Tam Lin Balladry

A website of folklore and discovery.

English and Scottish Popular Ballads
By Francis James Child
39: Tam Lin

Source: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898 by Francis James Child

Volume I


  • A. 'Tam Lin,' Johnson's Museum, p. 423, 1792. Communicated by Burns.
  • B. ' Young Tom Line,' Glenriddell MS., vol. xi, No 17, 1791.
  • C. Kertonha, or, The Fairy Court,' Herd, The Ancient and Modern Scots Songs, 1769, p. 300.
  • D. ' Tom Linn.' a. Motherwell's NIS., p. 532. b. Maidment's New Book of Old Ballads, p. 54. e. I Tom o Linn,' Pitcairn's MSS, 111, fol. 67.
  • E. ' Young Tamlin,' Motherwell's Note-Book, fol. 13.
  • F. ' Tomaline,' Motherwell's MS., p. 64.
  • G. ' Tam-a-line, the Elfin Knight,' Buchan's MSS, I, 8 ; ' Tam a-Lin, or The Knight of Faerylande,' Motherwell's MS., p. 595. Dixon, Scottish Traditionary Versions of Ancient Ballads, Percy Society, XVII, 11.
  • H. ' Young Tam Lane,' Campbell MSS, II, 129.
  • I. ' The Young Tamlane.' Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: a, II, 337, ed. 1833; b, II, 228, ed. 1802.


THE first twenty-two stanzas of B differ from the corresponding ones in A, 1-33, omitting 16, by only a few words, and there are other agreements in the second half of these versions. Burns's intimacy with Robert Riddell would naturally lead to a communication from one to the other ; but both may have derived the verses that are common from the same third party. Herd's fragment, C, was the earliest printed. Scott's version, I, as he himself states, was compounded of the Museum copy, Riddell's, Herd's, and " several recitals from tradition.' I b, the edition of 1803, contained fragments of 'The Bromfield Hill' and of ' The Wee Wee Man,' which were dropped from the later edition ; but unfortunately this later edition was corrupted with eleven new stanzas, which are not simply somewhat of a modern cast as to diction, as Scott remarks, but of a grossly modern invention, and as unlike popular verse as anything can be. I is given according to the later edition, with those stanzas omitted; and all that is peculiar to this version, and not taken from the Museum, Glenriddell, or Herd, is distinguished from the rest by the larger type. This, it will be immediately seen, is very little.

The copy in Tales of Wonder, II, 459, is A, altered by Lewis. Mr Joseph Robertson notes, Kinloch HISS, VI, 10, that his mother had communicated to him some fragments of this ballad slightly differing from Scott's version, with a substitution of the name True Tammas for Tam Lane.

The Scots Magazine for October, 1818, LXXXII, 327-29, has a "fragment" of more than sixty stanzas, composed in an abominable artificial lingo, on the subject of this ballad, and alleged to have been taken from the mouth of a good old peasant, who, not having heard the ballad for thirty years, could remember no more. Thomas the Rhymer appears in the last lines with very great distinction, but it is not clear what part he has in the story. 1.

A copy printed in Aberdeen, 1862, and said to have been edited by the Rev. John Burnett Pratt, of Cruden, Aberdeenshire, is made up from Aytoun and Scott, with a number of slight changes2.

"The Tayl of the yong Tamlene' is spoken of as told among a company of shepherds, in Vedderburn's Complaint of Scotland, 1549, p. 63 of Dr James A. H. Murray's edition for the Early English Text Society. 'Thom of Lyn' is mentioned as a dance of the same party, a little further on, Murray, p. 66, and 'Young Thomlin' is the name of an air in a medley in " Woods MS.," inserted, as David Laing thought, between 1600 and 1620, and printed in Forbes's Cantus,1666 : Stenhouse's ed. of The Scots' Musical Museum, 1853, IV, 4-10. "A ballett of Thomalyn " is licensed to Master John Wallye and Mistress Tove in 1558 : Arber, Transcript of tile Registers of the Company of Stationers, I, 22; cited by Furnivall, Captain Cox, &c., Ballad Society, p. clxiv.

