving Union Jacks and so on. Having said that, our early contact as children with our parents’ tapes of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, African and other traditional music made a deep and lasting impression on us and blew our minds.

You had a great performance last year at Palace Green. How did you come across the Folklore you incorporated into your set?

Many of the songs have come to us bit by bit over the last few years. For sure Alan Lomax’s early field recordings from Scotland have provided a really inspiring well of songs and a glimpse into living folklore of the past. One or two of the stories came to us from the Newcastle based Storytelling collective A Bit Crack and the Dreaming the Land Pilgrimage from Lindisfarne to Rothbury, during which James played musical accompaniment to the Hen Hole story. Storyteller Lizzie McDougall of Ross-shire gave some deep insights into the Thomas the Rhymer story. Listening to other musicians playing between the Tyne and the Firth of Forth has been gradual learning through osmosis. So too walking the land and its rolling contours, such as the night we slept on the Eildon hill, a place long associated with Thomas the Rhymer whilst walking St Cuthbert’s way. It’s impossible to definitively say how we came across the folklore such as we have come across, the roots and connections get more and more subtle unfolding outwards into the living landscape. This brings us back to the requirement for deep listening to tune in to the messages of the wind and rivers such as there may be.

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The Brothers Gillespie performing at Palace Green Library Cafe ©Ross Wilkinson

There are so many stories and folklore, but how did you choose the ones you wanted to perform?

Given that the Between Worlds exhibition is devoted to the otherworld, for the Palace Green set we decided to choose several songs about fairies. Many such songs are within the Gaelic tradition and language. Part of our motivation to study the Gaelic language is to be able to fall more fully into this tradition of wonderful songs. We chose otherworldly and fairy songs in English and Scots too, rooted in places in the North of Britain particularly the big stretch of borderland between England and Scotland. We also included some songs we had composed ourselves which we felt had some of this otherworldly spirit within them.

Are any of the stories you performed your favourite or are there any tales you had in mind?

Many of the songs we sang are our favourites! We had so many ideas for songs, stories and poems to learn for this performance that we were limited by time in what we could accomplish. We have decided to treat our involvement with this wonderful exhibition and our performance at the Palace Green library as the beginning of a project and as an invitation for us to deepen relationship with the otherworldly side of the tradition which is so close to our hearts.

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The Brothers Gillespie’s next gig date will be 7.00pm on Friday 4th May at the art gallery Gallery 45 in Felton, Northumberland: http://feltongallery45.co.uk/about/.

More about the Brothers Gillespie can be found on their website: http://thebrothersgillespie.co.uk/. Their music can be heard on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/the-brothers-gillespie.

 

Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.

If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here:

https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=37740