Elizabeth Wilson Grierson.

Tales From Scottish Ballads online

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thou canst, thou shalt have no more opportunity."

Poor Thomas was so hungry, and the apple looked so tempting, that at
last he took it and ate it, and the Grace of Truth settled down on his
lips for ever: that is why men called him "True Thomas," when in after
years he returned to earth.

Then the lady shook her bridle rein, and the palfrey darted forward so
quickly that it appeared to be almost flying. On and on they flew, until
they came to the World's End, and a great desert stretched before them.
Here the lady bade Thomas dismount and lean his head against her knee.
"I have three wonders to show thee, Thomas," she said, "and it is thus
that thou canst see them best."

Thomas did as he was bid, and when he laid his head against the Fairy
Queen's knee, he saw three roads stretching away before him through the

One of them was a rough and narrow road, with thick hedges of thorn on
either side, and branches of tangled briar hanging down from them, and
lying across the path. Any traveller who travelled by that road would
find it beset with many difficulties.

The next road was smooth and broad, and it ran straight and level across
the plain. It looked so easy a way that Thomas wondered that anyone ever
wanted to go along the narrow path at all.

The third road wound along a hillside, and the banks above it and below
it were covered with beautiful brackens, and their delicate fronds rose
high on either side, so high, indeed, that they would shelter the
wayfarer from the burning heat of the noonday sun.

"That is the best road of all," thought Thomas to himself; "it looks so
fresh and cool, I should like to travel along it."

Then the lady's voice sounded in his ears. "Seest thou that narrow
path," she asked, "all set about with thorns and briars? That is the
Path of Righteousness, and there be but few, oh, so few! who ever ask
where it leads to, or who try to travel by it. And seest thou that
broad, broad road, that runs so smoothly across the desert? That is the
Path of Wickedness, and I trow it is a pleasant way, and easy to travel
by. Men think it so, at least, and, poor fools, they do not trouble to
ask where it leads to. Some would fain persuade themselves that it leads
to Heaven, but Heaven was never reached by an easy road. 'Tis the narrow
road through the briars and thorns that leads us thither, and wise are
the men who follow it. And seest thou that bonnie, bonnie road, that
winds up round the ferny brae? That is the way to Fairyland, and that is
the road which lies before us."

Here Thomas was about to speak, and to remonstrate with her for carrying
him away, but she interrupted him.

"Hush," she said, "thou must be silent now, Thomas; the time for speech
is past. Thou art on the borders of Elfland, and if ever mortal man
speak a word in Elfland, he can nevermore go back to his own country."

So Thomas held his peace, and climbed sadly on the palfrey's back, and
once more they started on their awful journey. On and on they went. The
beautiful road through the ferns was soon left behind, and great
mountains had to be crossed, and steep, narrow valleys, until at last,
far away in the distance, a splendid castle appeared, standing on the
top of a high hill.

It was built of pure white marble, with massive towers, and lovely
gardens stretched in front of it.

"That castle is mine," said the lady proudly. "It belongs to me, and to
my husband, who is the King of this country. He is a jealous man, and
one greatly to be feared, and, if he knew how friendly thou and I have
been, he would kill thee in his rage. Remember, therefore, what I told
thee about keeping silence. Thou canst talk to me, an thou wilt, if an
opportunity offers, but see to it that thou answerest no one else. There
are knights and squires in abundance at my husband's court, and
doubtless they would fain question thee about the country from whence
thou art come, but thou must pay no heed to them, and I shall pretend
that thou talkest in an unknown tongue, and that I learned to understand
it in thine own country."

While she was speaking, Thomas was amazed to see that a great change had
passed over her again. Her face grew bright, and her gray gown vanished,
and the green mantle took its place, and once more she became the
beauteous being who had charmed his eyes at the Huntly Burn. And he was
still more amazed when, on looking down, he found that his own raiment
was changed too, and that he was now dressed in a suit of soft, fine
cloth, and that on his feet he wore velvet shoon.

The lady lifted the golden horn which hung from a cord round her neck,
and blew a loud blast. At the sound of it all the squires, and knights,
and great court ladies came hurrying out to meet their Queen, and Thomas
slid from the palfrey's back, and walked humbly at her elbow.

As she had foretold, the pages and squires crowded round him, and would
fain have learned his name, and the name of the country to which he
belonged, but he pretended not to understand what they said, and so they
all came into the great hall of the castle.