Sir Walter Scott relates a tradition of an attempt to rescue a woman from fairydom which recalls the ill success of many of the efforts to disenchant White Ladies in Germany: The wife of a farmer in Lothian had been carried off by the fairies, and, during the year of probation. repeatedly appeared on Sunday, in the midst of her children, combing their hair. On one of these occasions she was accosted by her husband ; when she related to him the unfortunate event which bad separated them, instructed him by what means he might win her, and exhorted him to exert all his courage, since her temporal and eternal happiness depended on the success of his attempt. The farmer, who ardently loved his wife, set out at Halloween, and, in the midst of a plot of furze, waited impatiently for the procession of the fairies. At the ringing of the fairy bridles, and the wild, unearthly sound which accompanied the cavalcade, his heart failed him, and he suffered the ghostly train to pass by without interruption. When the last had rode past, the whole troop vanished, with loud shouts of laughter and exultation, among which he plainly discovered the voice of his wife, lamenting that he had lost her forever." The same author proceeds to recount a real incident, which took place at the town of North Berwick, within memory, of a man who was prevented from undertaking, or at least meditating, a similar rescue only by shrewd and prompt practical measures on the part of his minister3.

This fine ballad stands by itself, and is not, as might have been expected, found in possession of any people but the Scottish. Yet it has connections, through the principal feature in the story the retransformation of Tam Lin, with Greek popular tradition older than Homer.

Something of the successive changes of shape is met with in a Scandinavian ballad : 'Nattergalen,' Grundtvig, II, 168, No 57 ; Den förtrollade Prinsessan,' Afzelius, II, 67, No 41, Atterbom, Poetisk Kalender, 1816, p. 44; Dybeck, Runa, 1844, p. 94, No 2 ; Axelson, Vandring i Wermlands Elfdal, p. 21, No 3 ; Lindeman, Norske Fjeldmelodier Tekstbilag tit 1ste Bind, p. :3, No 10.

Though many copies of this ballad have been obtained from the mouth of the people, all that are known are derived from flying sheets, of which there is a Danish one dated 1721 and a Swedish of the year 1738. What is of more account, the style of the piece, as we have it, is not quite popular. Nevertheless, the story is entirely of the popular stamp, and so is the feature in it, which alone concerns us materially. A nightingale relates to a knight how she had once had a lover, but a stepmother soon upset all that, and turned her into a bird and her brother into a wolf. The curse was not to be taken off the brother till he drank of his step-dame's blood, and after seven years he caught her, when she was taking a walk in a wood, tore out her heart, and regained his human shape. The knight proposes to the bird that she shall come and pass the winter in his bower, and go back to the wood in the summer: this, the nightingale says, the step-mother had forbidden, as long as she wore feathers. The knight seizes the bird by the foot, takes her home to his bower, and fastens the windows and doors. She turns to all the marvellous beasts one ever heard of,- to a lion, a bear, a variety of small snakes, and at last to a loathsome lind-worm. The knight makes a sufficient incision for blood to come, and a maid stands on the floor as fair as a flower. He now asks after her origin, and she answers, Egypt's king was my father, and its queen my mother; my brother was doomed to rove the woods as a wolf. " If Egypt's king," he rejoins, " was your father, and its queen your mother, then for sure you are my sister's daughter, who was doomed to be a nightingale.4"

