Scotland's Nostradamus and the Queen of the Fairies
by Iain Lundy
"True Thomas sat on Huntley bank,
And he beheld a lady gay;
A lady that was brisk and bold,
Come riding o’er the ferny brae.
Her skirt was of the grass green silk,
Her mantle of the velvet fine;
At every lock of her horse’s mane,
Hung fifty silver bells and nine."
So begins the ballad of the quaint 13th-century figure known as Scotland's Nostradamus and his enchantment by the Queen of the Fairies. Thomas of Ercildoune - more commonly known as Thomas the Rhymer - was a soothsayer of such repute that for a time his fame rivalled that of the Arthurian magician Merlin.
The accuracy of what happened to Thomas and how he gained his supernatural powers has become confused over the centuries, but there are common threads running through every variation of the story. It is, in essence, a fairy story but one which seeks to explain how Thomas was able to predict some of the most important events in Scottish history, including the defeat by the English at the Battle of Flodden and the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England.
Very few "fairy stories" are given such credence as that of Thomas and his dalliance with the Queen of Elfland. After all, he was no fairy. He was a real person and his predictions – which were written down - were treated so seriously that they were consulted before both the two Jacobite rebellions.
So who was Thomas and why was he singled out for mystical powers? Born around 1220, he lived in Learmont Tower, near Ercildoune, now Earlston in Berwickshire. Close by there stood a grove of hardwood trees on the banks of Huntly Burn and as a youngster Thomas had a favourite tree under which he used to lie.
The story goes that as he lay there one day he saw the beautiful Queen of the Fairies approaching on her graceful white horse. She was wearing green silk and velvet and on her horse's mane there hung 59 silver bells. Thomas was entranced by her beauty and readily complied when the Queen asked him to kiss her underneath his favourite tree. He then agreed to accompany her, and the two rode off into the Eildon Hills where Thomas spent seven years as the Queen's lover in her fairy home in Elfland.
The years seemed only a few minutes to Thomas. But when the time came for the Queen to return him to mortal land, she made him promise never to speak of what he had seen. He agreed and she gave him an apple and said: "Take this for thy wages Thomas, it will give thee a tongue that can never lie."
From then on he was known as "True Thomas". The Queen also conferred on him the gift of prophecy.
He used his new powers to prophesy several significant historical events including the death of King Alexander lll; the succession of Robert the Bruce to the throne of Scotland; the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Flodden; the defeat of Mary, Queen of Scots' forces at the Battle of Pinkie in 1567; and the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
He is also said to have predicted the Scottish success at the Battle of Bannockburn and the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745.
The story of Thomas is told in the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, which was included by Sir Walter Scott in his work, "Minstrels of the Scottish Border". In recent years recordings of the ballad have been made by the folk-rock band Steeleye Span and Scottish folk musician Ewan MacColl.
Thomas himself was a noted poet and is supposed to be the author of one of the oldest-known surviving Scottish stories, "Sir Tristrem", also edited by Sir Walter himself.
There is one final twist to the saga of Thomas the Rhymer. One day, many years after returning from Elfland, he walked out of his house to his favourite tree under which he had first met the Queen. He has never returned and has not been seen since.
According to legend he will return one day to help Scotland in her hour of greatest need. Some might say that time is not far off.