At the end of this hall there was a dais, and on it were two thrones.
The King of Fairyland was sitting on one, and when he saw the Queen, he
rose, and stretched out his hand, and led her to the other, and then a
rich banquet was served by thirty knights, who offered the dishes on
their bended knees. After that all the court ladies went up and did
homage to their Royal Mistress, while Thomas stood, and gazed, and
wondered at all the strange things which he saw.

At one side of the hall there was a group of minstrels, playing on all
manner of strange instruments. There were harps, and fiddles, and
gitterns, and psalteries, and lutes and rebecks, and many more that he
could not name. And when these minstrels played, the knights and the gay
court ladies danced or played games, or made merry jokes amongst
themselves; while at the other side of the hall a very different scene
went on. There were thirty dead harts lying on the stone floor, and
stable varlets carried in dead deer until there were thirty of them
stretched beside the harts, and the dogs lay and licked their blood, and
the cooks came in with their long knives and cut up the animals, in the
sight of all the court.

It was all so weird and horrible that Thomas wondered what manner of
folk he had come to dwell among, and if he would ever get back to his
own country.

For three days things went on in the same manner, and still he looked
and wondered, and still he spoke to no one, not even to the Queen.

At last she spoke to him. "Dress thee, and get thee gone, Thomas," she
said, "for thou mayest not linger here any longer. Myself will convey
thee on thy journey, and take thee back safe and sound to thine own
country again."

Thomas looked at her in amazement. "I have only been here three days,"
he said, "and methought thou spakest of seven years."

The lady smiled.

"Time passes quickly in this country, Thomas," she replied. "It may not
appear so long to thee, but it is seven long years and more, since thou
camest into Fairyland. I would fain have kept thee longer; but it may
not be, and I will show to thee the reason. Every seven years an evil
spirit comes, and chooses someone out of our court, and carries him away
to unknown regions, and, as thou art a stranger, and a goodly fellow
withal, I fear me his choice would fall on thee; and although I brought
thee here, and have kept thee here for seven years, 'twill never be said
that I betrayed thee to an evil spirit. Therefore this very night we
must be gone."

So once more the gray palfrey was brought, and Thomas and the lady
mounted it, and they went back by the road by which they had come, and
once more they came to the Eildon Tree.

The sun was shining when they arrived, and the birds singing, and the
Huntly Burn tinkling just as it had always done, and it seemed to Thomas
more impossible than ever that he had been away from it all for more
than seven years.

He felt strangely sorry to say farewell to the beautiful lady, and he
asked her to give him some token that would prove to people that he had
really been in Fairyland.

"Thou hast already the Gift of Truth," she replied, "and I will add to
that the Gift of Prophecy, and of writing wondrous verses; and here is a
harp that was fashioned in Fairyland. With its music, set to thine own
words, no minstrel on earth shall be to thee a rival. So shall all the
world know for certain that thou learnedst the art from no earthly
teacher; and some day, perchance, I will return."

Then the lady vanished, and Thomas was left all alone.

After this, he lived at his Castle of Ercildoune for many a long year,
and well he deserved the names of Thomas the Rhymer, and True Thomas,
which the country people gave him; for the verses which he wrote were
the sweetest that they had ever heard, while all the things which he
prophesied came most surely to pass.

It is remembered still how he met Cospatrick, Earl of March, one sunny
day, and foretold that, ere the next noon passed, a terrible tempest
would devastate Scotland. The stout Earl laughed, but his laughter was
short, for by next day at noon the tidings came that Alexander III.,
that much loved King, was lying stiff and stark on the sands of
Kinghorn. He also foretold the battles of Flodden and Pinkie, and the
dule and woe which would follow the defeat of the Scottish arms; but he
also foretold Bannockburn, where

"The burn of breid
Shall run fow reid,"

and the English be repulsed with great loss. He spoke of the Union of
the Crowns of England and Scotland, under a prince who was the son of a
French Queen, and who yet had the blood of Bruce in his veins. Which
thing came true in 1603, when King James, son of the ill-fated Mary, who
had been Queen of France as well as Queen of Scots, began to rule over
both countries.

In view of these things, it was no wonder that the fame of Thomas of
Ercildoune spread through the length and breadth of Scotland, or that
men came from far and near to listen to his wonderful words.