We come much nearer, and indeed surprisingly near, to the principal event of the Scottish ballad in a Cretan fairy-tale, cited from Chourmouzis by Bernhard Schmidt5. A young peasant of the village Sgourokepháli who was a good player on the rote, used to be taken by the nereids into their grotto for the sake of his music. He fell in love with one of them, and, not knowing how to help himself, had recourse to an old woman of his village. She gave him this advice: that just before cock-crow he should seize his beloved by the hair, and hold on, unterrified, till the cock crew, whatever forms she should assume. The peasant gave good heed, and the next time he was taken into the cave fell to playing, as usual, and the nereids to dancing. But as cock-crow drew nigh, he put down his instrument, sprang upon the object of his passion, and grasped her by her locks. She instantly changed shape; became a dog, a snake, a camel, fire. But he kept his courage and held on, and presently the cock crew, and the nereids vanished all but one. His love returned to her proper beauty, and went with him to his home. After the lapse of a year she bore a son, but in all this time never uttered a word. The young husband was fain to ask counsel of the old woman again, who told him to heat the oven hot, and say to his wife that if she would not speak he would throw the boy into the oven. He acted upon this prescription ; the nereid cried out, Let go my child, dog ! tore the infant from his arms, and vanished.

This Cretan tale, recovered from tradition even later than our ballad, repeats all the important circumstances of the forced marriage of Thetis with Peleus. Chiron, like the old woman, suggested to his protege that he should lay hands on the nereid, and keep his hold through whatever metamorphosis she might make. He looked out for his opportunity and seized her; she turned to fire, water, and a wild beast, but he did not let go till she resumed her primitive shape. Thetis, having borne a son, wished to make him immortal ; to which end she buried him in fire by night, to burn out his human elements, and anointed him with ambrosia by day. Peleus was not taken into counsel, but watched her, and saw the boy gasping in the fire, which made him call out ; and Thetis, thus thwarted, abandoned the child and went back to the nereids. Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, III, 13, 5, 6. The Cretan tale does not differ from the one repeated by Apollodorus from earlier writers a couple of thousand years ago more than two versions of a story gathered from oral tradition in these days are apt to do. Whether it has come down to our time from mouth to mouth through twenty-five centuries or more, or whether, having died out of the popular memory, it was reintroduced through literature, is a question that cannot be decided with certainty; but there will be nothing unlikely in the former supposition to those who bear in mind the tenacity of tradition among people who have never known books:6.

B 34:

First dip me in a stand of milk,
And then in a stand of water;
Haud me fast, let me na gas,
I 'll be your bairnie's father

has an occult and very important significance which has only very lately been pointed out, and which modern reciters had completely lost knowledge of, as appears by the disorder into which the stanzas have fallen7. Immersion in a liquid, generally water, but sometimes milk, is a process requisite for passing from a non-human shape, produced by enchantment, back into the human, and also for returning from the human to a non-human state, whether produced by enchantment or original. We have seen that the serpent which Lanzelet kisses, in Ulrich's romance, is not by that simple though essential act instantly turned into a woman. It is still necessary that she should bathe in a spring (p. 308). In an Albanian tale, 'Taubenliebe,' Hahn, No 10.'3, II, 130, a dove flies into a princess's window, and, receiving her caresses, asks, Do you love me ? The princess answering Yes, the dove says, Then have a dish of milk ready to-morrow, and you shall see what a handsome man I am.

A dish of milk is ready the neat morning; the dove flies into the window, dips himself in milk, drops his feathers, and steps out a beautiful youth. When it is time to go, the youth dips in the milk, and flies off a dove. This goes on every day for two years. A Greeks tale , 'Goldgerte,' Hahn, No 7, I, 97, has then same transformation, with water for milk. Our B 34 has well-water only.8<. Perhaps the bath of milk occurred in one earlier version of our ballad, the water-bath in another, and the two accounts became blended in time.

The end of the mutations, in F 11, G 43, is a naked man, and a mother-naked man in B 3:3, under the presumed right arrangement; meaning by right arrangement, however, not the original arrangement, but the most consistent one for the actual form of the tradition. Judging by analogy, the naked man should issue from the bath of milk or of water; into which he should have gone in one of his non-human shapes, a dove, swan, or snake (for which, too, a " stand " of milk or of water is a more practicable bath than for a man). The fragment C adds some slight probability to this supposition. The last change there is into " a dove but and a swan;" then Tam Lin bids the maiden to let go, for he'll be a perfect man : " this, nevertheless, he could not well become without some further ceremony. A is the only version which has preserved an essentially correct process: Tarn Lin, when a burning gleed, is to be thrown into well-water, from which lie will step forth a naked knight.9.

