I forbid you, maidens a’,
That wear gowd on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.
If Thomas the Rhymer is one of my favorite Scottish ballads, it is only because the favorite has to go to Tam Lin. Tam Lin is stolen by fairies and then roams around Carterhaugh forest molesting young women until Hallow e’en rolls around when he knows he will be sacrified as a tiend to hell. His pregnant sweetheart Janet is going to have none of that and she rescues him from his doom, marries him, and lives happily ever after. It’s all in the ballad…in 42 stanzas.
Carterhaugh, as it turns out, is a real forest, located on a peninsula between the Yarrow and Ettrick waters. It’s about three miles outside of Selkirk–the city where Sir Walter Scott was sherrif as this very large statue of him attests.
I was there on a Sunday afternoon, so I didn’t get to do any of the cool stuff like see Sir Walter Scott’s courtroom or eat an original Selkirk bannock. But that didn’t matter; I’d come to see Carterhaugh, and to Carterhaugh I would go. The road and the water only met at intervals, leaving me often wondering if I was going in the right direction, or on the wrong side of the river altogether.
I had a map, but not a very good one, and eventually I set myself a deadline to turn around if I didn’t see anything promising. I kept seeing signs for Aikwood Tower (one of the possible locations for Janet’s father’s castle) and they had frightening numbers like ‘4 miles’ on them. Ettrickbridge was even further–6 miles–and I had no idea how far I’d come from Selkirk already. Fortuanately I did eventually find a bridge over Ettrick.
In the ballad Janet meets Tam Lin beside a well, which she then throws him in as part of the transformation process to bring him back to the mortal world. There is a spot alongside the road marked as TamLane’s well, although it’s more of a public watering trough, and a bit of a walk from the bridge where the confrontation with the fairies most likely took place.
Fortuanately, after finding the bridge the well wasn’t too much further on, although I never got a good look at anything resembling Carterhaugh forest. I never did get a glimpse of the Yarrow either, but the peninsula is a big place, and most of it is privately owned now and full of sheep.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter to me that the well was probably a recent creation for the benefit of tourists or that I didn’t see Newark castle (the other possible home for Janet) or that I wasn’t sure exactly where Carterhaugh forest actually was. That the ballad was set in the forest between Ettrick and Yarrow is a fact, and I went there. I crossed the Ettrick, I had lunch under a tree on the peninsula and yes, I even took a selfie with the tourist attraction. It’s the spirit of the place that counts–the having been, not the being right. There’s something magical in the curve of the hills, just starting to change colors for autumn, and knowing that those same trees were once home to a headstrong girl and her fairy lover.