* * * * *

Twice seven years came and went, and Scotland was plunged in war. The
English King, Edward I., after defeating John Baliol at Dunbar, had
taken possession of the country, and the doughty William Wallace had
arisen to try to wrest it from his hand. The tide of war ebbed and
flowed, now on this side of the Border, now on that, and it chanced that
one day the Scottish army rested not far from the Tower of Ercildoune.

Beacons blazed red on Ruberslaw, tents were pitched at Coldingknowe, and
the Tweed, as it rolled down to the sea, carried with it the echoes of
the neighing of steeds, and of trumpet calls.

Then True Thomas determined to give a feast to the gallant squires and
knights who were camped in the neighbourhood - such a feast as had never
been held before in the old Tower of Ercildoune. It was spread in the
great hall, and nobles were there in their coats of mail, and high-born
ladies in robes of shimmering silk. There was wine in abundance, and
wooden cups filled with homebrewed ale.

There were musicians who played sweet music, and wonderful stories of
war and adventure went round.

And, best of all, when the feast was over, True Thomas, the host, called
for the magic harp which he had received from the hands of the Elfin
Queen. When it was brought to him a great silence fell on all the
company, and everyone sat listening breathlessly while he sang to them
song after song of long ago.

He sang of King Arthur and his Table, and his Knights, and told how they
lay sleeping under the Eildon Hills, waiting to be awakened at the Crack
of Doom. He sang of Gawaine, and Merlin, Tristrem and Isolde; and those
who listened to the wondrous story felt somehow that they would never
hear such minstrelsy again.

Nor did they. For that very night, when all the guests had departed, and
the evening mists had settled down over the river, a soldier, in the
camp on the hillside, was awakened by a strange pattering of little feet
on the dry bent[20] of the moorland.

[Footnote 20: Withered grass.]

Looking out of his tent, he saw a strange sight.

There, in the bright August moonlight, a snow-white hart and hind were
pacing along side by side. They moved in slow and stately measure,
paying little heed to the ever-increasing crowd who gathered round their

"Let us send for Thomas of Ercildoune," said someone at last; "mayhap he
can tell us what this strange sight bodes."

"Yea, verily, let us send for True Thomas," cried everyone at once, and
a little page was hastily despatched to the old tower.

Its master started from his bed when he heard the message, and dressed
himself in haste. His face was pale, and his hands shook.

"This sign concerns me," he said to the wondering lad. "It shows me that
I have spun my thread of life, and finished my race here."

So saying, he slung his magic harp on his shoulder, and went forth in
the moonlight. The men who were waiting for him saw him at a distance,
and 'twas noted how often he turned and looked back at his old tower,
whose gray stones were touched by the soft autumn moonbeams, as though
he were bidding it a long farewell.

He walked along the moor until he met the snow-white hart and hind;
then, to everyone's terror and amazement, he turned with them, and all
three went down the steep bank, which at that place borders the Leader,
and plunged into the river, which was running at high flood.

"He is bewitched! To the rescue! To the rescue, ere it be too late!"
cried the crowd with one voice.

But although a knight leaped on his horse in haste, and spurred him at
once through the raging torrent, he could see nothing of the Rhymer or
his strange companions. They had vanished, leaving neither sign nor
trace behind them; and to this day it is believed that the hart and the
hind were messengers from the Queen of the Fairies, and that True Thomas
went back with them to dwell in her country for ever.


"Lord Soulis he sat in Hermitage Castle,
And beside him Old Redcap sly; -
'Now, tell me, thou sprite, who art meikle of might,
The death that I must die.'

They roll'd him in a sheet of lead,
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall;
They plunged him in the cauldron red,
And melted him, lead, and bones, and all."

And so thou hast seen the great cauldron at Skelf-hill, little Annie,
standing high up on the hillside, and thou wouldst fain hear its story.

'Tis a weird tale, Sweetheart, and one to make the blood run cold, for
'tis the story of a cruel and a wicked man, and how he came by a violent
and a fearsome death. But Grannie will tell it thee, and when thou
thinkest of it, thou must always try to remember how true it is what the
Good Book says, that "all they that take the sword, shall perish with
the sword," which means, I take it, that they who show no mercy need
expect none at the hands of others.