At stated periods, which the ballads make to be seven years, the fiend of hell is entitled to take his teind, tithe, or kane from the people of Fairy-land: 8. 24, B 23, C 5, D 15, G 28, H 17. The fiend prefers those that are fair and fu o flesh, according to A, G; ane o flesh and blood. D. H makes the queen fear for herself ; " the koors they hae gave round about, and I fear it will be mysel." H is not discordant with popular tradition elsewhere, which attributes to fairies the practice of abstracting young children to serve as substitutes for themselves in this tribute: Scott's Minstrelsy, 11, 220, 1802. D 15 says " the last here goes to hell," which would certainly not be equitable, and C " we're a' dung down to hell," where "all " must be meant only of the naturalized members of the community. Poor Alison Pearson, who lost her life in 1586 for believing these things, testified that the tribute was annual. Mr William Sympson, who had been taken away by the fairies, "bind her sign herself that she be not taken away, for the teind of them are tane to hell everie year: " Scott, as above, p. 208. The kindly queen of tile fairies 10 will not allow Thomas of Erceldoune to be exposed to this peril, and hurries him back to earth the day before the fiend comes for his due. Thomas is in peculiar danger, for the reason given in A, G, R.

To morne of belle þe foulle fende
Amange this folke will feche his fee ;
And þou art mekill man and hende ;
I trowe full wele be wolde these the.
The elf-queen, A 42, B 40, would have taken out Tam's twa gray een, had she known he was to be borrowed, and have put in twa een of tree, B 41, D 34, E 21, H 14 ; she would have taken out his heart of flesh, and have put in, B, D, E, a heart of stane, H of tree. The taking out of the eyes would probably be to deprive Tam of the faculty of recognizing fairy folk thereafter. Mortals whose eyes have been touched with fairies' salve can see them when they are to others invisible, and such persons, upon distinguishing and saluting fairies, have often had not simply this power but their ordinary eyesight taken away: see Cromek's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, p. 304, Thiele, Danmarks Folkesagn, 1843, II, 202, IV, etc. Grimm has given instances of witches, Slavic, German, Norse and Italian, taking out the heart of man (which they are wont to devour), and replacing it in some instances with straw, wood, or something of the kind; nor do the Roman witches appear to have been behind later ones in this dealing: Deutsche Mythologie, 904 f, and the note III, 31 2.

The fairy in the Lai de Lauval, v. 547, rides on a white palfrey, and also two damsels, her harbingers, v. 471 ; so the fairy princess in the English Launfal, Halliwell, Fairy Mythology, p. 30. The fairy king and all his knights and ladies ride on white steeds in King Orfeo, Halliwell, as above, p. 41. The queen of Elfland rides a milk-white steed in Thomas Rymer, A, C; in B, and all copies of Thomas of Erceldoune, her palfrey is dapple gray. Tam Lin, A 28, B 27, etc., is distinguished from all the rest of his " court " by being thus mounted; all the other horses are black or brown.

Tam Lane was taken by the fairies, according to Q 26, 27, while sleeping under an appletree. In Sir Orfeo (ed. Zielke, v. 68) it was the queen's sleeping under an ympe-tree that led to her being carried off by the fairy king, and the ympe-tree we may suppose to be some kind of fruit tree, if not exclusively the apple. Thomas of Erceldoune is lying under a semely [derne, cumly] tree, when be sees the fairy queen. The derivation of that poem from Ogier le Danois shows that this must have been an apple-tree. Special trees are considered in Greece dangerous to lie under in summer and at noon, as exposing one to be taken by the nereids or fairies, especially plane, poplar, fig, nut, and St John's bread: Schmidt, Volksleben der Neugriechen, p. 119. The elder and the linden are favorites of the elves in Denmark.

