Tam Lin of Scotland

Tam Lin Woods

This tale is based on a Scottish ballad, Tam Lin, which depicts a handsome young man kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and how a young lady called Janet comes to his rescue.

It’s a bit of a feminist fairy tale and a love story that sees a strong and rebellious female character take charge and get things done. Now, let’s get down to business and answer the question: What is the story of Tam Lin? 

The Ballad of Tam Lin 

The story started with young Tam Lin being caught and trapped by fairies and the Fairy Queen.

This famous ballad, originating from the Scottish borders of Tam Lin and the Queen of Fairies, has been retold in many other forms, such as fairy tales, songs, and films. However, this being a border ballad doesn’t allude to the mythical borders between humans and fairies. Instead, this refers to the borders between Scotland and England. 

Alternatively, you can listen to the mesmerising song of Tam Lin performed by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer. Another piece of famous Tam Lin music was written by Robert Burns and was published in the influential Scottish folk music collection by James Johnson called the “Scots Musical Museum”. 

Where the Legend of Tam Lin Starts

The tale starts with a cautionary warning to the young women of Carterhaugh that they should not visit the woods lest they want to encounter Tam Lin. He is a fairy knight sworn to protect the malevolent Fairy Queen. 

The fairy knight is also known by multiple names, such as Tam Lyn, Tomlin, Young Tambling, Tam-a-line, and Tamlane. However, the most popular and well-recognised is Tam Lin. 

As with all fairy tales, we require one rule-bending character — enter young Janet! As the tale goes, Janet lives on the Carterhaugh estate, which her father owns. Janet is said to have yellow hair and still ventures into the woods even though she’s warned not to. A verse in the ballad explains just that: 

“There’s nane that gaes by Carterhaugh

But they leave him a wad,

Either their rings, or green mantles,

Or else their maidenhead.”

But this warning doesn’t seem to phase the maiden Janet as she enters Tam Lin’s domain and plucks a double rose. The flower picking summons the notorious fairy knight, and he cross-questions her. 

Young Tam Lin Reveals His Story

The initial meeting between Tam Lin and Janet allows them to become more acquainted, and he opens up about his story. According to some sources, he opens up immediately, while others suggest that this happens later. 

The Tam Lin poem mentions that on a cauld day (or cold day), young Tam Lin, who was an ‘earthly knight’, fell off his horse. As an earthly thing, he possessed much beauty, and his beauty is why he was captured.

Janet sympathetically listens to him but eventually has to return home. Once she is home, Janet discovers that she is with child. 

Upon hearing the news, Janet stomps her way back to the woods to confront the baby’s father, Tam Lin, about their child. Certain versions of the story even suggest that she returns to the woods looking for some herbs to induce abortion. Tam Lin reappears, and they start talking about a way to free him so they can be together. But an escape won’t be possible if they don’t assess and fully understand their enemy: the fairy squad.

The Inside Scoop on the Fairy Folk

It’s not uncommon for fairies to follow certain practices. Mortals are often told not to eat anything from fairyland if they ever want to leave. It’s also known that you shouldn’t join faerie reveals unless you want to dance until your feet bleed. So, it’s not surprising that the Fae folk have some of their own rites and rituals to keep the fairy court running smoothly. 

One of the fairyland rituals involves the Fairy Queen paying a levy to hell by presenting a sacrifice. This offering needs to happen every seven years. A common trope in fairy tale lore is sacrificing your most beautiful and wisest member of society (seems like a wee bit of a waste if ye ask me). 

Tam Lin is fully aware of the fairies’ modus operandi and suspects he is the next sacrifice. Be it narcissism or an insider tip, Tam Lin feels threatened and wants no part in this deal. So, to escape the fairies, the pair devise a plan to help Tam Lin return to the mortal world. 

The Rescue Plan

The plan is simple. Tam Lin says that the best opportunity they’ll have for the rescue is on the night of the sacrifice, hopefully before it happens. Tam Lin mentions some steps that Janet needs to follow in order to successfully complete the rescue. 

