By Poppy Holden, professional singer and singing tutor.
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
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.
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:
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.
- 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).
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