The rencounter at the beginning between Tam Lin and Janet (in the wood, D, F, G) is repeated between Hind Etin [Young Akin and Margaret in ° Hind Etin,' further on. Some Slavic ballads open in a similar way, but there is nothing noteworthy in that: see p. 41. " First they did call me Jack," etc., D 9, is a commonplace of frequent occurrence: see, e. g., "The Knight and Shepherd's Daughter.'

Some humorous verses, excellent in their way, about one Tam o Lin are very well known: as Tam o the Linn, Chambers, Scottish Songs, p. 455, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, p. 33, ed. 1870 ; Sharpe's Ballads, new ed., p. 44, p. 137, No XVI; Tommy Linn, North Country Chorister, ad. Ritson, p. $ ; Halliwell's Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales, p. 271, ed. 1849 ; Thomas o Linn, ginloch MSS, III, 45, V, 81; Tam o Lin, Campbell MSS., 11, 107. (Miss Joanna Baillie tried her hand at an imitation, but the jocosity of the real thing is not feminine.) A fool sings this stanza from such a song in Wager's comedy, ' The longer thou livest, the more fool thou art,' put at about 1568 ; see Furnivall, Captain Cox, his Ballads and Books, p. csxvii

Tom a Lin and his wife, and his wiues mother,
They went ouer a bridge all three together;
The bridge was broken, and they fell in
The deuil go with all ! ' quoth Tom a Lin.
Mr Halliwell-Phillips (as above) says that "an immense variety of songs and catches relating to Tommy Linn are known throughout the country." Brian o Lynn seems to be popular in Ireland: Lover's Legends and Stories of Ireland, p. °60 f. There is no connection between the song and the ballad beyond the name: the song is no parody, no burlesque, of the ballad, as it has been called.

" Carterhaugh is a plain at the confluence of the Ettrick with the Yarrow, scarcely an English mile above the town of Selkirk, and on this plain they show two or three rings on the ground, where, they say, the stands of milk and water stood, and upon which grass never grows." Glenridde11MS.

Translated, after Scott, by Schubart, p.139, and Büsching's Wöchentliche Nachrichten, 1, "47 ; by Arndt, Blütenlese p. 212 ; after Aytoun, I, 7, by Rosa Warrens, Schottische Volkslieder, No 8 ; by Knortz, Schottische Balladen, No 17, apparently after Aytoun and Allingharn. The Danish ' Nattergalen' is translated by Prior, III, 118, No 116.


