True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
Thomas the Rhymer is one of my favorite ballads of all time. Only on the ride away from Melrose two weeks ago did I learn that the ballad is associated with a real place, Earlston, and that Thomas the Rhymer was in fact a real person, Thomas of Learmont, living in the Scottish borders from 1220 – 1298.
Thomas was a harper who was wandering through the Eildon hills one day. He fell asleep under a tree and when he woke up the Queen of Fairies was there. She took him to elfland for seven years and when he returned she gave him the gift of prophecy and a tongue that would never lie. Many of his prophecies are said to have come true.
After the field trip I took with USAC I planned an independent trip back to the Scottish borders with the intention of finding Michael Scot’s tomb and climbing the Eildon hills. The hills are eroded remains of prehistoric volcanos, too acidic to grow anything besides gorse and heather. They’re reportedly hollow, and beneath one of them might be the cave where a shepherd once found the tomb of King Arthur. I found neither fairy nor cave but the view from the top will literally steal your breath and if you go around to the Eastern side you can find a stone commemorating the spot where the Eildon tree once stood.
The Learmont family was known to reside in Ercildoun, known today as Earlston. The remains of Learmont tower can still be seen behind a coffee shop styled ”Rhymer’s Tower.”
There is also a stone dedicated to Thomas the Rhymer in the local church. A church has stood on the same site since the 12th c. and the stone has been faithfully removed to each successive new building.