Tam Lin

Neidlpath Castle in the Scottish borderlands

Intro: This story has its origins in an old ballad (with many variations) from the Scottish borderlands. I think of it as a fairy tale for grownups.

Long ago in Scotland, in the days of castles, and knights, and fair young maidens; long ago, when fairies were commonly seen in the countryside; there lived a girl named Janet, daughter of the lord of a great castle. She was beautiful, with her golden hair in a braid down her back–but proud and impatient. Too proud, some said, for her own good.

One hot summer day, Janet was bored: with needlework, with her music lessons, with the gossip of the other maidens in her father’s castle.

She announced to the others: “This afternoon I’m going to go walk on the cool green grass of Carterhaugh.”

The other maidens were shocked: “You can’t go there. No, never! You can’t have forgotten! In Carterhaugh, Tam Lin, the fairy, walks about. He will steal your gold rings. He will steal your green cloak. Likely as not, he will steal your maidenhood.”

But Janet only laughed at their fears. “I am afraid of no man, nor fairy either. And I will go wherever I choose.”

And soon enough she was there, bending over the path to pluck a fragrant red rose. She stood up to find herself looking directly into the eyes of Tam Lin.

Quietly he said, “You dare to steal a rose without asking my permission?”

“How dare you suggest I need your permission?” she stormed. “Carterhaugh is land that belongs to my father. One day it will belong to me. I ask no man’s permission. And no fairy’s permission either.”

Tam Lin didn’t answer. He just looked long into her blue eyes with his eyes of gray. He touched her green cloak. He held her milk white hands. And he laid her down on the cool green grass. And she didn’t say no. And when she went home much later that day, she was a maiden no longer.

Before long, it was plain for all to see that Janet had changed. She was moody and often ill.

An old knight guessed the reason and laughed.

“It seems to me that Janet is with child. And which one of us will be blamed for it, I wonder?”

Janet heard the old knight gossiping. “It was none of you and never could be.” And she paused only a heartbeat before she added, “The father is the fairy Tam Lin.”

Everyone was silent. Finally, the old knight spoke frankly, “What good to a woman is a fairy baby—or a fairy husband, and him away in fairyland all the time? Better you should eat the white berries that grow in the rocky places of Carterhaugh and lose the little baby growing inside.”

Janet spent many days in mournful thinking. And then, sadder then she’d ever been, she returned to Carterhaugh.

She searched among the rocks. She found the small white berries, enough to fill the palm of her hand. Just before she could bring them to her mouth, there before her stood Tam Lin. He was furious.

“How dare you pick the white berries to lose the child that is mine–that is ours?”

“Who are you to tell me that I should not?” “What good to me is a fairy baby? And what good to me is a fairy father–and you lost to me always in fairy land?”

But Tam Lin looked again in her blue eyes and spoke softly.

“My Lady, I am no fairy. I am a mortal man, born of a mortal man and woman, no less than you. I was only a child of eleven when the queen of the Fairies found me sleeping on the grass and carried me away to her kingdom. I have been held by a spell ever since.”

“You could release me from my spell, Janet, if you would, if you dared. Tonight the fairies go riding at Miles Cross, and I ride with them. Hide in the bushes near the path. First will come the Queen of the Fairies, on her black horse. Let her ride past. Then will come the troop of fairies on their brown horses. Let them ride past as well. I will ride last on a white horse. I will wear a crown on my head with a golden star because my father is an earl. I will wear a glove on my right hand, and none on my left, so you can know me. When I am close, pull me down from my horse, Janet, and do not let go, whatever dreadful thing may come.”

That night Janet hid near the path at Miles Cross. When the moon was high, she saw the Queen of the Fairies coming on her black horse, and she let her ride past. She saw the riders on their brown horses, and she let them ride past. Last came a rider on a white horse with a crown on his head with a star. He had a glove on his right hand and none on his left, and she knew he was Tam Lin.

She waited until he was close beside her, then leaped up and pulled her lover down into her arms. And she did not let go.

The fairy queen wheeled her black horse around to face them and shrieked in dismay,” The girl has taken my Tam Lin!”

Straightaway, Tam Lin was changed into a writhing snake with poisonous fangs. But Janet did not let go.

And then he was changed into a wolf with long, sharp teeth and claws. Again she did not let go.

And then he was changed into a red hot lump of coal that seared the palms of her hands. Still she did not let go.

Finally Tam Lin was changed into a mother-naked man, and Janet drew her green cloak around him.

Bitterly the Fairy Queen spoke,

“Oh, Tam Lin, if I had known yesterday, what I know tonight, I would have taken your heart of flesh and turned it into a heart of stone so you could not feel. If I had known yesterday what I know today, I would have taken your two gray eyes and turned them into eyes of wood, so you could not see.”

Turning to Janet, she said, “You have stolen the best of my company.”

In the next instant, the Queen, all the other fairies, and all their horses disappeared, leaving Janet and Tam Lin alone, in the darkness, together.

11 thoughts on “Tam Lin

  1. What a wonderful story. I want to tell that one some day.
    It reminds me of another story called Fair Exchange
    Keep blogging your pieces are marvelous.

  2. I too wondered if thy lived happily as they could, or if the Fay Queen came back for revenge. There is great power in this story. I have a few versions of it, but this takes it to another level for me and I love it. Thanks for sharing this wonderful rendition.

  3. The version I first heard was from the singing of Pentangle. They did a pretty complete version, taking up a whole album side, with a verse for every thing that Tam Lin tells Janet that the fairy queen will turn him into, and a verse describing him being turned into those things as Janet holds him.

    But they left out one verse, and as a result Tam Lin is turned into something that he hadn’t warned Janet about. That grabbed my imagination. Janet holds on to the snake that she expected, then holds on to the wolf that she expected, and just when she expects to find herself holding onto a naked man, she instead finds herself holding red hot coals. I imagine her surprise, and her indecision about whether to hold on, or fling them from her so that she isn’t burnt.

    If I ever do try telling this tale, I’m sure I’ll include that in my version.

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