  1. These are the concluding verses, coming much nearer to the language of this world than the rest. They may have a basis of tradition:
    Whar they war aware o the Fairy Ring,
    A huntan wi his train.
    Four an twenty gentlemen
    Cam by on steeds o brown ;
    In his hand ilk bore a siller wand,
    On his head a siller crown.
    Four an twenty beltit knichts
    On daiplit greys cam by ;
    Gowden their wands an crowns, whilk scanct
    Like streamers in the sky.
    Four an twenty noble kings
    Cam by on steeds o snaw,
    But True Thomas, the gude Rhymer,
    Was king outower them a'.
    Return to main text
  2. "Tamlane : an old Scottish Border Ballad. Aberdeen, Lewis and James Smith, 1862." I am indebted for a sight of this copy and for the information as to the editor, to Mr Macmath.
    Return to main text
  3. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, II, 221=24, ed. 1802.
    Return to main text
  4. Restoration from enchantment is effected by drinking blood, in other ballads, as Grundtvig, No 55, 11, 156, No 58, If, 171; in No 56, 11, 158, by a maid in falcon shape eating of a bit of flesh which her lover had cut from his breast.
    Return to main text
  5. Volksleben der Neugriechen, pp 115-17, "from Chourmouzis, Κρητiκα, p. 69 f, Athens, 1842." Chourmonzis heard this story, about 1820 or 1830, from an old Cretan peasant, who had heard it from his grandfather.
    Return to main text
  6. The silence of the Cretan fairy, as B. Schmidt has remarked, even seems to explain Sophocles calling the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis " speechless," αφθóγγους γαμους. Sophocles gives the transformations as being lion, snake, fire, water: Scholia in Pindari Nemea, III, 60 ; Schmidt, as before, p. 116, note. That a firm grip and a fearless one would make any sea-god do your will would appear from the additional instances of Menelaus and Protens, in Odyssey, IV, and of Hercules and Nereus, Apollodorus, II, 5, 11, 4, Scholia in Apollonii Argonaut., IV, 1396. Proteus masks as lion, snake, panther, boar, running water, tree; Nereus as water, fire, or, as Apollodorus says, in all sorts of shapes. Bacchus was accustomed to transform himself when violence was done him, but it is not recorded that he was ever brought to terms like the watery divinities. See Mannhardt Wald-und Feldkulte, II, 64-64, who also well remarks that the tales of the White Ladies, who, to be released from a ban, must be kissed three times in various shapes, as toad, wolf, snake, etc., have relation to these Greek traditions
    Return to main text
  7. The significance of the immersion in water is shown by Mannhardt, Wald- a. Feldkulte, Il, 64 ff. The disorder in the stanzas of A at this place has of course been rectified. In Scott's version, I, transformations are added at random from C, after the dipping in milk and in water, which seems indeed to have been regarded by the reciters only as a measure for cooling red-hot iron or the burning gleed, and not at the act essential for restoration to the human nature.
    Return to main text
  8. Possibly the holy water in D 17, G 32, is a relic of the water-bath.
    Return to main text

  9. In the MS. of B also the transformation into a hot g-ad of iron comes just before the direction to dip the object into a stand of milk ; but we have the turning into a mother naked man several stanzas earlier. By rending, in 331, I'll turn, and putting 33 after 34, we should have the order of events which we find in A.

    That Tam Lin should go into water or milk as a dove or snake, or in some other of his temporary forms, and come out a man, is the only disposition which is consistent with the order of the world to which he belongs. Mannhardt gives us a most curious and interesting insight into some of the laws of that world in Wald- u. Feldkulte, II, 64-70. The wife of a Cashmere king, in a story there cited from Benfey's Pantschatantra, I, 254, § 92, is delivered of serpent, but is reported to have borne a son. Another king offers his daughter in marriage, and the Cashmere king, to keep his secret, accepts the proposal. In due time the princess claims her bridegroom, and they give her the snake. Though greatly distressed, she accepts her lot, and takes the snake about to the holy places, at the last of which she receives a command to put the snake into the water-tank. As soon as this is done the snake takes the form of a man. A woman's giving birth to a snake was by no means a rare thing in Karst in the seventeenth century, and it was the rule in one noble family that all the offspring should be in serpent form, or at least have a serpent's head ; but a bath in water turned them into human shape. For elves and water nymphs who have entered into connections with men in the form of women, bathing in water is equally necessary for resuming their previous shape, as appears from an ancient version of the story of Melusina: Gervasius, ed. Liebrecht, p. 4 f, and Vincentius Bellovacensis, Speculum Naturale, 2,127 (from He. linandus), cited by Liebrecht, at p. 66.

    A lad who had been changed into an ass by a couple of witches recovers his shape merely by jumping into water and rolling about in it : William of Malmesbury's Kings of England, c. 10, cited by Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Naturale, iii, 109 ; Dantzer, Liebrecht's Dunlop, p. 538. Simple illusions of magic, such as clods and wisps made to appear swine to our eyes, are inevitably dissolved when the unrealities touch water. Liebrecht's Gervasius, p. 65.
    Return to main text

  10. Cf. 'Allison Gross'
    Return to main text

See also: Child's Notes for additions and corrections from Child's later volumes.

Added to site February 2003