'Tis a tale of spirits and of witchcraft, child, things that in our days
we do not believe in; but I had it from my grandfather, who had heard it
when he was a laddie from the old shepherds out on the hills, and they
believed it all and feared to pass that way in the dark.

But to come to the story itself. Long, long ago, in far bygone days,
William de Soulis, Lord of Liddesdale, kept high state in his Castle of
Hermitage. The royal blood of Scotland flowed in his veins, for he was
sixth in descent from Alexander II., and could an ancestress of his have
proved her right, he might have sat on the throne of Scotland.

Besides owning Liddesdale, he had lands in Dumfriesshire, and in the
Lothians, and he might have been like the "Bold Buccleuch," a succourer
of widows, and a defender of the oppressed and the destitute.

But instead of this he worked all manner of wickedness, till his very
name was dreaded far and near. He oppressed his vassals; he troubled his
neighbours; he was even at enmity with the King himself. And because he
feared that his Majesty might come against him with an army, he had
fortified his castle with much care. In order to do this thoroughly, he
forced his vassals to work like beasts of burden, putting bores[21] on
their shoulders, and yoking them to sledges, on which they drew all
kinds of building material to the castle.

[Footnote 21: Yokes.]

No wonder, then, that he was hated by rich and poor alike, and no wonder
that his heart would quail at times, reckless and hardened though he
was, for it is an ill thing not to have a friend in this world. Servants
may be hired for money, but 'tis love, and love only, that can buy true
friendship. Aye remember that, little Annie, aye remember that.

I say that he had no friends, but I am mistaken. 'Twas said he had one,
and mayhap he would have been as well without him. For men would have it
that Hermitage Castle was haunted by a familiar spirit.

As a rule he dwelt in a wooden chest, bound with rusty bars of iron; but
occasionally, when Lord Soulis was alone, he would come out and talk
with him. "Old Redcap," the country folk used to call him, and they said
that he was a wee, wee man, with a red pirnie[22] and twisted legs; but
whether that be true or no, 'tis not for me to say.

[Footnote 22: Nightcap.]

'Twas also said that, one day, when Soulis and his uncanny friend were
alone, Soulis asked him what his end would be; if he would die at home
in his bed, or out on the hillside in fair fight with his foes? And
Redcap made answer that he would throw his spell over him, and that that
spell would keep him from all common dangers, from all weapons of war,
and from all devices of peace; from arrows, and lances, and knives; from
chains, and even from hempen ropes. He would be safe from all these, but
there was one thing, and one thing alone, which the charm could not do,
and that was to save him if ever men could take him and bind him with
ropes of sifted sand.

Methinks I can hear Lord Soulis' laugh as Redcap told him this. "Ropes
of sand, forsooth!" he would say. "Did ever man hear of ropes of sand?"

But he had forgotten that the Wizard of the North, Sir Michael Scott of
Balwearie - the same who studied the wisdom of the East under the Moors
at Toledo, in Spain, who could read the stars, and command familiar
spirits to come and go at his bidding - had found out the way to forge
ropes out of sand, and that, though Michael was dead, his Spae-book yet
remained, in which he had written down all his magic.

"Moreover," added Redcap, "if ever danger threatens thee, knock thrice
on this old chest, and the lid will rise, and I will speak; but beware
lest thou lookest into it. When the lid begins to rise, turn thine eyes
away, or the spell will be broken."

Now it chanced soon after this, that one morning, just as the day was
breaking, Lord Soulis, as was his wont, sent one of his little pages up
to the top of the tower, to look out over the country far and near, to
see if there were any travellers who took the road to Hermitage. At
first the boy saw nothing, but, as it grew lighter, the figure of a
horseman, clad in the royal livery, appeared, riding down the hillside.

"Now what may thine errand be?" cried the page.

"I carry a message to Soulis of Hermitage from the King of Scotland,"
replied the stranger; "and he bids me tell that cruel Knight, that the
report of his ill deeds has come to his Majesty's ears at Holyrood
House, and that if ever again such stories reach him, he will send his
soldiers to burn the castle, and put its lord to death."

Then the page hasted, and ran, and delivered this message to his master,
whose face grew white with rage when he heard it. For he was an awful
man, little Annie, an awful man, who in general feared neither God nor
the King, and who could not brook to be reproved.