Firstly, Janet must sneak into the Halloween procession of fairies and knights and save her precious Tam Lin. 

Next, she must find him upon his milk-white steed and pull him down during the Halloween procession. By doing so, she is the one ‘capturing’ him instead of the faeries.  

Simple, right? Not exactly. There’s more! 

He warns her that once she has a hold of him, she must hold on and not let go at any cost. Tam Lin tells Janet that the fairies will make it extremely difficult for them to escape by transforming him into various dangerous creatures. 

However, Tam Lin assures Janet that the transformation magic won’t actually be able to harm her. She must hold on until he turns into either a burning coal or a red hot bar of iron. Tam Lin folklore mentions one of the two final forms or simply that he transforms into a ‘brand of fire’. 

So, to clarify, Janet must hold Tam Lin tight as he transforms into a snake, a lizard, a bear, and a lion, and once he reaches his final fiery form, she will need to throw him into a well. 

After being thrown into the well, Tam Lin will arise as a naked knight and Janet should cover him with her green kirtle. These happenings will allow him to live as a mortal man once more and guarantee that true love wins

Now fully familiar with the plan, the pregnant Janet hikes up her skirts and leads the solitary charge to save her “bairn’s father” or, in more modern terms, her ‘baby daddy’. The rescue goes off without a hitch, and she prevents herself from becoming a single parent. But they have beaten the faerie queen, and she is quite unhappy. 

The Fairy Queen Angered 

After the rescue is completed, the spiteful Fairy Queen says some distasteful things.

“Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,

And an angry woman was she,

“Shame betide her ill-far’d face,

And an ill death may she die,

For she’s taen awa the bonniest knight

In a’ my companie.”

Essentially, she is devastated about losing her best knight, who was supposed to be the perfect sacrifice. 

Symbols in the Tam Lin Folktale 

There are multiple symbols throughout Tam Lin’s tales, and here are some of them worth thinking about. 

Plucking a Rose

Roses are said to be one of the most protected flowers that the fairies watch over. So not only does Janet enter the faerie land without permission, but she also snaps one of their most precious flowers off its stem. In modern times, we might have called Janet a bit of a rebel. 

As roses symbolise romance, her plucking the rose could also have initiated the romantic interaction with Tam Lin. 

Janet’s Green Mantle 

The colour green has many interpretations in this story. Green is the colour of the fairies and is said to bring bad luck to mortals who wear it within the eye-line of fairies. So Janet donning this particular colour is her middle finger to the fairy folk. 

Additionally, one other meaning suggests that a girl in green is sexually promiscuous as her green clothes hide the grass stains. 

So, to recap so far, not only does our girl enter the fairy domain unprovoked and pluck their precious flowers, but she also wears the fairy colour while doing so. Iconic!

Lastly, Tam Lin tells Janet to wear the green mantle, not as some sort of hero cape but as a smart way to hide him after his rebirth. The mantle could symbolise that he is now under bad-ass Janet’s protection, as the colour can easily hide him against the green hill scenery. 

Wrapping Up 

The Tam Lin story has everything a classic fairy tale needs. A white horse (check), someone in need of a rescue (check), a brave young woman (check), a threatening villain (check), and ‘true’ love (a questionable check). 

The legend of Tam Lin and the Queen of Faeries serves as a cautionary tale for children to avoid the woods of Carterhaugh for safety’s sake. But we can take it as a lesson that good looks are more trouble than what they’re worth. 

What to remember from the Tam Lin legend? Don’t enter known fairy woods wearing green. Don’t pull their flowers. And perhaps think twice before chatting to a handsome fairy knight. Unless, of course, you have the same moxie Janet does. 

Psst: Want to explore the setting of the story, Carterhaugh and more stunning places in Selkirk? Check out our guide to Selkirk accommodation and our comprehensive list of things to do in Selkirk.

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