Under the castle there was a deep dungeon, cut out of the solid rock,
and the entrance to it was by a hole in the courtyard, which was covered
by a great flat stone. The stone rested on beams of oak, and Lord Soulis
gave orders that the guards were to keep the King's messenger waiting
outside the gate, and pretend to be very kind to him, giving him a
tankard of ale, and a hunch of bread, until some of the men inside the
castle had cut away those great oak beams.

Then they opened the gate, and told the poor man that Lord Soulis would
speak with him if he would ride into the courtyard; and he rode in, and
as soon as his horse stepped on the big flat stone that covered the
mouth of the dungeon, it gave way beneath its weight, and both man and
horse fell down, and were crushed to pieces on the hard stone floor,
full thirty feet below.

The King was right wroth when he heard how his messenger had been
treated, but before he could set off for Liddesdale to punish Lord
Soulis, the punishment came from nearer home.

It chanced that the young Lord of Buccleuch wooed a lovely lady called
May o' Gorranberry. 'Twas said that she was the bonniest lass in all
Teviotdale, and in all Liddesdale, and the wedding day was fixed. But
the wicked Lord Soulis, puffed up with pride at the way in which he had
got rid of the King's messenger, and relying, doubtless, on Redcap's
charm to protect him from danger, took it into his sinful head that he
would like May o' Gorranberry for his wife.

And he sent, and took her, as she was walking on the hillside above her
father's house, and brought her to his grim old Castle of Hermitage.

The poor lassie was almost mad with terror, and tore her hair, and cried
continually for her lover, until the cruel man threatened that if she
did not hold her tongue he would send men to burn down Branksome Tower,
and kill all its inmates.

And next morning, because she would not stop weeping, he called his
chief man-at-arms, a brave, fearless fellow called Red Ringan, and told
him to gather a band of spearmen, and ride over the hills to Teviotdale,
and attack the old castle which was the home of the Lords of Buccleuch.

Now it chanced that that very morning, young Buccleuch set out alone to
hunt the roe-buck and the dun deer which roamed in the woods that
surrounded his castle. He had fine sport, and he went on, and on, and
never noticed how far up among the hills he was getting, or how fast the
day was passing, until it began to get dark.

Suddenly he looked up, and, to his astonishment, he saw, riding down the
glen to meet him, a company of spearmen. He thought they were his own
retainers, and walked boldly up to them, and never knew his mistake
until he was seized, and bound hand and foot. They were really Lord
Soulis' men, with Red Ringan at their head, and Red Ringan had thrown a
glamour over his eyes, so that he could not distinguish between friends
and foes. Of course Red Ringan was delighted at this piece of good luck,
and he set the poor young man on a horse, and sent him over the hills to
Hermitage, guarded by a handful of spearmen, while he rode on with the
rest of his troop to Branksome, to see what mischief he could work

Thou canst think with what triumph my Lord Soulis would greet his
prisoner, and with what bitter tears May o' Gorranberry would see him
brought in, for she would know about the dungeon, and shudder to think
what his fate would be.

'Twas said that the cruel lord mocked at young Buccleuch as he rode
under the archway, and cried out to him, as if in jest -

"Thrice welcome, Buccleuch, thrice welcome to my castle. Nathless 'tis
as a wedding guest thou comest. Certs, my bonnie May well deserves such
a gallant groomsman."

Next morning the sun rose blood red, and just as its rays touched the
gray stones of the grim old keep, the page came running to say that Red
Ringan was riding down the hillside all alone. Methinks the wicked
lord's heart gave a throb of fear, as he hurried out to the gate to meet
his henchman.

"Where have ye stabled my gallant steeds?" he cried, "and wherefore do
thy comrades tarry, whilst thou ridest home all alone?"

Red Ringan shook his head mournfully. "I bring thee heavy tidings,
Master," he said. "The steeds are stabled, sure enough, but 'tis in a
stable where they will rest till the Crack of Doom, and their riders lie
beside them. Thou knowest Tarras Moss, and how fair and pleasant it
lies, and how deep and cruel it is? My men mistook the path in the dark,
and rode right into it, and, had it not been for my good brown mare, not
one of us had been left to tell the tale. She struggled to firm footing
right nobly, and brought me out alive on her back; but when I looked

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Online LibraryElizabeth Wilson GriersonTales From Scottish Ballads → online text (page 11 of 17)